We just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, and when we explain this holiday, we typically say that we sanctify God’s giving us the Torah. But as modern Jews, is it possible to believe in revelation? Did any revelatory event in fact take place? How do we know which of these events are authentic and which are not? And what was revealed — a Divine presence? The Creator’s will? And how? In a book? In nature? In historical events?
This holiday led me to explore more about the nature of Revelation, and I found superb resources in Rabbi Neil Gillman’s Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. I offer three theological understandings of Revelation, each defining the Eternal and the nature of Revelation differently.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed in religious naturalism. He saw God as a salvational activity, an actualization of personal and social fulfillment, and the elimination of all evils that stand in our way. Our human “discovery” of how to live religiously is the Eternal’s “revelation” to us — within the human mind.
But if Revelation and Torah are outcomes of natural human activity, what makes them unique and authoritative? Kaplan would respond that Torah is unique because it is ours. However, the locus of authority shifted from the supernatural God to the human community; the Jewish community has the power to define itself and to make changes as it determines appropriate. Some of us may wonder where our reinterpretations stop, and if anything can qualify as “Judaism,” how seriously would we take Torah and its hold on our lives?
Tackling the nature of “commandedness,” early 20th-century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig employed an existential theology. Rosenzweig differentiated between law and command. He maintained that law was not part of the content of Revelation, but the sense of “being commanded” was. While law is impersonal, universal, and written in books, commands are personal, subjective, and experienced.
What was revealed, then, was not the commandments, but the fact of being commanded. During Revelation, our obligation was entirely spontaneous, a natural yearning to acknowledge the Eternal and God’s covenant with Israel. Similarly, in our deepest relationships, we are “commanded” or personally compelled to demonstrate our devotion and closeness. In the same way, Rosenzweig argues, God’s love for Israel inspires Israel to live in a certain way.
The challenge is that our original spontaneous desire to acknowledge the Eternal’s command faded, and human beings changed the commands into laws, into an impersonal legal system empty of the spontaneity and of the emotion that characterized the original response to Divine presence.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, another seminal modern theologian, elaborated on our understanding of Torah. Heschel maintains that our Torah is not pure Torah, but our ancestors’ and our own understanding of its contents. The Torah is midrash, a report about revelation. Authority comes from our understanding of the text, not necessarily the written words.
These theologies raise numerous questions about Jewish authority and its implications for us. If the source of our authority is not the Torah itself, but our ancestors’ and our own understanding of its contents, what if we disagree with our ancestors’ interpretation? Is oral law, rabbinically generated, just as binding as Divine revelation? If the task for modern Jews is to repossess the emotional command to respond, what if rabbinic mitzvot do not further that intrinsic desire? Are we called to observe mitzvot without feeling an emotional connection?
I believe that certain times call for observance of mitzvot regardless of our innate affinity. Jewish observance is not only about what “feels good,” and upholding tradition has its place. At the same time, I connect to the Eternal and experience Revelation in ways that the rabbis did not prescribe. Without a visceral connection, Jewish authenticity and significance are severely attenuated.
Our Torah teaches that the old set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed alongside the new ones inside the mishkan, the tabernacle. We keep the laws with us, but we also carve our own new set of tablets. If the Eternal’s revelation is ongoing, and we are stirred to be in a relationship, then our everlasting command is to recapture our original sense of Revelation.