Here is a second installment of discussing Tamar Ross’s view of revelation- see here and here. In some ways this one is the clearest and the last one was diffuse. The last interview introduced her ideas by first starting with the modern problem of revelation, then a swim through an assortment of philosophy- modernism and post-modernism, fideism and indeterminacy, liberal and orthodoxy– then we receive an answer, and finally we conclude with how Rav Kook made all this possible.
This interview proceeds in the opposite direction and better lets us evaluate her thought paragraph by paragraph. She starts with her experience of many years of teaching Kabbalah and Rav Kook, then the kabbalistic view of revelation, and only then the application to today. Now, if you buy into her mystical approach and her reading of Rav Kook, you can see clearly if her extension flow or not.
Prof. Ross is Professor Emeritus of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem. One of her major fields was the writings of Rav Kook. Her specific focus was teasing out the great modernist vision of Orot Hakodesh.
She synthesized the evolutionary modernist statements of Rav Kook that exhorted his readers to understand that just as we have in the past evolved beyond ancient concepts to medieval Maimonidean rationalism, we now have to evolve to modern concepts. Just as people used to think the sun went around the earth but since Copernican revolution we see the earth going around the sun, so too we have to accept the modern revolutions in politics, society, and philosophy. Just as we used to follow Aristotle, now we follow Kant and Hegel.
For Rav Kook, the Torah is above the thought of any given era and can accommodate itself in any theory of a given age. In fact, Rav Kook states that from the divine perspective both truth and heresy are equally limiting categories. In her reading, Rav Kook following Maimonides, teaches that there is an inner core to the Torah that is clothed in the language of the era. Humans are evolving in the concepts they use to understand the world. For Ross, Rav Kook is daring, dazzling, lofty, and rising to the modern challenges.
This approach to Rav Kook is unlike the national essentialist reading of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook or the dialectic ethicist of the Second Aliyah captured by Yehudah Mirsky. For more on Tamar Ross’ approach, see her articles on truth, here and here or on toleration.
Mysticism in the United States is usually defined using William James as an experience, for Ross mysticism mean kabbalah, here specifically the monism and panentheism worldviews of the 19th century Jewish thinkers, Chabad, Mitnagdut, and Rav Kook. And she follows, Scholem’s understanding of the progressive revelation in the Shelah, as found in “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism.” (cf. Heschel or Idel)
These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism, convened by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan.
1) What is mysticism?
This term is used, of course, in many contexts, to denote a variety of traditions and practices. The sense in which I use it here refers to a view which assumes the existence of an absolute, all-encompassing, monolithic and infinite unity (i.e., the Ein-sof) that transcends all particularist definitions and perceptions
2) What is Revelation for the Mystic?
The mystic tradition does not support an understanding of revelation as the eruption of a transcendent force into a reality that is other than itself. It is rather the culmination of a new constellation of forces from within that reality. According to the mystic tradition, God is not a person or an object that exercises agency upon the world from without. Our personalist conception is not to be belittled; it is a necessary pointer to that which in essence leaves no room for distinction between subject and object, or between the perceiver and the object of his perception. In accordance with this understanding, revelation is a vision of the totality that is grasped by a particular aspect of it in a new light.
So long as we experience ourselves as separate, independent beings, some measure of personalist God-talk must be maintained. We therefore speak, according to the mystic, “as if” God imposed His will upon us from without. But because the divine will is infinite, the meaning of revelation is also infinite, varying from generation to generation, building upon and modifying previous understandings in accordance with the never-ending give and take between its various elements.
3) What is your Dynamic View of Revelation?
A dynamic view of revelation is not my invention. It is a well-established strand in Jewish tradition. The stipulation of the Sages that “the Torah is not in Heaven” already recognizes the importance of human interaction with the text in establishing its ultimate meaning, and appears to foster a spirit of pluralism as well. This is evident in the rabbinic declaration that “there are seventy faces to Torah” and in the story of the heavenly voice that mediated the conflicting legal opinions of the Schools of Hillel and Shammai by proclaiming that both “these and these are the words of the living God.”
In acknowledging the human factor that led to plurality when interpreting the received tradition, the Rabbis understood God as attaching religious value to human participation in the process of deliberation and the overcoming of ambiguities. This breadth of understanding on their part is evident again in their interest in preserving minority opinions as an essential part of the canon, even when the law was determined otherwise.
Further support for a more dynamic understanding of revelation that blurs the boundaries between the divine word and the human interpreter can be found in various aggadot, in kabbalistic literature, in the writings of biblical commentators, halakhists, and especially in the drashot of many of the Hassidic masters, who do not pose God and His word as utterly distinct and separate from the flow of history and human subjectivity. Viewed collectively, these more fluid conceptions of Torah presents the Sinai revelation of God’s word as the initiator of a series of revelations in the form of inspired interpretations throughout the ages. The ideal meaning of the Sinaitic revelation is eked out only with these accumulated interpretations. The various strata are then absorbed as an integral part of the primary text, expanding upon and sometimes even transforming its original meaning, while forever remaining rooted in its precise language and frames of reference.
Aside from avoiding gross anthropomorphisms, if we are to understand God’s word as conveying a message for all generations, its transmission cannot be limited to a one-time event, but must be understood as a process.
This process began with the formal canonization of the Torah and its acceptance by the Jewish people as the primary filter through which the authorized beliefs and practices of Judaism are determined. It continues, however, with the cumulative interpretations that accrue to this text, inevitably informing and altering its meaning in light of the ever-changing historical contexts in which it is read. Viewed religiously, these contexts – no less than the original text – may likewise be regarded as an ongoing revelation of the divine word, constantly refining its meaning in light of new surrounding circumstances. As a result, the Torah can be understood as all human (in terms of its literary and historical genesis) and all divine (in terms of its origin, value and significance) at one and the same time.
4) How does Rav Kook offer a more fluid view of revelation?
Many elements in R. Kook’s theology revive fluid understandings of revelation that were developed in pre-modern times. His immersion in the mystic tradition and its panentheistic image of God discourages positing God and His word as distinct from the flow of history and natural morality. It also leads him to a view of truth which is remarkably sympathetic to the postmodern critique of sterile, fixed, and universal truths that purport to reflect a neutral and objective view “from nowhere”, and to celebrate conflict as a trigger to spiritual advancement.
While R. Kook did not set out these elements of his thought in the form of a systematic theology of revelation, a response that resonates various strands of his thought has greater chance of success in a religious community that finds it difficult to view subservience to halakha as the be-all and end-all of its spiritual existence, and is more invested in developing an inclusive majority culture than in preserving denominational borders.
Indeed, a hallmark of R. Kook’s positive attitude to secularism is the understanding that revolutionary and ostensibly destructive developments in the world of ideas are the most significant tools of all, for these are a clear indication that humanity has outgrown more primitive forms of spirituality and is ready for a new, more sublime level.
Taken in this spirit, we might conclude that even the challenges of biblical criticism in our day can be regarded as a rare privilege and a new revelation of the divine will. Divine providence itself has orchestrated the rise of serious problems with Torah as history so as to lead us, and all of humankind with us, to a new and more subtle understanding of the relationship between divine intent and human interpretation. We do not doubt God when we walk through this threshold. We are listening to God as we go forward, for this too was from God.
The revolutionary shift from the conventional understanding of truth as corresponding to some objective reality “out there” also has significant parallels in R. Kook’s writings, which reveal a remarkably tentative attitude to religious truth-claims. R. Kook’s skepticism is founded on the presumption of an inbuilt contradiction between finite human perceptions and God’s monolithic all-encompassing infinity that transcends all definitions and distinctions.
Although he employs the metaphysical vocabulary of tradition, the authority of revelation does not derive on his formulation from the “fact” that God gave us the Torah, but rather on strength of “kabbalat ha-umma” – i.e., the willingness of the Jewish people to accept it as such. Even the notion of divine providence appears to be a “necessary truth”, useful for developing our urge for the absolute, rather than a “true truth” that exists independent of human needs.
5) What, then, might be a viable view of revelation for today?
At the first stage, when viewing revelation from within tradition, we must try to achieve an understanding that is as coherent as possible on its own terms. This is accomplished by breaking down the distinction between divine speech and natural historic process and recognizing that God does not speak through vocal chords but through the orchestration of history and the evolution of human understanding that develops in its wake.
Viewing our internal religious talk from a more universal perspective, however, leads to a second, more radical, stage in the development of a contemporary theology of revelation. Appropriating some of the insights of postmodern theory regarding language and its uses, we now understand that equating professions of belief in divine revelation with factual descriptions entails a misconception of the role of such statements in the religious context. It is this misconception that has led to the bankruptcy of a modernist Torah u-madda approach which regards religion as a rival source of knowledge vying with science on the same ball-park.
Instead, we now understand that the primary concern of such statements is not to discuss facts or establish history, but rather to function on an entirely different plane – establishing a system of symbols and “picture” of reality that legitimate our most basic patterns of thought, feeling and behavior, and signaling to our co-religionists that we share the same ultimate loyalties.
6) What is the meaning and significance of revelation, according to this view?
The conclusion we must now reach is that the meaning and significance of the belief in revelation, divine accommodation, and all religious doctrine making metaphysical claims, is best understood in light of its function in the life of the believer. The “truth” of such beliefs is vindicated not by appeal to external evidence or re-interpretation, but on the basis of their ability to inculcate spiritually meaningful attitudes and values, reinforcing the particular form of life upon which such attitudes and values are predicated.
The obvious appeal of this understanding is that it evades the convoluted appeals that modern liberals continue to make to supernatural events despite the fact that these do not withstand historical scrutiny. It also avoids the dubious ontological status of claims of communication with a transcendent force that is by definition beyond grasp and beyond human experience. The difficulty of this understanding for the self-aware believer who adopts it consciously, is the problem of negotiating between his internal religious vocabulary and his more sophisticated awareness of its limitations. Can I remove my philosophical cap when praying and put it on again when theologizing? And can such flip-flopping guarantee the rigorous halakhic commitment that characterizes Orthodoxy and the traditional way of life? As God-seekers, we yearn for a sense that life points toward a greater goal, that we are seeking answers that are not merely our, and are larger than our own minds.
7) So how does such an understanding of revelation differ from a secular naturalistic view?
On surface, a functionalist approach to revelation may lend itself to reductionist allegations. A skeptic might easily contend that all that such talk amounts to is the imposition of a vacuous gloss of religious instrumentalism over what is ultimately no more than a secular naturalistic view. In experiential terms, however, there is a world of difference, beyond semantics, for the believer who adopts a religious vocabulary that grounds the meaning of revelation and its various interpretations on the assumption of an infinite metaphysical source.
For one thing, in the mind of such a believer, the realm of the possible is never exhausted. Within every naturalistic explanation lurks the potential for a further extension. In the words of Harav Kook ,) בקדושה אין גוזמא במציאותin holiness [i.e., God’s reality], there is no exaggeration). Today’s miracle is tomorrow’s reality, for in essence, כל המדומה ואפשר בציור – הוא באמת מצוי (all that is imaginable actually does exist). The existing natural order can never have the last word. Its ostensible rigidity and determinism can always lead to something else. On such a view, wonder can be preserved.
Secondly, the secular postmodernist who rejects metaphysics and the notion of universal truth altogether regards all choices as random selections from an arbitrary collection of isolated and unconnected viewpoints, whose relative worth can be understood or assessed only from within their own partial terms. In the words of Hazal, by contrast, conflicting opinions are all valid because “all of them are given from one shepherd”.
Thirdly, on this view, a functionalist criterion need not be regarded as irrelevant to truth. For Rav Kook, the fact that revelation produces a form of life that “works” in the sense of promoting human flourishing is precisely the proof of its validity, because it enables us to replicate the existence of a perfect and Infinite Being in finite terms that make existential sense for us.
8) To ask a question in the language of Marc Shapiro: Are there limits to Orthodox theology? How do we explain to people that your approach is “within” Orthodoxy?
Orthodox theology is a theology that supports the Orthodox way of life, relates to its traditions, and expresses itself in Orthodoxy’s distinctively halakhic terms. What is “in” or “out” is not something that can be decisively defined in accordance with some pre-determined knock-down drag out formula. The test is pragmatic – the degree of its effectiveness in providing a conceptual framework that facilitates identification with the community of the halakhically committed, its key concepts, attitudes and hierarchy of values. The forms that such a theology takes will vary in accordance with the cultural/historical circumstances, often allowing for the tenuous co-existence of several models side-by-side which bear differing degrees of mutual tolerance or acceptance. But the blurring of distinctions between the divine and the human in revelation surely does not lack respectable traditional precedents.
9) If authors such as diverse as Reb Zalman and Michael Fishbane are seeking to return us to God language because we have lost God language, then why are you moving us to naturalism? Is it because their audience is the US and yours is a religious Israel?
I am not promoting a move away from God language. However, just as the medieval rationalist philosophers, as epitomized by the Rambam, generated a radical about-face from the biblical concept of God that nurtures Jewish theology to the present day, Modern Orthodoxy, in the turn from modernist to postmodern notions of truth, may now be on the brink of a similarly radical revolution in Jewish thought, which involves imaging God as a force encompassing nature, rather than its antithesis.
Such a revolution does not obviate the importance of popular religion, and the traditional God-talk characterizing simple straightforward yirat shamayim. The vision of God as outside ourselves may be crucial to the experience of prayer as a dialogic activity. The notion of divine providence may be as necessary to the development of human morality and social responsibility as policing is to the preservation of law and order. And the image of a God who stands over and above creation may be invaluable for developing the sense of a metaphysical entity that is more than the projection of our subjective desires.
On the other hand, there may be justice in the claim that there is greater call for a more comprehensive and nuanced attunement to the sacred in Israel than in religious circles in the States. In the U.S., Modern Orthodox identity is closely bound up with organizational affiliations and adherence to a distinctly urban and middle-class life-style. Theology is not a great concern. Because Jewish life in Israel is all-encompassing, it is more difficult to cordon God off in the synagogue, and distance our understanding of Torah and our ritual practices from natural morality and broader intellectual, political, and spiritual interests.
Moreover, because much of Modern Orthodoxy here functions independently of the rabbinate, and includes a higher proportion of educated laity confident in their ability to make ideological judgments on their own, they have little compunction in drawing inspiration from less bourgeois thinkers that are not strictly identified with them denominationally. This includes figures both on their left (such as Heschel, Zalman Schechter and Rosenzweig) and on their right (such as R. Nachman of Bratzlav, and other bona fide representatives of Hassidic spiritualism).