Thoughts for the Week
Last month, I wrote about a book I had rediscovered on my bookshelf, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew by Rabbi Neil Gillman. The introduction discusses Mordecai Kaplan’s teaching that there are three possible ways of identifying with a religious community: by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. Traditional Jews identify principally through behaving, progressive Jews principally by belonging.
But what about believing? Are there ideas about God and the world that we, as progressive Jews, adhere to, whether or not we acknowledge them? Gillman explores some of these ideas in his book.
The first chapter is an analysis of the concept of revelation: what really happened? On Gillman’s account, without revelation, Judaism would be merely a matter of peoplehood and culture, essentially not a religion at all. Revelation is some kind of act or communication that brings God into relationship with human beings. And it is the particular revelatory event that a religion accepts as authentic (as opposed to those it dismisses) that distinguishes one religion from another, whether it be God’s voice at Sinai, or the parables of Jesus, or the call to Mohammed in the Arabian desert. And how we understand revelation also determines how we deal with religious authority.
For Jews, whose primary source of information about how God was understood by our ancestors is the Torah, things are made more diﬃcult because the Torah understanding of God is diverse and sometimes contradictory. But that obscures the more crucial questions: is it possible to believe in revelation? Did any such event ever actually take place? And what was revealed – was it God’s presence, or God’s will, or God’s place in a historical event? The answer to any of these questions will aﬀect the way we understand the others.
Is revelation possible? For Gillman, this question begins with asking whether God creates. There is no reason why there is something rather than nothing (a question taken up in Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story). From a religious perspective, one might say that if God created the world, God needed something to exist besides God, and if that’s the case, then perhaps God needed to communicate with that created world, which includes us.
The Hebrew Bible describes this communication as being filled with emotion: anger, pleasure, sorrow, disappointment, frustration. God in the Bible is personally involved in the events of history, and desires certain outcomes. But because human beings were created with free will (and, as Gillman notes, nothing in creation matches that for surprise) God’s plans are tentative and conditional, even though God’s power is assumed.
The ways in which that communication (assuming we accept that idea) might take place are also diverse. Traditional Jews would insist that God spoke the very words recorded in Torah. After all, to deny that God could speak is to deny God a power that even human beings have, and this would deny the biblical God entirely. Progressive Jews would more likely say that if God can be described as “speaking”, it is only in a metaphorical sense. But in either case, if our image of God is based on the biblical description, then revelation is not only possible but necessary.
As I explore this theological pathway, I’ll be interested to hear about your thoughts on these things.
Rabbi Gershon Silins