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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Need for Revelation, Part II

Until this point we have considered the need for revelation as a moral need. The problem with this approach is that it places religion as a maidservant to ethics. Therefore, we will now explore the religious-spiritual need for revelation.

I. Divine ethics

Revelation may or may not be necessary for arriving at a coherent and thick ethic but it is certainly necessary to transform ethics into the Law of God. R. Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz writes the following in his God, Man and History (pgs. 103-105):

“Reason may tell the difference between right and wrong; perhaps even the difference between good and evil. It cannot, however, provide the obligation for doing good and eschewing evil. The source of all obligation is a will, and the motivation of a will is a desire. Reason knows no desire, though man may desire to be reasonable…The source of the obligation may be individual desire…or society…The essence of justice may be described in terms of reason; its obligation must forever be based on a will. This, however, is tantamount to saying that all law derives its authority from some form of “revelation.” The lawgiver must make his will known to establish the law…

“Were the intellect to grasp, through faculty of is ‘natural light,’ a divine truth, this would mean entertaining a divine concept in the mind of man. If man desired and determined to act in accordance with that insight, he would make a divine truth his law of conduct. The intellectual validity of the law would then be divine; the ethical obligation, however, would have its origin in the will of man. An eternal truth becomes the law of God when action in accordance with it is explicitly desired by God.”

Thus, as the Ramchal (Derech Hashem, 1:4:7) points out, a Commandment has a dual function – it is a specific pathway in Divine service and it also furthers one’s relationship with the Divine by the very fact that it is a Commandment.

This point has profound spiritual implications. As long as Man is self-governing, even in the aim of spiritual goals, he is ultimately self-serving. Only through submission to Divine command can Man extricate himself from himself. Therein the (often mundane) moral act takes on vertical dimensionality. In the words of the Sages: “Greater is the one who is commanded and does than the one who is not commanded and does.” And as Robert E. Lee famously said: “Duty is the most sublime word in our language.”

This is not to degrade the natural human quest for spirituality. As R. Shalom Carmy, commenting on R. Soloveitchik, writes (First Things, The Beginning of Wisdom, Aug/Sept 2009):

“Natural consciousness” expresses the human quest for God in all its variety. It includes the search for God, with philosophical reflection on the cosmos, human existence, ontology, and religious experience as a human phenomenon. It does not exclude self-centered yearning: the love that is a desire for satisfaction from the beloved; the fear of punishment and abandonment. Revelation occurs when God seeks out our world, often when we are unprepared and reluctant to receive him. The Torah was not given to a school of philosophers or mystics but to a nation of escaped slaves who may not have especially wanted it.

“Revelation is thus manifested through commandments, and the only appropriate response to commandment is obedience. Soloveitchik argues that both the natural quest for God and the confrontation with divine commandment are necessary. The former allows for the full expression of human personality in all its cultural variety and creative individuality. Without the latter, however, it is inevitable that we will not encounter God but only some projection of our wishes and fears.”

II. Human clarity in Divine Service

On the practical religious level the need for revelation is more obvious. R. Saadia Gaon (Emunot v’Deot, 3) argues that revelation is necessary (as in any relationship) to communicate requirements in Divine service. We must know how to show appreciation and foster connection with the Divine, and we also must know what is incongruent to that relationship – positive and negative commandments. Otherwise we end up like the King of the Khazers – “laudable intentions and deficient deeds.”[i]

John Walton, in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (pg. 144), describes the plight of the ancient pagans: “In the ancient Neat East it was the rare exception that anyone thought that they could identify with confidence the cause of the deity’s anger.[ii] Since there was no revealed law of conduct, only obvious offenses (stealing from the temple?, neglecting the required sacrifices?) would be recognizable.”

Walton goes on to quote a piece from Babylonian Wisdom Literature (41:33-38):

“I wish I knew that these things were pleasing to one’s god!

What is proper to oneself is an offence to one’s god;

What in one’s own heart seems despicable is proper to one’s god.[iii]

Who knows the will of the gods in heaven?

Who understands the plans of the underworld gods?

Where have mortals learnt the way of a god?”

And from Ancient Near Eastern Texts (391-92, lines 51-53):

“Man is dumb; he knows nothing;

Mankind, everyone that exists – what does he know?

Whether he is committed sin or doing good, he does not even know.”

“He relates His word to Jacob, His statutes and judgments to Israel. He did not do so for any other nation, such judgments they know them not. Halleluyah!”[iv] (Tehillim, 147)

III. The Encounter: God in Search of Man

The purpose and importance of revelatory law has been discussed but there is a different perspective which does not focus on the normative contents of the revelation but on the Encounter itself. R. Yosef Albo (Sefer Ikkarim, 1:4) points out that revelation is part and parcel of the definition of religion. R. Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz expands upon this (God, Man and History pgs. 15-16):

“The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world; that having created this world, he has not abandoned it, leaving it to its own devices; that he cares about is creation. It is of the essence of biblical religion that God is sufficiently concerned about man to address him; and that God values man enough to render himself approachable by him…

“How do we know of this relationship? How do we know that God is concerned, that he requires something of us, that he is approachable? Obviously not by metaphysical proofs that God exists, but by the appropriate proof that he is concerned and may be approached. We may discern what might be considered adequate proof in such a case by means of an analogy. How do I ever know that another person cares for me? Surely not by logical deduction, but by actually experiencing his care and concern…A man know of any relationship in which he may be involved only by the realness of his involvement.

“Similarly, we can know of God’s concern. A concern that is not experienced is a contradiction in terms…The foundation of biblical religion, therefore, is not an idea but an event – and event that may be called the encounter between God and man.

IV. The Need for Narrative

With the prophetic Encounter in mind we can now answer a final question: Of what need is there for a narrative?[v] Surely Man is capable of creating on his own inspired poetry, soul-expanding literature, and meditations on self-actualization.

The first point to recognize is that in the ancient world, their vision of reality – theology, metaphysics, human character - was expressed in imagery, not abstract philosophical formula.[vi] This imagery is charged with primal power and archetypal significance. Therefore, if God would want to communicate certain truths and imprint them deeply on Man’s psyche it is understandable that narrative would be utilized.

However, narrative (and law) as a form of revelation has a much more central role to play in religious life. Bauman in “‘Mystery’ and Scriptural Text in the Post-Modern Age” writes the following:

From one perspective (shared by both the wisdom traditions and by Scriptural texts), multiple dimensions of reality exist, many of which are beyond rational-empirical confirmation. We humans, however, have had and can still have commerce (connection) with these realms. From the particular perspective of the Semitic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) revelation as self-disclosure is necessary if we are to know these realms and establish a relationship that affects who we are and how we live within them. Revelation, then, is gratuitous, a divine grace, a gift of self-donation made by Transcendence as an Immanence which necessarily takes anthropomorphic forms…

Accordingly then, Scripture, as revelation, is “sapiential discourse” (wisdom teaching) addressing us, and not simply “self-talk.” For that reason it has normative authority over us in a most interesting and crucial way; not as a science through rational-empirical proof, or esthetically as a linguistic construct, or even as a wise and venerable product of human culture. Its authority comes through participation in and praxis of the sacred text itself. In light of Tradition (especially Semitic and Middle Eastern tradition), and as a literature of sapiential discourse, the emphasis and power of Scripture is essentially the effect created by the dynamic encounter between the text and the reader. Scriptural traditions have made the interaction between reader and text and the changes that occur in that encounter a central aspect of its mystery and authority…

“The Scriptures seek, therefore, to extend and transform the horizon of the individual in such a way that reality itself is grasped differently. It does this through the confrontation between the new world of the text and the “old world” of the reader…

“In his analysis of the structure of game-playing, Hans-Georg Gadamer makes the critical point that entry into the new domain of a text is similar in character to entry into the structure of any game worth playing. To play a game is to allow the movement of a particular set of rules to take over. To follow those rules is to lose one’s usual “self-consciousness” in the face of the new rules established by the game, which assists the player in the movement toward new understanding.

“It is the transcendent mystery of this other world which has “thrown us the ball” and which serves as the “playing field” to which we the readers and as players are invited. We are called from beyond ourselves to go out of ourselves and enter the mystery…

“Such a call and challenge is what Cardinal John Henry Newman celebrated in his writings as the mira profunditas of the sacred text, the depth of its significations and the richness of its play, ‘a richness derived from the mystery to which it is the introduction, of which it is the unfolding. The Scriptures are for us a depth, a complexity, yes even a difficulty.’”

Torah, then, is a transcendent game, a matrix of symbols and images, a conceptual universe consisting of and inspiring philosophical and existential reflection.[vii]

Or in mystical terms, as the Ramchal expressed it (Derech Hashem, 4:2), God gave of Himself in the revelation. He attached His presence to the Torah. Thus, Torah is the interface between God and Man, a conduit of Light, an echo of the Encounter.

“One who learns Torah according to its truth - it is considered as if he himself received it from Sinai” (Yalkut Shimoni, Devarim 26).



Of course, most of these discussions did not specifically touch upon revelatory nature of the Torah. Assuming that these arguments are accepted, it seems to me that there are three possibilities:

1) Indeed, revelation is necessary but we are still awaiting it. This is not implausible in light of the fact that even according to the Torah, revelation only occurred after thousands of years of sufficient preparation.[viii]

2) Perhaps revelation did (and may still) occur in multiple forms, each catered to the needs of the culture to which it was given. In other words, there is a need for revelation but not necessarily a need for one unique revelation.

3) Revelation is necessary and, therefore, we must look at the claimed revelations to date and decide which is most likely to be a true revelation. This approach may agree that differences between cultures may engender a need for unique revelations but that does not allow for contradictory revelations. Therefore, if two claimed revelations contradict we must decide between them. Within this framework we could make a plausible argument that Torah is the best candidate for being the one unique revelation.

[i] In this context, see Shemot 10:26

[ii] It seems to me that the more Divine anger is downplayed and the more Divine love and compassion are focused on, the less the perceived need for revelation which amount to real obligations and consequences. Therefore, in our day, when it is not fashionable to speak of Divine anger, we feel no need for revelation.

[iii] This problem could be overcome with belief in Man being created in the Divine image, thus allowing him insight into the Divine mind. These quotations are brought to illustrate the state of the world at the time of the Torah.

[iv] This requires explaining why God did not reveal a manual for Divine service to the nations of the world. He obviously cares about them as exhibited by the Seven Noachide Laws which includes Monotheistic belief and respecting the Divine. This is part of the larger issue of the Chosen People. Perhaps precise ritual laws are only required in a covenantal relationship.

[v] When discussing the purpose of a revelatory text we must discuss the type of text specifically. In regards to the Torah, the text is of the Covenant itself (see, for example, R. Shamah’s summary of the scholarship in the area). Thus, the Torah must be written just as the Constitution must be written.

[vi] Wisdom literature may be an exception to this general rule.

[vii] “Torah is a schema sufficiently broad, sufficiently consistent, and sufficiently developing, to serve as the meta-language capable of integrating all of relatively reduced languages –“elevating us beyond all languages.” Torah defines herself as the existential framework for a triumphant human identity to emerge of the consummate interrelationship of self and cosmos that is Creation. In her instructions for climbing the nested and expanding frameworks of Jacob’s ladder, Torah easily embraces our art, our science, and our individual lives…A child can grasp the scaffolding of Torah’s language, just as he can that of music’s language, while remaining quite unaware of the details that will ultimately complete, fill and furnish the structure. Given the framework, it is possible to gradually fill in the words, the concepts, constructs, applications, keys, and symbols of the varied and nested layers of Torah and its Pardes. The framework’s power grows with the investment of learning and experience, and consciousness itself expands with experience. But talking about Torah, looking in from the academic outside, is to attempt hearing music using only n oscilloscope” (Frameworks, Bamidbar, xxx-xxxi).

[viii] See Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael, Chapter 17

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