Bringing It All Together: The Interactive Paradigm of Divine-Human Relations & Conclusion
Returning to the analogy of our anonymous blogger with regard to religion and the cameraman (supra, part XII), one might say that the difference between the Hassidic and the Mitnagdic picture of reality from our point of view may be likened to the difference between watching a movie and going to the theater. In a cinema house, the audience sits in total darkness, and the images on the screen bear no real substance. In the theater, the lights are simply dimmed, and on stage stand real people, but they behave differently than in daily life.
Taking this analogy further, R. Kook’s attempt at amalgamating the two approaches comes closer to an interactive performance, where audience participation bears critical influence on the outcome of the drama. In this context, our metaphysical constructs are not merely passive descriptions. Instead, they are powerful reality-producing tools that are constantly open to revision in light of their critical effects upon human experience. The “really scary bits” (unpalatable moral messages and others sources of cognitive dissonance), in particular, are occasionally re-interpreted so that the spell of the show upon us will be retained.
Let us revert, now, to our original starting-point, and state the conclusion succinctly. The significance of the allegorical interpretation to the doctrine of tzimtzum for views of revelation is that the image of God that it presents allows us to acknowledge the subjective human element not only in the message of the Torah and its method of transmission but in the very conception of divine-human relations. And it does this without forfeiting the “truth” of that perception.
In an illuminating passage relating to the belief in divine revelation, R. Kook writes as follows:
There is a heresy that amounts to an affirmation of faith, and an affirmation of faith that amounts to heresy. How so? A person may affirm that the Torah is from “heaven,” but the picture of “heaven” that he envisions is so weird that nothing of true faith remains.
And how might heresy amount to affirmation of faith? [When] a person denies [belief in] Torah from heaven, but his denial is based merely on what he has absorbed of the picture of heaven construed by minds filled with ludicrous and nonsensical thoughts. Such a person says: “The Torah must stem from a source higher than this!” and he begins to find its basis in the grandeur of the spirit of man, in the depth of his morality and in the height of his wisdom.
Although such a person may not yet have reached the center point of truth, nonetheless this heresy is akin to affirmation of faith and it progresses towards affirmation of belief at its root… and Torah from Heaven is but an example for all the generalities and particulars of religious doctrine, regarding the relationship between their linguistic expression and their inner essence, [the latter being] the true object of faith. 
R. Kook does not bother to spell out what precisely is the “weirdness” of the simple believer’s conception of heaven that puts off the heretic. We may readily assume that this objection is based, at least in part, on rejection of some grossly anthropomorphic vision of God and God’s methods of revelation. But we may also infer from the heretic’s alternative vision that the value R. Kook finds in the heretic’s response is not merely its greater philosophical sophistication. It lies also in the heretic’s ability to relate God’s word to the noblest intuitions and achievements of man, rather than viewing it merely as the dictates of some external force, imposed upon us from without. Only when God and man (אני ואין) are envisioned as two related stages of an infinite continuum is the true object of faith revealed.
The formulations of the allegorical interpreters of the doctrine of tzimtzum originated in times, background conditions, and assumptions that are in many ways far removed from our own. Their terms and manner of expression may seem strange and their style of argumentation hard to follow, so that delving into their theological formulations will no doubt appear to some as a rarefied intellectual parlor game with little practical value for post-liberal theories of religious doctrine affected by Wittgenstein’s linguistic turn.
Theological visions have a life of their own, however, and a way of filtering down to the popular imagination in times of need. The subjectivist views of God and revelation suggested by latter-day kabbalists, as well as more contemporary versions of the same, have much to contribute to our understanding of halakhic process, proper methods of Torah study, and the transmission of tradition to future generations. No doubt there will be much call for fine-tuning and revision once these implications spell themselves out. But it is to these vistas, rather than the inevitably doomed attempt to defeat the academic world on its own turf by debating “the facts of the matter,” that the future of Orthodox responses to the challenges of biblical criticism beckons.
Under such circumstances, the bounds of Orthodoxy will be determined not by any stable, precise and definitive understanding of the metaphysical basis for the doctrines it assumes, but rather by the role that this understanding plays in the life of its adherents.
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March 25, 2014
December 31, 2021
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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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