Prof. Tamar Ross responds to the comments.

I would like to thank readers for their thoughtful comments.

  1. The initial problem I seek to resolve is how to defend the traditional Jewish belief in TMS (Torah min haShamayim), when faced with evidence that appears to contradict it.  Beyond the usual difficulties (challenges to the notion of divine authorship on grounds of erroneous content, questionable morality, and a complicated literary genesis which testifies to evolutionary historical development), I am especially troubled by the very notion of divine revelation as verbal communication – given that language is a distinctly human activity, inevitably rooted in a particular perspective and cultural bias. My solution is to regard belief in revelation as an “as if” statement, a useful fiction (or, in Maimondian terminology, a “necessary truth”) whose purpose is to represent and engender certain attitudes rather than to describe an objective occurrence.  I see this understanding as closely related to views of religion as commitment to a range of doctrines and norms which serve as a cultural-linguistic filter constructing the way we view the world, rather than as an objective account of reality – metaphysical or otherwise.
  2. I think that most believers in the past adopted such an attitude unreflectively, understanding belief in TMS simply as loyalty to the Torah and to the way of life that it propagates, without delving into overmuch detail regarding its doctrinal content.  However, when such an attitude is adopted consciously as a blanket response to new loss of innocence, conducting day to day life according to its guidelines could be more problematic.  This has driven me to develop a theory of revelation (as unfolding through time and the development of human understanding) and a picture of God (as both immanent and transcendent) that might counteract such difficulties, by conflating the dichotomy between divine reality and human input.
  3. In such a view, questions such as that of Joebug (“why would God structure aII world with ongoing revelation based on an imperfect morality?  Why not just start with good ethics to begin with?”) are inappropriate.  The whole picture of God is of process, rather than personalist, so that questions of intent and motive are out of place, except when speaking on a certain level of mitzidenu.
  4. As I see it, the main critique of my position, expressed by a variety of posters, is that I am trying to dance at too many weddings at once.  In the eyes of such critics, I would do far better adopting an approach of bifurcation, as represented by the later Wittgenstein’s language game theory, recognizing that religious discourse has its own rules, and is therefore immune to questions raised by scientific inquiry.
  5. The truth of the matter is that I start out with this position. The sub-title of the paper I am writing on the topic (“Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Modern Biblical Criticism”) is: “Some Notes on the Importance of Asking the Right Question”.  This is because I begin with the same position as Brian Klug, who – in the wake of the later Wittgenstein – seeks to emphasize that the meaning of belief in a scientific and religious context is not the same.  In the first instance, it is a statement based on empiric evidence.  In the second, it is a profession of allegiance and commitment.  
    But, as opposed to Evanston Jew’s analogy, I do not see the two realms as separate, self-contained locations speaking different languages, with only high traveling costs as the problem.  A more appropriate analogy is a Jewish ghetto, situated alongside other distinctive communities, within a larger municipal framework.  Ghetto members speak their own language amongst themselves, but are often called upon to adopt a more universal tongue when engaging with their neighbors. The language of the neighbors also seeps into ghetto territory and infiltrates their native tongue.  Because of such  overlaps, which intensify considerably in an age of increased mobility and globalization, Evanston Jew’s (and Josh Stadlan’s?) suggestion that we “try to patch together an overriding picture that will clarify our frequently conflicting intuitions” into some form of “reflective equilibrium” simply by adopting different rules of inference for religious and secular worlds can only go so far. (And as an aside to Josh Stadlan: I have no more problem than you do with “suggesting that certain parts of the Bible were originally political polemics, etc.”, and only  retroactively appropriated as d’var Hashem, but I would certainly be interested in hearing more of your take on the matter).
  6. Another recurring criticism of my views is their impenetrability.  I sympathize with objections to use of jargon, and must admit that I found similar difficulty in deciphering the meaning of some of my critics, so I apologize if I have fallen into the same trap.  I also realize the limits of an over-sophisticated theology.  But although philosophical speculation is not the religious bread and butter of most believers, I do believe that its general thrust is being developed intuitively on the ground, where the true destiny of any theology is really determined.  This can be discerned, for example, in an increased interest in mysticism, in the interconnected nature of all that exists, and in a variety of spirituality that is unmediated by reason and more formal institutional structures.
  7. In response to Chavrusamatch – my decision whether to interpret revelation, as well as other miraculous events of the exodus literally or metaphorically is one that is determined exclusively by scientific evidence and not by doctrine.  This policy is close to that of the medieval rationalists, who – in the words of Maimonides – “try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things as of the natural order” – succumbing “only when something is explicitly identified as a miracle, and reinterpretation of it cannot be accommodated” (Ma-amar tehiyat hametim).  But I am even more sympathetic with the approach of R. Kook who contends that as the world progresses, what was previously defined as miracle now becomes nature, with new miraculous horizons taking their place, and his rather casual response to the question of limits.  When asked just how far non literal interpretations can be extended, he suggests leaving the answer to this question to the “clear sense of the nation” which “finds its paths not in isolated bits of evidence, but in general impressions”.
  8. As for objections to the claim that my theological approach relies only on later thinkers, I disagree.  True, the allegorical interpretation to the doctrine of Tzimtzum is a recent development from the 17th century onwards, but suggestions regarding the fluid nature of Torah, the subjectivity of human perceptions of God and His word (including that of Moshe Rabbenu), the attunement of Torah to history, and even cognizance of the constructive nature of religious belief, can be traced from Hazal onwards (for more detailed discussion, see chapter 10 of my book: Expanding the Palace of Torah). But I also do not believe that we are utterly bound by precedent in developing new ideas. As I have already stated, reference to Tzimtzum shelo k’peshuto does not mandate acceptance of kabbalistic metaphysics lock, stock and barrel.  Issues of realism versus non-realism are a perennial philosophical theme, and have assumed many forms.  Nevertheless, the Misnagdic and Hassidic concept of layered levels of consciousness that indicate layered levels of reality is instructive.
  9. Questions were raised regarding the repercussions of a cumulative view of revelation on traditional Talmud Torah.  I contend that accepting the revelation at Sinai as a foundational myth rather than a historical fact does nothing to diminish its formal role as the foundation for any subsequent interpretive activity.  I admit that a cumulative view is more hospitable to innovation, rejecting positivist efforts to establish THE definitive view of Torah on any particular issue.  But such open-endedness is still committed to the centrality of the Torah text and to working with the traditional categories and methods of the past, even as these are altered by new contexts.
  10. Another serious question raised by a view of revelation as humanly determined (i.e., as dependent upon human recognition rather than a divine bang on the head) is that of criteria – i.e., how do I adjudicate between competing truth claims?  Ostensibly, a simple believer can rely on the unequivocal truth of his religious tradition as the direct word of God, whereas I can only appeal to the grip that its picture has upon me and my identity.  But I must point out that even the simple believer’s identification of TMS as an inescapable truth is a subjective one that could have been otherwise.  The only solution to relativism or subjectivism, as has been suggested, is pragmatic – but a pragmatism that is informed by a willingness to learn from other points of view and to incorporate these, when necessary, into one’s own perspective.
  11. In response to SK, I daresay the willingness of most baalei Teshuva to change their pre-Orthodox personal convictions regarding ethical behavior has more to do with an attraction to the Orthodox lifestyle and what it offers than with any purportedly objective argument, and it is this that leads them to view Torah as truth.

12 responses to “Prof. Tamar Ross responds to the comments.

  1. I contend that accepting the revelation at Sinai as a foundational myth rather than a historical fact does nothing to diminish its formal role as the foundation for any subsequent interpretive activity.

    I don’t think Torah study is in as much trouble as halachic observance is, under this view.

    (By the way, yours’ is a view that I largely share — at least the non-historical TMS bits of it.)

    It seems fundamental to my experience of Orthodox halacha that it has to be done — no wiggle room allowed — and it’s not clear to me exactly how this gets sort of have-to-do-ness gets grounded on your view.

    (I don’t know where it gets grounded for traditional Jews, and TMS doesn’t seem to me to help very much.)

    In my own unstudied and unlearned life, I’ve thought that the normativity of halacha could be located in communal norms, but I’d love to know what people think of this.

    • It gets grounded for traditional Jews in believing that this is what G-d wants (and what he wants is somewhat mutable, as He tells us to follow the rabbis) and that this i what reward and punishment are predicated on (assuming that you have constructive knowledge of the requirements of halakha). Did I miss something in your paranthetical?

      • Right.

        There are some pretty well-known philosophical discussions about how the will of God turns into an obligation, but even leaving those aside, I wonder how historically tenable it is to say that God wills the will of the rabbis. (Which rabbis? Just any rabbis? Not any rabbis. You have the follow the rules of tradition. OK, but where are those rules put forth? What exactly do you have to believe to support this view?)

        That’s why I’m not sure how this all works out for traditional Jews. But maybe I’ll all out of whack here, as I’m definitely an amateur in these discussions.

      • Michael, they don’t let me reply to you (too many digressions, I suppose), so I hope you get this. I did not mean to suggest it isn’t complex or that the thinking traditional Jew doesn’t need to answer your questions for him or herself (I’ll give a bit on my take in a moment), but just that have-to-do for traditional Jews obviously has to do with G-d’s will and reward and punishment. And I wasn’t sure why Meir was questioning that.

        As to my take. The khumash just says the leaders of the generation. khaza”l seem to have understood that takana and even p’sak power to have been limited to rabbis with s’mikha from moshe/y’hoshua. (I am calling them rabbis because that’s the modern word–obviously that wasn’t always in use.) So there’s a huge gap between s’mikha and what we’ve got since it ended. Rabbis nowadays are just working off of what was done before. There is no power to legislate, although there appears to be a communal power to make new prohibitions binding (perhaps see back to what Meir was saying). Frustratingly so, in the case of things like kitniyot; less frustratingly for some, in the case of electricity on shabat or monogamy. But these newer minhagim are necessarily of a lower order than legislation from the rabbis that had that authority. And sometimes it goes the other way and the community can permit things (business with Trinitarian Christians on their holidays, American turkey).

        As for p’sak, once you have identified a makhloket in the biblical and rabbinic law, well you basically use a mix of your own reason, the reason of those you respect and deem wiser than you in the area of tora, and how the community you are a part of acts (see Meir again).

        But there’s no need to get into the nitty-gritty of these things to see a possible answer to your questions. We believe in a G-d who is merciful and loving when you try to do what’s Right. This isn’t the Christian god who condemns all nonbelievers to Hell even if they live in the rainforest and have never heard of his only begotten son.

        That is, you do your best to figure out what G-d wants and only he can judge you. If you are sincerely wrong, you will still be judged by that standard. This isn’t as wishy-washy as it seems. If you grow up exposed to tora, you have a pretty good idea of what He wants. If you reject it on the basis of your firm beliefs, it’s going to be up to Him to judge whether you should have known better, whether you knew you were following you yetser hara rather than yetser tov, etc. I could use less religious terms, but hopefully I’m getting my thoughts across.

        Anyway, I’m sure other people have other ideas, but what you can’t break away from is my second sentence above.

  2. Well done, mature, and seriously religious. alan

  3. Prof. Ross:
    In response to your comment #11 re: baalei teshuva.
    I have also observed that baalei teshuva are attracted primarily to the lifestyle itself rather than to the quality of argument in support of the lifestyle. But once they’ve arrived, they discover that the Orthodox lifestyle has annoyances and difficulties, like any other; they need some foundation that helps them to sustain the lifestyle despite those warts.
    People born into the practice can depend on childhood memories of the tradition to help provide meaning. Those who adopt it later in life, can’t.
    Perhaps for this reason baalei teshuva may feel more driven, in comparison with their FFB colleagues, to adopt “objective” arguments. If so, they may be more likely to find fault in the fluidity of the constructs you describe.

  4. Prof. Ross:

    Your views are for your fellow academics, NOT for the “Jew-in-the-street”. You say that philosophical speculation is not the bread and butter of the average believer and, at the same time, say that it is being developed “intuitively”. You cite as proof the increased interest in mysticism and spirituality “unmediated by reason…”. I, for one, can’t make sense of that and I suggest that if you can, then your ideas are not for the common man/woman. Judaism is not a religion for academics. It’s meant to be lived by ALL jews. How can you claim to be making a contribution if your language is indecipherable?

  5. Yossi: The Talmud is for rabbis, NOT for the “Jew-in-the-street.” That’s essentially the parallel to what you’re saying.

    Yes, Dr Ross writes in an academic idiom, but she presumes she’s writing for equals, who have a similar background, and if they don’t understand a concept, they can go *look it up*. E.g. “Wittgensteinan language games”. Or “immanence vs transcendence.”

    So too the Talmud requires a lot of background to understand. Rashi supplies a lot of that background, but not all of it. Have you ever tried to read the maamorim of the Lubavitcher rebbes? They presume a substantial background in kabbalah and chasidus, but were delivered in public lectures, which some understood and some did not. The goal should be to learn enough to understand.

  6. Please can we stop trying to psycho-analyse the social behaviors of those Jews that decide to become more observant? It is presumptuous and inaccurate. Bottom line is everyone does it for a different reason.

    Prof Ross: As a philosopher, you should at least be this discussing the challenges of the BT on an existential or phenomenological level, and not on the level of dinner-table conversation.
    For the record, I am a BT and a post-graduate in philosophy – sorry.
    I would be interested to know if Professor Tamar Ross believes the medieval Jewish philosophers, would deem her theory of Sinai as a foundational myth, as heresy?

  7. DRL- She would not. she has written several articles on Rav Kook where she deals with it. Just as Maimonides taught a more sophisticated view of God for his age that could not have been understood in prior ages, so too Rav Kook charges us -based on Maimonides-to move beyond the medieval worldview.

    • Thank you. According to this theory, how could we differentiate our spiritual legacy fundamentally from other spiritual legacies which have also been highly successful e.g. Islam and Christianity? If we assume the leaders of these religions achieved divine inspiration, what makes Judaism more compelling?

      • DRL- She has many articles on your questions. Start with these in English and then there are an equal number in Hebrew. The first and the fourth address your line of questioning directly.

        Ross, Tamar The cognitive value of religious truth statements : Rabbi A.I. Kook and postmodernism. Hazon Nahum (1997)
        Ross, Tamar The elite and the masses in the prism of metaphysics and history : Harav Kook on the nature of religious belief. Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 8,2 (1999) 355-367
        Ross, Tamar Immortality, natural law, and the role of human perception in the writings of Rav Kook. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality (1995) 237-253
        Ross, Tamar Science and secularization in the service of faith : Rabbi A.I. Kook’s theory of truth. Streams into the Sea (2001) 178-190

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