No religious doctrine is more baffling than that of revelation; yet
none is more essential.
Two alternative interpretations present themselves of which neither appears intelligible. Either revelation reveals what man may discover by means lying within in his nature: but then revelation is superfluous. Or else revelation reveals what lies beyond human means of discovery: but then it would seem to lie beyond human understanding also, and the recipient of a revelation cannot understand it. This dilemma cannot be avoided by fashionable equivocations. To associate revelation with poetic inspiration is to make it the product of man; but revelation is either the direct gift of God or not revelation at all.
Yet no doctrine is more essential than revelation, unless it be faith in God itself. Creation establishes time and history, whereas redemption consummates and redeems them. Revelation is an incursion of God into time and history; eternity here breaks into time without dissolving time's particularity. Creation and redemption establish the significance of time and history in general. Revelation establishes the significance of the here and now as unique; it is the religious category of existentiality as such.
If revelation is impossible then there is significance only to the human situation in general, even though God is accepted. … But faith must assert that revelation is possible. For only if revelation is possible does the here and now have relevance before God.…
The modernists of all time distort relation by transforming it into natural inspiration: the orthodox distort it no less by equating the human interpretation of and reaction to the Encounter with the Encounter itself….
Judaism rests on the assertion of the actuality of a series of revelations which have constituted Israel as a historic community destined to serve a specific purpose. Where it speaks of mankind and the God of mankind, Judaism is nothing beyond what might be a universally human religion; only at the point where, leaping into the particular, it is concerned with Israel and the God of Israel, does Judaism separate off from universal truths of faith.
Jewish existence is established by, and responsible to, divine revelation. Hence it shares the dialectical character of all revelation. That Jewish existence has a meaning is vouchsafed by the faith which accepts the reality of revelation; of a revelation which has established Jewish existence. But the nature of that meaning is involved in the dialectic of the paradox. All revelation both reveals and conceals: thus the meaning of Israel's existence, too, is both revealed and concealed. It must remain concealed: for the divine plan for Israel remains unfathomable. Yet it must also be revealed: for Israel is to play a responsible part In that plan. Since the Jew is to live a consciously Jewish life before God he must have an at least partial grasp of its meaning; but in its fulness that meaning is not disclosed: for his Jewishness is only partly the Jew's own doing. The Jew both makes, and is made by his destiny.
The God-man-relation demands of man a free response, the response through moral law. The God-Israel-relation demands of the Jew, in addition to the moral response, a response expressing his Jewishness in all its particularity. This response is Halachah. Moral law, mediated through the leap of faith, becomes the divine law to man. Halachah is Jewish custom and ceremony mediated through the leap into Jewish faith; and it thereby becomes the divine law to Israel. In themselves, all customs, ceremonies and folklore (including those Jewish, and those contained in the book called Torah) are mere human self-expression, the self-expression of men alone among themselves. But through the leap of faith anyone of them (and preeminently those of the Torah) have the potency of becoming human reflections of a real God-Israel encounter. And thus each of them has the potency of becoming Halachah, commanded and fulfilled: if fulfilled, not as self-expression but as response on the part of Israel to a divine challenge to Israel; as the gift of the Jewish self to God. Thus no particular set of ceremonies is, as such, divine law: this is an error flowing from the orthodox misunderstanding of the nature of revelation. But, on the other hand, all customs which flow from the concreteness of Jewish life have the potency of becoming divine law, and are a challenge to fulfillment. The denial of the religious significance of any law which is not moral is an error flowing from the modernistic misunderstanding of the nature of the concrete before God.
We have said that, like all revelation, the revelation of God to Israel both reveals and conceals; and that, correspondingly, the Jew both makes, and is made by, his destiny. Thus whether the Jew practices Halachah is, on the one hand, not constitutive of his Jewishness; on the other, it is not indifferent to his Jewishness. If the former were the case the Jew would wholly make his. Jewish destiny; if the latter he.would be wholly made by it.
Thus the meaning of Israel's destiny is in part revealed: it is to respond, ever again, to a divine challenge; to become, of her own free choice, a people of God; to give perpetual realization to this decision in thought and practice. Situations change, and with them the content of the response they require: but the fact of challenge, and the need for response, remain the same.
Yet the meaning of Israel's destiny is also concealed. Man cannot understand the final reasons for the tensions of his existence; the Jew cannot understand the final reasons why he wag chosen to exemplify these tensions. Hence the Jew is also unable to decide whether or not Israel will continue to exist. He is, to be sure, free to be sure, free to decide whether to .be a devout or stiff-necked Jew, whether to heed or to ignore the divine challenge. But if it is really true that God has a plan for Israel, Israel is as little free to alter that plan as she is able to understand its final meaning.
From AN OUTLINE OF MODERN JEWISH THEOLOGY by EMIL L. FACKENHEIM