The Central Issue: Revelation

What we do not agree upon, however, is our understanding of revelation and that is where we must begin: Revelation is the central theological issue, for what separates us from our fundamentalist colleagues on the right is our understanding of revelation.

The contemporary traditionalist (though not necessarily traditional, as we shall explicate below) understanding of revelation rests on four claims:

(1) Torah (for our purposes here, the Humash) is divine in origin, i.e., it comes from God;

(2) it was revealed in "discrete words and letters,"[1] i.e., verbally;

(3) these words and letters were recorded by Moses in one internally consistent document; and

(4) that document is identical with the text we have before us today.

This position makes one further point: all four claims must be accepted as one package; to deny one is to deny them all.

Of these four claims, the key one is clearly the second, the claim of verbal revelation. The first is ambiguous enough to permit a multiplicity of interpretations and the third and fourth assume verbal revelation. But 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,[2] Abraham Heschel's notion of the Bible as midrash,[3] Mordecai Kaplan's notion of revelation as human discovery,[4] 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,[5] and a multitude of talmudic homilies that teach that not all of the words of the Torah were revealed to Moses at Sinai.[6] 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.[7] 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 suprising, 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….

The strictly theological argument against verbal revelation should be pursued on its own terms. But there is a second issue that must be confronted. That is the question of authenticity, the claim that verbal revelation is the only authentically Jewish position, that to depart from it is to break with a centuries old normative tradition. This inquiry should be pursued along two parallel lines. The first of these should plumb the full theological implications of what we and our predecessors have been saying for over a century about the fact of historical development which, we insist, has been characteristic of all Jewish ideas and institutions. We have become skilled in trotting out the familiar instances of historical development in Judaism (slavery, capital punishment, and so forth). But what we have not done is confront the theological assumptions that made this kind of development possible in the first place. If, in fact, everything Jewish has a history, if historical factors have shaped each generation's reading of the tradition, then Torah - from the very outset –was treated as a cultural document, no matter what our ancestors may have said they believed about its origin and its manner of revelation. What are the theological implications of the many borrowings, in the literature of the Torah, from the common culture of ancient Near-Eastern paganism? To put the matter concisely, are the pentateuchal parallels to the Code of Hammurabi part of God's revelation or part of Israel's appropriation of that revelation? The further we get into Jewish history, the more striking this dimension becomes. The late Elias Bickerman's theory of Maccabean Hellenism as expounded in his From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees[8] and Saul Lieberman's detailed documentation of the impact of hellenistic institutions on rabbinic Judaism[9] lead to the inevitable conclusion that it was a historically conditioned synthesis of biblical religion with the institutions of another culture. How do we account theologically for this phenomenon? What are its implications for the way in which our ancestors understood Torah? Revelation?...

One further word on the question of authenticity. Should any doubt remain that on the issue of revelation, the contemporary traditionalist does not hold a monopoly on authenticity, this doubt will be quickly dispelled by studying the material assembled in Abraham Joshua Heschel's monumental Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Be-Aspaklarya Shel Ha-Dorot.[10] The two volumes of this work published to date have not exerted the influence on contemporary Jewish theology that they should have, in all likelihood because they have not as yet been translated into English. But the overwhelming conclusions of this study are first, that rabbinic literature subjected the issue of revelation to an intricate and subtly nuanced inquiry in comparison to which most contemporary efforts appear positively simplistic; second that the contemporary traditionalist view far from exhausts the range of options reflected in that literature; and third, that we contemporaries are not the first to question, on theological grounds, the dogma of verbal revelation. In retrospect, Heschel's critique of the literalist position in God in Search of Man clearly nurses from the material that he was to study in this later work. It provides irrefutable support for our view that classical tradition provides ample precedent for a number of equally authentic theological approaches to revelation.




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




[1] The phrase is Norman Lamm's in his response collected in the symposium "The Condition of Jewish Belief” that appeared in Commentary, 42:2 (August 1966) and was later republished under the same title by Macmillan (1966). Lamm's statement is an exceptionally direct and unambiguous version of what I call the "traditionalist" position and its implications. The symposium as a whole is a useful compendium of the range of Jewish positions on the issue of revelation.

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

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

[4] 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.

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

[6] 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.

[7] . 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.

[8] New York: Schocken Books, 1962, pp. 153-165, 178-182.

[9] See his Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1942 and 1950 respectively.

[10] London and New York: The Soncino Press, Vol. 1,1962; Vol. 2,1965.