Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shavuot (Mitzvot) - Essay

Sinai: Rabbeinu or Redactor? Towards a Contemporary Theology of Revelation (Part I)

When I began to write my thoughts on the weekly parsha, nearly a decade ago, I defined my purpose to myself as “to find my own voice”—that is, to articulate, originally for a rather small circle of friends, my own beliefs and world-view, as a somewhat idiosyncratic and nonconformist Orthodox Jew (a term that is really a misnomer, its conventional social referent really referring to the Orthoprax), who found himself disaffected with most of the major ideological options available within the mainstream community. Over the years, in the course of attempting to present, in what became Hitzei Yehonatan, my thoughts on the issues raised by readings from a variety of classical sources, I have touched upon many of the major issues in Jewish thought, albeit in a rather unsystematic way. The following essay, of which for the moment I can only present the first half, is an attempt at presenting in a somewhat more systematic way my thoughts on one crucial issue of Jewish theology today. (Ironically, the germ of the following essay is one of my earliest pieces; the earliest draft predating the very first issue of Hitzei Yehonatan.)

1. The Problem

The famous German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig—one of the cultural legends of twentieth century Judaism—was once asked what he though about higher biblical criticism. He replied: “I don’t know whether or not R existed [i.e., as in the term JER, where R indicates the “redactor,” who edited and synthesized the alleged J and E documents–JC], but if he did, the ‘R’ stands for ‘Rabbenu,’ not redactor.”

A doctrinaire Orthodox believer might scoff at this quip as a clever bit of evasion, possibly concealing his fundamental disbelief in the traditional doctrine of Torah min Hashamayim through an expression of pious reverence to the late Redactor. But on deeper reflection, it seems to me that Rosenzweig made here a very profound statement: that the essential issue in accepting Torah is not whether or not the claim of Mosaic authorship is true, but whether one believes that the Divine was working through the process of setting down in writing the book that we call the Torah, and whether we perceive him as a “redactor”—i.e., someone whom we see through the lens of critical scholarship, with a certain aloofness and studied academic objectivity; or as “Rabbenu”—that is, whenever precisely he lived, and whatever his exact identity, as our revered Teacher. In this sense, Rosenzweig’s remark was quintessentially Jewish.

What does it mean to believe in Sinai today? This problem focuses on the very heart of what we celebrate on Shavuot: the meaning and understanding of Torah min ha-Shamayim, of Divine revelation of the Torah as a body of teaching with specific contents, for the contemporary Jew; the conflict between the traditional doctrine of Torah from Sinai, and what many moderns see as the overwhelming evidence of modern Biblical (and other textual) scholarship regarding the gradual, fragmentary nature of the development within history of the document we call the Torah.

How is a person, steeped in the scepticism, rationalism, and to some extent the reductionist, critical approach to the origins of religion—all religion—to find his way to a Jewish religious affirmation? I speak here, not of the challenges posed by Freud, Marx and Darwin, serious as they may be—i.e., the psychological reduction of religion to a solution to psychological conflicts, a projection of the primal family Oedipal complex onto the cosmos; the economic interpretation of religious structures, as a form of social control; and the seeming elimination of man’s uniqueness, of the very concept of him being created “in the image of God”— but of the challenge posed by the historical method itself—that is, by the method of reading texts that sees in them the traces of specific time and place, the confluence of historical circumstances. Thus, the issue is not Wellhausen alone or, more broadly, the specifics of “higher biblical criticism,” as updated and revised by modern scholars—the specific scheme that reduces the Books of the Torah to a paste and scissors job of J, E, P and D, and their variants. The issue is more a certain loss of innocence that comes once one has been exposed to this way of thinking. The acceptance of historical methodology, or of a historical perspective, whatever the specific conclusions one draws, changes the way one looks at texts.

The modern Jew lives in a world in which, if he is intellectually aware, cannot avoid being conscious of the historical development of his own religious tradition. The consensus of modern Biblical Research, as pursued in universities and learned societies throughout the world—in England, the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, the Far East, Israel itself, etc. —is that the text of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, more particularly, of the Five Books of Moses, is a composite text, woven of multiple strands composed anywhere between the early days of the Israelite monarchy until some time close to the Destruction of the First Temple (either before or after).

The issue facing the believing Jew, who would be true both to his own tradition and to what he otherwise knows about the world, is one of intellectual integrity and honesty. If the Torah is true, it must be compatible with other sources of knowledge. Not need to wear intellectual / cognitive blinkers. Today’s doubters are not seeking to deny God but are, so to speak, swept along by the force of their own thinking and their desire not to wear what they would see as intellectual blinders. Hence, to impress the alternative of a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” seems somehow contrived, artificial, what is referred to in modern Hebrew as lesahek binidmeh li—“to play ‘as if.’”

Let me begin by describing the dilemma in very personal terms. I am, by choice, an Orthodox Jew; for well over forty years I have attempted to live my life in accordance with the precepts of the halakhah; I have found this way of life a source of deep spiritual meaning, of religious depth and authenticity, of richness and passion. And yet, the more I learn of the history of Judaism, the more difficult I find it to affirm what I have been taught to regard as one of the cardinal, if not The central, tenet of Orthodoxy -- the literal Sinaitic revelation of the Torah, both Oral and Written.

The issue entails two separate levels: the axiological and the experiential.

1. Axiological: At times, even at my mature age, far beyond the age of adolescent identity crises during which one is supposed to have such doubts, I have found myself asking what compelling reason there is for me to continue to observe the halakhah with such meticulous care, or indeed to observe at all. If the Torah is not ultimately rooted in an act of Divine revelation, then perforce the halakhic tradition and authority system of the rishonim and aharonim is not an elaboration and refinement of that awesome, singular moment of revelation, but is in fact the development of a human document whose precise origins are lost in the mists of the Ancient Near East, then why bother about reciting Keri’at Shema at the proper time, or whether or not one must stand up for Hazarat ha-Shatz, or the intricacies of terumot u-ma’asrot (tithes), perot shevi’it (sabbatical year produce) etc.? Or, for that matter, when one is subject to what is quaintly referred to as “temptation,” what real reason is there to refuse? For the traditional Jew, Ivan Karamozov’s famous epigram, “If there is no God, everything is permitted,” is amended to “If the Torah is not Divine, everything is permitted.”

2. Experiential: If the Torah is not in fact Divine, the experience of the performance of the mitzvah is itself diminished. The belief in Torah min ha-shamayim lies at the very core of traditional Jewish religious life as it is lived. The central experience of Torah—its “heteronomic” nature—depends upon this for its very soul and réson d’être. At times, I look back upon certain periods in my life—my college years, particularly, when I had just begun to take Torah seriously and to observe the mitzvot—and remember a certain religious innocence within myself, a purity of heart, a feeling that each time I fulfilled a mitzvah I was performing the will of God in the simplest, most literal sense. I believed then that each time I performed a mitzvah I was doing an act that corresponded to a kind of cosmic, Platonic model—a norm that came from without, something that transcended, not only of my own individual self and ego, but humankind and human culture as a whole. Today my observance is seemingly far more “complete”—I have become a learned rabbi, familiar with and knowledgeable in the classical sources; many intricacies of halakhah of which I was then ignorant have become second nature to me; I know how to “swim” in the vast literature of Judaism—Talmud, halakhah, midrash, even Kabbalah and Hasidut—with an ease and grace and sophistication and knowledge that I could not have imagined in those distant days. And yet, I find myself looking back on those years as a time of religious wholeness and purity and power. How, as a mature, sophisticated, complex adult in my middle years, can I recapture that feeling without a sense of falsehood? That is the crux of my problem.

Gershom Scholem, founder of modern Kabbalah studies, and in his personal belief a self-declared religious anarchist, writes how, paradoxically, this naive, literal belief in the divinity of the Torah facilitates tremendous creative freedom. In one of his personal essays, he writes:

The principal question to which we must now return is the following: What is the difference between this world, in which mysticism is a living phenomenon, and ourselves, who do not pretend to, are not able to, and do not wish to wear the mantle of pious, Orthodox Jews following the tradition of our forefathers?… What is the basic assumption upon which all traditional Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah and Hasidism is based? The acceptance of the Torah, in the strictest and most precise understanding of the concept of the word of God….

Each and every word and letter, and not merely something general and amorphous lacking in specific meaning, is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence; and it is this specific revelation of holiness that is meant by Torah from heaven. It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence.

… once a person has accepted the strictures of this faith and this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom, to which the history of the Kabbalah gives abundant testimony. He becomes so to speak a member of the family, and is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed—and not necessarily because the talents of the person himself are unlimited. …

The awesome faith in the power hidden within the divine word, a faith than which there is none higher, served in the past as the basis for the mystical decision based upon the exegesis of this word. This decision allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah, which reserves to itself the possibility of unique inspiration, which is only granted to a particular individual whose soul is hewn from the same source or from its sparks.

… There was an absolute belief here in something, but for many of us that very thing was a tremendous, if not an absolute obstacle. We do not believe in Torah from heaven in the specific sense of a fixed body of revelation having infinite significance. And without this basic assumption one cannot move.

The moment this assumption falls, the entire structure upon which mysticism was built, and by means of which it was to be accepted among the people as legitimate, likewise falls. And once this sense of faith in Torah from heaven ceased, it fell—and I dare say that for most of our people this sense of faith no longer exists. This being the case, one must ask the question: Where can one find a firm basis for that same continuity, for that same feeling that the gates of exegesis have not been shut to the infinite wealth of the divine word known in its expansion?

Prof. David Weiss Halivni articulates this problem with both passion and frankness, in his autobiography, The Book and the Sword. (The background to the following passages are the two breaks in his life: with the Orthodox yeshiva world of his youth and the initial period in the United States after the Holocaust; and his break, many years later, with the Jewish Theological Seminary, over the issue of women’s ordination):

As far as religious observance was concerned, I was quite comfortable in the yeshiva. No amount of religious observance, no matter how strict or extreme, offends me. What offends me is intellectual violation…. When I left the Seminary in 1985, it was the reverse. Intellectually, I was very happy there. I studied and taught the way the teachers there did, scientifically and critically. But I left for religious reasons. I was uncomfortable with their not always following the dictates and tenets that halakhah imposes on us as Jews.

How can one reconcile the two, the critical study, the intellectual perception of a text, and the adherence to strict observance, believing in the divinity of the text? This is a subject I try to deal with in the last chapter of my book Peshat and Derash… and in another book dealing with classical Jewish hermeneutics. However, my position—which is epitomized by my leaving the yeshiva because it was intellectually stifling and later leaving the seminary because it was religiously wanting—is apparently difficult to follow. I seem to live with this combination in a certain amount of harmony.

Will others follow suit? I often wonder whether I will succeed in transmitting this position to future generations, or whether it is not unique to my own particular intense Jewish background and people who do not share my background and will experience tension that they will not be able to withstand. They will tend to follow wither the religious side or the intellectual side, but not both.

(And a few pages later) My doubts are even greater in the religious sphere, concerning the combination of “genuine faith and open-mindedness” (the motto of a newly founded rabbinical school, the Institute of Traditional Judaism, which I hope and pray will perpetuate the ideas that I am so ardent about). Intellectually, I am almost indistinguishable from a secular scholar, but, unlike one, I still believe in the holy nature of the Bible, believe that God broke into human history, and feel that religious observance is the best way for a person to approach God. A divine text, made maculate by men, is still divine and leaves no alternative but to seek, search and pursue the maculate document for information on how to live a sacred life… I often think of Moses Mendelssohn, who combined enlightenment with strict observance, apparently to his full satisfaction. I don’t detect any tension in his writings. But he was a total failure with his children. They could not find his harmony, and broke away. So I wonder whether this kind of holding on to both things fervently, passionately, will find adherents… This combination seems to have been a mark of mine very early. Does it make me unique? I hope not. I prefer to believe that the method I champion is objective enough that people who will come after me—religious people—will want to embrace it, to emulate it.

A variety of responses to this problem have been offered within the context of what is conventionally known as Orthodoxy. I offer here a brief survey of some of the solutions (due to limitations in time, I present this in the form of rashei perakim; at some later date I may perhaps explore some of these issues in greater depth). Many Orthodox apologists have attempted to “debunk” the documentary hypothesis, demonstrating that the evidence marshaled by the Bible critics to “prove” the existence of separate strands within the biblical text may be explained using traditional assumptions. This has been done, most impressively and thoroughly, by the 19th century German rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (in detailed commentaries on Leviticus an Deuteronomy) and by the 20th century Italian-Israeli Bible scholar Umberto Cassutto (in two books giving line-by-line analysis of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, plus a more general discussion in his Torat ha-Te’udot). More recently, operating within the context of “post-critical” theology, David Weiss Halivni, in his Recovering Revelation, has offered an approach admitting certain imperfections in the Biblical text (which he calls “a maculate text”), and positing seeing Ezra as the ultimate source of our text per se (see b. Sanhedrin 21b).

Finally, the late Rav Mordecai Breuer has offered a unique Kabbalistic reinterpretation of the multiple parallel texts in various places, asserting that, e.g., Genesis 1 and 2 are written, respectively, in gevurah and gevurah mixed with hesed. Yet, notwithstanding the enormous erudition and powerful thinking of these authors, each in his own way, I find that their work fails to fully remove the problem, at least for myself.

For years, I was deeply troubled by these problems, and even the best efforts of the “defenders of the faith” somehow seemed artificial and unconvincing. More recently, I have found a certain peace in what might be called a “sideways move”—an approach, semi-mystical, in which the truth claims of texts become secondary, and the issue becomes one of God’s presence experienced through Torah. To this solution, I will devote the second half of this essay.

To be continued


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