Prof Tamar Ross on Revelation and Biblical Criticism

Tamar Ross is developing a theory of revelation in which she wants to maintain the full drama of Torah life with its total devotion to living the Torah life yet at the same time to allow for the possibility of accepting the findings of Biblical criticism.

We have been working on this interview since January. Her approach uses an internal dialogue with other positions so neither the questions nor the answers in this post reflect my thinking in any way.

Ross’s theory is developed through her rejection of what she sees as a widespread but inadequate solution. The rejected solution is to live with consciousness of the fall from naiveté, continuing to live as if the Torah and Torah from Sinai are true, without any change in the conception of God and revelation. Ross finds the self-aware “as if” solution problematic, because such self -consciousness may cool our devotion and commitment. Secondly, we are living the falsehood of maintaining an inadequate and wholly supernatural metaphysics.

Ross’s solution is an understanding of revelation that blurs the line between God and human input, or the natural and the supernatural.  If we accept the allegorical interpretation of tzimzum as a paradigm, as presented in works like Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Hahayim and the writings of R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, God is from His perspective (mitzido) an all-embracing monolithic unity. Hence revelation as an act of communication between two entities is, for Ross, entirely from our perspective (mizidanu).  She is attracted to Rav Kook’s model of God and creation that strives to meld the two perspectives by suggesting that from our point of view, God without creation, lacks the virtue of lack, which allows for dynamism, free will and the striving for perfection; He therefore requires creation and its upward striving in order to add the virtue of perfectibility (Hishtalmut) to the quality of perfection. This is the basis for Rav Kook’s interest in the evolution of human understanding and the universe at large as progressing to ever more sublime divine heights.

What is your approach to resolving the issues raised by Biblical Criticism?

I contend that it is still possible to maintain belief in the divinity of the Torah despite the modern critiques by breaking down the strict dichotomy between divine speech and natural historic process.  This task is facilitated by re-appropriating three assumptions that already have their basis in tradition.

 The first assumption I draw upon is that if the Torah is to bear a message for all generations, its revelation must be a cumulative process: a dynamic unfolding that reveals its ultimate significance only through time.

The second assumption is that God’s message is not expressed through the reverberation of vocal chords (not His, nor those of a “created voice” as some medieval commentators suggested in order to avoid the problem of anthropomorphic visions of God), but rather through the rabbinical interpretation of the texts, which may or may not be accompanied by an evolution in human understanding, and through the mouthpiece of history, a form of ongoing revelation.

The third assumption (supported by contemporary hermeneutic theory) is that although successive hearings of God’s Torah sometimes appear to contradict His original message, that message is never totally replaced, because on a formal level the original Sinaitic revelation always remains the primary cultural-linguistic filter through which these new deviations are received and understood. By blurring distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, the finite and the infinite, I contended that it is possible to relate to the Torah as a divine document without being bound to untenable notions regarding the nature of God and His methods of communication, or denying the role of human involvement and of historical process. Such an understanding allows the religiously committed to understand that the Torah can be totally human and totally divine at one and the same time.

The upshot is a process theology which allows for an ever evolving human view of the Divine. This approach, according to Ross, need not cool religious passion because there is no bifurcation of secular and religious understandings of the Torah.  All striving for perfection is part of the unfolding of God’s will.  In addition, since human activity is God’s instrument then there is no need for problematic supernatural metaphysics.

[AB- I am not sure to whom this theory would appeal. If one accepts the kabbalah as a solution, then one is Haredi and if one treats it as naturalistic metaphor then one is quite liberal. I am more than uncomfortable. Is it just reinventing the liberal solution with a Kabbalistic divine?]

1] What should I do after learning about Biblical Criticism?     Biblical criticism forces us to evolve and understand revelation in a more nuanced fashion. We don’t necessarily negate biblical criticism but neither do we substitute it for Talmud Torah. We continue teaching Torah in the traditional manner but with a greater appreciation for its open-ended character, in accordance with a more refined understanding of revelation.

2] What is this refined understanding of revelation?                  Accepting a natural sense of God and revelation. God is not merely transcendent but also immanent in the interpretive responses of humanity.

3] Isn’t this subjective? No, because it rejects the sharp distinction between God and human perception, between mitzideinu and mitzido.

4] How is this different from Mordechai Kaplan’s naturalism?           It preserves the idea of a supernatural metaphysical God, and the notion of divine perfectibility.  The more naturalistic aspects of my view of revelation also draw much more solidly on traditional Jewish sources from Rabbinics until today. [AB- that’s it?]

5] How can we still accept a metaphysical God? How can we still have metaphysics after the naturalistic critiques? By blurring the line between God and the universe and understanding the term “God” as ultimately striving to capture that monolithic unity which is beyond definition.

6] How is this better than the liberal supernaturalism of Louis Jacobs? Jacobs may well have been groping towards a theology of the sort I am suggesting.  In the epilogue to his 4th edition of We have Reason to Believe he contends that people have been mistaken when they understood him as suggesting that we can naively mark some passages in the Torah as divine and others as human.  Nevertheless he did regard some passages as more noble than others, so that he did not see all as equally binding.   My approach accepts the Torah in its entirety as the expression of God’s unfolding in history, and revelation as immanent in human activity. Even passages in the Torah which appear problematic to us today, and the historical context which triggers our discontent and moves us to seek new interpretations, are part of that process.

7] If the Torah was not given in the traditional way, then why choose Torah over Shakespeare or Buddhism? This is the cultural-linguistic system into which we were born and were educated.  In light of its remarkable spiritual legacy and resilience, we view it as offering a compelling prescription for life, ethics, and recognition of a spiritual dimension of reality beyond the everyday.

8] Isn’t your approach close to Spinoza with an immanent deity and a naturalistic revelation? Yes, in some respects.  But it allows me to still maintain the value of a theistic perception as an indispensable “chamber and reception hall” (as R. Kook puts it) to Spinoza’s vision of ultimate unity, along with the traditional understanding of Torah practice and study based on the halakhic model of avodat Hashem.

9] What is the role of history as a process? God from His perspective (mitzido) is an eternal undifferentiated unity, but from our perspective (mitzidenu) He unfolds immanently in time through historical development and human agency. The world is evolutionary and embellishes upon God’s infinity in the never-ending unfolding of a more intricate and particularized reality.

10] What do you think of the various non-foundational solutions for the problem of revelation including treating it as myth or treating the text “as if” true, or Wittgenstein’s linguistic understanding of religious belief?

Treating the traditional account of biblical revelation as a foundational myth can justly be taken as the apologetic of all apologetics, a type of meta-solution broad enough to cover even the most general and all-pervasive critique regarding the “truth” of Jewish dogma. Since the function of myths is not strictly cognitive, but rather to create a more elusive sensibility or way of relating to the world, it is far more important to live your life “as if” they are true than to uphold their propositional content. However, people adopting the “myth” approach have generally also been associated with the approach of liberal-supernatural theology (the Torah is part human and part divine) and so they tend to see this solution as a license for picking and choosing which elements to take and which to reject.

Jews who relate to traditional accounts of revelation and other biblical content in a cultural-linguistic context don’t ask what such statements convey or how factually accurate they are in mirroring our common-sense view of reality, but rather what is their function in the activities and world view of the speaker. Their function is primarily to act as props for the ritual practice and speech of a particular religion. Any weakening of arguments that link the authority of the halakhah with infallible doctrinal claims would appear to lead to an ultimate breakdown of the halakhah itself. As Judaic scholar Martin Jaffee has aptly phrased it: “Jewish practice without grounding in the divine has no more compelling a claim to the religious attention of Jews than the Code of Hammurabi.”

11] Instead of the misleading undertone of myth as something possibly false, you propose that assertion of faith is commitment to a particular language game. What do you mean by this?

The process of converting an unbeliever into a believer on this view resembles the teaching of a language, not because religion itself is a language, but because it functions as one, in helping us internalize views and acquire skills which have already been formulated and developed by others. When we acquire the knack for its conceptual syntax, we begin to intuitively know how to use its symbols in a manner that suits its internal logic. The final product of the religious learning process is not meant to be an authoritative list of religious dogmas or an ideal moral system, but rather implied or suggestive directives as to how to think about God and to conduct one’s life in accordance with these thoughts.

In a best case scenario, cultural-linguistic directives become second nature, and fulfill an essential role in fashioning the life of the believer. The purpose of religious discourse is not substantive (referring to a particular truth) but rather constitutive or regulative – offering us an entire universe of discourse, within which to live the life of faith.

Wittgenstein’s basic premise at his later linguistic stage was to regard all linguistic statements as acquiring meaning only by virtue of their use in a particular context.  To illustrate the diversity of contextual discourse, Wittgenstein introduced the concepts of “language games” and “forms of life”. The different functions or substructures of language comprise different “language games” – i.e., goal-directed social activities for which words are just so many tools to get things done in accordance with the “grammar” of their distinctive context.  Each language game does a particular job, conveying certain meanings to those who participate in its particular discourse. Justification is internal to the activity or “form of life” concerned.

12] Why is this useful? A cultural-linguistic approach to religious discourse seems particularly suitable for modern Orthodox sensibilities because of the rare mix of intellectual liberty and fidelity to tradition that it supports, allowing us to absorb and combine various and even opposing points of view. It tones down the idea that religion must correspond to some predefined external foundational truth, which exists “out there.” Therefore, we can reject the notion of biblical inerrancy (i.e., that Scripture is completely accurate in all matters of history and science) because the bible is not about external truth. Even in matters of faith and practice, the rationality and relevance or “truth” of religious tradition is maintained not by appeal to external evidence, but rather by skillfully using the internal grammar of religious discourse to provide an intelligible interpretation on its own terms. As against this, however, subscribers to this approach appear almost reactionary and fundamentalist in their absolute commitment to abide by the constitutive guidelines of their religious tradition and to submit to its internal authority. In this they differ from those who feel that abandoning a fundamentalist understanding to religious truth claims leaves room for selectivity.

13] Doesn’t deliberate assumption of religion as a language game nevertheless interfere with “simple belief”?

The self-aware cultural-linguist can travel hand in hand with the naïve realist of simple belief for a very long way in preserving the psychological force of his religious commitments. So long as they are both functioning within the religious language-game itself and abide by its guidelines, the two will not differ radically for all practical purposes. The only difference between them will be the former’s consciousness of the fact that the basis for these adjustments stems from internal “form of life” rather than external truth claim considerations. This allows him to view his attempts at reconciling religious truth claims with a hypothetical objective “reality” more ironically, and to entertain the possibility that these may eventually be replaced by another more illuminating picture.

14] How does this approach help the blogger whom you cite in your extended paper  who treats the service as theater?  (Modern Orthoprax – July 2009, “Religion…is Tony and Tina’s wedding writ large…. If only I could forget about that damn camera man”). Won’t he just say that your approach to belief is heterodox and not a true Yeshivish belief in Torah min Hashamayim, hence you are orthoprax?

I admit that when the “as if” quality of religious belief, or its understanding as a language game supporting a particular form of life, is adopted consciously and deliberately as a blanket response to new loss of innocence, rather than as an internal solution to localized problems, conducting one’s day to day living in accordance with its guidelines could be more problematic.  Someone who says he accepts Biblical criticism but lives “as if” the Torah is true simply because this is the grammar of his religious language game still experiences the conflict of two different perspectives – inside the system and outside criticizing the system. My interest is in developing a rationale that can accommodate both.  This is where the contribution of modern kabbalah and its unique amalgam of realism and non-realism comes in. Meaning: that God and the world are real enough from our perspective and at the same time the world is not real, in the sense of a separate existence, from God’s perspective.  In an ultimate sense, both the world and God are not real, since on that level the very distinction between the two, or between existence and non-existence is obliterated.

Were R. Hayim of Volozhin, R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, R. Dessler or R. Kook not true believers?  The divide is not between Yeshivish and non-Yeshivish, but between those who are inclined to reflect philosophically regarding the nature of their religious beliefs and those who are not.

15]  Your appeal to the linguistic approach and your view of breaking down the dichotomy of human and divine speech are two positions that can be separated. Why are they connected in your mind?

Breaking down the dichotomy between human and divine speech is a response to the challenges that ubiquitous human imprints and the attribution of speech to God in the literal, verbal sense, pose to the notion of a divinely authored text. Although a cultural-linguistic approach to religious belief allows us to relate to doctrine in an “as if” manner, this does not preclude the urge to make religious belief (especially its most basic tenets) rationally intelligible.  This activity is part and parcel of the religious language game itself.

16] How is this different than the position of James Kugel?          Firstly – Kugel, despite his emphasis on the interpretive process which converted the bible into Scripture, still seeks to ground the authority of the Torah – at least minimally – on some objective event at Sinai. As far as I am concerned, this may have been, but I do not find it necessary. Secondly, Kugel finds it essential to believe that the core message of that event (the command/s to serve God), no matter how it was transmitted, originated in some intentional movement on God’s part which somehow got filtered down to us in words. My view of God’s “speech” is rather as illocutionary acts that trigger humans to “hear” a message, and identify this as divine revelation.  The Torah surely records accounts of people believing that they had revelatory experiences, but its ultimate authority is grounded on the form of life that developed in the wake of such experiences and the strength of its grip upon us.  Thirdly, Kugel sees the basic message of the Torah as saying that the way to come close to God is by “becoming His employees” and serving Him in daily life.  I agree that this is the primary message of the Torah as subsequently interpreted, but my evolutionary understanding of Torah does not limit connection to God exclusively to this model.

17] What if someone does not accept kabbalah as their way to understand Torah, especially if they are not comfortable with the allegorical interpretation of Luria?  The importance of the allegorical interpretation, particularly on R. Kook’s understanding, is simply in offering a multi-layered view of God and revelation.  It allows us to maintain a continuum between immanence and transcendence, subjective and objective, natural and supernatural while preserving some distinction between them, and to also allow for an ultimate reality where all such distinctions are dissolved. One does not have to be bound by kabbalistic terminology and symbolism in order to accept this basic message.

Reread my  rules for comments before commenting.

16 responses to “Prof Tamar Ross on Revelation and Biblical Criticism

  1. So to be clear:

    Prof. Ross is rejecting the notion of literal revelation of the Torah at Sinai- an actual voice which all of Israel heard… and instead interpret the revelation as occurring over the course of history?

    How about the other events of the exodus: the plagues, splitting of the red sea, the miracles in the desert. Does she interpret these as literal or metaphorical?

  2. My comments on this monumental post are undoubtedly premature, but, as a wise teacher of mine once wrote to me, you must start somewhere.

    Firstly, I am confused to how Professor Ross can advise us to “continue teaching Torah in the traditional manner” if were to incorporate this dynamic, unfolding revelation into our Torah view. Would this understanding of revelation not have profound and immediate implications on the way we study and observe? (At the very least, some change in the style of divrei Torah, as is attempting.) Having just finished reading some essays by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, I immediately think of his understanding of “unconscious evolution” of Jewish law and belief the past, and that our current “historical consciousness” encourages “planned reconstruction.”

    Of course, Professor Ross and Rabbi Kaplan differ on the existence of a “supernatural metaphysical God,” but that caveat seems to serve more as a formal compromise with traditional judaism than a principle of her theory, as her explanation to “why Torah” is not grounded in the existence of such a deity. Indeed, her discussion of the “cultural-linguistic approach” seems again to hark back to Kaplan’s conception of Judaism as a Civilization.

    My concerns (as a college student with profound interest in this area but limited training in philosophy of religion etc. and with, God-willing, a lifetime ahead of me for talmud Torah) are that a) this approach is simply a compromise between a naturalistic understanding of religion and a traditional Jewish one, thereby following neither understanding to their fullest extents b) this approach is a localized theory, “solving” the Biblical criticism issue as if revelation is not the foundational component of Judaism c) this approach should radically change Jewish life, profoundly affecting the halakhic system, the centrality of the Torah text, and, at the very least, rendering traditional Torah study unsustainable, among other issues.

    With deep admiration and respect for Professor Ross, I think a “meta-epistemological” or “epistemological pluralist” approach to Torah and other disciplines would do better to sustain an Orthodoxy that is both familiar to us but also intellectually honest. God is true and His Torah is true. We propose that a traditional understanding of “Talmud Torah” leads us to believe that “Torah” (in its broadest sense) can be modeled as its own epistemological system, with its own premises, methodologies, acceptable external sources of information etc, and therefore its conclusions do not have to be confirmed by other epistemological systems. This allows for traditional, whole-hearted engagement in Torah (and traditional conceptions of Matan Torah) and also a non-apologetic stance on the discipline of Biblical Criticism (which goes further than Prof. Ross’s theory allows, suggesting that certain parts of the Bible were originally political polemics etc.). Beyond Biblical Criticism, this approach prevents the bending of religion to any secular discipline and vice versa; a person could even maintain their faith in HaShem, based in Torah, while holding that the “existence” of a supernatural deity is empirically and philosophically untenable.

    After all, as Professor Ross quotes Rav Kook in her excellent essay, “The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth Statements: Rabbi A. I. Kook and Postmodernism, “In relation to the highest divine truth, there is no difference between formulated religion and heresy. Both do not yield the truth, because whatever positive assertion one makes is a step removed from the truth of the Divine.” (R. Kook, Orot ha-Emunah, pp. 23-24)

    A friend and I are in the process of researching and formulating such an approach.

  3. Rabbi Brill,
    Could you please postulate briefly what exact problem Prof. Ross is trying to solve? What is this problem of “revelation” -documentary hypothesis? How does this approach solve that? The basic Jewish claim is that the prophets received dictations and wrote them down. Or is she answering something else? (Please have the patience to answer me…)

    • That was question one. i place that first. How do we deal with all this new data that contradicts the traditional understanding on history, chronology, province, and text? Answer: We need a new theory of revelation that can deal with the new data.
      The question assumes there is lots of this “stuff” out there that is historically true and without answers.
      In general, I cannot answer for her, but your question seems straightforward.

  4. Whether or not Ross’s ideas are correct, if they can only be expressed in such an impenetrable manner, they will never gain a significant following in the Jewish community.

    [site editor note- Shlomo- read the new rule. No more mallinator accounts. Please get a verifyable account or I will have to install a sign-in.]

  5. Prof. Ross’s approach treads along the same fault line that either does or does not isolate ethics from metaethics. If we approach a religion’s theory of revelation as its metatheory, then the question is whether the metatheroy is normatively neutral. In adopting a constructivist metatheory Ross is very much lined up with Habermas and others, in which case religious claims cannot be truth functional just like descriptive claims. Although I haven’t done so, I think you plug in a constructivist metatheory of religion into virtually any metaethical theory that attempts to understand the function of moral claims absent any metaphysical apparatus. Then, like Habermas, you can claim that saying “X is the halakhicly sanctioned thing to do” is a species of validity claim, not a claim to truth because the sentence “it is true that X is the halakhicly sanctioned thing to do” has not added anything to the first statement.

    This raises a fair number of questions such as religion has apparently become a funny kind of ethics in which the test of validity is not universality, but in a (practical) religious claim standing in some particular–nearly impossible to specify–inferential relationship to other practical statements. In which case, why not get rid of the funny ethics and stick with ethics. To which the answer is something along the lines of the ineligibility of the form of life into which we were born. Ok, but now you still want to specify how ethical claims could ever stand in a sufficient inferential relation to religious claims such that ethics-the universal has any type of influence on religion, the particular or visa-versa.

    Or, in other words, you may have solved the problem that naturalist descriptions of religion do not have to result in a reflexive anti-realsim, and can remain cognitive, but you have created a practical problem because an agent (who, unlike the ideal presented is not simply someone emerging wholly from a religious tradition, but the product of a modern discourse in which religion and ethics are already seen as being in tension) seeking to act in a case where religion and ethics make competing validity claims has no recourse to a religious metatheory that gives a certain prima facie precedence to religious claims. All she can do is to ask which system is more basic to her identity as a practical agent -and then with an ironic chuckle say “oops, it looks like I’ve reached the point in this language game where I don’t really know how to ‘go on’; hopefully history sorts things out.”

  6. alexanderjtsykin

    Ross claims her approach is based on “tradiional sources.” I think that it is fact not so. For a start, everybody quoted was a very later thinker. This is likely because she couldn’t find anything to source among more classic sources of Jewish thought. Secondly, she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that an aweful lot of the thought of the thinkers she claims to base her own theories on is itself based on the idea of Sinnaitic revelation. I don’t think that you can eliminate this element from the thinking of people like Rav Kook and have the rest stand on its own, because for them the authority of Torah is dependent on its status as direct divine revelaiton and communication. Without that, their broader philosophical systems would collapse. This is especially true because they are kabbalistic thinkers and kabbalists are far more revelation focused than rationalist thinkers. My feeling is that in her theory the given was tradition and biblical criticism. Because Sinnaitic revelation is not a given for her it falls away. However, one could just as easily point out that Sinnaitic revelation is central to tradition (it’s one of the few points in Jewish theology including divine omniscience which before the twentieth century was really never the subject of debate) and therefore her two givens are inherently contradictory.

  7. As someone trying to be a baal teshuva, AS’s above criticism of Ross rings incredibly true, specifically the last paragraph. Someone not raised in full immersion in an observant Jewish atmosphere could never succeed in applying Ross’ theory. It relies on too delicate a foundation for a baal teshuva to change his pre-Orthodox personal convictions regarding ethical behavior. A question: are there any seriously Orthopractic Jews who were not raised in a rich Jewish environment to serve as the foundation of their lifestyle, given the absence of a metaphysical foundation? My guess is there are very, very few.

  8. There is a conflict between the way the world is and the way we need it to be to live an Orthodox life without feeling any conflict. What to do? I would say live in two worlds, the modern world and the pre- enlightenment rabbinic world, but don’t mix them up or try to integrate them. Torah u madah, hold the u. It’s something like having a relationship with a significant other in a different city. We travel back and forth…emails, Skype, airplanes. Or maybe it’s like having a house in Evanston and a pied a’ terre in Jerusalem. No, no says Dr. Ross, it’s too as iffy, you still experience the conflict of living inside and outside a world, the transportation costs are too high so to speak. But no problem, because tzimtzum is a metaphor and ain od milvado sub specie aeternitatis, it’s not really true we are moving from one world to the other. We literally live in both Evanston and Jerusalem at the same time. Both Northwestern and the Hebrew U. are one and the same…And if reality appears a bit recalcitrant, if the natives speak English or Hebrew but not both, do not fret. Knowing the secret that what exists in front of your eyes is not, and what is hidden is apparent, we can adopt a more ironic approach to reinterpreting everything, and if we fail maybe the next generation will help us see that all is one. Elliot Wolfson pushes this line in his reading of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ouvere.
    Prof. Ross is running a series of different philosophical ideas simultaneously, the kabbalah’s perspectivism is married to language game jargon and then given an evolutionary spin in the event we are stuck in a particularly recalcitrant form of life. But behind all this is I think a rather simple idea, something like reflective equilibrium. We have intuitions about particular cases, and we try to patch together an overriding picture that will enable us to have these convictions. Hopefully as these ideas are developed there will be a convincing picture that will clarify our frequently conflicting intuitions. As of now I think Josh Stadlan’s approach of different rules of inference etc for religious and secular worlds is more promising.

  9. I got lost in the pseudo-academic argot Tamar Ross employs. It’s just a way to make straight answers seem obscure. Hiding behind it all, I’m afraid, is a women who has much more to contribute to plain-vanilla Jewish liberalism than to Torah-true Judaism. Much more.

  10. This comment was written by a local attorney very active in the Orthodox community. He sent it to me by email.

    What caught my eye, though, and solidified my understanding of what Dr. Ross was truly saying mitzido/mitzideinu, was relatively late in the interview: Question 16 (emphasis, my own).
    My view of God’s “speech” is rather as illocutionary acts that trigger humans to “hear” a message, and identify this as divine revelation. The Torah surely records accounts of people believing that they had revelatory experiences, but its ultimate authority is grounded on the form of life that developed in the wake of such experiences and the strength of its grip upon us.
    This line of thought seems to be very closely aligned to the key thesis of T.M. Lurhmann’s “When God Talks Back”, describing the relationship experienced by Fundamentalist Christians (David recommended it to me). Lurhmann observes that Fundamentalist Christians seek to train themselves to suppress the inherent “privacy” of one’s own brain function and thoughts in a manner that can permits one share his or her thoughts with the voice of the Divine. (Asking God what I should wear this morning seems vulgar to me, but this is the result of the intimacy that they believe they create.)

    Like Lurhmann, Ross seems to be saying (i) revelation is a human experience, and (ii) she’s remaining neutral/positive as to whether it is a true experience or mere delusion. (Sensing the attack from the hard secular left, Lurhmann devotes a full chapter defending fundamentalists as not mentally ill).

    That, by the way, is what troubles me by what I believe is a muddled thesis – seeking to keep her feet in too many yards at the same time, expending too much effort in claiming that she does not attack the prime value of Torah, while undermining its divinity (even inspirational divinity) too much.
    You had it right on the Shakespeare question: She may deny it strongly, but there is simply no way to argue her thesis and defend Torah as anything other than one of many sources of wisdom that are claimed to be divinely inspired.

  11. I am still not quite clear which metaphysical assumptions Prof Ross finds untenable in normative Judaism – that God can speak to man – that miracles could happen – they are of course untenable to metaphysical materialists – but otherwise untenable? There is a strong argument that historical and sociological analysis show aspects of the particular traditional narrative in OJ to be untenable, but that’s not quite the same as suggesting God’s communication or miracles cannot happen. It would still be interesting to know where Prof Ross stands.

    Current secular discourse not only severely critiques religion on materialist grounds, but just as much on ethical grounds. Prof Ross states:

    “Even passages in the Torah which appear problematic to us today, and the historical context which triggers our discontent and moves us to seek new interpretations, are part of that process.” So your language game can change…but surely it does so based on external factors.

    And in her constructivist Wittgensteinian theory – I choose the language game I like because I was born in to it or acculturated in to it. Fine, if we can alll agree on ethics roughly as motherhood and apple pie.
    However, the secular discourse says religion is. for example, anti-gay, a huge ethics violation. If we change our language game based on external factors, such as the gay right movement, or the word is not flat movement, or slavery for black people is wrong movement, or feminist movement, then why think that the original game was ethical or worth something? Put it another way, why would God structure a world with ongoing revelation like that? Why not just start with the good ethics to begin with? Well you might say that Rambam suggests we need time to acculturate to good ethics…but you would have a hard time convincing anyone I fear…The problem is that Prof Ross’s position leads back to Prof Marc Shapiro characterization of the unreconstructed traditional OJ worldview re history, evolution etc as not fundamentalist but obscurantist.

  12. Amitai Blickstein

    I am invested in the attempt to reconcile the different spheres, and of late I have felt the inadequacy of Ricoeur’s contention that we moderns have irremediably lost the immediacy of belief, and that only “by interpreting that we can hear again,” but at the same time, living “as if” without even a second naiveté is (a) false, and (b) doesn’t work as advertised anyway. I read this post with great interest.

    I was not optimistic about Ross’s conception of ‘blurring’ [as presented in summary], until I read to point 11, which I largely agree with, except for the conception of the ‘game’ in question as a sub-world within a larger one (unless that world is a pre-linguistic one entirely, but then, that world is barely social, if you’re only grunting at one another) {I hear resonances with Moshe Koppel’s lively essay “Judaism as a First Language” in Azure 2011}. You see, I share AS’s concerns, and especially evanstonjew’s expression of the matter – I appreciate Prof. Ross’s articulation of the problem, and her distinguishing herself from other options (I found the interview questions put to her were very well chosen, evoking informative responses), but at the critical moment, it felt like modern Kabbalah was a form of HandWavium (see or wikipedia). למעשה, are we in NYC or Jerusalem? Speaking Hebrew or English? And how can you just say “Oh, trust me, it sounds like Gibberish, but it really is Aramaic?” That doesn’t help in any way, it’s a functionally neutral statement. There seems to be this magical bridge between the two worlds, painted over (or papered over) with quotes from RAIK and The Rebbe. How does Ross’s mitzido avoid “inadequate and wholly supernatural metaphysics”?

    I personally gravitate towards pragmatism for that very reason, the clearing up of metaphysical statements in terms of how it plays out in the world. {This would also mean that a religion’s theory of revelation is not necessarily its metatheory, which would be too clean and top-down an account; the theophany at Sinai certainly is not necessarily so, [Perry Dane has an insightful essay on the topic]; I prefer Robert Cover’s pair nomos and narrative} However, pragmatism cannot be chauvinistic, claiming that its interpretations are what these metaphysical statements “really” mean. Alongside language games, we need translation games. The transcendent cannot be dismissed, if we are to avoid the problems of relativism and subjectivism that pragmatism falls prey to (e.g., since the pragmatic test of a statement is “what works,” well, who judges what has indeed worked? And by what criteria?). So we need a transcendent pragmatism. Ethics are that transcendence, but ethics are also a different language for the same pragmatic consequences of, say, certain kinds of psaq halakha. {I suppose I am implicitly adopting the standard communitarian position against classical liberalism. To put it differently, I am maintaining that one cannot “get rid of the funny ethics and stick with ethics,” because there is no such thing as ‘ethics’ (except as a heuristic device), there is *only* ‘funny ethics’ to work with}

    This means that there are, not really, different “logics” that are epistemologically distinct. As it stands, I utterly reject those offerings in the comments. To my mind, that leads to the worst kind of insularity and ethical immunity, relativism, and circular logic. To belong to the global community of what we call “ethical” (or what Jewish tradition refers to in the verse [to name one source] כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים, or עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה! OK, two sources), implicitly requires what Hanan Alexander calls “the requirements of ethical discourse,” which include (1) intelligence, (2) freedom, and (3) fallibility. Any tradition which recognizes the importance of these qualities, and understands its members to be agents possessing them in turn, is “ethical” in that in can participate in moral critique (giving and receiving) from other traditions (language games) that are also intelligent, free, and fallible.

    So there is no magical bridge, no need for Kabbalah {though, if you’re modern, I agree that there is a need for *something*}, and it is a bit close to Kaplan or Kadushin, as well as Spinoza, but existentially shares more with (as far as I know) with Soloveitchik. There is a logic, but it is *human* (which is the only face of God we really are arguing and care about anyway). And as anyone who has held a newborn can tell you, you can surely see the Divine within humanity.

    {However, as I reread the post, it seems that on every pragmatic point, I am sympathetic to Ross’s position as presented. My only objection, in retrospect, is minor: I do not think that modern Kabbalah will help; that does not mean that it is inappropriate as a perfectly good ‘translation’ of native religious “simple belief,” practices, etc.

    I do not think it will help (as much as one might like) because if the problem of contemporary modernity is the widespread loss of native ‘cultural-linguistic’ competence in halakha (that is, its substance, rather than its formalism), then replacing that requirement with one for a kabbalistic competence does not confront the issues of compartmentalization, nor provide direction towards a non-subjective methodology that might be the basis of a conversation between committed adherents who would like to constitute a unified community of more and/or less diverse elements.

    So either the question of new data including Biblical Criticism does not really bother you, it’s a קשיא but not a תיובתא, a small detail to be filled in, but not a deal-breaker – filling in the brackets in Mordechai Breuer’s template with Kabbalistic terminology… OR the question really bothers you, and/because there are implications for differences in practice and discourse; and if Ross is addressing the question from this latter mindset, then, well Aren’t non-discursive practices inextricably linked to discourse (a point made by AS, I believe)? How can one set, say, the Tanya’s kabbalah as the *keystone* of one’s theory without in the same movement setting ShA HaRav as the keystone of one’s practice? As Prof. Brill said, “If one accepts the kabbalah as a solution, then one is Haredi, and if one treats it as naturalistic metaphor, then one is quite liberal.”

  13. Dr Ross forwards the position that revelation is neither the act of God speaking, nor the act of Man hearing, but rather, the act of Man speaking – retelling his experience of hearing a God who did not actually speak. This approach allows us to blame man for the shortcomings of revelation, from the lack of historical evidence for theophany at Sinai to lack of certainty over the content of revelation. God simply is. How we emerge from our encounter with God is our own problem.

    Still, I’m left with a problem over authority. Dr Ross finds God in everything, and all that we experience as humans is itself a kind of revelation – the evidence of Creation, at the very least. Yet Dr Ross limits her formal definition of revelation to the process of interpretation of that revelation by the rabbis. Seems like she’s actually sketching out two ideas about revelation: first, as a matter of physics and metaphysics, all is God in an unbroken and indivisble unity that Man is incapable of grasping except in fragments (which must themselves be incapable of representing the indivisible whole). Second, there is also revelation as a matter of source and authority for moral behavior, which is the result of rabbinical interpretation of the former.

    As a practical matter then, Dr Ross is faced with a different dilemma than the “as if” approach leaves us with, but it’s a difficult one nonetheless. Dr Ross leaves us with the problem that individuals may well experience insightful revelation that resonates more closely with the infinited Divine, but those individuals may not have the institutional authority to define rules and norms. In esssence, Ross is falling back on the prophet vs priest dichotomy, and acknowledging that God may sometimes leak into the world through prophets, but it is the interpretive tradition of the rabbis that we priviledge. The irony then is that Ross, in doing so, may find herself best described as a prophet, not a priest – an unauthorized interpreter, a Cassandra whose accuracy doesn’t impact her validity.

  14. I believe Prof Ross is flying home today, so allow her a few days to post a reply to all the thoughtful comments.

  15. Sorry to be coming late to the game, but I wanted to digest it a bit, and reread it a few more times. Mrs. B. took a class with Prof. Ross at Drisha many years ago, and found her quite confusing then.

    She has long believed in continuing revelation. Chasidim clearly have a progressive revelation – Rashbi, then RMdL who reshaped the Zohar into contemporary idiom, then the Ari, then the Besht, then each group’s rebbes.

    Her assumptions about revelation seem to be: a) it is continous, b) it is non-verbal and comes through rabbinic interpretation of texts, c) it cannot contradict (it must be filtered through) the “original Sinaitic revelation”. The last says that she believes there *was* an original Sinaitic revelation. “A Torah that is both wholly human and wholly divine”

    After all that, it seems she has danced around the question of biblical criticism (which is about the text received at Sinai), and formulated a theory of Torah sheb’al peh.

    Question 5 starts to get at acosmism – there is no separate universe, even if we perceive one, which would imply that our rabbinic interpretations are revelation in that they are still part of Godliness in the timeless infinity. We are not separate intellects, so what we perceive *is* part of revelation.

    The “language game” material and religion as a language with imbedded assumptions seems to echo R’ Brill’s answer to my question some years ago, as to why the Chasidim who believe that humans are part of God don’t succumb to antinomianism? because they are Yidden, who live a Jewish life, and wouldn’t think of it.

    While she talks about the text emerging out of the illocutionary encounter with man, that would seem to simply express the principle that God dictate the Torah to Moshe in some unknown fashion. Meanwhile, she seems to speak about studying “the text”, which implies a unitary divine-originated text. So I don’t see her succumbing to higher criticism.

    Rather, combining that with the acosmism, I see her saying something like:

    if God is timeless and infinite, and we are part of God, but can’t perceive that because of the tzimtzum, then the revelation of the Torah is similarly timeless, not fixed at a moment at Sinai. How so, to incorporate both TSBK and TSBP? Our chidushim and interpretations, since we are part of God, originate in God every bit as much as the singular Sinaitic text. So we too are part of the continuing revelation as we perceive ourselves in time, even though it’s all part of the singular revelation at Sinai and everywhere and everywhen.

    So biblical criticism falls by the wayside, it doesn’t matter if there were four texts, or three, or one – it’s all part of the same revelation. We just see it as partial, and revealing itself continously over time, because of the tzimtzum, our limited perception.

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