Do varying Jewish perspectives on Revelation exist? Can one see Revelation as a human response to an event that defies a simple explanation? Where does rabbinic response or mediation create a contemporary response? What would these varying ideas imply as to how one lives their life?
There are quite a number of understandings of revelation in Judaism. This is true even in the biblical texts. Numbers 12, for instance, describes the difference between the prophecy Moses received—face to face, and that of other prophets—dreams and riddles. Some prophets, like Ezekiel and Isaiah, describe elaborate visions of God, others mainly quote the word of God. Even prophets that quote the word of God seem to be translating the message into their own individual idioms; otherwise the difference in style between the prophetic books would be inexplicable.
The nature of prophecy was debated in medieval times. Oddly enough, the mystical approach and the rationalist approach were nearly identical. The medieval rabbis pictured a sort of divine broadcasting, where the prophets were men and women who succeeded in tuning in properly. The mystics/qabbalists focused on divine emanations and the rationalists on the Aristotelian concept of the Active Intellect, but their descriptions are very similar. Both contrast greatly with the biblical imagery of a personal God holding a conversation with the prophet, such as one finds with Moses and Abraham.
When one gets to the Sages, another lesser form of prophecy begins to be discussed, called ruaḥ ha-qodesh, the holy spirit. This idea seems to be less about direct revelation and more about a divinely mediated experience of great insight. For this reason one finds the assertion throughout rabbinic literature that certain works like the Talmud, Maimonides Mishneh Torah and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, were written with ruaḥ ha-qodesh.
This last type of quasi-revelation may be the best way to respond to your last question, if I understand it correctly. The Rabbis of the Talmud say that we live in a time of hester panim, the (figurative) hiding of God’s face. The idea of a personal revelation no longer seems relevant and the medieval idea of tuning in to God’s broadcast may seem to abstract (although many religious people still find this appealing). However, the idea that if one throws oneself whole-heartedly into the study of the Torah and the seeking of divine wisdom that God may support this search with the holy spirit, still holds great power.
Many, I believe, have had the experience of finding hidden wisdom in unexpected ways when studying Torah and contemplating Judaism. (Many scientists have reported similar experiences when trying to unlock the secrets of the universe.) To some extent, this ties in with the idea floated by Tamar Ross, called progressive revelation. In order for the Torah to remain relevant and continue to impart wisdom in every age its ideas must grow and mesh with the society to which it speaks. In this sense, revelation continues today as ruaḥ ha-qodesh and is imparted to the honest and good seekers (not only rabbis!) of Torah wisdom.
I would say that the many Jewish perspectives on revelation makes up the defining question for a Jewish persons relationship to God and Torah. Therefore my answer is going to be woefully inadequate. My suggestion is to pick up Neil Gilman’s ‘Sacred Fragments’, which covers the many perspectives in depth. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elliott Dorff and Mordechai Kaplan are three eminent writers in the Conservative Jewish world that write extensively on this topic as well.
Putting it simply, you have three choices.
1) You believe that God gave the Torah at Sinai, including the ‘Oral Law’ known as the Talmud. This gives both the Oral and Written Torahs absolute Divine authority. This is the Orthodox position. There is some variation and nuance to the degree of certainty and how that impacts the observance of commandments, but for the most part it leads to a religion that evolves very little and hews towards tradition first and foremost.
2) You believe that God and the people Israel met at Sinai. Something happened. Either most, some, or none of the Torah was written at Sinai. If most or some was written, the Written and Oral Torahs have authority, but the potential for human involvement or editing in the document allows that some changes can be made through time. This is a position in the Conservative movement, and allows for changes to the law to a greater degree than in Orthodoxy. Some examples of this include the more full inclusion of women in Jewish rituals and leadership, and a changing attitude towards homosexuality; i.e. both of these things were written 3000 years ago by men, not God, and therefore the opinions offered are not God’s word, and can be changed.
If none of the Torah was written at Sinai, then Torah is a reflection of the profound meeting of Israel and God at Mt. Sinai. It is a human written document that reflects a Divine encounter, giving it deep meaning, but a meaning that is not unchangeable. This position is a Reform and Conservative opinion on revelation. The ‘most, some and none’ views described above mean that the law should be preserved and ‘conserved’ (hence, Conservative Judaism), unless there is a compelling reason to change the law.
3) Humans encountered God at Sinai in some manner. However, the Torah was written by humans at a later date. Those humans wrote a ‘Divinely inspired’ text, but as time goes on, different humans interpret and re-interpret God for their own time periods. This is a concept known as ‘progressive revelation’- that God reveals God’s-self in an ongoing manner. The Torah is then a moral document to be interpreted, but the ‘spirit of the law’ is more important than the ‘letter of the law’. This is a Reform view of revelation, and it leads to the belief that Judaism not only can be changed for contemporary times- it should be changed for a modern audience. Hence the term ‘Reform Judaism’.
Each of these philosophies of revelation has profound meanings for how an individual lives their life, from Shabbat to keeping kosher, holidays, marriage and even one’s very moral beliefs. For more on that, consult your local rabbi or library.
What a wonderful, and broad, question! There are, suffice to say, as many different perspectives on revelation in Judaism as there are Jews (that whole two Jews, three opinions thing). Of course, we think the 'traditional' view, as you suggest, is that revelation was a one-time event at Sinai. In reality, many rabbinic commentators suggest some idea of ongoing revelation. Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on V'zot HaBracha (for example), suggests that Joshua completed the writing of the Torah, rather than Moses writing the whole thing. The Rabbinic idea that when the Torah was given, each person could understand only a piece of it is repeated throughout the Midrash, leading to the idea that "Lo Bashamayim hi"--it is not in Heaven--means that our study and understanding of Torah is definitive. More modern theologians such as Martin Buber would see revelation as happening within the context of relationships, when we see God reflected in another person and treat them accordingly (Ron Wolfson's book Relational Judaism is a good exploration of that theology in practical terms), while Mordechai Kaplan (and more recently, Harold Schulweis put forward a 'predicate theology' that sees revelation as not an interchange between a divine person and individuals but the actualization of qualities we find most moral, most uplifting, most compassionate.
Obviously, each of these approaches changes the way the kavannah--the intention--behind the fulfilling of mitzvot. The more modern theological ideas are dependent on interpersonal connection and/or the autonomy of the individual, eschewing a traditional sense of commandedness, while all of the above suggest that there is always the possibility of having a 'Sinai moment', ongoing revelation in our own lives and therefore, new ways of understanding and practicing Torah that better suit our modern sensibilities and needs.
I would strongly recommend Rabbis Daniel Syme and Rifat Soncino's book, Finding God, an excellent (and imminently readable) exploration of more than 10 different Jewish theologies, from the Bible to today.
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