Post-Liberalism as the Ultimate Safety Net for Classical Religion in the Modern World
From the point of view of Orthodox Judaism, another significant point of similarity between defining Torah from Heaven as a foundational myth and post-liberal theology (beyond a loose understanding of doctrine) is the unusual combination of radical post-modernism and nearly fundamentalist traditionalism that both positions afford.Despite the extreme liberty that they display in divorcing the meaning of religious statements from the historical circumstances in which they were formulated, Christian post-liberals nevertheless insist upon absolute commitment to abide by the formal guidelines of the religious system within which they function, and to submit to their internal authority.
Since the deepest urge of religious discourse according to this approach is not to report about reality, but rather to fashion and direct it in accordance with the guidelines unique to this discourse, its frames of reference are derived internally and not translated into other terms. Hence, acceptance of a religious tradition means agreeing to speak in a very specific way. It involves a willingness to behave according to the rules established by this tradition for conducting its activities, without regard for the claims of any natural, metaphysical or moral realities that bear an independent existence outside of this framework.
Transposing this approach to Orthodox Judaism, accepting Torah from Heaven as a myth of origin rather than a precise historical account frees the religious believer to relate to each and every word of the Torah “as if” it were literally dictated by God and to embrace the written along with the Oral Torah as “a unified whole”. As Solomon puts it:
The narrative of Torah from Heaven presents the Torah as a timeless whole, revealed by God and managed by the rabbis. By introducing a divine point of origin for the whole, it stakes a claim to perfection…[and] renders itself immune from historical criticism. We may say ‘Torah from Heaven ‘ is ‘true’ in this sense, meaning that it effectively discharges its mythic function.”…”Since myth is impervious to historical evidence, moral questioning, and the like, we do not have to ‘pick and choose’ which bits of tradition to regard as ‘Torah from Heaven’; we simply tell the story.
So long as belief in divine revelation is professed in accordance with the conceptual scheme of this story and the logical principles that flow from it, it maintains continuity with tradition even when its meaning is now understood or experienced in a new way.
In a sense, an “as if” approach to the myth of divine revelation (viewing it as a type of cultural-linguistic “placeholder” for sustaining appropriate religious attitudes and behavior) can be taken as the apologetic of all apologetics, broad enough to cover even the most general and all-pervasive critique regarding the “truth” of this Jewish dogma. Since the function of myths is not strictly cognitive, but rather to nurture a more elusive sensibility or way of relating to the world, it is not enough according to this approach, or even necessary, to believe that they are true in the classical sense of the term. Far more important is to live your life as if they are true.
Even when understood literally, biblical narratives are simply a starting point, becoming a religious reality only when embodied in props and rituals that may appear more like games than serious action, but whose purpose is to work psychologically upon the community of believers, evoking in them a sense of sacred significance. The biblical insistence upon telling, retelling, studying, and commemorating accounts of the many occasions when God engaged with Israel, as well as the Rabbinic injunction that individual members of each and every generation see themselves “as if” they personally had been delivered from Egypt, and using this as a basis for existentially re-enacting renewal of the covenant, illustrate this point. As Lebens observes:
Much of the Torah itself can be construed as a ‘reminiscing,’ or a call to reminisce, about the many occasions when God engaged with Israel, thereby inducing a relationship of mutual love and concern between them.
Some Aggadic statements qualified by the Rabbis with the caveat of kivyakhol (“as it were”) may also have been conceived in this spirit, deliberately formulated as useful fictions (rather than as symbolic pointers to an ontological reality beyond them) for broader educational purposes. Maimonides’ distinction between “necessary truths” and “true truths,” extended even further in the writings of R. Kook, is another manifestation of this non-cognitive stance.
In an age when the abyss between the literal meaning of religious statements and the ability of the community of believers to accept them at face value steadily increases, post-liberals can justifiably view their intra-textual narrative approach as a more effective guarantee for the continued viability of such statements than any modernist attempts to understand them in terms of their compliance with an external standard.
Indeed, one might contend that it is precisely this understanding of how biblical narrative functions that explains the continued vibrancy of Judaism, despite the fact that its core theological claim now appears scientifically weak and its commandment-centered approach to religion at odds with current notions of human autonomy. Whatever vitality Judaism has stems from the form of life that these myths have engendered and the grasp that it has upon its adherents. A narrative account, which is inaccurate in some of its details or even a total fiction, can still be adopted by a community and revealed as the word of God from within the community whose way of life it supports.
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March 25, 2014
November 23, 2020
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.
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