... The 20th century brought new understandings of the authority of revelation. Jewish Bible scholars began to use historical methods to understand biblical history and the formation of the biblical text. Archaeologic evidence and cross-cultural legal, linguistic, and literary studies of the text demonstrated that the Torah was not originally written as one book but rather consists of at least four separate documents that were later edited and combined. This approach was not intended to supplant the traditional modes of studying the Torah or the law based on such exegesis; it was intended instead to complement such study with another approach to discover the original meaning of the text in addition to the meanings that Jewish tradition later ascribed to it.
The great advantage of this approach is its honesty; one does not need to protect the Torah, so to speak, from whatever results scholarly study indicates about its origins and formation. On the other hand, though, that mode of study questions the authority of the Torah, because it suggests that the Torah consists of several documents that were edited together rather than of one, authoritative record of the words of God.
Reform thinkers, accepting the historical (or "critical") approach to the biblical text, have asserted, along with Buber, that God meets each person individually and that Jewish law, therefore, is not binding. Each of us must do what his or her conscience dictates in response to our encounters with God. Although the 1999 platform statement of the Reform rabbinate endorses a strong effort to motivate Jews to study the Jewish tradition and to base their decisions on that knowledge, ultimately it is the individual's own autonomous choice that determines the content of revelation for that person. This emphasis on individual autonomy inevitably weakens one's sense of tradition and community; and in practice, it raises serious questions as to whether the Reform community can act as a group, even on such critical questions as intermarrIage.
Most Orthodox thinkers, at the other end of the spectrum, deny the legitimacy of using the historical method to understand the Torah, arguing that studying the Torah in that way undermines its authority. They insist that the revelation on Mount Sinai is exactly what is recorded in the Torah. In their view, this preserves the divine authority of the text, even though it is human beings who must interpret and apply it. The Orthodox approach also requires one to discount the evidence of crosscultural influences on the stories and laws of the Torah, for that too, in their perspective, would compromise the divine authority of the text. Thus even a rabbi in the "modern" or "centrist" wing of Orthodoxy, such as Norman I believe the Torah is . . . God-given. . . . By "God-given" I mean that He willed that man abide by His commandments and that that will was communicated in discrete words and letters. . . in as direct, unequivocal, and unambiguous a manner as possible.
Literary criticism of the Bible is a problem, but not a crucial one. Judaism has successfully met greater challenges in the past. . . . [It] is chiefly a nuisance but not a threat to the enlightened believer (The Condition of Jewish Belief,New York, 1966,pp. 124-125).
Conservative thinkers accept the historical method of Bible study but continue to affirm the legally binding character ofJewish law. This form of Jewish faith preserves consistency in method in that it permits us to use the same methods of analysis that we use in examining the texts of other cultures for our study of the classics of the Jewish tradition, and it leaves us open to what we learn from any form of both traditional and modern scholarship. It nevertheless perpetuates a strong sense of tradition and community. This approach, however, requires a considerable amount of good judgment in deciding how to use the newly emerging historical evidence about the development of the Torah and tradition in applying them to modern times. Moreover, because the text of the Torah is no longer seen as a direct transcription of what God said at Sinai, this method of studying and practicing the Jewish tradition necessitates a thorough treatment of what we mean by claiming that the Torah's laws and theories have the authority of divine revelation.
Conservative thinkers of the past and present have interpreted the process and authority of revelation in three general ways.
Some, like Joel Roth, conceive of revelation as God communicating with us in actual words. For such thinkers, revelation has propositional content and is normative as God's word. Unlike Orthodox thinkers, however, these Conservative exponents acknowledge that the Torah text that we have in hand shows evidence of consisting of several documents edited over time. Nevertheless, Jewish law is binding as the word of God interpreted by the rabbis over the generations.
Others within the Conservative movement, like Ben Zion Bokser (1907-1984) and Robert Gordis (1908-1992), believe that God, over time, inspires specific individuals who then translate that inspiration into human language. Revelation thus consists of both a divine and a human component. The human element explains the historical influences on our sacred texts. Nevertheless, Jewish law remains binding because the human beings who formulated it were inspired by God.
Still others within the Conservative movement conceive of revelation as the human response to encounters with God. Some, following the lead of Rosenzweig, think of such meetings in individualistic, personal terms, on the model of human beings meeting each other.
Louis Jacobs and Seymour Siegel (1927-1988) do this in their writings, and so does Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). In Heschel's striking term, the Torah itself is then a midrash, an interpretation, of the nature and will of God, formulated in response to ineffable encounters with God. In addition to the existentialists and phenomenologists within this camp are rationalists like David Lieber and Elliot Dorff; the rationalists conceive of revelation as the ongoing human attempts to discover truths about God and the world. Rationalists affirm the importance of our personal encounters with God, but they also call attention to what we can learn about God from nature, history, and human experience as a whole. Revelation, on this theory, comes not only from meeting God but also from our outreach to God. For both approaches, Jewish law is binding on both communal and theological grounds: It is the legal part of our communal midrash, representing our collective aspiration to be holy in response to our interactions with God.
Two factors characterize revelation for all three of these approaches within the Conservative movement. First, the authority of revelation is based on a combination of the divine and the human. That is, whether God spoke words at Sinai, or whether God inspired human beings to write down specific words, or whether human beings wrote down the words of the Torah in response to their encounter with God in an attempt to express the nature and implications of that encounter, the authority of the Torah's revelation is, in part, divine. On the other hand, for all three approaches, it is human as well. Whether the divine input came through words, inspiration, or modeling, human beings had a hand in translating that divine incursion into the words of the written and oral Torah. Moreover, we honor and obey the Torah, at the very least, because our ancestors have done so over the centuries and because we continue to see it as authoritative today.
Second, for all three approaches, revelation is ongoing. The revelation at Sinai is critically important because that is where our ancestors as a people first encountered God and wrote their reactions to that event in the document that became the constitutive covenant between God and the Jewish people. Revelation continues, however, just as the talmudic rabbis said it does, through a continuing encounter with the tradition. Therefore, what the liturgy has us declare when called to witness a public reading of the Torah is not an accident: God not only "chose us from among all nations and gave us His Torah" (in the past); God is also to be blessed now as "giver of the Torah," or, reading the word as a verb, as "the One who gives the Torah." Each time we read the Torah anew, nothing less than God's revelation is taking place again, and we bless God for that continuing relationship with us.
From MEDIEVALAND MODERN THEORIES OF REVELATION by Elliot N. Dorff in ETZ HAYIM: TORAH AND COMMENTARY, THE RABBINICAL ASSEMBLY, THE UNITED SYNAGOGUE OF CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM, Produced by THE JEWISH PUBLICATION SOCIETY 2001