As I wrote in last month’s article, the traditional theological position that the Torah was revealed quite literally in discrete words and letters, commanded by God to a people who are obligated to be obedient to God, was countered by a theology of religious naturalism. As Mordecai Kaplan saw it, human nature is endowed with an innate religious impulse; religion ﬂows naturally out of the everyday activities of human beings and their communities. For Kaplan, there was ﬁrst and foremost a Jewish people, and this people created its religion. The question arises, though, that if revelation is accessible to human intellect, then what is so special about the Torah? Kaplan was aware of this problem. The Torah is unique, he says, because it is ours: Israel’s characteristic and cumulative vision of the best we can imagine for our lives. Other communities have their “truth,” and we have ours. The Torah deals with ultimate questions of human existence in a global fashion. And its answers, which arise out of human nature and are not divine commandments, come from Israel’s collective life over the millennia.
But these two approaches to Jewish theology – the traditional view that grants complete and unquestioned authority to the Torah on the one hand, and religious naturalism on the other – are both incomplete, and some argued that they are equally dissatisfying.
A middle ground was developed over the early years of the 20th century, principally by Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1915-1972). Rosenzweig, working with his friend and colleague Martin Buber, saw revelation as the outcome of an “I-Thou” relationship (to use Buber’s terminology) between the personal God of the Bible and the biblical community, and then with any human being who is willing to enter into it. It is a mutual relationship, but it does not reveal any form of behavioural code; it doesn’t tell us what to do. There is no commandment, just a relationship of mutuality and meaning. The Torah is not, says Rosenzweig, the revelation, it is Israel’s response to revelation. Neither Buber nor Rosenzweig thought that law and commandment are part of the content of revelation, but Rosenzweig believed that the idea of “being commanded” is in itself part of the nature of the revelation. Buber disagreed; for him, God’s love for Israel is all that is needed to inspire Israel to live in a certain way.
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s version of this middle option is diﬀerent. He accepts the personal, transcendent God of the Bible, but he insists that God is totally beyond human thought (and in this, he is a theological heir of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides). We can never “know” God or describe God in any adequate way. So, for Heschel, the worst thing one could think is that our theological concepts are literally true or even adequate. The Bible is itself a human interpretation of some primal revelation that is beyond human comprehension. Judaism thus reﬂects “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” The source of authority is not the words we read in the text, but Israel’s understanding of the text. But despite a philosophical scepticism, Heschel takes very seriously the legal system that has developed out of the text.
Both Rosenzweig and Heschel reject both the traditional view and the religious naturalistic view, but they disagree with each other as to what was revealed. For Rosenzweig, what was revealed was God’s presence in an intimate, commanding (though not legislating) relationship with the Jewish people. For Heschel, the Torah represented God’s will for Israel, though not as some kind of blueprint to be followed, but rather our ancestors and our own understanding of what the Torah contains. The Torah is uniquely authoritative, not as the explicit word of God but as a response to (Rosenzweig) or expression of (Heschel) God’s concern for Israel, and by extension for humanity.
In their diﬀerent ways, they avoid some of the theological problems of the traditional and the naturalistic views. But even so, pluralism, historical development and ambiguity are inevitable.
With freedom from the traditional, authoritarian view comes responsibility – and anxiety.
And that anxiety is a familiar place for modern people like us who seek some kind of authentic relationship with our tradition, without the framework of revelatory certainty on the one hand, or Jewish law that must be obeyed on the other. But, I would argue, this uncertainty and anxiety give us more, not less, of a reason to engage with our tradition. We can ﬁnd it in the “myth” that Neil Gillman sees as central to the ongoing theology of the Jewish people. The Jewish myth (which we know to be a myth but still ﬁnd a compelling way to organise our understanding of the world) is embodied in our practice and our texts. It is our way of meeting a world that might otherwise be nothing but chaos without meaning. The Jewish myth is not in any sense objectively true, but it provides a framework of meaning that is a step beyond the straightforward understanding of what is true. For me, I suppose, it is the uncertainty and the argument themselves that are the most compelling aspect of Jewish engagement, and what I enjoy the most about studying it.
Rabbi Gershon Silins