Tolerating the Fragility of Theological Constructs: Does Self-Awareness Make Them Too Fragile?
Because of my proposal views the appeal to the notion of a metaphysical entity as a reality-producing construct open to revision, it is more capable of tolerating the fragility of my proposed theological explanations, recognizing them for the temporary stopgaps that they are. This arguably renders adherents of this approach better equipped for preserving their religious commitment than a less reflective believer still operating with naive ontological pretensions.
Nevertheless, given the self-awareness such a theological system affords, can the continued use of a mythic vocabulary – albeit of a softer sort that muddies the distinction divine speech and natural historical process – still be taken by the believer as reference to anything more than the binding nature of the form of life that such talk supports? After all is said and done, a narrative approach to Scripture as myth may satisfy the Orthodox requirement to relate to every word of the Torah as equally divine and laden with meaning. Nevertheless, does offering a theory of cumulative revelation that regards such a theology as possible interpretation rather than hard fact amount to anything more than Kaplan’s naturalism or Leibowitz’s concept of religion as an exclusively man-made choice?
At the end of the road, claims regarding divine messages that surpass the limits of human subjectivity cannot suffice with a more nuanced view of the process by which they are transmitted. Eventually, they must also contend with the very concept of God. So long as believers speak of a totally transcendent God, the paradox of talking about this outside reality from within remains. Defending belief in the very possibility of divine speech with more naturalistic contentions regarding the method of its transmission is not enough to break the hermeneutic circle; the general context of our humanity inevitably colors our understanding of any particular experience within it, just as the particularity of our internal experience colors our view of that which lies beyond.
If there is no real sense to speaking of something outside the universe communicating a message to those who are within (as verbal communication itself is a decidedly human concept), all talk of blurring between the natural and the supernatural in the mechanics of revelation (i.e., God speaking via history and the development of human understanding) does not really help us. In order to support truly metaphysical claims, the very distinction between God’s existence and our self-certifying perceptions needs to be overcome.
Christian theologians affected by constructivist views of truth have already produced a considerable literature devoted to this project. Developing a concept of God that responds to this requirement in Jewish terms is an important item on the theological agenda of Modern Orthodoxy. I believe that this need is already being addressed intuitively on the ground, where the true destiny of any theology is really determined – in an increased interest in mysticism, in the interconnected nature of all that exists, and in a form of spirituality unmediated by reason and formal institutional structures. This is an issue which deserves further treatment on a more philosophically rigorous theoretical plane, exploiting whatever paradigms Jewish tradition already provides for overcoming the paradoxical outsider-insider hurdle.
In the concluding sections of my paper, I would like to offer one such paradigm which I find particularly promising, because of its ability to suggest a layered view of reality that bridges the gap between inside and outside perspectives: The doctrine of tzimtzum (divine contraction) as developed by the 16th century mystic, R. Isaac Luria, and its allegorical interpretations.
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March 25, 2014
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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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