if there is one theological foundation for what most of us believe as Conservative Jews, it is the denial of verbal revelation. I use the negative formulation here deliberately. It leaves room for a wide range of positive formulations such as Franz Rosenzweig's notion of revelation as encounter with a "commanding" (though not "law-giving") Thou-God,[1] Abraham Heschel's notion of the Bible as midrash,[2] Mordecai Kaplan's notion of revelation as human discovery,[3] even Mendel of Rymanov's notion that all that was revealed at Sinai was the aleph of anokhi, the first word of the ten commandments,[4] and a multitude of talmudic homilies that teach that not all of the words of the Torah were revealed to Moses at Sinai.[5] All of these positions affirm a decisive and active human role in the formulation of the content of revelation as we have it. Torah then is indeed a midrash, a human interpretation of some more remote content that is itself inherently beyond direct human apprehension. Whatever else it may be, it is also, then, a cultural document, reflecting the idiom of the societies and periods in which it was composed. Or, to use a more contemporary formulation, it is an elaborate, complex myth.

Popular usage to the contrary, to say that a theological claim is a myth is not synonymous with saying that it is a fiction, a deliberate lie. But neither is it a literal, precise photograph or reproduction of reality. As soon as we deny verbal revelation, we must formulate an alternative view of the status of the language of religion. One such alternative is to dismiss all theological statements as factually meaningless because they are beyond falsification or verification.[6] Proponents of this view will usually hasten to add that theological claims can still serve other significant purposes. They may, for example, express our feelings about ourselves, our lives or the world, or serve as spurs to ethical behavior. But they are not factual, not descriptions of "the nature of things" out there, beyond ourselves, however much they may parade as such. The proponents of this view may well be sincere about the many other legitimate purposes of theological language but it is clear that this position significantly diminishes the significance of the entire enterprise of religion. It is not surprising, then, that contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion have struggled to redeem theological claims as in some sense factually significant and that the most suggestive of these efforts is the one that views them as myths.


Theology as Myth

A seminal elaboration of this thesis is in Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith.[7] According to Tillich, myths-and the religious symbols out of which they are fashioned-use material from ordinary experience, from the framework of time and space, to enable us to conceptualize and talk about a reality which is in essence totally beyond direct human experience. A myth is an attempt to capture, usually in dramatic and poetic form, some hidden or elusive reality. Myths are accommodations, but essential and even indispensable accommodations, given the nature of the reality to which they refer and the limitations of our powers of apprehension.

The simple fact is that the Ultimate cannot enter into our scriptures, liturgies, theologies or rituals unless it is concretized in some human idiom. The issue, then, is not myth or no myth, but rather which myth, which set of symbols. There are of course many other issues which flow from this thesis: In what sense is a myth "true" or "false"? What criteria can we use to reach these determinations? What happens when the myth is "broken," that is, recognized as myth and not as literal truth? The literature on these and all other implications of the thesis is extensive and we will return to some of them later in this paper, but a serious attempt must be made to integrate these proposals into our theology.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that religion is not the only realm of human experience that must resort to myth-making. To the extent that science, for example, has to deal with realities that escape direct human, apprehension, it too must surrender the view that its theories can be literally true or false. Freudian psychology, much of astronomy, and the various theories that deal with the behavior of subatomic particles all fall into this category. There are significant differences between science and religion as to how myths originate and what purposes they serve, but all myths share one common feature: they are evolving human accommodations - partial approximations, subjective constructs, or impressionistic portraits of the reality to which they refer-not direct, literal reproductions.[8]

The claims that God created the world in six days, that He took our ancestors out of Egypt, that He rewards our fidelity and punishes our sins, that He will send the Messiah at the end of days are all mythical claims. So also are the claims that He revealed His Torah at Sinai,  that He spoke to Moses and to the biblical community, and that the Torah that we read today is an accurate recording of His words….


Implications for Theology

The question posed above raises all of the theological issues implied in viewing the language of Torah as mythical and symbolic. Great religious myths are both generated by and in turn nurture religious communities. They are the distinctive manner in which that community reads its historical experience. Historical facts, by themselves, are mute or infinitely ambiguous. They are shaped and acquire meaning when they are read by the experiencing community through the spectacles of its distinctive myth. The community then transcribes and transmits its reading of its experience through its sacred literature, its liturgies and its distinctive rituals. Thus the liturgy and rituals of Hanukkah record not the "facts" of the Maccabean wars but rather the Jewish community's reading of these facts through the prism of its distinctive myth.

There is an integral nexus between a community and its myth. A living community will fight desperately to retain the validity and vitality of its myth. When necessary, it will refine and revise it-we Jews call this process midrash-in line with its ongoing historical experience in order that it may continue to work for that community. Above all, a community will not let its myth die, for when it dies, the community will also die.

The truth or falsity of a myth, then, cannot be measured by its correspondence or lack of correspondence with any prior or more primitive body of truth. There is simply no such more primitive body of truth. Rather, myths are "true" when they work, when they are effective in doing what they are uniquely designed to do: promote our ability to identify with that community, disclose unsuspected layers of meaning in our historical experience, generate rituals, grip us emotionally, or, when presented in the form of a comprehensive theology, spell out in an intellectually coherent form our community's distinctive understanding of the meaning of the human enterprise.

In this perspective, a Jewish theological statement should not be evaluated by its fidelity to past formulations, however ancient or sacred, but rather by its ability to address the historical situation out of which it emerges and which it attempts to integrate. Theologies will inevitably display continuity with the past; if anything, a community clings tenaciously to those formulations that have worked well in the past, not only because they are secure and familiar but also because the process of evolving new ones is arduous, lengthy, and inherently disruptive. Much more frequently, a theology will appear patently anachronistic to a new generation which will thus be impelled to rewrite it in the light of its own historical experience.

A community will never abandon an ancient and revered formulation of the content of its myth until a replacement has been found. In fact, myths are never discarded as a whole. What usually happens is that segments or individual symbols within the myth die for segments of the community or for individuals within the community at different times. What dies is replaced through midrash but enough of the broader texture remains for enough of the community to make the myth as a whole still viable. Thus, in our day, those of us for whom "Umipnei Hata'einu . . ." is no longer a satisfactory explanation of our uniquely twentieth century historical trauma will struggle to replace this claim with an alternative-hence the enterprise of what has come to be called holocaust theology. But most of us continue to function as religious Jews.

Finally, myths and symbols can be "broken," that is recognized as myths and symbols and not as literal descriptions. When this happens, the alternatives are neither precritical literalism nor postcritical reductionism. There is a third possibility, articulated most concisely in Tillich's memorable line: "one should never say 'only a symbol,' but one should say 'not less than a symbol" And again: "There is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths; they are the language of faith."[9] The alternative is not myth or no myth but rather which myth, which symbol. This third possibility not only acknowledges the indispensability of symbolization and myth-making but even welcomes the uncanny and elusive powers of these myths and symbols to disclose residues of meaning that lie beneath the surface of our experience.[10]

Viewed in this context, the viability of our being able to use the language of "mitzvah" when God is no longer literally understood as a "mitzavveh" depends on whether the symbol "mitzvah," however "broken" it may be for some of us, remains a living symbol. Some of us believe it does because we believe that the central symbol in the Jewish people's self-definition is that of "covenant." A covenant is a juridical institution and therefore covenants are concretized in the life-experience of the covenanted community through a code of law, those stipulations expressed in legal form which spell out the difference between being covenanted and not.[11] For many of us, the symbol "covenant" and its correlate symbol "law" are very much alive and retain their power to define, disclose, move, explain, and motivate us as Jews.

Witness, for example, the palpable sense of awe that pervades a brit milah ritual. That sense of awe, very different from the emotional tone that pervades a wedding ritual, testifies to the ongoing power and vitality of the sense of being covenanted. Of course, those of us for whom these symbols are no longer effective will understand their Jewishness in a very different way. Thus emerges one possible parameter that distinguishes different communities within the body of the Jewish people.

From Toward a Theology for Conservative Judaism by Neil Gillman in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 37(1), Fall1983 @1983 The Rabbinical Assembly




[1] On Jewish Learning, edited by N. N. Glatzer, New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1955, p. 116.

[2] God in Search of Man, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956, p. 185.

[3] The phrase is actually Ira Eisenstein's, The Condition of Jewish Belief, p. 46. I have no doubt that Kaplan would accept that formulation as well.

[4] 8. Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1965, pp. 29-31.

[5] One useful compendium of these texts is in Elliot Dorff, “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to our Descendents”, New York: Youth Department of the United Synagogue of America, 1977, pp. 79-107.

[6] . The classic dismissal of all theological claims as factually meaningless is in A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963; Revised edition, 1946, pp. 114-120. Ayer's position is admittedly extreme but even in modified form, it remains one of the characteristic positions of the analytic school in contemporary philosophy. Two useful surveys of the various responses to Ayer's challenge are: William T. Blackstone, The Problem of Religious Knowledge, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963; and Fred Ferre, Language, Logic and God, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961. To my knowledge, the only Jewish philosopher to deal with this literature from a Jewish (admittedly Buberian) position is Emil Fackenheim. See in particular his Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, New York: Basic Books, 1973, ch. 1.

[7] New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957.

[8] . Two suggestive studies of the status of scientific theories reflecting this perspective are: Thomas S. Kuhn's seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. Second edition, enlarged, 1970; and in a more popular vein, Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, New York: Bantam Books Inc., 1980. Much of what Kuhn has to say about scientific paradigms applies mutatis mutandis to myth and midrash in religion. Kuhn is particularly helpful in dealing with the tenacity with which a community "holds on to its reading of the data of experience long after it has become patently anachronistic.

[9] Dynamics of Faith, pp. 46 and 51.

[10] See James W. Fowler's Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981. This is a highly suggestive study of the stages in the possible evolution of religious faith in the life of a believer. Stage five, which Fowler calls "Conjunctive Faith," traces the reconstitution of faith after its mythical and symbolic nature has been exposed.

[11] . The nexus between covenant and law emerges clearly in George Mendenhall's pioneering study of Hittite suzerainty treaties and their biblical parallels in "Covenant Forms Israelite Tradition," The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, Vol. III, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, pp. 25-53.