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,"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Abraham Heschel's notion of the Bible as midrash,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Mordecai Kaplan's notion of revelation as human discovery,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> and a multitude of talmudic homilies that teach that not all of the words of the Torah were revealed to Moses at Sinai.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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….
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
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.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> On Jewish Learning, edited by N. N. Glatzer,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> God in Search of Man,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 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.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> 8. Gershom
the Kabbalah and its Symbolism.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> One useful compendium of these
texts is in Elliot Dorff, “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to our Descendents”,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> . The classic dismissal of all
theological claims as factually meaningless is in A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> See his Greek in Jewish Palestine and
Hellenism in Jewish Palestine,