In the 17th century and thereafter, the advent of the Enlightenment radically undermined Jews' confidence in revelation. As the Jewish communities of western Europe and North America gradually came to enjoy political rights on the basis of Enlightenment affirmations of the rationality of each individual and as science developed new theories and new technologies, Jews, like their Christian neighbors, came to rely on reason again as the primary way to know about the world and, inevitably, about God.

It is not surprising, then, that Jewish thinkers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries expended considerable effort to justify Jewish faith and action on rational grounds….

From the divine appearance on Mount Sinai through the early 20th century, Israelites and their descendants have always understood the audience of revelation to be the people Israel as a whole. The Torah itself is ambiguous as to how much of God's revelation the people heard as a group and how much was relayed through Moses-an ambiguity that later sources develop in differing ways. Some Rabbinic interpretations (e.g., Exod. R. 5:9, 29: 1) go so far as to point out that at Sinai each person understood God's revelation in his or her own way, depending on each individual's intelligence and sensitivity. Even with these caveats, though, the audience for the Revelation was always construed as the entire people Israel, and its content was always understood to be both God's will and at least some facets of God's nature and actions. Moreover, with just a few exceptions (Spinoza being the most obvious and radical), Jews always understood the Torah in the form that has come down to us as an accurate record of what God revealed at Sinai.

… Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) were most responsible for understanding the nature and audience of revelation in new, nontraditional ways. Both men were part of the existentialist school of thought, an approach popular in the first half of the 20th century. Existentialists believe that one must start with the individual's experience to understand how people come to know anything. Furthermore, one must be wary of generalizing from that experience. Because we experience everything as individuals, we cannot accurately characterize how we all experience a given subject. Thus, despite our pretensions to the contrary, we cannot know general truths.

For Buber, then, revelation at Sinai was not a matter of words; it was a revelation of God Himself. All of the words of the Torah are simply a record of how the people who participated in the revelation at Sinai (and many people thereafter) understood its nature and implications.

The Torah's account is important because it attests to an experience of God. The Torah's description of that event, though, and the commandments the Torah bases on it, are only human reactions to being in touch with God. Indeed, in Buber's view, to be constrained to the Torah writers' particular reactions to the experience of encountering God is to confine and squelch the living, ongoing relationships that each individual should have with God. We, therefore, should not see ourselves as obligated to obey Jewish law or to believe anything specific that the Torah or later tradition states about God. Instead, according to Buber, we should cultivate special relationships with other human beings that he called "I-thou" relationships. Here we meet each other face to face and soul to soul without any element of trying to use the other party for one's own purposes-for "in each thou we address the Eternal Thou." In other words, although human beings may think that they can use God as a source to get something, they literally cannot do that, but can only engage in an I-thou relationship with God. I-thou relationships with other human beings thus prepare us for encounters with God and, in fact, are the prime way in which we can meet God. Rosenzweig agreed with his friend Buber that revelation is not a matter of God speaking words; it is rather what we learn about God from ongoing encounters with Him. "All that God ever reveals in revelation is revelation. . . . He reveals nothing but Himself to man." For Rosenzweig, though, the Torah is the record of an encounter of the Jewish people with God and, as such, each Jew is obligated to keep the commandments that he or she can. Rosenzweig stresses that Jews are not free to choose which commandments they want to fulfill; rather, they are obligated to do whatever they can. Sometimes we are not physically able to perform a commandment-for example, when we are ill. Even in traditional Jewish law, under such circumstances we are not held to be at fault for failing to do what the commandment requires. The novelty of Rosenzweig's thesis is that he sees ability not just as a physical property but as a psychological-or, better, a relational-matter. One's ability to perform God's commands, for Rosenzweig, is primarily a function of one's ability to feel commanded by God. That, in turn, is a function of the depth of one's relationship with God.

The best way to understand this is to think of human relationships. One feels only minimally obligated to help a stranger find the way-although one does feel obliged to some extent. As one moves across the spectrum of one's relationships, from the shallowest to the deepest, one gains more and more obligations.

These duties are not a matter of promise or contract; indeed, they are generally not even articulated. They instead grow silently out of the expectations that two people have of each other as they become closer. Ultimately, at the end of the spectrum of relationships farthest removed from those with strangers, one feels many and, in some cases, burdensome duties toward one's family members. Regardless of one's feelings about one's relatives, the very depth of the relationship invokes a sense of duty.

Similarly, says Rosenzweig, the extent of one's obligations to God is a function of the depth of the relationship that one has been able to cultivate with God. Consequently, each of us will have a different level of obligation to fulfill the commandments. One wonderful consequence of this theory is that it minimizes haughtiness. None of us can judge anyone else because none of us knows the depth of anyone else's relationship with the divine and the number or character of laws that are, therefore, incumbent on that person. At the same time, each of us is obliged to take steps to enhance our ability to obey more of God's commands. God, in other words, is like a family member toward whom there is a duty not only to fulfill one's obligations but to seek to deepen the relationship, thereby becoming even more obligated. Rosenzweig's existentialism is manifest, however, in his concern that as we strengthen our relationship with God, we should not see our increased obligations as simply burdens imposed on us from the outside by God (i.e., as laws). Instead, we must seek to transform the requirements of Judaism into living commandments whose authority comes from within us, as individuals, as well as from God because they derive from the relationship that we have with God. The Torah's precepts, then, are not only demands but bridges between each individual and God. Until a given rule can function as an outgrowth of one's relationship with God and as a further strengthening of it, the rule is not incumbent on the individual-at least not yet.

Both Buber and Rosenzweig redefine the audience for revelation as the individual Jew rather than the entire Jewish people. And they both redefine the substance of revelation as the encounter with God rather than the specific laws and beliefs that the Torah and later tradition draw from it. However, they disagree about the implications of the Torah's record of revelation for us. For Buber, we are informed by the Torah simply that divine revelation is possible and we each seek it through our I-thou relationships with other human beings and animals. For Rosenzweig, on the other hand, the Sinai event binds us to obey Jewish law to the extent that our own individual relationship with God is deep enough for us to feel a given law as a commandment of God.




Rosenzweig's existential theology was worked out in close collaboration with his friend and colleague Martin Buber (1878- 1965) in the first decades of this century…. On revelation itself though not on the further implications of the position-they are largely in agreement.

In fact, we can take the title of Buber's masterpiece I and Thou as the key to their understanding of revelation. Revelation is precisely the creation of an I-Thou relationship between the very personal God of the Bible and the biblical community, and later with any human being. The model is an intense, interpersonal relationship in which two people "reveal" primarily themselves to each other. This self-revelation creates the relationship and through the relationship each partner acquires a full-fledged identity. The relationship is mutual with each partner affecting the other. It is charged with meaning and emotion, transitory yet renewable. Finally, what is not revealed-neither at Sinai nor in any authentic I-Thou relationship-is any form of behavioral code, neither in the form of a book, nor in any specific content-filled document.

For Rosenzweig, the content of revelation is simply the fact of revelation, God's entering into a unique relationship with Israel. According to Rosenzweig, the biblical passage immediately preceding the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19 and 20, "He [God] came down [on Sinai]" (19:20) already concludes the revelation; the passage "God spoke. . ." (20:1) is the beginning of interpretation, and the verse beginning "I am . . ." (20:2) is totally interpretive. Torah, Rosenzweig explains, is Israel's classic response to the revelatory encounter, spelling out how Israel understood its relationship with God and how it determined to live in the light of its unique status.

Where Buber and Rosenzweig part company is over the relation between revelation and Jewish law. They agree that law is not part of the content of revelation-revelation is never legislation-but Rosenzweig insists that the sense of "being commanded" is. God may not legislate) but God commands. The difference between law and command is that a law is impersonal and universal, while a command is personal and subjective. Laws are written in books; commands are experienced. In this sense, every relationship has a commanding quality to it. Every relationship compels the participants to behave in a way that is appropriate to the relationship. God's love for Israel is all that is needed to inspire Israel to live in a certain way. Contra the traditionalists, then, what was revealed was not the specific commandments but the fact of being commanded. But contra Kaplan, God is very much the authority-however implicit-for the commandments, just as a lover's expressions of affection are governed by the presence and implicit wishes of the beloved.


From SACRED FRAGMENTS by NEIL GILLMAN, The Jewish publication Society, Philadelphia. Jerusalem, 1990


(Cf. Heschel)