Is it still possible to believe in revelation?

The revelation at Sinai, the theme of Shavuot next week, is the bedrock of Jewish faith. But it still leaves room for uncertainty, says Rabbi Herzl Hefter


Rabbi Hefter teaches at Yeshivat Hamivtar-Torat Yosef, Efrat

Rabbi Hefter teaches at Yeshivat Hamivtar-Torat Yosef, Efrat

The postmodern era in which we live poses unprecedented challenges to the foundations on which traditional faith is based. Those of us who received a conservative religious education were nurtured on the certainties of Jewish tradition as encapsulated by the opening words of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah:

"It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom to know that there is something [namely God] that existed before anything else."

The unique challenge which postmodernity poses to traditional faith does not concern particular articles of faith as such, the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah, for example. Postmodernism does not so much undermine what we believe, rather how we believe.

We are accustomed to thinking that our core beliefs, as derived from the corpus of tradition, point in a clear way to objective metaphysical truths. This is what I mean by how we believe. Postmodernity is at odds with this way of believing. Belief systems are seen to be products of the particular civilisation which spawned them. It would be the cardinal sin of postmodernity to insist on the absolute superiority of the belief system of one civilisation over another.

As a matter of fact, postmodernity is hostile towards any totalising system of belief or interpretive method. The postmodern French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard put it this way: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives."(By meta-narratives Lyotard meant holistic narratives such as the redemption of humanity in Christianity, the utopianism of Marx or the triumph of science.)

The ramifications of the conflicting world views are very significant for the members of the modern Orthodox community. On the one hand, we respect the right of the other to his or her beliefs even though they may differ fundamentally from our own. We adopt basic Western democratic values such as equality of all races and between the sexes. On the other hand, in our religious lives, we tenaciously hold to the absolute truth of our own meta-narrative. We live the bifurcated existence advocated by the mid-19th century Russian maskil, Judah Leib Gordon, as the Haskalah (Enlightenment) ideal: "Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it."

Uncertainty is an essential part of the God-created spiritual landscape

J.L. Gordon's call to divorce our Judaism from our humanity has serious, if not tragic, consequences for both. I believe that if we adopt what I refer to as the Theological Uncertainty Principle, we can engage a world which questions the existence of objective truths, is suspicious of authority and is sceptical of all systems of belief. Furthermore, we will become enriched by the process.

The "Theological Uncertainty Principle" emerges from the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (1800-1854). Let us consider the following commentary offered in his work, Mei Hashiloach, on parashat Yitro and the beginning of the Ten Commandments: "I (Anochi) am the Lord your God".

Noting that God uses the word Anochi rather than Ani for "I", he explains: "The verse does not state Ani , for if it stated Ani that would imply that the Holy One, Blessed Be He revealed then the totality of His light to Israel, precluding the possibility of further delving into his words, for everything is already revealed. The letter kaf of Anochi however, denotes that the revelation is not complete, rather an estimation and comparison to the light which God will reveal in the future."

According to Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, the revelation at Sinai, the paradigm of all subsequent revelations, must be comprehended as a partial and incomplete picture of the divine.

This understanding is at odds with the traditionally held belief that the revelation at Sinai was perfect and that subsequent Jewish history is an effort to recapture the clarity of that pristine and intimate moment with God. He goes on to say that insisting on perfectly clear revelation is tantamount to idolatry: "The reason that the commandment of 'Thou shall not make for yourself a graven image' [follows the commandment of Anochi]…is because a graven image is cut according to specific dimensions, perfect, lacking nothing. … this is to teach us that nothing is revealed to man completely."

Total comprehension of the divine leaves no room for human development and is a distortion of the revelation. The "perfect perception", at the end of the day, turns out to be but a projection of ourselves. We would be creating God in our image.

The ramifications of this approach are monumental on both the meta-narrative and the individual religious levels. On the meta-narrative level, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef teaches us that a system with pretensions to explain all in the most certain terms must be naïve and ignorant of the complex and constantly changing world in which we live. Our meta-narrative must contain a principle which is diametrically opposed to the very nature of meta-narratives: uncertainty.

The Theological Uncertainty Principle renders a Jewish tradition not obsessed with reconstructing eras of perceived perfection, rather engaged in the constantly changing present with its infinite possibilities and surprises.

On the individual religious level, we have generally equated certainty and steadfast faith as being more "religious".

In fact, according to the Theological Uncertainty Principle, the exact opposite is true. Uncertainty is an essential part of the God-created spiritual landscape which we inhabit. It is precisely in the terrain of uncertainty where we develop as religious beings.

The uncertainty principle provides an opening for authentic humility and a more profound faith in God.

    Last updated: 9:53am, June 2 2011