Thoughts for the Week
Last month, I began the exploration of revelation, a critical idea in Jewish theology (and in theology in general), and this month’s column continues it. The concluding thought last month was that divine revelation, the communication by God to
humanity, is for Jews bound up in the picture of God we get from the Hebrew Bible. But if our image of God is based on the biblical description, then revelation is not only possible but necessary. This month, the discussion continues.
I think most modern people would prefer to think of revelation as something that continues, with each generation understanding the world more completely, and humanity improving. And although Progressive Jews might say that God can be described as “speaking,” it is only in a metaphorical sense. But from the Biblical point of view, revelation is an event, not a process. It happened once and everything that we can learn from God comes from that event, and the stories we tell about it. The story of what our ancestors experienced in Egypt and at Sinai is our story, and we recount it daily, and annually at the Festivals, in order to allow it to live on with immediacy.
Though its lessons may be eternal, the event was historical – something that happened in the past to people who are no longer living. Our ancestors knew that God is beyond history, but they could distinguish certain moments in which God becomes manifest, and they thought that God was the source of those events, and that their meaning was revealed to us and it is through us and our particularity as Jews that they enter the world.
Particularity, however, is a diﬃcult concept for modern people because, along with our Jewish story, we have inherited the Platonic, classical Greek philosophical understanding of the world, which tells us that only that which is timeless, unchanging, eternal, universal and abstract has genuine reality.
True reality is a world beyond the senses and accessible only through reason. What we see and experience in the world as it is presented to our senses is but a shadow of reality.
But the biblical view is that this world, the world of our everyday experience, is of primary signiﬁcance, even to God, and so from this understanding, it makes sense that God might relate to particular people in a historic context. The two viewpoints are at odds. Neither, however, is literally true, and both are created out of human experience in the attempt to capture an elusive or hidden reality. The biblical understanding is that the world of everyday experience, charged at times with eternal meaning, is therefore not “less than” a timeless, other world that we can only know through reason.
The next question that arises is, which reported event of revelation carries a freight of meaning that is rich enough to be considered God’s message to us, or to people in general. As Jews, we principally rely on the revelatory event at Sinai, as interpreted and carried forward to us through a chain of tradition that may be human but is (our tradition asserts) divinely inspired. Though we respect other religions, we don’t grapple with the complexities of the revelations that give rise to, for example, Christianity or Islam.
But we have a diﬃculty that is similar to theirs, in that the proof of the validity of our version of revelation is the revelation itself, a kind of circular proof that relies on itself in order to prove itself. We know the biblical account is true because – it’s in the Bible! The traditional, orthodox view is that the Torah was revealed quite literally in discrete words and letters, and is unequivocally binding on all Jews, and even those commandments that make sense to the rational mind are not valid because they appear to be rational, but only because they are commanded by God to a people who are obligated to be obedient to God.
A strong counter-argument to this view is that of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Re-constructionist Judaism in the mid-twentieth century in the United States. Kaplan did not believe in the supernatural, but he was s religious naturalist in that he believed that human nature is endowed with an innate religious impulse; religion ﬂows naturally out of everyday activities of human beings and their communities. For Kaplan, there was ﬁrst and foremost a Jewish people, and this people created its religion.
This does not imply that religion is a ﬁction – Kaplan views all of this natural religious activity as informed by the work of God, who is not a supernatural being, but a “naturalist” God, who functions as a process or power within the natural world order. For Kaplan, that process is the human striving for evergrowing levels of perfection, which we might term “salvation”, or in biblical terms, “ge’ulah”, And so, Kaplan’s deﬁnition of God is “the power that makes for salvation”. Kaplan had an enormous inﬂuence on mid-twentieth century Judaism, and his book Judaism as a Civilisation is persuasive.
Rabbi Gershon Silins