There are nearly as many Jewish views of Revelation as there are Jews. This is not a matter of “right” or “wrong,” “correct” or “incorrect.” Rather the various views of Revelation are a matter of belief, often passionately held and expressed. Even more interesting than the multifaceted views of Revelation held by Jews are the implications of each perspective for the nature of God and the role of Torah in the life of the individual and the community. Among the questions we will touch on are these:

Revelation, from the word “reveal,” refers to the traditional belief that three months after leaving slavery in Egypt, while the Israelites were assembled at the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah from God.  God revealed the Torah to Moses who then brought it to the Israelites. (Precisely what was revealed directly to the Israelites, and directly to Moses, is a matter of conversation. I’ll discuss this later in this essay.) There is a detailed description of Revelation in the Torah, Exodus chapters 19 – 24. Here is a selection:

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top o the mountain and Moses went up. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish. The priests also, who come near the Lord, must stay pure, lest the Lord break out against them.” But Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’” So the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them. And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.

God spoke all these words, saying… (Exodus 19:16 – 20:1)

The passage quoted above continues with the first of two versions of the Ten Commandments (in Hebrew: eser dibrot, “ten utterances”) and is followed by many other laws. The other set of the Ten Commandments is found in Deuteronomy 5:6-18.

Torah’s description of the Revelation on Mount Sinai is replete with drama – sound, light, and action – as well as mystery and danger. On the first reading, it may seem clear what happened (I’ll return to the word “happened” in a moment) yet it has been a matter of energetic argument among Jews through the ages. The first question is: did it happen? Historically, we have no evidence, but lack of evidence does not conclusively prove that an event did not transpire unless the evidence demonstrates it could not have transpired. For many Jews, it is immaterial whether or not the event at Sinai happened precisely as Torah describes, because the religious truth of Israel’s covenant with God and the role of Torah in our lives overshadows all concerns of historicity.  This is to say that the meaning of the story is what is most important, and the meaning is universal and religiously true. If it didn’t happen historically, it nonetheless happens again and again in the lives of Jews in every generation on the level of religious meaning. In other words, this is a sacred myth, a story that is not about what happened once, but rather about what happens again and again. The story of Revelation is the story of a people coalescing into a nation and binding themselves to God, a sacred text, and one another for all time. The Jewish community relives and celebrates the Giving of the Torah – in whatever way each person understands religious meaning – each year on the festival of Shavuot. Bound up with various interpretations of Revelation are a multiplicity of views about the nature of Torah and its role in our lives. Despite remarkable diversity of opinion in the Jewish world, Torah nonetheless continues to serve as the Jewish religious constitution to this very day, more than three millennia after Torah tells us the Israelites stood at the base of Mount Sinai while God revealed the Torah from God.

Let us examine the range of perspectives that lie across the broad spectrum of Jewish views of Revelation. I have chosen a variety of thinkers to represent points along the spectrum in the hope of clarifying both the variety of views and what is at stake for each.

I begin with a traditional view, represented by Rabbi Norman Lamm (1927- ), a Modern Orthodox rabbi who serves as the Chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York. Rabbi Lamm has a PhD in philosophy and was a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The question Rabbi Lamm addresses in the passage below concerns whether we are to understand literally Torah’s account of Revelation, part of which was quoted above, and therefore accept the laws it contains as obligatory in full. In other words: Did it happen the way Torah describes? Did God give Moses the entire Torah, word for word, as we have it now? Rabbi Lamm has written:

I believe the Torah is divine revelation in two ways: in that it is God-given and in that it is godly. By ‘God-given,’ I mean that He willed that man abide by his commandments and that will was communicated in discrete words and letters. Man apprehends in many ways: by intuition, inspiration, experience, deduction and by direct instruction. The divine will, if it is to be made known, is sufficiently important for it to be revealed in as direct, unequivocal, and unambiguous a manner as possible, so that it will be understood by the largest number of the people to whom this will is addressed. Language, though so faulty an instrument, is still the best means of communication to most human beings. Hence, I accept unapologetically the idea of the verbal revelation of the Torah." (Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Condition of Jewish Belief, Macmillan, 1966.)

Rabbi Lamm is struggling with his sense that Torah, because it is a written document, and therefore limited to words, cannot fully convey God’s will. Nonetheless he tells us that God did indeed dictate Torah, word-for-word, to Moses because we humans need to receive God’s will through language, the clearest medium of communication, however limited human language may be. The “godliness” of the text – its internal quality and sanctity – reveal its origin with God.

Behind Rabbi Lamm’s view of Revelation lie his beliefs about the nature of God and the obligations of Torah. First, God is a being with a will who is capable of acting in our world, affecting change, and dictating requirements for people’s lives. Not every Jewish thinker – indeed many Jewish thinkers for the past ten centuries – has held this view.

Second, the requirements laid down in the Torah for Jewish behavior (we call them mitzvot meaning “commandments”) are binding upon all Jews. Here is where we enter a murky realm. The reality is that no text has an absolute or objective meaning; no text has a “literal” meaning. All texts – whether written, verbal, or graphic – are interpreted. (As an example, even a simple verbal text like, “Go clean up your room” does not have a simple, unequivocal meaning. In one setting, it may be the annoyed command of a parent to a child whose bedroom is emitting a noxious stench and looks like a hurricane blew threw it. When I say this to my youngest son, it’s invariably a joke in response to the fact that he has just bested me in an intellectual exchange. In a pretend show of my “parental authority,” I say, “Go clean up your room,” and we laugh together. Same words, very different interpretation.) In the case of Torah text, minimally we must parse the words, decipher the grammar, and interpret the tone and nuance. Torah is an ancient text written in an ancient language, with an ancient idiom, arising from a different cultural setting. Not only must all texts be interpreted, but also the distance in time and culture make the Torah difficult to pin down precisely.

In reality, Rabbi Lamm is making a statement about the authority of Torah as he interprets it. The traditional claim that God revealed Torah in its totality to Moses on Mount Sinai is less traditional that might be suspected. We know that the Masoretes who, from the seventh through eleventh centuries compiled the version of the Torah accepted throughout the Jewish world (and beyond), worked from many extent texts. Variant texts have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the Cairo geniza, and elsewhere. Moreover, some phrases in Torah are anachronistic, such as references to changes in place names, suggesting that the text was penned after the purported event at Mount Sinai. Finally, Torah ends with the account of Moses’ death and burial in the valley of Moab (Deuteronomy, chapter 34). How could God have dictated this account before it happened?

Even before Baruch/Benedict Spinoza came on the scene in the latter half of the 17th century and made the radical, “heretical” claim that Torah is not the literal word of God, but rather the product of human hands and minds – a claim that “earned” him excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam – others had hinted at that same claim. Yosef ben Shmuel Bonfils (mid-11th century French Talmudist) and Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) recorded their awareness of the contradictions to the claim that Torah was revealed in its totality at Mount Sinai, leading some authorities to attribute sections of Torah to Joshua or even later prophets. Even before Bonfils and ibn Ezra, the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 31b) suggested that Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy), which is universally acknowledged to be different from the other four books of the Torah in style and theology, was written by Moses’ own hand, unlike the first four which were dictated by God. These suggestions of human authorship, however, were small and limited. When Spinoza, in the 17th century, offered his revelation about Revelation in the vacuum of alternative religious ideas, his rejection of supernatural revelation left a gaping void concerning the question of authority in the Jewish world, threatening the community with spiritual collapse, and by extension threatening the host Christian society which based its power on the authority of Scripture, as well.

Rabbi Lamm affirms that for him Torah is given directly by God and he treats it accordingly: Torah is God’s word to be studied and obeyed. This traditional view sees Torah as verbal/direct propositional content. It is the closest we come to the bumper sticker, “God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it.” However, I am sure Rabbi Lamm would never sport that bumper sticker on his car, because he is keenly aware that Torah is (because all texts are) interpreted and indeed that Jewish tradition requires (rabbinic, not academic) interpretation. The later sages and commentators who explained the meaning of Torah are critically necessary for a full understanding of its laws. But the bottom line is that Torah – as interpreted by Jewish authorities – is God’s word and God’s law.

Two centuries of biblical scholarship and archaeology have taught us much. For liberal Jews, it is widely accepted that Torah is a humanly authored document. At the same time, for many it is divine in nature and sanctified by the community. It may be divinely inspired, or may reflect the community’s best understanding of divinity. It is a holy book either because of its divine nature (by one interpretation of another) or because of its function in the Jewish community through the generations, or both. More importantly, many liberal Jews see Revelation as an on-going process, not a one-time event at Mount Sinai. God inspires people continually to make decide how to best live a Jewish life. Hence Revelation results from a partnership between God’s inspiration and the commitment of Jews who yearn to know what God desires of them.

Yet others believe that Torah is an entirely human-authored document and it is hubristic to claim that it is God’s will, verbatim or otherwise. Rather, it is a community’s best understanding of their encounter with God and God’s will for them. Hence it is an historically and culturally tempered document, riddled with the social values and even bigotries of its age: this explains permission to keep indentured servants, the lowered status of women, references to homosexual behavior in Leviticus, and other facets of Torah deemed to be morally objectionable.

Here we find the view that revelation is not a static set of prescriptions or texts, but rather a process: When we examine how the Jewish people have understood God’s will throughout history, and when we examine how God has influenced the development of Jewish law (the Jewish people’s expression of God’s will), we are seeing evidence of Revelation after Sinai. Rabbi Zechariah Frankel (1801-1875), rabbi and historian, whose work in the Germany historical school of Jewish study was instrumental in the founding of the Conservative Movement, saw the process as dynamic, rather than static, giving rise to the notion of ongoing revelation, which would become very important.

Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser (1907-1984), a Conservative rabbi, discussed the interplay in prophecy between the divine spirit and human reception and expression. Jewish tradition holds that Moses was the greatest of the prophets, and it was his capacity and role as prophet that made him suitable to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Bokser wrote:

Man receives a divine communication when the divine spirit rests on him, but man must give form to that communication; He must express it in words, in images and in symbols which will make his message intelligible to other men. Out of this need to give form to the truth that is revealed to him, the prophet places the stamp of his own individuality upon that truth. He draws upon his own experience, upon the idiom current in his time; he creates images that will be familiar to his people. Thus the truth becomes personalized; it takes upon itself the robes of the world in which it is to enter to perform its work of moral and spiritual transformation. In the process of expression and transmission truth takes on a historical dimension, which the historian can examine by the tools of historical investigation, but all this in no way invalidates the role of the divine factor, the initial "breathing in" on the prophet of the message which is called to proclaim to the people of his time. (Judaism: Profile of a Faith, 1963, pp. 273-4.)

Rabbi Bokser is telling us that inspired communication is necessarily robed in human understanding. The prophet who conveys God’s word or will can hardly divest himself of his own humanity. The product may not be wholly or purely “God’s word” or “God’s will” but God’s role in the communication is valid nonetheless: the communication is divine in nature.

Rabbi David Novak (1941-) of the Union for Traditional Judaism (a rabbinic group that founded by traditionalist Conservative rabbis who opposed egalitarianism, and specifically the ordination of women) takes this perhaps a step further:

Not only do people experience a Presence when God makes himself manifest, they also hear the word. The denotation of the word is initially intelligible, and thus the word can become a matter of discourse in the community. (“A Response to ‘Towards an Aggadic Judaism,’” Conservative Judaism, vol. 30(1), fall 1975, pp. 58-59.)

Rabbi Novak is telling us that even when we think the text is easily comprehended, it nonetheless goes through a process of exploration and interpretation in the community, as they take ownership of it by delving into its meaning for their lives.

Both Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser and Rabbi David Novak subscribe to the understanding that Revelation is non-verbal, non-literal propositional content. God divinely inspires people with specific, content-filled messages, but God’s communication is by nature non-verbal. Being human, people translate that communication into words – Talmud calls it lashon b’nai adam “the language of human beings” – because that is what people use to communicate. The seeds of this view are found in ancient Jewish tradition. The sages of the Talmud held that ruach ha-kodesh (divine spirit, or divine inspiration) is the spirit of prophecy. While they held Torah to have been revealed by God to Moses directly, the remainder of Hebrew Scripture – Prophets and Writings – was produced under the influence and inspiration of ruach ha-kodesh.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel goes a step further, claiming that what God revealed at Mt. Sinai was God’s own self. It was an encounter between the people Israel and God. The Torah is the product of that encounter, expressed by humans in human terms and a product of human perception and understanding, but unquestionably divinely inspired. In other words, Torah is a midrash on the People Israel’s encounter with God.

As a report about Revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash. To convey what the prophets experienced, the Bible could either use terms of descriptions or terms of indication. Any description of the act of revelation in empirical categories would have produced a caricature. That is why all the Bible does is to state that revelation happened; how it happened is something they could only convey in words that are evocative and suggestive." (God in Search of Man, p.194.)

The view that God inspires, but content is mediated by the human experience, mind, and language, has implications for praxis. If Revelation is not literally or entirely God’s direction communication, to what extent are we beholden to obey the many laws and requirements recorded in the Torah? Many liberal Jews, and officially the Conservative Movement – hold that the mitzvot are all incumbent on Jews, but are open to a modern interpretation that takes into the account the best of modern knowledge, including archaeology, linguistics, science, psychology, anthropology, and sociology, as well as the insights of historians, philosophers, and those who study literature (after all, the Torah is a piece of literature).

The official stance of the Reform Movement, however, is that everyone is obligated to the moral teachings of Torah, and each individual is empowered to decide which ritual practices are meaningful to him/her. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past-president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has written:

Torah is a compilation of both divine command and human response: It is a record of God talking to Jews and Jews talking to God. When I examine the writings of Torah, how then do I know what is divine revelation and what is human interpretation? As a mitzvah-inspired liberal Jew, the only option that I have is to decide for myself what binds me. I will seek guidance from rabbis and teachers, but ultimately I must examine each mitzvah and ask the question: Do I feel commanded in this instance as Moses was commanded? Here I rely on the words of Martin Buber: “I must distinguish in my innermost being between what is commanded me and what is not commanded me.” For the great majority of American Jews, there is no leader or institution with the authority to impose commandments; the autonomous individual decides for himself or herself." ("What Do American Jews Believe?" Commentary, August 1996.)

Going a step further still, is the rational approach that holds that either God is an ideal to which people aspire, or a fiction in the minds of people. In both cases, Torah is an expression of ancient Israel’s conception of God, not the product of divine inspiration or encounter with a God who is a being.

Representative of the former – that God is an ideal to which people aspire – is Rabbi Michael Meyer, professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati), the rabbinical seminary of the Reform Movement. He has written:

I hold to a rational faith mediated through our tradition and confirmed by personal experience and commitment. Thus my belief in God approximates closely that of the German-Jewish Kantian thinker Hermann Cohen who understood God to be an Ideal to which human lives respond and to which the Jews have responded in unique fashion. It follows that the Torah is not for me divine revelation in any literal sense. Rather the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Writings, and the rabbinic literature represent our people's ongoing historical endeavor to verbalize their experience of a God Who represents the objective reality of justice, mercy, and love. Since Torah, in the broadest sense, is the evolving expression of our response to God, Jewish history, for all of its secular aspects, becomes in essence a sacred history. Revelation, as the early modern reformers of Judaism held, is indeed progressive - not in the sense that humanity, as a whole, has done an ever better job of living up to its religious awareness, but in that, as we gain more profound moral understandings and undertake broader commitments, we come closer to God. The God Who is our Ideal is clearly not a personal God except through the metaphors we necessarily employ in prayer. (“What Do American Jews Believe?” Commentary, August 1996.)

Representative of the latter – that the God of the Bible is a fiction – is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), who was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. Rabbi Kaplan was profoundly influenced by the new social science of sociology and recent progress in the physical sciences. He was deeply influenced by the thought of John Dewey and Emil Durkheim. Rabbi Kaplan came to see Judaism not as a religion, but as a civilization, characterized not only by beliefs and practices, but also by language, culture, literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols, and customs. He did not consider God to be a supernatural force in the universe, because he believed there is nothing beyond the physical universe. Rather, he understood God in an entirely abstract way: as the power that makes possible personal salvation, which Kaplan understand as the "worthwhileness of life." Rabbi Kaplan jettisoned the idea of a supernatural God and adopted instead the anthropological notion of group identity and practice as a mode of self-definition. Of the “God idea” he wrote: "God is the sum of all the animating organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” God cannot abridge the laws of nature beause God is synonymous with natural law. Torah, then, developed organically in the community of the people Israel, shaped by their historical experiences and culture.

This perspective raises the question: If God is not a being, what is God? Moses Maimonides, a neo-Aristotelian Jewish scholar, physician, commentator, and philosopher of the 12th century, certainly did not think God was a being. For Maimonides, the quintessential rationalist and neo-Aristotelian, God is the Active Intellect, the Unmoved Mover. God is wholly other and unchanging. God has no direct interaction with this world except so far as all truth and every idea derives from God. Such a God does not have a personal relationship with human beings, because this God is pure thought and reason. In fact, it makes more sense to speak of “the Godhead” than it does to speak of “God.”

The mystics of the Kabbalah in 13th century Spain understood the Godhead to be a complex flow of energy that makes the material world possible. The Godhead is the ground of Being, Existence itself, dynamic, active and interacting with our material world. Performance of the mitzvot (commandments) opens channels for the divine energy to flow into this world to renew all life, and then return to its source, the divine realm. But that is not to say that God is a being. The practitioners of Lurianic Kabbalah in Tzfat in the 16th century also understood the Godhead as the Ground of Being, and more: God is a flow of divine emanation or energy, continually flowing into and through everything in our world. We not only absorb that flow, but we send it back to its source through our deeds, thus creating a circuit between the Godhead and us. The God of the Kabbalists can be described as “out there” but just as correctly “inside us.” God is the Unity of Everything, the One that inhabits each of us, the One that makes existence possible. This Godhead does not promulgate specific laws or establish a plan for the universe. This is panentheisim: Everything in the universe – the entire cosmos – is part of God, contained within God. However, God extends beyond the universe, as well. God is the Ground of Existence, the animating force behind the material universe. Hence God is both immanent and transcendent.

Rabbi Arthur Green, Rector of the rabbinical program and professor of philosophy and religion at Hebrew College in Boston terms his theology “neo-Hasidism.” Of God and Revelation, he has written:

I do not know a Fellow or a Force 'out there,' beyond the world in some quasi-spatial sense, Who creates, reveals, redeems. But I do believe there is a deep consciousness that underlies existence, that each human mind is a part of the universal Mind, and that the Whole is sometimes accessible ('revealed') to its parts. The One of which I speak is transcendent, in that it is infinitely elusive and mysterious, while yet being deeply immanent, present throughout the world to those whose eyes are open. In ways I do not claim to understand, Universal Mind is also Universal Heart; we reach inward toward it by emotional openness as well as by contemplative detachment. Awareness of this underlying and all-pervasive oneness of being leads me to feelings of awe and wonder, to a desire to be present to it always. In an act of faith that does not seem far-fetched, I assert that the One also seeks to be known and recognized by the many; 'my' longing is a reflection of 'its' longing, as 'my' mind is a fragment of 'its' Mind. It thus causes the impulse within us to need religious expression and to create forms through which we will attain deeper knowledge and awareness of the One. In that sense you may say that the essential forms of our religion are 'revealed': they are our human creative response to the divine presence that makes itself known within us. ("What Do American Jews Believe?" Commentary, August 1996.)

More recently, in Radical Judaism, Rabbi Green spelled out his view of Torah more fully. Although not all liberal Jews would hold to his panentheistic neo-Hasidic theology, what he says about Torah would resonate with many. Green’s postmodern neo-Hasidism is marked by spiritual openness and intellectual honesty.

In the coming discussion of Torah I make no literalist assumptions about the historicity of the text or its revealed origins. I speak out of deep relationship with the Torah text as we have it, out of unceasing engagement (including moments of outrage and frustration), but not as a believer in it as resulting from divine dictation. The biblical scholar’s understanding of the text’s complex origins and editing are a level of truth that I recognize as valid. In my religious life, however, I continue to embrace the text as a whole, a sacred artifact rather than as historical document. I enter into the text as a participant in an unending conversation among generations of Jews, enriched but essentially unfazed by critical perspectives." (Radical Judaism, p. 85)

Mitzvah practices are holy, Rabbi Green says, because Jews today observe them, as have generations past for a long time. Because Jews throughout the ages have invested spiritual energy in the mitzvot, the divine presence resides within them, always waiting to be revealed to the next generation.

If you have read this far, you have seen that Jewish ideas concerning Revelation span the spectrum from those who hold that Torah was revealed, word for word, to Moses on Mount Sinai, to those who believe that Torah was written by the very human community of ancient Israel and reflects their culture, experiences, and ideas about God. Along the way, we have seen that these views inform the question of Torah’s authority in the lives of individual Jews. Does Torah reflect God’s will? Does it reflect an ancient people’s best understanding of God’s will? Is every law in it obligatory? How are these laws to be understood, interpreted, and applied to our lives? Is following the laws the choice of the informed individual? So too we have seen that underlying the conversation about the nature and authority of Torah is a wide spectrum of beliefs about God. Is God a Being who promulgates laws so that people will live according to divine will? Is God the animating force behind all existence? Is God a rational ideal of morality toward which we should aspire in our lives? These three concerns – the nature of Revelation, the authority of Torah, and the nature of God – are tightly interwoven in a tapestry of theological belief that has many divergent expressions.

There has long been a debate about what was given at Mount Sinai. The entire Torah? All but Deuteronomy? The Ten Commandments? Only the first two commandments? Just the first word, Anochi (“I”)? The Hasidic master, Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow, taught that at Sinai only the aleph of Anochi (“I”) was revealed – a letter that is silent, human breath. The aleph is the One, God Who is the ground of being, beyond words.

Talmud (Shabbat 105a) interprets Anochi as an acronym for Ana Nafshai Katvit Yahvit (“I Myself wrote it and gave it”) – this is the maximalist claim that God wrote every word of Torah.  Personally, I much prefer the explanation of the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) who interprets Anochi this way: “I wrote and gave Myself” – this is the claim of Heschel and Green. And so, in one single word we find the entire range of Jewish ideas about Revelation.

More Ideas and Ideals: