Is belief in revelation possible in the postmodern age?

By HERZL HEFTER
January 21, 2011 15:16

The postmodern era in which we live poses unprecedented challenges to the foundations upon which traditional faith is based.




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The postmodern era in which we live poses unprecedented challenges to the foundations upon which traditional faith is based. Those of us who received a conservative (lower case “c”) religious education were nurtured on the certainties of Jewish tradition: The Almighty created the world in six days, revealed the Torah to Israel at Sinai and will redeem His people, and with them the entire cosmos, at the end of days. Until the end of days, we are bound to follow God’s will as expressed through the commandments of the Torah.

In broad strokes, that about sums it up – creation, revelation and redemption with Torah and mitzvot in the interim. We imbibed in form and content the opening words of Maimonides in his Mishne 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 contour of the postmodern discourse is quite different.

We reside in a world of relative truth, subjective reality and personal “narratives.” Claims to any metaphysical truth are greeted with skepticism at best and most often with scorn.

Postmodernity is rooted in the Platonic distinction between ideal forms and particular instances. Plato made use of the famous parable of the cave. The unfortunates who dwell in the shadow of the cave mistake their perceptions (particular instances) for true reality (ideal forms).

Twenty-two centuries later, Immanuel Kant drew a similar distinction between reality in itself (das Ding an sich), the noumenon, and the mere perceptions of reality, the phenomenon. We do not perceive the world as it is. Only an image of reality becomes known to us through our subjective sense perceptions.

Today we inhabit a world in which we are assaulted by mass media and connected by the Internet. In effect, virtual reality imitates reality and even supplants it at times. Whereas in the past, philosophical investigations focused on the correspondence between the world of our senses and the world as it is, today we are left wondering whether there is anything beyond our subjective sense perceptions at all. Is there any substance behind the plethora of images that invade our consciousness and imprint themselves upon our minds? The unique challenge that 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 as 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 civilization that spawned them. It would be the cardinal sin of postmodernity to insist on the absolute superiority of the belief system of one civilization over another. As a matter of fact, postmodernity is hostile toward any totalizing 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 toward 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 worldviews 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 through 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 Haskala ideal: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it.”

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 that questions the existence of objective truths, is suspicious of authority and is skeptical 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 (1800-1854) – henceforth RMY – and his son Rabbi Ya’acov Leiner, both of Ishbica.

Let us consider the following commentary offered by RMY in his work Mei Hashiloah (henceforth MH) on Parshat Yitro: “‘I [anochi] am the Lord your God.’ 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 but rather an estimation and comparison to the light that God will reveal in the future.”

The kaf of anochi is the kaf hadimayon, the kaf of comparison.

The correct translation of the verse would be “I am as the Lord...”! Even the revelation at Sinai, the paradigm of all subsequent revelations, must be comprehended as a partial and incomplete picture of the divine as “as if.”

This came to me as a true shock, given my previously 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. The MH not only claims that God’s revelation is imperfect, but that it must be so.

“The reason that 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.”

If one were to claim perfect clarity and understanding, he would be transgressing the second commandment of constructing a graven image. Certainty and perfect understanding exist only in the idolatrous worldview where the gods are of distinct and finite dimensions. RMY equates certainty with idolatry.

Total comprehension of the divine leaves no room for human development and is a distortion of the revelation.

This is because God and His will are infinite, and we mortals are finite with limited capacity to understand.

Insisting upon perfect knowledge of God and His will is necessarily idolatrous in that the “perfect perception,” at the end of the day, turns out to be but a projection of ourselves.

The words of the Tanya here are very relevant: “...for man visualizes in his mind all the concepts which he wishes to conceive and understand – all as they are within himself. For instance, if he wishes to envisage the essence of will or the essence of wisdom or of understanding... and the like, he visualizes them all as they are within himself. But in truth, the Holy One blessed be He is ‘high and exalted’ and ‘holy is His name.’ That is to say, He is holy and separated many myriads and degrees of separations ad infinitum above the quality, type or kind of praises which creatures could grasp and conceive in their intellect” (Sha’ar Hayihud Veha’emuna, chapter 8).

We will be guilty of creating God in our own image.

In his commentary above on Parshat Yitro, RMY draws a sharp distinction between “God as He is” and “God as He is perceived.” The space between those two is occupied by uncertainty. I refer to this as the Theological Uncertainty Principle.

Rabbi Ya’acov Leiner states this very clearly. “Creation is merely a veil generating an appearance of a world distinct from God. The blessed one established a shield and a barrier concealing His light in this world... in order that people should experience themselves as separate and autonomous creations. To this end, God created the tree of knowledge of good and evil – that is, the tree of uncertainty that envelops the entire world in which the divine light is concealed to the extent that it is possible to doubt the very existence of the creator” (Beit Ya’acov, Parshat Bereishit 6) The ramifications of the Ishbica approach are monumental on both the individual-religious and meta-narrative planes. On the individual-religious plane, prior to this approach we generally equated certainty and steadfast faith as being more “religious.” In fact, according to the Theological Uncertainty Principle of the MHS and Ya’acov Leiner, the opposite is true. Uncertainty is an essential part of the God-created spiritual topography that we inhabit. It is precisely in the landscape of uncertainty where we develop as religious beings.

On the meta-narrative level, Ishbica 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 that 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.


Our tradition possesses the strength and resilience to face the challenges of postmodernity. Our exposure to postmodernity may actually bear important fruit. We must, however, avoid the cynicism and suspicion that are the noxious consequences of postmodernity. For us, the uncertainty principle must provide an opening for authentic humility and a more profound faith in God.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Torat Yosef – Hamivtar.


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