Is a First-Order Constructivist Theology Possible?
I believe that the solution to constructivist awareness in a religious context lies in developing a first order theology that blurs the sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and between God’s existence and human initiative.
A few years ago, I undertook an interpretive project that might be regarded as a first step in this direction. On the surface, the book I wrote was devoted to the challenge of feminism to belief in the divinity of the Torah. For me, however, feminism was merely an excuse and an extreme case in point for addressing the larger issue of divine revelation altogether.
Ultimately, my suggestion was that it is still possible to maintain belief in the divinity of the Torah despite the feminist critique and other marks of human imprint, by breaking down the strict dichotomy between divine speech and natural historic process. This task was facilitated by re-appropriating three assumptions that already have their basis in tradition.
The first assumption upon which I drew was that if the Torah is to bear a message for all generations, its revelation must be a cumulative process: a dynamic unfolding that reveals its ultimate significance only through time.
The second assumption, already implied in the first, was that God’s message is not expressed through the reverberation of vocal chords, but rather through the Rabbinic interpretation of the texts, which may or may not be accompanied by an evolution in human understanding, and through the mouthpiece of history. History, and particularly what happens to the Jewish people – the ideas and forms they accept as well as the process of determining those they reject – is essentially another form of ongoing revelation, a surrogate prophecy. As the Talmud states: “If they are not prophets, they are the descendants of prophets.” (אם אין נביאים הן, בני נביאים הן)
The third assumption (supported by contemporary hermeneutic theory) was that although successive hearings of God’s Torah sometimes appear to contradict God’s original message, that message is never totally replaced. On a formal level, the original Sinaitic revelation always remains the primary cultural-linguistic filter through which these new deviations are received and understood. By blurring distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, the finite and the infinite, I contended that it is possible to relate to the Torah as a divine document without being bound to untenable notions regarding the nature of God and God’s methods of communication, or denying the role of human involvement and of historical process in the Torah’s formulation. Such an understanding allows the religiously committed to now understand that the Torah can be totally human and totally divine at one and the same time.
In my book, I apply the concept of cumulative revelation to the problem at hand, suggesting that even the phenomenon of feminism might be regarded by traditionalists as another vehicle for the transmission of God’s word. To the extent that feminism takes hold of and informs the life of the halachically committed, and the community’s authoritative bodies manage to find what they believe to be genuine support for this emerging worldview in a new reading of Torah, this felicitous convening may be perceived as a genuine unfolding of the original divine will.
Because of our commitment to Torah as the foundational canon of Judaism, however, we do not supplant the formal status of the original patriarchal model as an immutable element of tradition. We continue to employ its language as a necessary prism for the achievement of greater moral sensibilities, even as we view revolutionary changes in the status of women as heaven-sent prompts to re-interpret or limit its residual effects, occasionally turning what might have been construed as their original intent on its head. By the same token, I could claim that our current brush with the profound challenges of biblical criticism might also be regarded as expression of the divine will, indicating that we have outgrown more primitive understandings of the nature of divine revelation and are now ready for transposal of this belief to a new, more sublime stage.
“Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen
Not unexpectedly, my attempt to resolve the theological challenge of human imprints to a purportedly divine text got mixed reviews. I have already responded to these in other forums, and have no interest in continuing here. The question to which I would like to refer now, however, is how far the amalgam of inside and outside perspectives that I proposed can be stretched even by adherents of an “as if” approach without reaching dead end.
In endeavoring to formulate an understanding of divine revelation that cannot be rejected on rational grounds, I continue to engage with the internal language of tradition and its appeal to metaphysics. This led some critics, who did not take sufficient note of my cultural-linguistic orientation, to take me as retaining some residually fundamentalist understanding of the traditional account of revelation at Sinai, or of being bound to some literal notion of divine intervention in directing its interpretation. Others, however, understood that even when asserting that God speaks cumulatively through history and the development of human understanding, I recognize, on a second order level, that the basis for this mythic talk stems from internal rather than objective considerations.
While my theology is deliberately fashioned in a manner that can co-exist with universal naturalistic understandings, it certainly is not mandated by them. For this reason, I offer my theology tentatively as a plausible, rather than necessary or exclusive model for explaining the anomalies of belief in divine authorship of the Torah. Even when identifying strongly with this model, I realize that it can co-exist with other models, and may eventually be replaced by another more illuminating picture. Expression of both the necessity and the fragility of this mode of theology can be found in Wittgenstein’s memorable statement:
An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it is really is possible to walk on it. 
Similar ideas regarding the tentative nature of theological models abound in Rabbi A. I. Kook’s writings as well.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 25, 2014
July 25, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
Essays on Related Topics: