Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants
By Elliott N Dorff
Extracts posted with permission of
United Synagogue of America Youth Commission
Home page http://members.rogers.com/davidsteinberg/
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D. The Question of Authority:
Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Theories of Revelation
Why should Jews observe the mitzvot? The Bible gives several answers to that question, but by far the most common one is simply that God commanded us at Sinai to do so. There He revealed (showed) His will to us, and so philosophers say that "revelation" (see Gillman) occurred there. The Bible is careful to describe that event in impressive terms: there was lightning, thunder (Ex. 19:16), and the whole group of 600,000 Israelites witnessed what happened there (Ex. 12: 37).
More importantly, that event made the law binding on Jews for all generations to come:
(Deuteronomy 5: 3-4)
It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, everyone of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.
Know, therefore, that only the Lord your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps His gracious covenant to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments, but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him - never slow with those who reject Him, punishing them instantly. Therefore observe faithfully the Instruction, the laws, and the norms with which I charge you today.(Deuteronomy 7: 9-11)
As the above citations indicate, there are two reasons why the Law that God gave at Sinai is eternally binding. First, our forefathers made a covenant (agreement) with God in which the Israelites were promised the land of Israel and the status of being God's Chosen People in return for observing His commandments, and so we must observe the mitzvot because we promised to do so. You might say to yourself that it is not fair that you should be bound by what your ancestors promised, but that would not be right: you should understand the event at Sinai as if you yourself were there and participated in the promise. As the Haggadah of Passover phrases it:
(Deut. 6: 23).
In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had come out from Egypt, as the Bible says: "And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt' " (Ex. 13: 8). For it was not alone our forefathers whom the Holy One, praised be He, redeemed, but He redeemed us together with them, as it is said: "He freed us from there to bring us to, and give us, the land that He promised on oath to our forefathers"
(Incidentally, the same is true for secular law. The constitution of the country in which you live is binding upon you even though you were never asked whether you approve of it. Simply identifying as one of its citizens and reaping the benefits of citizenship obligate you to obey it. You may never have promised obedience to it in words, but your actions indicate "tacit [silent] consent," as the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said. Similarly, international agreements do not have to be renewed with each new government or generation: they bind both parties forever unless there is a specific time limit in the original agreement or unless both parties agree to renegotiate the agreement.) Secondly, the Law of Sinai is eternal because God, who gave it and enforces it, is eternal.
Why, then, should we go any further? Why should we not simply say that you should observe Jewish law because its root is in the Torah, and that is the will of God?
Many do say that, but some do not, and even those who do feel compelled to deal with two problems in that assertion. The first concerns the act of revelation, and the second revolves around its product:
a) In regard to the act of revelation, we ask: What happened at Sinai? How do we know that it was God speaking? Perhaps the whole account of the revelation at Sinai is simply a product of someone's imagination. Even if God did speak, how do we know that He was understood correctly?
b) In regard to the product of the act of revelation-that is, the Torah-we ask: Is this the direct transcription of God's words? If so, how do we explain some of the contradictions in its laws (e.g., Passover is to be celebrated for seven days according to Exodus 13: 6, Leviticus 23:6, and Deuteronomy 16:3, but for only six days in Deuteronomy 16:8; Exodus 20:21 permits the erection of a sanctuary anywhere, but Deuteronomy 12:4- 5 restricts the sanctuary to a single shrine in all of Israel)? And what about the variations in its stories (e.g., the different orders of Creation depicted in Chapters One and Two of Genesis, and the different paths described for the Israelites in Num. 20:21 and Deut. 2:4)? And how do we explain the similarity of some of its laws (e.g., eye for an eye) and stories (e.g., flood stories) to those of the nations surrounding the Israelites during biblical times? And what about the variant versions of the Bible that we have? Even if God revealed His will at Sinai, human beings have copied it and interpreted it throughout all the generations, and so how can we be assured that what we have in hand is anything like what God gave, and how do we know that our interpretation of it is anything like what He intended?
These are hard questions, but it is necessary to face them squarely if you are ever going to understand the authority behind Jewish law. This is especially important for the Conservative Movement because from its beginning it has been based on taking an historical approach to the texts of our Tradition, and that approach makes the problems listed in (b) all the more compelling, as you will see.
To show you the responses to these questions, it will be helpful to distinguish four separate, but related questions:
(1) Method of Study: How should we study the Bible? Should we see it as the direct word of God, or is it a book written by human beings and therefore subject to historical, literary, and philosophical analysis like other books? These are questions concerning the product of revelation, the questions listed in (b) above.
(2) The Nature of Revelation: Where did the Bible come from? Revelation? If so, how should we understand that? If not, then why did the men who write it call it the word of God?
(3) The Authority of the Bible's Laws and Ideas: Is the Bible a special book for us because it carries the authority of God or for some other reason? The answer to this question will depend very much on how we answer (1) and (2).
(4) Man's Ability to Change the Bible's Laws or Ideas: Does man have the right or obligation to make such changes? If so, how? The answer to those questions obviously depends upon the answers to (1), (2), and (3).
Despite some variations, the Orthodox answer those four questions in one basic way, and the same is true for the Reform Movement. There are ... distinct responses in the Conservative Movement. We will consider each of those approaches in turn. To help you keep track of the discussion, keep your finger on the pages containing the following chart. Do not expect to understand everything; some things may even seem confusing at first glance. The entire chart will be explained in the pages following it.
SOME EXPONENTS OF THE
1) METHOD OF STUDY
2) THE NATURE OF
3) THE AUTHORITY OF THE
BIBLE'S LAWS AND IDEAS
4) MAN'S ABILITY TO
CHANGE THE BIBLE'S
LAWS AND IDEAS
No distinction between Peshat (meaning that the author intended) and Derash (the meaning(s) given the text by the later tradition). For Orthodox, meaning of text = meaning that traditional commentators assigned to it.
The Torah, including both the Written and Oral Traditions, consists of the exact words of God. He gave it all as one piece at Sinai.
None, since God revealed the answers to all future questions at Sinai and man does not know more than God.
1) Applications to new situations (which were also revealed at Sinai).
2) Choice of one position in the codes over others.
a) God in fact dictated His will at Sinai and at other times.
b) These revelations were written down by human beings, however, and hence the diverse sources of biblical literature.
c) Since the revelation to Moses was by far the clearest and most public, it is the most authentic recording of God's will.
d) From Sinai on, Jewish law and theology are to be identified with the way sin which the rabbis of each generation interpreted and applied the laws of the Torah.
e) Hence the authority of Jewish law is based upon the fact that it is God's will, as stated first in the Torah and then by rabbis of each generation. Rabbis are authorized to modify the law for their time, but only with extreme caution.
HISTORICAL METHOD: Distinguish between Peshat and Derash; determine Peshat through literary and historical analysis.
God dictated His will at Sinai and other times. It was written down by human beings, however, and hence the diverse traditions in the Bible.
Same as Orthodox (but usually choose the lenient position in the codes) plus:
3) Places where there are clear scribal errors.
4) Clear borrowings from other cultures. That is, distinguish the divine and human elements in our texts.
a) Human beings wrote the Torah at various times and places.
Hence the diverse documents, laws, and ideas in the Torah.
b) These people were, however, divinely inspired, and therefore their words carry the insight and authority of God.
c) Jewish laws and ideas may be changed for two reasons. First since the Torah is a combination of divine inspiration and human articulation, we must distinguish the divine and human elements in the Tradition and change the latter when circumstances require it. Second, divine inspiration did not happen once and for all at Sinai. The Torah is the document on which Judaism is based, and it therefore has special importance for us; but divine inspiration continues on in the form of new interpretations of the Torah in each generation (not new revelations).
d) When changes are made, they must be made by the community
HISTORICAL METHOD: Distinguish between Peshat and Derash; determine Peshat through literary and historical analysis.
Human beings wrote the Torah, but they were divinely inspired.
Human beings can change them because rabbis in each generation may be inspired to a new Midrash (interpretation); they must because the rabbis of each generation are charged with the responsibility to keep Jewish Law viable by balancing tradition and change.
a) Revelation is the disclosure of God Himself. It is not the declaration of specific rules or ideas, but rather a meeting between God and man in which they get to know each other. This meeting is asserted for different reasons and described in different ways by the existentialist and objectivist thinkers of this group. In other words, there are variant understandings of the act of revelation.
b) Both schools agree, however, on the nature of the texts of revelation: the Torah is the record of how human beings responded to God when they came into contact with Him.
c) Jewish law has authority for the Jew both because it represents the attempt of the Jewish People to spell out God's will, as revealed in the ongoing encounter with Him, and also because Jews are members of a covenanted community and have obligations under that covenant to God and to the Jewish community of past, present, and future. The divine and communal aspects of Jewish law make it a series of mitzvot (commandments), and not just minhagim (customs), in contradistinction to the Reconstructionist position below.
For Conservative III, both God and the Jewish community command a Jew to act in accordance with Jewish law as it is interpreted in each generation, and the Jew renews his own personal contact with both in so acting.
d) However, since the Torah was written by human beings, if we want to learn about the origins and meaning of the Bible, we must use the techniques of biblical scholarship as thoroughly and honestly as we can.
e) Moreover, because the Bible is the human recording of the encounter between man and God during times past, the specific ideas and laws contained therein reflect the practice, values, and attitudes of those times. They may no longer be an adequate expression of our own understanding of what God demands of us now. We in our day have not only the right, but the responsibility, to make appropriate changes in the Tradition that has come down to us so that it will reflect God's will as accurately as possible and accomplish it as effectively as possible in the contemporary world.
f) While every person may have his own relationship with God, it is God's encounter with the Jewish People as a whole that is of primary importance. The communal character of revelation is, in fact, a distinguishing feature of Judaism. Consequently, changes in the laws of Judaism must be made by the rabbis on behalf of the community, as the Tradition requires, and not by individuals on their own. But the entire body of Jewish law, as interpreted by the rabbis of our times, is binding on every Jew as a member of the community covenanted with God and with generations of Jews, past, present, and future
HISTORICAL METHOD: Distinguish between Peshat and Derash; determine Peshat through literary and historical analysis.
The Torah is the human record of the encounter between God and the People Israel at Sinai. Since it was written by human beings, it contains some laws and ideas which we find repugnant today.
1) God's will.
2) Covenant with God and the Jewish People of past, present and future.
We continue to have encounters with God, and the law must be changed to reflect the new understanding of God's will that results from those encounters. It is the rabbis, representing the community, and not every individual on his own, who must determine the content of Jewish law in our day.
Kaplan, Einstein, Shulweis
Human beings wrote the Torah.
No claim for divinty of the product.
1) Tradition (custom)
2) Internal Wisdom
Communal authorities in each generation can and must help individuals reconstruct Judaism with current and meaningful customs and ideas, but observance of rituals is voluntary; an organized creative community of the future could establish and enforce moral laws.
1937 Guiding Principles
The Torah is God's will written by human beings. As time goes on, we get to understand His will better and better (="progressive revelation").
1) Moral laws come from God.
2) Ritual laws have no authority because:
a) prophets canceled them.
b) Rabbinic laws were intended for specific periods only.
Every individual decides both what and how to obey.
Let us now take the positions one by one.
The Orthodox affirm that God revealed His will at Sinai in both a Written and an Oral form. The Oral tradition was ultimately written down in the Talmud. It consists of the way in which God wanted the Written Law (the Torah) to be interpreted and applied. Consequently, the meaning of any given verse of the Bible is what the Talmud, Midrash, and later commentaries say it is. Thus Eliezer Berkovits, an Orthodox rabbi now teaching at Bar Ilan University in Israel, says: " . . . every word of the Torah, and, of course, every commandment, has its source in God; but the meaning of the revealed word or commandment is given in the oral tradition, the Torah she-be'alpeh alone."9. Moreover the texts of the Bible and Talmud that we have in hand must be understood as the exact word of God because if a human being wrote down God's word, the record of it that we have may be in error. As Norman Lamm, current President of Yeshiva University, says:
I accept unapologetically the idea of the verbal revelation of the Torah. I do not take seriously the caricature of this idea which reduces Moses to a secretary taking dictation. Any competing notion of revelation, such as the various "inspiration" theories, can similarly be made to sound absurd by anthropomorphic parallels. Exactly how this communication took place no one can say: it is no less mysterious than the nature of the One who spoke.... How God spoke is a mystery; how Moses received this message is an irrelevancy. That God spoke is of the utmost significance, and what He said must therefore be intelligible to humans in a human context, even if one insists upon an endlessly profound mystical over plus of meaning in the text. To deny that God can make His will clearly known is to impose upon Him a limitation of dumbness that would insult the least of His human creatures
That, of course, raises all the questions about the biblical and talmudic texts that we mentioned earlier in (b) and that lead people to analyze the Bible historically. Lamm recognizes that as a problem, but he downplays the evidence:
Literary criticism of the Bible is a problem, but not a crucial one. Judaism has successfully met greater challenges in the past. Higher Criticism [applying literary analysis to the Bible] is far indeed from an exact science. The startling lack of agreement among scholars on anyone critical view; the radical changes in general orientation in more recent years; the many revisions that archaeology has forced upon literary critics; and the unfortunate neglect even by Bible scholars of much first-rate scholarship in modern Hebrew supporting the traditional claim of Mosaic authorship - all these reduce the question of Higher Criticism from the massive proportions it has often assumed to a relatively minor and manageable problem that is chiefly a nuisance but not a threat to the enlightened believer.
What this effectively means is that the Orthodox believer must be somewhat schizophrenic, because he must understand the Torah in a totally different way than he understands any other book. He may use his mind and scholarly methods of analysis to understand any other text, but the Bible and Talmud are different. He must understand them as the Tradition has and ignore any factual or intellectual problems that that may involve.
The advantage of that, of course, is that God Himself is speaking in both the legal and non-legal sections of the Bible, and therefore both are true and authoritative. Moreover, the laws are unchangeably binding, as Berkovits says:
As to the meaning of the commandments, even those that apparently have neither ethical nor doctrinal content, one must - as always- refer to the oral tradition, as well as to the continually developing philosophy and theology of Judaism. One may explain the ritual commandments according to Saddia's hedonism, or according to Yehuda Halevi's quasi-mysticism; according to Maimonides's rationalism, or Kabbalistic mysticism, or according to some more sophisticated modern religious philosophy or theology. The commandments, however, remain unchangeably binding.
If asked about the changes that have in fact taken place in Jewish law. the Orthodox Jew would claim that they were not changes but simply extensions of the Law, and moreover those extensions were already revealed at Sinai. In other words, they would interpret Source #28 in Section (C) of this chapter literally (but perhaps incorrectly) and not as it was explained there.
2-5) Conservative I-IV (Conservative IV=Reconstructionist): All of the other positions listed on the chart take an historical approach to the texts of our Tradition. That is, the texts are understood in the context of the times and places in which they were written. A distinction is therefore made between the meaning of the text as it stands (the peshat) and the meaning(s) that later generations ascribed to the text, (the derash).
The advantage of understanding the text historically is clear: you do not have to be intellectually schizophrenic, applying different methods of analysis to Jewish texts from those which you use in understanding other texts from the past. On the contrary, you not only admit, but expect that the texts will manifest the influences of neighboring cultures and particular periods in history because you assume that the texts were written by people. But the disadvantage is also clear: you must explain why these texts have particular authority for you as a Jew. If human beings wrote them, why should I assume that they are binding, true or good?
There are at least four distinct answers to that in the Conservative Movement which we will now consider and which we will label Conservative I, II, III, and IV. These are not separate organizations within the Movement: they are rather composite pictures created for this sourcebook of positions held by a number of Conservative rabbis. Consequently, after the description of each one of the four general positions on the authority of Jewish law, several specific versions of the position are cited as illustrations.
2) Conservative I.
Those who hold this view maintain that:
a) God in fact dictated His will at Sinai and at other times.
b) These revelations were written down by human beings, however, and hence the diverse sources of biblical literature.
c) Since the revelation to Moses was by far the clearest and most public, it is the most authentic recording of God's will.
d) From Sinai on, Jewish law and theology are to be identified with the ways in which the rabbis of each generation interpreted and applied the laws of the Torah.
e) Hence the authority of Jewish law is based upon the fact that it is God's will, as stated first in the Torah and then by rabbis of each generation. Rabbis are authorized to modify the law for their time, but only with extreme cauti
This position retains a direct, verbal revelation at Sinai, and, as such, it can claim that all of the laws in the Torah have the express authority of God behind them. At the same time, it openly asserts that God's word was recorded by human beings, and hence it can account for the variations in law, ideology, and language in the Bible. The latter feature qualifies it as a Conservative position, because it advocates an historical study of the texts of our tradition- or at least most of them. This is a "right-wing" view.12a, however, because it claims that God communicated His will to Moses in a direct, verbal way; consequently none of the laws can be dismissed as a product of human error, however troublesome a given law may be. Therefore while advocates of this position often choose the liberal position among those available in the tradition, they are not willing to modify the law in the absence of a reasonably strong liberal precedent.
The position that I have described was held by a number of the people who were involved in the Conservative Movement in its early years. Isaac Leeser, for example, was the first exponent of a modern form of traditionalism in America and in many ways the precursor of Conservative Judaism. When asked by those who doubted the literal truth of the Bible whether God spoke with a voice, Leeser answered: "Let it be clearly understood that our religion is true, not because other systems are false, but because it is based on divine revelation, which to a believer is the only source of truth."13. In the preface to his English version of the Bible, he wrote: "The translator... believes in the Scriptures as they have been handed down to us, as also in the truth and authenticity of prophecies and their literal fulfillment."14. Alexander Kohut, whose views on the teaching of Bible and Talmud were ultimately adopted by the Seminary faculty, approved of a critical study of the Talmud, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa, [the Writings] but not of the Five Books of Moses: "To us the Pentateuch is a noli me tangere! Hands off! We disclaim all honor of handling the sharp knife which cuts the Bible into a thousand pieces"15. - and, in fact, the Torah was not taught with the critical method in the Rabbinical school of the Seminary until much later. Solomon Schechter, the first president of the reorganized Seminary, described the historical approach on which the Seminary's curriculum was based as follows:
It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition.
He was not altogether happy with that, however, and apparently sought to regain the certainty and grandeur of direct, verbal revelation if he could only reconcile it with his commitment to the historical approach:
But when Revelation or the Written Word is reduced to the level of history, there is no difficulty in elevating history in its aspect of Tradition to the rank of Scripture, for both have then the same human or divine origin (according to the student's predilection for the one or the other adjective), and emanate from the same authority. Tradition becomes thus the means whereby the modern divine seeks to compensate himself for the loss of the Bible, and the theological balance is to the satisfaction of all parties happily readjusted.
How long the position of this school will prove tenable is another question. Being brought up in the old Low Synagogue, where, with all attachment to tradition, the Bible was looked upon as the crown and the climax of Judaism, the old Adam still asserts itself in me, and in unguarded moments makes me rebel against this new rival of revelation in the shape of history. At times the new fashionable exaltation of Tradition at the expense of Scripture even impresses me as a sort of religious bimetallism [market based on two metals] in which both speculators [traders] in theology try to keep up the market value of an inferior currency [=tradition] by denouncing loudly the bright shining gold [= the Torah] which, they would have us believe, is less fitted to circulate in the vulgar use of daily life than the small cash of historical interpretation
Modern advocates of this view do not object to studying the Torah with the critical methods of scholarship, as the early exponents did. For one thing, the anti-Semitism that motivated much of biblical criticism (as was the case in the early years of the Conservative Movement) no longer is a significant factor in it. Jews and Christians have learned to use that methodology with increasing objectivity. Therefore the fears of many of the founders of our Movement about using the disciplines of biblical criticism in explaining the Torah have lessened considerably. Moreover, the techniques of biblical criticism have proved helpful in clarifying many passages that were either not understood or misunderstood before. Consequently advocates of this view have become somewhat more comfortable with applying historical and literary techniques to the study of the Bible (including the Torah).
The most famous modern proponent of this view is Abraham Joshua Heschel, Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from 1945 to his death in 1972 (for contrary opinion see). In the following he makes clear that God uttered words during acts of revelation:
. . . "God spoke" is not a symbol. A symbol does not raise a world out of nothing. Nor does a symbol call a Bible into being. The speech of God is not less but more than literally real....
The extraordinary qualities of the divine word is in its mystery of omnipotence. Out of God went the mystery of His utterance, and a word, a sound, reached the ear of man. The spirit of His creative power brought a material world into being; the spirit of His revealing power brought the Bible into being....
The Bible is holiness in words Some people may wonder: why was the light of God given in the form of language? How is it conceivable that the divine should be contained in such brittle vessels as consonants and vowels?... And yet, it is as if God took these Hebrew words and breathed into them of His power, and the words became a live wire charged with His spirit. To this very day they are hyphens between heaven and earth.
What other medium could have been employed to convey the divine? Pictures enameled on the moon? Statues hewn out of the Rockies? What is wrong with the human ancestry of scriptural vocabulary?...
If God is alive, then the Bible is His voice. No other work is as worthy of being considered a manifestation of His will. There is no other mirror in the world where His will and spiritual guidance is as unmistakably reflected. If the belief in the immanence of God in nature is plausible, then the belief in the immanence of God in the Bible is compelling.18.
For him revelation did not, in contrast to Conservative II below, consist in an inspiration like that which creative people often feel, for several reasons.
First, inspirations are usually impersonal: people who have them describe them by saying, "It came over me." The prophet, on the other hand, is keenly aware that he is being addressed by a divine Person, by God Himself. Consequently he describes his experience with the words, "So said God!"
Second, inspirations often do not involve a message: the inspired person experiences a force that carries him beyond his normal powers, but inspirations do not generally consist of words. They are more often inchoate feelings or energy, like being carried along by a wave. Prophecy, however, consists of words that are spoken and heard and a burning desire to transmit them to others. And
finally, inspirations are often" one-time things"; even when a person experiences several inspirations, he does not usually think of them as being related, and the content of the several inspirations is not similar. By contrast, the prophet immediately connects any given revelation with all previous ones that he has had - that is, he sees them as being related experiences - and the content of several revelations is consistent.
Consequently, revelation is not the same as inspiration:
In contrast to the inspiration of the poet, which each time breaks forth suddenly, unexpectedly, from an unknown source, the inspiration of the prophet is distinguished, not only by an awareness of its source and of a will to impart the content of inspiration, but also by the coherence of the inspired messages as a whole (with their constant implication of earlier communications), by the awareness of being a link in the chain of the prophets who preceded him, and by the continuity which links the revelations he receives to one another. The words that come to him form a coherence of closely related revelations, all reflecting the illumination and the sense of mission shed by the call. There is both a thematic and a personal unity of experience.... what is important in prophetic acts is that something is said. ... Prophecy is an experience of a relationship, the receipt of a message
On the other hand, while God spoke words, the human beings who were prophets could not simply record them or even understand them fully. Instead they recorded what they understood, and Heschel makes his belief in the human authorship of the Torah very explicit:
The prophets bear witness to an event. The event is divine, but the formulation is done by the individual prophet. According to this conception, the idea is revealed; the expression is coined by the prophet. The expression "the word of God" would not refer to the word as a sound or a combination of sounds. Indeed, it has often been maintained that what reached the ear of man was not identical with what has come out of the spirit of the eternal God. For "Israel could not possibly have received the Torah as it came forth from the mouth of the Lord, for. . .the word of God in itself is like a burning flame, and the Torah that we received is merely a part of the coal to which the flame is attached...."
Out of the experience of the prophets came the words, words that try to interpret what they perceived....
The Bible reflects its divine as well as its human authorship. Expressed n the language of a particular age, it addresses itself to all ages; disclosed in particular acts, its spirit is everlasting. The will of God is in time and in eternity. God borrowed the language of man and created a work such as no men had ever made.
In line with his belief in the human authorship of the Bible, Heschel is emphatic in stating that the Bible must be understood as a literary work, with many levels of meaning, and using literary analysis and interpretation:
The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally, to imagine that God spoke to the prophet on a long distance telephone. Yet most of us succumb to such fancy, forgetting that the cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness.
The error of literal-mindedness is in assuming that things and words have only one meaning. The truth is that things and words stand for different meanings in different situations....
The meaning of words in scientific language must be clear, distinct, unambiguous, conveying the same concept to all people. In poetry, however, words that have only one meaning are considered flat. The right word is often one that evokes a plurality of meanings and one that must be understood on more than one level. What is a virtue in scientific language is a failure in poetic expression.
Is it correct to insist that Biblical words must be understood exclusively according to one literal meaning? It often seems as if the intention of the prophets was to be understood not in one way, on one level, but in may ways, on many levels, according to the situation in which we find ourselves. And if such was their intention, we must not restrict our understanding to one meaning
But even he is not completely convinced of the fruitfulness of modern biblical scholarship - especially in comparison to traditional Jewish interpretations of Scripture:
. . . Israel's understanding of the word was not cheaply or idyllically won. It was acquired at the price of a millennia of wrestling, of endurance and bitter ordeals of a stubborn people, of unparalleled martyrdom and self-sacrifice of men, women and children, of loyalty, love and constant study. What modern scholar could vie with the intuition of such a people? The Torah is not only our mother, it is "our life and the length of our days; we will meditate (on her words) day and night" (Evening liturgy).
Without our continuous striving for understanding, the Bible is like paper money without security. Yet such understanding requires austere discipline and can only be achieved in attachment and dedication, in retaining and reliving the original understanding as expressed by the prophets and the ancient sages.
Another modern exponent of Conservative I is David Novak, Rabbi of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore. He shares Heschel's belief that revelation is God's verbal communication with mankind:
word. The denotation of the word is initially intelligible, and thus the word can become a matter of discourse in the community. "And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart. And you shall repeat them to your children and speak of them..." (Deut. 6:6-7). "For the word is very near to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it" (Deut. 30: 14).
A theory of revelation must account for the fact that in classical Jewish teaching there is content in revelation, that is, not only do the people experience a Presence wherein God makes Himself manifest, they also hear the
Law as content presupposes discursibility and normativity. That which is by definition wordless can neither be communicated nor commanded. Of course, there is both preverbal and nonverbal communication. Surely a child communicates with his mother long before he can speak. Surely lovers communicate in more than words. But preverbal communication eventually gives birth to words; indeed it evokes words, as any sensitive parent can testify. Nonverbal or extraverbal communication also evokes words; a totally silent lover would be inhuman. In other words, discourse and law, and personal relationship and encounter, are not necessarily mutually exclusive in our ordinary experience. Why must they be so in the religious life?23.
But he is considerably more comfortable with modern biblical scholarship than Heschel seems to be. In the following, he even shows why such scholarship does not pose a threat to belief in revelation:
- assuming that every word was written down by Moses himself - and still not believe in revelation. Assumptions about the Pentateuch are empirical models; beliefs about revelation are faith assertions. The former can well be challenged by biblical criticism; the latter cannot be, because they are outside the purview of empirical evidence....
Revelation denotes a communication from God accepted by man. Such an event cannot be either proved or disproved by any critical discipline, whether physics or history, because it is posited as something sui generis, something without any empirical analogue. Therefore, one could hold a strictly fundamentalist attitude towards the Pentateuch
"Higher" biblical criticism is concerned with the dating and composition of the biblical text. Even if one accepts the assumption common to all the biblical critics - namely, that the Pentateuch in particular is made up of various documents (J,E,P,D, etc.) which were written at different times by different authors - one can still view it as a unity because of the way it was accepted in subsequent Jewish history. Once the official text was finally agreed upon during the time of Ezra, the Jewish people had an indisputable point of reference for both law and theology. Thus, the theory which accepts both a possibly diverse origin along with a definite subsequent unity enables one to be a traditionalist without being a fundamentalist.24.
Thus for Conservative I, God spoke a message at Sinai, and belief in the divine authority of that message is the essence of Jewish faith. Such faith does not preclude an objective, historical and literary analysis of the biblical text, however, because it was human beings, the prophets, who wrote down their understanding of God's words in their own language and conceptual framework.
3) Conservative II
This position consists of the following claims:
a) Human beings wrote the Torah at various times and places. Hence the diverse documents, laws, and ideas in the Torah.
b) These people were, however,divinely inspired, and therefore their words carry the insight and authority of God.
c) Jewish laws and ideas may be changed for two reasons.
First since the Torah is a combination of divine inspiration and human articulation, we must distinguish the divine and human elements in the Tradition and change the latter when circumstances require it.
Second, divine inspiration did not happen once and for all at Sinai.
The Torah is the document on which Judaism is based, and it therefore has special importance for us; but divine inspiration continues on in the form of new interpretations of the Torah in each generation (not new revelations - cf. Sources #6 and #7 in Section C of this chapter).
d) When changes are made, they must be made by the community in the two ways described in Section (B) - i.e., through rabbinic decisions and communal custom. Only in that way can there be both tradition and change.
This position is widely held in the Conservative Movement, and you can see its advantages almost immediately. On the one hand, the assertion that people wrote the texts of the Tradition enables advocates of this approach to accept the results of historical research into those texts fully and openly. Nobody needs to pretend that the Bible derives from one source or that the Jews escaped the influences of outside cultures, and nobody needs to be intellectually schizophrenic in applying totally different methodsof inquiry to the Jewish tradition from those he uses in understanding any other culture. Moreover, you do not have to blame God for everything in the Bible or claim that every passage there is divine. On the other hand, the fact that the Jewish tradition was divinely inspired gives its laws and ideas divine authority. In other words, with this approach you have the best of both worlds, the intellectual and the religious.
That does not come without its own price, however. The first question that one has about this approach is simply this: What does "divine inspiration" mean? How does it operate, and how does it differ from the inspiration of Mozart, the wisdom of Socrates, or the skill of a good baseball player?
There are two distinct answers to those questions within the Conservative Movement, and it is this issue which distinguishes Conservative II from Conservative III below. Advocates of Conservative II claim that God inspired human beings with a specific message; those who hold Conservative III maintain that God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them, but He did not reveal concrete instructions through the inspiration. We will further define and illustrate Conservative III shortly, but now let us examine the ways in which proponents of Conservative II explain their position.
Perhaps the clearest exponent of Conservative II is Ben Zion Bokser, Rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center in New York. In his book Judaism: Profile of a Faith (1963), he warns against "two extremes in the interpretation of revelation or prophecy," in which one understands revelation as either a totally human or a totally divine act. It is both.
There is no contradiction between the discovery of a historical dimension in the sacred texts of Scripture and the belief that they are disclosures of God's revelation. The human and the divine commingle in all of life. The farmer tills the soil, plants, weeds, harvests, but this does not contradict a dimension of divine providence at work in the same process of bringing food from the earth. For the farmer did not create the earth with its power to fructify the seed placed in its womb, did not create the economy of nature on which his labor depends, he did not stuff the sun with energy, nor fill the clouds with rain, nor did he fashion the seed with its miraculous power to reproduce itself. Throughout nature we witness what is a cardinal belief in Judaism, that man is God's partner in the work of creation.
The partnership between God and man is similarly at work in bringing forth the truth on which our souls are nourished. Man receives a divine communication in the moment when the divine spirit rests on him, but man must give form to that communication; he must express it in words, in images, and in symbols which will make his message intelligible to other men. Out of this need to give form to the truth that is revealed to him the prophet places the stamp of his own individuality upon that truth. He draws upon his own experience, upon the idiom current in his time; he creates images that will be familiar to his people. Thus the truth becomes personalized; it takes upon itself the robes of the world in which it is to enter to perform its work of moral and spiritual transformation. In the process of expression and transmission truth takes on a historical dimension, which the historian can examine by the tools of historical investigation, but all this in no way invalidates the role of the divine factor, the initial "breathing in" on the prophet of the message which is called to proclaim to the people of his time.
What is the nature of the divine part of prophecy? It is the push which enables one to be creative, courageous, or insightful beyond his normal powers:
Why doesn't God reveal himself to people nowadays, to communicate His will to them? The answer is that He does. People who have brought new visions of truth or beauty to the world and who have reflected on the process which underlies their creative acts have often spoken of the sense of receiving their ideas from a Power beyond themselves....
Maimonides teaches us that every creative act in any field of human endeavor is an instance of the same process which was at work in prophecy....
In its most familiar form prophecy appears in the experience of a "call" which impels certain people to perform heroic deeds in the service of some good cause or to become creative in the fields of theology, politics, science or literature. Maimonides describes this call in words that ring familiar to anyone who has probed into any phase of the creative process: "A person feels as if some thing came upon him, and as if he received a new power that encourages him to speak. He treats of science and composes hymns, exhorts his fellowmen, discusses political and theological problems; all of this he does while awake and in the full possession of his senses"....
What normally requires laborious reasoning, and, indeed what laborious reasoning cannot establish, is grasped intuitively and with an overpowering sense of certainty.26.
Whether you have such an experience or not depends in part upon your own abilities, preparation, and sensitivity. This is no different from creativity in other parts of human life: the unskilled, unlearned, or untalented rarely invents something new. On the other hand, prophecy is not totally within the power of human beings to produce: some Jewish philosophers (e.g., Maimonides) say that you have to prepare for it. Others (e.g., Heschel) claim that no preparation is possible or necessary.27. Both groups agree, however, that there can be no prophecy unless God wants to contact you. In exactly the same way, many people can train themselves assiduously for a given profession, but only some will be ingenious creators of new insights or techniques. Training alone cannot guarantee that. Similarly, in human relationships, you can do all in your power to become friends with someone else, but you cannot create the friendship by yourself: the other person must be willing to respond. When we talk about relationships to God, that has to be the case all the more so. Still, an ordinary person can have what Bokser calls a "secondary revelation" by reading the words of the prophet and imagining himself in the prophet's place:
The ordinary man may not sense the beauty of a sunset in a direct encounter. But when he reads a poem or looks at a picture glorifying the sunset, his perceptive powers may be ignited, and he too can begin to see and feel the haunting beauty which the sunset discloses. It is similar with the fruits of prophecy. The rest of mankind, not privileged to encounter the divine directly, may be introduced to it through confronting the words of the prophets. The divine haunts every utterance which issues from the prophetic experience. The prophet's words are "magnetized" with the divine power which initially sent them forth into the world. A secondary revelation occurs whenever we study the words of the Torah, and we too come under the spell of the divine.
Moreover, the Jew is obligated to try to have such a secondary revelation in that the Jew is required to study the Torah and follow its precepts, thus putting himself in the place of the prophet in both thought and act.
Are there any differences between inspiration and revelation? Bokser says no:
We often use the term "inspiration" rather than "revelation." Inspiration means literally a breathing in. But who is it who breathes in upon the person and directs him to communicate to his fellow man? Every creative act where true inspiration is at work is a continuation of God's disclosure; it is a further unfolding of the light with which God began the order of creation
Max J. Routtenberg, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B'nai Shalom in RockvilleCentre, New York, has identified revelation with even more types of inspiration:
30. On the other hand, Robert Gordis, Professor of Bible and Rapaport Professor in the Philosophies of Religion at the Seminary, claims that there is a difference in the scope of the message:
For those who regard God, as I do, as the sum total of those forces in the universe which make for goodness, for truth, and for beauty, any and every manifestation of these qualities is a revelation of God. When man becomes aware, as he frequently does, sometimes even in a blinding flash, of what "the Lord doth require of him" and it becomes consuming fire in his bones so that he must do something about it, he has received a communication from God. Man himself may verbalize this intuition and ascribe it to God, but it is a divine inspiration nevertheless. Every impulse to goodness, every quest for truth, every search for beauty is a communication from God; every deed of goodness, every discovery of truth, every expression of beauty is a fulfillment of God's commandments.
The superlative endowment that causes a Shakespeare to issue from some ordinary English farmers, and a Mozart from some moderately talented musicians, we call "inspiration." In restricting the term "revelation" to the sphere of religious and ethical truth, while using "inspiration" to describe other manifestations of genius, we are not yielding to convention. There is a qualitative difference between the two phenomena not to be ignored. God's creative power enters man's spirit in countless areas, such as science, art, music, literature, or the social order, each of which is a segment of our existence. All those whom He singles out for greatness in one area or another have been granted His authentic inspiration. But when God reveals a glimpse of His truth, not on one limited aspect of life, but rather on man's total relationship to the universe, when He grants insight into the character of man's nature and duty, the human being that God has chosen as His spokesman has experienced Revelation
Heschel would add several other ways in which revelation is different from inspiration. One of them is that for him revelation involves the verbal transmission of a specific message from God, and that is what makes him an exponent of Conservative I rather than Conservative II. He does add a few other distinctions, however, with which advocates of Conservative II might agree. Specifically, for Heschel a revelation of God differs from any other type of inspiration in that the receiver of a revelation experiences not only a specific message, but that it is God who is giving that message: "Seen from man's aspect, to receive a revelation is to witness how God is turning toward man." 32. Moreover, the prophet feels that he himself is being experienced by God:
This, it seems, was the mark of authenticity: the fact that prophetic revelation was not merely an act of experience but an act of being experienced, of being exposed to, called upon, overwhelmed and taken over by Him who seeks out those whom He sends to mankind. It is not God who is an experience of man; it is man who is an experience of God
In other words, it is similar to what you experience when you come into contact with another human being; you perceive the other person, and you also know that you are being seen and heard by him.
The crucial question, though, is the relationship between such acts of divine inspiration and the laws and ideas in the Torah. After all, the whole point of asserting divine inspiration in the first place was to impart God's authority to biblical law and ideology. Therefore, in addition to our questions about the nature of such inspiration, we must ask whether "divine inspiration" is sufficient to invest biblical law with God's authority.
It is that point which is, frankly, somewhat sticky for the advocates of Conservative II. Since the Bible is a combination of the human and divine, how do you distinguish the one from the other? Emil Fackenheim, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, has stated this point well and has proposed an answer:
The view I have sketched implies that not all 613 commandments are equally binding. Shot through with human appropriation and interpretation, both the Torah and the subsequent tradition which is oral Torah inescapably reflect the ages of their composition. But it also follows that it is both naive and un-Jewish to distill, as still binding, "eternal" commandments from a complex composed of both eternal and' 'time-bound" ones, the latter simply to be discarded. (This is done by old-fashioned liberalism, with its rigid distinction between the' 'principles" of prophetic ethics and mere external" ceremonial" laws, a distinction which derives its standards from external sources - Plato, Kant, Jefferson, and the like - and considers the standards by which it judges to be superior to what is judged by them; this is an inversion of the Jewish view in which God speaking through the Torah does the judging.) A modern Jew can escape his own time-bound appropriating no more than could his fathers; but his interpretation is Jewishly legitimate only if it confronts, and listens to, the revelation reflected in the Torah, which continues to be accessible only through the ancient reflection which is the Torah. Our modern appropriating is both possible and necessary because Sinai is not an ancient event only: the Torah is given whenever Israel receives it. But the act of present appropriation is mediated through the original Sinai. It is this listening appropriation which creates historical continuity.
In other words, there are some parts of Jewish law which uplift a person morally, enrich him aesthetically, and give him group identity. Those we would like to call divine and eternal. On the other hand, there are parts of Jewish law which seem to us to be morally degrading, aesthetically offensive, and/or socially useless. (Examples commonly given are the biblical laws sanctioning slavery, requiring the death penalty for violations of the Sabbath, and prohibiting a bastard and his descendants for ten generations from marrying a Jew.) To those many would like to deny divine status, claiming that they are the product of the limited vision of human beings at a particular time. A third category consists of those laws in the Tradition which are morally, aesthetically, and socially neutral. Those laws most would be willing to continue observing if only to preserve as much of the Tradition as possible. Which laws fall into which category? That is the real problem. Fackenheim claims that we cannot really tell because our own judgment is limited by the prejudices of the times. The best that we can do is to try to listen to the Tradition as well as we can and then apply it to our own times. He claims that each individual Jew should do this. Most of the advocates of Conservative II would agree with Fackenheim that all we can do is to listen to the Tradition and try to apply it appropriately; but they would claim, as the Tradition does, that it is the rabbis of each generation that should do this because only they have studied the Tradition enough to be able to listen to it sensitively. In other words, it should be a decision made on behalf of the community by its religious leaders, as it has been historically, and not a matter for each individual to decide.
Is this sufficient to guarantee that the decisions that are made are in fact God's will? That depends upon your point of view. Advocates of Conservative II would argue that putting the decisions in the hands of the rabbis of each generation does not guarantee wisdom or divinity, but it is the best we can do. Life does not come with guarantees. Besides, the Tradition requires that we proceed in the way (cf. Sources #6 and #7 in Section C above).
4) Conservative III
Advocates of this position assert the following:
a) Revelation is the disclosure of God Himself. It is not the declaration of specific rules or ideas, but rather a meeting between God and man in which they get to know each other. This meeting is asserted for different reasons and described in different ways by the existentialist and objectivist thinkers of this group. (These terms will be explained below.) In other words, there are variant understandings of theact of revelation.
b) Both schools agree, however, on the nature of the texts of revelation: the Torah is the record of how human beings responded to God when they came into contact with Him.
c) Jewish law has authority for the Jew both because itrepresents the attempt of the Jewish People to spell out God's will, as revealed in the ongoing encounter with Him, and also because Jews are members of a covenanted community and have obligations under that covenant to God and to the Jewish community of past, present, and future. The divine and communal aspects of Jewish law make it a series of mitzvot (commandments), and not just minhagim (customs), in contradistinction to the position of Conservative IV (Reconstructionist) below. For Conservative III, both God and the Jewish community command a Jew to act in accordance with Jewish law as it is interpreted in each generation, and the Jew renews his own personal contact with both in so acting.
d) However, since the Torah was written by human beings, if we want to learn about the origins and meaning of the Bible, we must use the techniques of biblical scholarship as thoroughly and honestly as we can.
e) Moreover, because the Bible is thehuman recording of the encounter between man and God during times past, the specific ideas and laws contained therein reflect the practices, values, and attitudes of those times. They may no longer be an adequate expression of our own understanding of what God demands of us now. (Cf. Gillman on myth) We in our day have not only the right, but the responsibility, to make appropriate changes in the Tradition that has come down to us so that it will reflect God's will as accurately as possible and accomplish it as effectively as possible in the contemporary world.
f) While every person may have his own relationship with God, it is God's encounter with the Jewish People as a whole that is of primary importance. The communal character of revelation is, in fact, a distinguishing feature of Judaism. Consequently, changes in the laws of Judaism must be made by the rabbis on behalf of the community, as the Tradition requires, and not by individuals on their own. But the entire body of Jewish law, as interpreted by the rabbis of our times, is binding on every Jew as a member of the community covenanted with God and with generations of Jews, past, present, and future.
This view is also widely held in the Conservative Movement. It is popular for the same reasons that Conservative II is - namely, because it combines objective study of the texts of the Tradition with divine authority for its laws and ideas. Advocates of Conservative III often explain that one of their primary motivations in adopting this approach is to preserve a sense of mitzvah, of being commanded by God, when observing Jewish law while yet retaining intellectual honesty. Since they do not believe that God gave a specific message for all time, they also tend to be more willing than those who hold Conservative I or II to make changes in Jewish law.
However, they would encourage caution in making such changes, for the following reason: since we do not know what parts of the system are responsible for its durability, we should not tamper with it too much. In other words, advocates of this position will be more interested in the results of the proposed changes than in the strength of precedents justifying the changes. Therefore, on certain issues, they may be more conservative than those who take a more assured stand on the divinity of the origin of the law.
Advocates of Conservative III agree on all of the points stated above, including the tenet that the authority of Jewish law is in part divine and in part communal. However, Conservative III includes two different ways of describing the divine aspect of Jewish law and a corresponding difference in emphasis on the divine and communal factors.
One group within Conservative III depends heavily on the existentialist tradition in philosophy, which emphasizes the individual's experience. Thinkers in this group speak often of the personal encounters which individuals have with God. On the other hand, advocates of this position want to preserve Jewish law, which is communal in nature. Moreover, the most important Jewish contacts with God in revelation and history were interactions between God and the Jewish People as a whole. Therefore exponents of Conservative III often cite the work of Franz Rosenzweig, who emphasized the importance of having a relationship with God and also considered law to be an aid, rather than an obstacle, to that relationship.35. Their traditional leanings, however, make them more communally oriented than Rosenzweig's thought is - although they often do not recognize that they differ from Rosenzweig in this way.
Let us consider a few examples of this position. Louis Jacobs, Rabbi of the New London Synagogue, a Liberal synagogue in London, England, has explained it well:
Both doctrines - that of tradition and that of "progressive revelation" - see revelation in propositional terms. According to the traditional view, God revealed certain propositions all at once, whereas according to "progressive revelation" theory He revealed them gradually. In more recent times a very different (and to many minds far more satisfactory) view of revelation has gained ground. On this view, revelation does not mean that God conveys to man detailed propositions at all, but rather that He enables men to have an encounter with Him of a specially intense form. It is God Himself who is disclosed in revelation. Revelation is an event, not a series of propositions about God and His demands.
The Bible is the record of how men were confronted with
For all the human colouring of the story, for all that Genesis is a book like other books and so amenable to literary and historical analysis, it is in this book that God is revealed. If God is, then He is to be found in the Biblical record; nowhere else in human literature is He told of so clearly. What applies to the Genesis narrative applies to the rest of the Bible. It is all the record of a people's tremendous attempt - the believer declares a successful attempt - to meet God. The various propositions are, then, not themselves revelation but are the by-product of revelation....
Revelation can thus be seen as the disclosure of God Himself. The rules and regulations, the Torah and precepts, provide the vocabulary by which the God who is disclosed is to be worshipped, in the broad sense of the term. They are a repertoire which has evolved in response to the impact of the original disclosure....
The precepts of the Torah are binding because they provide the vocabulary of worship - always understanding worship in its widest sense. God did "command" them, but not by direct communication - as in the traditional view - but through the historical experiences of the people of Israel. The Rabbis had what we would today call the "fundamentalist" view. They believed in the doctrine of "verbal inspiration". (But) the idea of a "command" through man - of God, as it were, giving the Torah not so much to Israel as through Israel - is not entirely foreign to Rabbinic Judaism so that a creative Jewish theology can build on it....
The great difficulty, as we have noted, for upholders of the binding character of Jewish laws is the leap from the intensely personal meeting with God, of which the Bible is the record, to the full acceptance of the detailed laws. These belong not to the actual revelation but to its fallible human recording. Why, then, should they be held to be binding?...
The final work with its contradictions and errors, is the result of a teaching process, frequently unconscious, in which the record was drawn up of Israel's quest for God and of God allowing Himself to be found. Such an understanding preserves the dynamic quality of the process. Revelation is still to be seen as God's self-disclosure, but what we have called the "vocabulary of worship" is as much a significant factor in the process as the original disclosure.
It need hardly be said that the view we have adopted is certainly not the traditional one. But it does preserve the idea - of the utmost significance for the Jewish religion - that to lead the good life is to obey God's will. The idea of the mitzvah, the divine command, can and should be maintained even though intellectual honesty compels us to interpret revelation in non-propositional terms.36.
Another important proponent of this view is Seymour Siegel, the current Chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and Professor of Theology and Ethics at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
You will note in his exposition of the position, as in Jacobs', the elements of personal contact with God, interpreting the Bible in a non-literal way, covenant, the feeling of mitzvah, openness to change the specific contents of Jewish law, and a reference to Rosenzweig:
Judaism has its ground in the divine-human encounter, which is ordinarily called' 'revelation." This encounter occurred between the divine and the people of Israel. The divine self-disclosure to the community of Israel resulted in the covenantal obligation assumed by our ancestors. They were to be a "kingdom of priests and holy people," living their individual and communal lives in the presence of God.
The record of this divine-human encounter is contained in the Torah. The Torah (and the rest of the sacred literature of the Jews) is the result of revelation; it is not identical with it. It is the human writing-down of the divine word. Therefore, the Bible is not infallible. It does not reflect scientific truth (though it may contain it); and it may reflect historical inaccuracies (though it may, and almost always does, reflect historical truth). Both the divine and the human are bound up inexorably in the Torah and cannot be separated or distinguished by means of some formula.
The process by means of which the community of Israel reads the Torah so as to know what is demanded of it in the concrete, historical situation is the process of interpretation called midrash. The history of Judaism is the history both of revelation and of the interpretation of revelation. . . .
One of the most important elements of the revelation is the system of mitzvot (commandments) culminating in the system of halakha. The purpose of this system is to make concrete the divine demand to be holy and to pursue justice. It is the natural result of the acceptance of the covenant. As the Mishna puts it, first one accepts the yoke of heaven and then one accepts the yoke of the commandments. Through the performance of the mitzvot, the Jew acts out his being set apart as a priest people and opens himself to the experience of the divine.. . . The process of reevaluating the mitzvot through interpretation goes on in the living community of the people of Israel. The mitzvot are not to be seen as a group of Platonic Ideas existing for all time in their perfect and unchanging character. They are the demands of God upon the community of Israel, which lives in time, and they are therefore subject to change, growth, and (all too frequently) decay....
The individual Jew, insofar as he is an active member of the believing community, is guided in the Law by those whom he accepts as its interpreters. He is also guided by his ability to observe the Law, and this is dependent upon his education and his spiritual preparedness. So long as he is serious about his responsibility and concerned about his Jewishness, he is doing the right thing in the sight of the Lord. But he should always aim to incorporate more and more of Jewish obligation into his life. The entire corpus remains as an obligation and a demand. But each Jew seriously and prayerfully should move as high as possible up the' 'ladder of Jewish observance" as he gains in sensitivity and understanding. What I have been saying is a restatement of Franz Rosenzweig's thoughts on the question of Jewish observance. Actually, I have little to add beyond his formulation.37.
Several theologians in the Reform Movement have also developed theologies based upon existentialism, especially in the mode of Rosenzweig, and it is instructive to note how their understanding and use of existentialism and Rosenzweig differ from those of the advocates of ConservativeIII. The Reformers who use this approach speak about the individual's identification with the covenant between God and Israel, but they assert and stress that in the end it is the individual who decide show the covenant is to be interpreted and applied, not the community. So for example, Jakob Petuchowski, Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Theology at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, says
me personally. Now, it may well be that much of the legislation found in the Torah originated as "commandments" experienced by ancient Israel. But it is also true that, in the course of time, it did become "'legislation," and, as such, applicable only to the everyday life of a community governed by this legislation.
"Legislation" is something that is "on the books." A "commandment," on the other hand, is addressed to
The modern Jew, as we have defined him, lacks the awareness of living in such a community, and, therefore, also the prerequisite for re-translating the cold letters of legislation into the personally meaningful and significant sounds of commandments. This is not to say that the modern Jew rejects the idea of "community" as such. Even the non-religious Jew in America is often very community-minded. But it just is no longer the kind of community which would accept a 16th-century, or even a 3rd-century, formulation of Jewish Law as its constitutional basis. . . .
By thus stating the diagnosis we have already hinted at the cure. In the first place, the modern Jew must regain the frame of mind in which he is able to experience the "commandment" addressed to him. It is a frame of mind which the Rabbis of old attempted to create, when they insisted that the Revelation at Sinai must be as topical to the Jew as if it had happened to him "today. " It is also a frame of mind to which the modern Jew can attain, as has been demonstrated by Franz Rosenzweig, both in his thoughts and in his way of life....
Of course, all of this will be marked by a high degree of subjectivity. There is in it none of the certainty which Orthodoxy promises its adherents, none of the matter-of-factness of complying with the established legislation of a body politic. One individual's observance of the Sabbath, for example, is unlikely to be identical with that of another individual. The former might consider that to be forbidden "work" which for the latter is an indispensable ingredient of his Sabbath" delight." But this is the price which will have to be paid. For the majority of modern Jews, it will either be this or nothing at all.
It is a state of affairs well described by Franz Rosenzweig, when he said that what we have in common nowadays is the landscape, and no longer the common road on which Jews walked in unity from the close of the Talmud to the dawn of Emancipation. The best we can do today is to work at our individual roads in the common landscape. Perhaps the future will again know of a common road, or, more likely, of a common system of roads.
There is, however, a limit to too much subjectivity, just as there is the need to preserve the "common landscape." In the first place, it must not be forgotten that the modern Jewish individuals, with all their diversities, will, if they are interested in Torah at all, share a common ground and a common aspiration. What does it matter if there are variations in the minutiae of observance, as long as there is a willingness to ' 'observe" at all?! It should be borne in mind that we are speaking of the modern Jew who is anxious to find his way back to the Torah, and not of him who is trying to run away from it.
The second consideration is that the very nature of Torah makes it impossible for the modern Jew to remain an isolated individual. Jewish living, in one form or another, is community living. The Jewish hermit is inconceivable. (The nearest approach we ever had to "hermits," the sectarians who shunned Jerusalem and went to live near the Dead Sea, lived there in highly organizedcommunities. The now famous Dead Sea Scrolls arose within a community framework.) And, if the old form of the community has broken down at the beginning of the modern era, if its surviving remnants appear to be too artificial to command the modern Jew's devotion, a new form of the "holy community" is already in the making.
The Torah was given to thePeople of Israel. God's covenant is, as we have seen, with the "chosen people." Israel's task is to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy people. " But if the historical identity of Israel, in space and in time, is to remain intact, because without the people there would be no covenant, it follows that, over and above the "commandments" which the modern Jewish individual accepts as his personal obligation, there will be others to which he submits as a member of the People of Israel.38.
Eugene Borowitz, Professor of Education and Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College in New York and Chairman of the committee that drafted the new 1976 statement on Reform ideology for the Reform Movement, is another Reform theologian who uses the notion of covenant extensively. However, like Petuchowski, he also emphasizes the ultimate authority of the individual in determining the content of the covenant in modern times:
The traditional Jew, looking at my observance, will find many of its features strange. He will be particularly perplexed that I interpret brit [covenant] in personal rather than in legal terms. But he should be able to recognize (and that is increasingly my experience) that what unites him and me is greater than what separates us. We stand as part of the same Jewish people united in the same basic relationship with the same God.... We both believe that this Covenant relationship authorizes and requires communal and individual action. We differ only - though it is a great Jewish "only" - on what constitutes that required action, its substance, hierarchy, and religious weight.
Jewish faith increasingly cannot be the passive continuation of a social heritage which is what it essentially was in previous Jewish generations. The more modern one is, the more one insists that it is a matter of responsible willing. One should choose to be Jewish and resist as non-determinative the claims of family, history, or personal sentiment. That choice, particularly since it is a fundamental commitment of one's life, must be made autonomously to be authentic.40.
Contrast that with the following two citations, the first by Louis Jacobs and the second by Seymour Siegel:
We believe in the God who speaks to us out of Israel's experience; Israel, the covenant people, dedicated to God's service and the fulfillment of His purpose. We believe in the God who, as Frankel said, reveals Himself not alone to the prophets but through Kelal Yisrael, the Community of Israel, as it works out and applies the teachings of the
The Jewish ethical position not only ordains certain actions and forbids others; it also has a formal principle. That principle might be stated: Even though the rules may change, the idea of having rules does not change. The whole thrust of the Jewish tradition is nomian [structured by law]. The Jewish stress on reasoned change, tradition and its authority, ordered society, the equality of opportunity - not equality of rewards - are needed now more than ever.42.
Thus the traditional Conservative emphasis on the community and the characteristic Reform concentration on the individual are clearly in evidence in the different ways in which Conservative and Reform thinkers interpret and apply an existential approach to Judaism.
The other group of thinkers of Conservative III are more in the objectivist tradition of philosophy - that tradition which tries to analyze experience in a detached, objective way, appealing to reason ("rationalists") and the experiences ("empiricists") that we all share as much as possible. That is not to say that objectivist thinkers deny personal, emotional experiences or that existentialists neglect reason and shared experiences entirely: both schools must account for both our detached, objective experiences and our involved, personal ones if they are to reflect human experience adequately. But each emphasizes and uses one type of experience more than the other in creating its interpretation of experience (= its philosophy).
Applying this now to Jewish law, we find that while the objectivist thinkers of Conservative III may well have personal experiences with God in some sense, they hesitate to base the authority of the Tradition on them because such encounters differ substantially in nature and import from person to person. Moreover, we really do not know what happened at Sinai, and it does not help to call it a mystery: we want firmer grounds than that if we are going to base our lives on the Jewish tradition. Consequently, advocates of this position base more of the authority of the Tradition on its acceptance by the community of Israel than on the event at Sinai. On the other hand, they recognize the fact that only a religious stance adequately accounts for many aspects of our experience, and they also attribute a special character to Jewish law. In other words, their experience makes them want to assert both communal and divine authority for Jewish law without basing it on a revelatory event. Instead, they point to other features of our experience which indicate God's presence and the special nature of Jewish law.
Some examples will make this clear. Jacob Agus, Rabbi of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, highlights the aspect of holiness in our experience, which he defines as "the awareness of being part of a grand design in which our being is completed and also transcended," and then Torah is special because it brings the awareness of holiness to our daily lives:
Our quest for reality must partake of the three realms of being - the rational, the ethical, and the aesthetic. And as this outgoing flow of spirit ebbs, we feel the glow of holiness, the awareness of being part of a grand design, in which our being is completed and also transcended. This is the meaning of Moses's injunction- "complete shall ye be, with the Lord, thy God."
On this view, the Torah, or the sacred tradition, mediates to us the spirit of holiness, and it builds up within us the power and dedication to ideal ends. Since revelation can be no more be verbal than God can be a physical being, we must regard literalism or fundamentalism as the disease of religion....
I believe that the non-rationalist components of our tradition are essential to the symbolical structure of the faith. We can sense the feeling of holiness only in an atmosphere which reflects the transcendent mystery of our existence as individuals and as a community. Thus, I value highly the texture of worship, the various laws of so-called "sanctification," from circumcision to the dietary regulations. But these regulations are not literally ordained by God; therefore they are subject to change in accord with the best judgment of the organized community.43.
David Lieber, President of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and Vice-Chancellor of the Seminary, takes a similar stance. In his formulation, note the clear objectivist methodology and the emphasis on the cohesiveness of the community. For him religion is necessary to have an adequate understanding of man, to "provide a way out of the egocentric predicament" (i.e., to give man an external view of himself and demonstrate why he cannot rely on himself alone or have concern for himself alone), and to provide an object of aspiration. The law, then, is special because it attempts to express the divine in life and, especially, because it is necessary if we are going to be able to continue as a covenanted community:
. . .
I consider myself to be a "modernist" for whom reason and experience are the touchstones of knowledge, and not the authority of a text or tradition, hallowed though it may be by centuries of saints and scholars. At the same time, I cannot accept the methods either of the behavioral scientists or of the philosophical analysts as adequate to an understanding of the condition of man. Nor do I believe that they can provide a way out of the egocentric predicament in which man presently finds himself. Moreover, I am impressed by the moral and spiritual insights which have resulted from authentic religious experiences, as well as by their power to move men and mountains, and reshape entire civilizations. Finally, while I freely recognize that ours is not an age which takes religious categories seriously, there is, in my estimation, an increasingly felt need for a "shared object of devotion" which the traditional God-faith provided, and a desire for some kind of community of faith, which will butress the individual in his search for meaning and significance in the friendless world in which he finds himself.
Fundamentally, then, God, the source of all existence, is unknown and forever unknowable. At the same time, He does seem to reveal Himself in human experience in unexpected moments and in a variety of circumstances. In any case, He functions as the symbol of all human aspirations for self-transcendence as the ideal limit of man's notion of supreme value. He is "the 'beyond' in our midst," and faith in Him is an awareness of the ideal possibilities of human life, and of man's ability to fashion his life in the light of them....
For myself, I accept the notion of a religious law as being a corollary of, and flowing from, the notion of the covenant. A community must have rules and regulations to function; its individual members must be guided by norms, standards, and laws. Furthermore, since I do recognize the desirability of maintaining continuity with the past, as well as a measure of unity with Jews the world over, I am prepared to guide myself by those rules and regulations which have been accepted through the ages, provided they do not conflict with my ethical or aesthetic sensibilities. Beyond that, I am anxious to reexamine the whole corpus of Jewish law to point up, wherever possible, its relevance to contemporary social and personal issues- such as war and peace, the rights of minorities and of majorities - and to expand it so that it may speak to those questions for which the tradition offers no guidance to date.
I do this in full consciousness of the fact that I do not believe the law and its details to be of divine origin, but rather Israel's response to what it considered to be the divine call. On the whole, I think that this response was unexceptionable and that it has elevated and ennobled Jewish life throughout the ages. To the extent, however, that the development of the law became an end in itself, and the fundamental principles upon which it was based were forgotten, it did become necessary from time to time for courageous religious leaders and teachers to set themselves against the trend. They had to blaze new paths so that the fundamental respect of the people for the law would not be destroyed, and Judaism might remain relevant to the Jews' highest aspirations and meet the needs generated by new ages and new surroundings.
Ours, it seems to me, is just such an age.44.
And finally, Elliot Dorff, the author of your sourcebook and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, subscribes to this position in a somewhat different way. For him, revelation can occur in any event from the most common to the most unusual: what marks an event as a revelation of God is not that the event itself is of a special character, but that it is interpreted as such by a human community. So, for example, the Holocaust may be just another ugly war for most of the world, but it may be a revelation by God of a 614th Commandment for the Jewish People as Emil Fackenheim would claim - a Commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory.45. Whether it is a revelation of God or not depends upon whether the Jewish community accepts it as such. Similarly, the decision of a particular rabbi about a matter of Jewish law may be just his opinion (and perhaps one which should be quickly forgotten!), or it may be a revelation from God Himself: which it is depends upon how the Jewish community treats it. Moreover, the Jewish community determines not only what events shall count as revelations; it also decides how those revelations are to be interpreted and applied. Jewish law, then, is of human authorship, a human, communal response to events which the Jewish community accepts as revelatory. The law is divine because of its internal wisdom (goodness) and durability (strength). Here, as usual, power and goodness are the characteristics which we call divine.46. The authority of Jewish law for the Jew is then a function of both its communal acceptance and its divinity:
1) I would want to claim that man's moral, intellectual and aesthetic faculties should be viewed as a touch of the divine within man because those faculties distinguish man from the animals.
2) I would also want to claim that the structure of the world is an objective base which serves as a criterion for the evaluation of any philosophic or moral code; and since I hold that the world was divinely created in the sense that its creation involves powers beyond our control, I would be willing to say that God informed us about Himself and the world and gave us the Law in an indirect way, i.e., by creating the world in such a way that certain formulations of thought and practice fit the pattern of creation better than others.
3) I would aver, however, that the specific content of man's theological ideas and codes of practice is of his own creation and hence is subject to error and change. I would agree with William Temple's analysis that revelation occurs in events which human beings interpret to be revelatory of truths or norms of conduct, and therefore any event could be a source of revelation, although some may be more impressively so than others. I would also want to stress that, within Judaism, it is the Jewish community of the past and present which decides which events are revelatory and what the content of that revelation is, and that this communal check prevents revelation from being simply the figment of someone's imagination....
I would then observe Jewish law (i.e., Jewish Law would attain its authority for me) both because it is the law of my people and because of its own intrinsic wisdom as a program for satisfying human needs and maximizing human potential in the world as we know it. That entails a concerted effort to build the feelings of the community and peoplehood among our laity so that they will feel the need to observe the laws of our people. It also means that when the laws are not wise, I must be prepared to change them in consort with the rest of the Conservative community, taking due regard of the weight of tradition in the process....
Even though for lack of knowledge I must suspend judgment as to what actually happened at Sinai, there are elements of the texts attributed to that event which induce me to attach a divine quality to them. These include their scope, their inherent wisdom, and especially the demonstrated viability of the tradition which they fostered over the centuries and throughout many regions of the world. This clearly does not mean that Judaism's understanding of life is the only possible one. There are obviously other traditions which claim similar authority for their philosophies of life and which have undergone a long period of inter-subjective testing, too. Judaism itself recognizes the existence of prophets and saints among non-Jews and does not require Jewish belief or practice of non-Jews, even with regard to attaining a place in the world to come. But the amazing adaptability of Jewish law and ideology does indicate to me that Jews have apparently hit upon a pattern of life and thought that fits the structure of man and nature well - so well that I doubt that it could simply be the product of human minds. Consequently, although I cannot unequivocally affirm or deny belief in a verbal communication at Sinai, I do want to claim that the Jewish tradition embodies a degree of foresight, insight and sheer wisdom which is abnormal for human beings, even especially sensitive ones, and that in this sense at least it is a revelation of divine (super-human) truth and will.47.
Note that these more objective, detached arguments on behalf of Jewish law do not mean that the thinkers who propose them are blind to the personal aspects of religious commitment. On the contrary, Jacob Agus and Elliot Dorff have both written articles in an attempt to show how the personal and objective factors of their religious faith interrelate.48. It is just that these "objectivist" exponents of Conservative III choose to emphasize the publicly observable facts rather than private, personal experiences in arguing for Jewish observance.
5)Conservative IV (= Reconstructionist tendency)
The fourth position on the source and authority of Jewish law within the Conservative Movement is this:
(minhag, custom) of our People. In general, it should be observed in order to give our People continuity and coherence. If particular laws become offensive or fall into disuse, however, they should be changed.
a) Human beings wrote the texts of the Tradition.
b) Those texts and the patterns of life and thought that they created are neither better nor worse than those of other cultures. Hence no divinity is ascribed to them, and all talk of a Chosen People is in error and dangerous.
c) Nevertheless, Jewish law has authority for us as the "folkways"
d) If the Jewish community succeeds in organizing itself into a cohesive, active group as the Kehillah was in medieval Europe, then communal methods for deciding issues in Jewish law and communal sanctions for it would make sense. Until such time, the individual Jew will make these decisions. That is as it should be in an area of ritual practices, but it is not a desirable situation in the realm of moral norms, and we must strive to create a Jewish community with real initiative and authority in such matters.
Mordechai Kaplan is clearly the major spokesman for this view, which he named "Reconstructionism." A few paragraphs from two of his writings will articulate this approach nicely:
Instead of assuming the Torah "to be divine revelation," I assume it to be the expression of ancient Israel's attempt to base its life on a declaration of dependence upon God, and on a constitution which embodies the laws according to which God expected ancient Israel to live. The declaration is spelled out in the narrative part of the Torah, and the constitution is spelled out in the law code of the Torah.
Our position is that thosemitzvot which, in tradition are described as applying "between man and God" should be observed, insofar as they help to maintain the historic continuity of the Jewish People and to express or symbolize, spiritual values or ideals, which can enhance the inner life of Jews. Their observance, however, should be reckoned with, not in the spirit of juridical law, which is coercive, but in the spirit of a voluntary consensus based on a general recognition of their value. We shall, therefore, refer to our approach to Jewish ritual observance as the voluntarist approach.
In advocating that approach to Jewish ritual, we are not taking an antinomian attitude [that is, one which argues for having no laws at all], as Dr. Gordis contends that we do. We insist that the concept of Jewish peoplehood which is basic to the whole Reconstructionist position involves the translation of ethical principles into concrete laws and institutions. We deplore and are endeavoring to correct the communal disorganization which has made the Jewish People impotent to enforce standards of ethical behavior in the relations of man to man....
To achieve the purposes of ritual, even from the voluntarist viewpoint, calls for a formulation of norms or standards. These norms must be determined by the twofold purpose of contributing simultaneously to Jewish survival and the enrichment of the Jewish spiritual life.... These considerations, rather than halakic precedent and legalistic interpretation, should, in our opinion determine the development of Jewish ritual for the Jew of today.50.
Ira Eisenstein, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, has voiced a similar view:
Despite what the Torah claims or itself - and what some people still claim for it- I believe that it is a human document, reflecting the attempt of its authors to account for the history of the Jewish people, and for the moral and ethical insights which its geniuses acquired during the course of that history. It is "sacred literature" in the sense that Jews have always seen in it the source and the authority for that way of life and that view of history which gave meaning and direction to their lives.
I can understand why our ancestors believed the Torah (and its authoritative interpretations) to have been "divine revelation." For me, however, those concepts and values explicitly conveyed or implied in it which I can accept as valid represent discovery, partial and tentative glimpses into the true nature of human life. I find in the Torah adumbrations of ideas which I believe to be of enduring worth, and true insights into the unique laws which govern the relations of people and peoples.
Some of these ideas and values - that man is created in the image of the divine, that life is sacred, that man is his brother's keeper, that society must be ruled by law, that justice and compassion are the highest virtues, that moral responsibility is the most authentic form of ethics, that man must serve as a "partner to God" in perfecting this world, etc.-have exerted a tremendous influence upon Western civilization. I do not, however, infer from this fact that the Jews are the chosen people. I see no justification for ascribing metaphysical status to what is merely historical fact. Nor do I believe that the Jews are entrusted with any kind of "mission" in the sense of a preordained function in this world. I do, however, believe that Jews, as a people, have an opportunity to make a contribution to society which is uniquely their own.
Harold Schulweis, Rabbi of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, shares this view. In the following he attacks some of the weaknesses of the other positions that we have considered:
concept of God is not equally chosen by God?...
... The Torah is the selective record of Israel's extraordinary religious interpretation of its collective experience during the formative period of its career. The origin of Torah lies not in an extramundane source which has cast down absolute truths upon a receiving people, nor is it the arbitrary projection of human inventiveness flung upward. Torah is rooted in the matrix of a living organism, in a people which discovers out of its experience with failure and fortune the powers of godliness residing within it and its total environment. Torah as revelation is the product of Israel's creative transaction with history....
The sanctity of Torah-revelation lies not in the perfection of its authorship nor in its absolute finality. The Torah is holy not because it is the last word, but because it is the first self-conscious word of Judaism which reveals the direction of its moral thrust. The holiness of Torah does not require that its contents be held as infallible or immutable....
To argue, as is fashionable among so many contemporary theological statesmen, that Torah admits of some human elements and then to offer no way of determining where divine initiative ends and where human interpretation enters, is to avoid the heart of the question. To claim that revelation occurs without commitment to follow what revelation demands, or to proclaim the will of God without offering grounds for distinguishing true from false revelation, is to offer a vacuous form-revelation without content or criteria. In my interpretation, the divine element of Torah revelation comes not vertically from a super-person whose will descends upon us, but horizontally from a people engaged in the process of complex interaction within history. Real events and ideal visions acting upon each other yield the sancta of Judaism, and these values named sacred are ever being validated in the experience of this people....
While one can understand the psychological value of such belief [in Israel as the chosen people] during years of isolation and humiliation, one cannot on such pragmatic grounds justify its morality or truth. Modern attempts to hold on to the concept of "chosen people," but to redefine its contents remain unconvincing. There are those who explain that God-chosenness does not establish political superiority but only results in a noblesse oblige directive to lead a life of holiness; but this fails to recognize that such a claim to higher spiritual obligation remains an aristocratic conceit which demeans all other peoples by lowering our moral expectation of their behavior.
The effort at compensatory parceling-out of divinely designated racial or national gifts - e.g., philosophy to the Greeks, administration to the Romans, religious genius to the Jews - both caricatures nations and peoples and presumptuously offers the greatest prize to Israel as God's witness on earth.
The modern suggestion that God's choosing of Israel really means Israel's choosing of God is as valid a translation as turning X's owing Y money into Y's owing X money. The propositions are clearly not symmetrical. Moreover, if to be chosen means to choose, then which group holding a
Rejection of the doctrine of chosenness in no way denies the uniqueness or value of a people, its style of life in theory and practice. Uniqueness must not be confounded with the theological claim that one people is distinguished by God from all others as He distinguishes light from darkness, the sacred from the profane, the Sabbath from the weekday.52.
Because of criticisms like these, those who hold the Reconstructionist philosophy established a new rabbinical school (in 1968), and some no longer affiliate themselves with the Conservative Movement.
In Chapter II we discussed the way in which the Reform Movement interprets Jewish history. You will remember that for them the essence of Judaism is morality and belief in God, a combination demonstrated most clearly in the literature of the Prophets. The legal developments during the talmudic period and the Middle Ages were temporary measures designed for those periods only; they have no authority today, when Jews no longer need laws to enable them to survive under governments hostile to Jews. On the contrary, the governments of Western Europe and America are fair to all because of the Enlightenment ideas on which they are based. We should respond in kind, taking an active role in modern society and embracing the Enlightenment emphases on the individual and on reason. Many of the rituals of Judaism should be disbanded because they hinder the integration of Jews into modern society.
The theory of revelation which accompanied that interpretation of history is called "progressive revelation." According to that doctrine, God reveals His will to mankind through the use of human reason and moral striving. Each individual can be the recipient of revelation (in that sense) if he will only pay attention to the evidences of God in the natural and moral orders of the universe and deduce from that what the Lord requires of him. (You can see strong Enlightenment influences here in the emphasis on the individual and on morality.) Moreover, as humanity has more and more experience on this earth, human knowledge of what is and ought to be grows, and so the scope and accuracy of revelation progresses as time goes on (hence the name "progressive revelation"). This, then, explains why Jewish law of previous eras is not binding, and why it is the individual who decides what to observe in Reform Judaism. Several planks of the Columbus Guiding Principles of 1937, which was the second official ideological statement of the Reform Movement (after the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885), will illustrate this theory and its implications:
- Judaism is the historical religious experience of the Jewish people. Though growing out of Jewish life, its message is universal, aiming at the union and perfection of mankind under the sovereignty of God. Reform Judaism recognizes the principle of progressive development in religion and consciously applies this principle to spiritual as well as to cultural and social life.
Nature of Judaism
Judaism welcomes all truth, whether written in the pages of scripture or deciphered from the records of nature. The new discoveries of science, while replacing the older scientific views underlying our sacred literature, do not conflict with the essential spirit of religion as manifested in the consecration of man's will, heart and mind to the service of God and of humanity....
Torah- God reveals Himself not only in the majesty, beauty and orderliness of nature, but also in the vision and moral striving of the human spirit. Revelation is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age. Yet the people of Israel, through its prophets and sages, achieved unique insight in the realm of religious truth. The Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel's ever-growing consciousness of God and of the moral law. It preserves the historical precedents, sanctions and norms of Jewish life, and seeks to mould it in the patterns of goodness and of holiness. Being products of historical processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth. But as a depository of permanent spiritual ideals, the Torah remains the dynamic source of the life of Israel. Each age has the obligation to adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism.
The Religious Life - Jewish life is marked by consecration to these ideals of Judaism. It calls for faithful participation in the life of the Jewish community as it finds expression in home, synagogue and school and in all other agencies that enrich Jewish life and promote its welfare....
Judaism as a way of life requires, in addition to its moral and spiritual demands, the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals and Holy Days, the retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess inspirational value, the cultivation of distinctive forms of religious art and music and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction.
These timeless aims and ideals of our faith we present anew to a confused and troubled world. We call upon our fellow Jews to rededicate themselves to them, and, in harmony with all men, hopefully and courageously to continue Israel's eternal quest for God and His kingdom.53.
At the conference of Reform rabbis at which the Columbus Guiding Principles were adopted, Rabbi Samuel Schulman, one of the most respected and scholarly liberals of his time, proposed a substitute version because he recognized and objected to the great stress on individualism and reason:
... we must courageously confront the issue of absolute and unlimited individualism in our own body; but if there are such absolute individualists, then let us continue without a platform because platforms, while they seemingly unite, also divide if they are written with strength. Therefore, I wrote the paragraph on authority. Individualism had to be met; therefore I said that science is not self-sufficient, that it does not cover the whole of life, it is not the whole of truth.54.
The Guiding Principles were adopted without his amendment, however, by a vote of 110 to 5.
Two things should be noted about this. First of all, the theory of progressive revelation should not be confused with the doctrine of "continuous revelation" which characterizes positions II and III in the Conservative Movement. "Continuous Revelation" means that God continues to manifest His will through the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah in each generation. That may involve changes in the law, but the new law is not necessarily better or worse than the previous law. Moreover, it is the rabbis acting on behalf of the community that define the content of God's revelation in our day. In contrast, "Progressive Revelation" assumes continual progress in that we will get to know more and more of God's will for man as time goes on, and it is the individual who determines the content of that revelation by applying his reason to nature as well as the texts of the Jewish and other traditions. Therefore the two theories differ in
(a) the people who are considered the modern recipients of revelation and are entrusted with deciding its content;
(b) the methods those people are supposed to use in making their decision (reason, attempting to apply past Jewish law to modern circumstances, or reason applied to everything in human experience); and
(c) the desirability of maintaining practices and ideas in past records of revelation.
The second point that should be noted is that Reform Judaism has changed in the last fifteen years or so, with a decided shift to more traditional patterns of observance. A number of Reform rabbis now wear skullcaps (kippot) during services, and some observe the dietary laws (kashrut). In general, the hostility to many rituals has dissolved, and in its place there is an openness and a willingness to experiment with various elements of traditional practice. Along with this has come a new respect for the classical Jewish sources: other sources of knowledge and morality are still to be used, of course, but the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Codes are taken more seriously now. This development is still largely confined to the rabbis, however, and they are by no means unanimous in this shift. Moreover, the classical Reform insistence that it is the individual who must decide what to observe is as strong as ever, and there is a significant difference between the Reform and Conservative Movements in the degree to which classical Jewish law is observed by both rabbis and laymen. Both the changes and the elements which have remained constant in the Reform approach are manifest in the latest ideological document of the Reform Movement, "Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective," adopted in June, 1976:
Torah. Torah results from the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The records of our earliest confrontations are uniquely important to us. Lawgivers and prophets, historians and poets gave us a heritage whose study is a religious imperative and whose practice is our chief means to holiness. Rabbis and teachers, philosophers and mystics, gifted Jews in every age amplified the Torah tradition. For millennia, the creation of Torah has not ceased and Jewish creativity in our time is adding to the chain of tradition.
Our Obligations: religious practice. Judaism emphasizes action rather than creed as the primary expression of a religious life, the means by which we strive to achieve universal justice and peace. Reform Judaism shares this emphasis on duty and obligation. Our founders stressed that the Jew's ethical responsibilities, personal and social, are enjoined by God. The past century has taught us that the claims made upon us may begin with our ethical obligations, but they extend to many other aspects of Jewish living, including: creating a Jewish home centered on family devotion; life-long study; private prayer and public worship; daily religious observance; keeping the Sabbath and the holy days; celebrating the major events of life; involvement with the synagogue and community; and other activities which promote the survival of the Jewish people and enhance its existence. Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.55....
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