Can There Be Judaism without Revelation?
Can There Be Judaism without Revelation?

Can There Be Judaism without Revelation?

Can There Be Judaism without Revelation? Israel’s Relation to the Divine Is Central

“NOW Mt. Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended…
by Emil L. Fackenheim

That there has been over the past decade a revival of religiosity, would seem to be beyond, dispute. That it has really been a revival of religion, is less certain. For it is not to be denied that there has been much, in this upsurge, of the sentimental, the nostalgic, the merely aesthetic. The core of religion, the revelation of the divine—the central question as to whether the religious experience is an autointoxicating monologue or really a dialogue between God and man—this has hardly as yet been faced up to. And if it is indeed a dialogue, what is distinctive about the Jewish experience as against others? here, Emil L. Fackenheim explores this problem, in an attempt to discover whether the idea of revelation can be made sense of, or whether it is but an irrational relic of a world passed by.


“Now Mt. Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly . . . and the Lord descended upon Mt. Sinai. . . .” (Exodus 19:18-20)

The Bible reader who comes upon this passage cannot but feel its majesty. His imagination is fired, he is prepared for what is perhaps the greatest chapter in the Bible: the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is not likely that he will give much thought to these lines, eager as he is to pass on to the Decalogue itself. Perhaps this is fortunate: the curious reader who does pause to reflect is no longer able to pass on so quickly—or even to pass on at all. For what is asserted here baffles the understanding. We are told of a revelation, of a real incursion of eternity into time, God into history.

Now there is no obvious reason why anyone should implicitly accept, as a fact, that a revelation did actually occur, or that such a thing is possible. There are even serious and obvious reasons against it. But it is, conceivably, no wasted effort to find out whether we can comprehend what so hallowed a text clearly asserts; such an effort might be useful even if it should end in failure.


The assertion itself is simple: God “descends” in order to make manifest to man either His nature or His will.

But it is one thing to state the assertion, and quite another to understand it. How can God “descend”? If—as is commonly held in Jewish tradition—His being is in eternity, He cannot descend, at least not in the sense of being transmuted into time, for if He did, He would cease to be God. Fittingly the Midrash comments: “One might think that the Glory actually descended from Heaven, and was transferred to Mount Sinai; but Scripture says: ‘I have talked with you from Heaven.’” The Midrash thus makes God use the heavens as intermediaries; but this is a poetic way of stating the difficulty, rather than a solution.

But if God cannot cease to be eternal, perhaps time can cease to be temporal? Perhaps in revelation a moment of time is transmuted into eternity? Again this is impossible. In the Biblical act of revelation God descends into time; far from destroying time, revelation serves to make it meaningful even in the sight of eternity. What are the Ten Commandments if not commandments designed for time, for fulfilment within history? If revelation changed time into eternity, it would not be revelation but the Messianic “end of days.”

Time, then, must remain temporal, and eternity, eternal; how is it possible that the two should meet?

Perhaps if, in our ignorance of how God could possibly reveal himself, we could at least understand how it is possible for a man to receive a revelation, we might be satisfied. It turns out, however, that here too we are confronted with difficulties which seem insuperable. These may be stated in the form of a dilemma: either revelation discloses what man may discover by means lying within his own powers—but then it is superfluous; or else it discloses what lies beyond human means of discovery—but then it would seem to lie beyond human comprehension too, and the recipient of a revelation could not understand it. Revelation is apparently either superfluous or senseless; either we know the will of God by our own ability, potentially if not actually—in which case we require only a philosopher such as Socrates but not a prophet; or else we are unable to learn it, even through the mouth of a prophet.

And here, it would seem, the whole matter must be left; from every angle revelation appears unintelligible.

To be sure, it is always possible to resort to equivocations. For example, we might speak of revelation as if it were something akin to poetic inspiration. But let us not be deceived. Poetic inspiration is not supernatural; it is the natural product of man, and a product of God only in the sense in which every natural event may be so. To liken revelation to poetry is to make it something which it is not—that is to say, to admit defeat in facing the question of supernatural revelation.


There is nothing wrong with an admission of defeat, provided it is frank and unequivocal. It is the mark of wisdom, not ineptitude, to admit one’s helplessness in the face of the unintelligible. We might put an end to the whole matter by concluding that revelation in principle is impossible, and that wherever the Bible asserts it, it cannot be taken seriously. In which case the question of the actual occurrence of a revelation, on Mt. Sinai or anywhere else, would not even arise.

The 20th century is inclined toward this view not only by the difficulties inherent in the Biblical doctrine but also by our whole modern outlook. The modern historian has applied himself successfully to what may be termed the naturalization of Biblical history. A historian such as Graetz, writing more than seventy-five years ago, still insists that the events at Mt. Sinai are unique, inexplicable in terms of natural causes; yet even he shows distinct traces of the modern outlook. He refers to the revelation at Mt. Sinai as an “overwhelming experience”—an ambiguous expression. More significantly, he speaks of a “discovery of conscience” at Sinai; but a discovery is made by man, not given by God. Most significant perhaps is his comment on another supernatural event, the division of the Red Sea—“an escape which they [i.e. the Israelites] were forced to regard as a miracle.” The task of the new historian, then, became not to record supernatural events, but to explain them away plausibly.


Developments in the writing of history since Graetz demonstrate the fruitfulness of the new method. Such a work as Salo Baron’s Social and Religious History of the Jews wishes to leave the reader in no doubt that the evolution of the Mosaic religion is as natural a phenomenon as any other the historian may treat. This approach undermines what for a brief time was the last—and very weak—stronghold of the faithful: the supposed qualitative uniqueness and novelty of the ideas expressed in the Jewish religion, which, it was argued, required a supernatural explanation. The Mosaic religion has been shown to have emerged harmoniously and naturally from previous religions, and its novel aspects have been explained as the result of physical and political forces, or the genius of the man Moses.

The modern historian has thus shown that historical facts can be explained without the hypothesis of revelation. He has, moreover, also explained why Biblical man resorted to such a hypothesis: belief in supernatural agencies was quite common in an era which knew or cared little about natural causation, or was even unaware of the concept. Add to this what psychology teaches about dreams, visions, and the like, and the explanation of the Biblical belief in revelation is complete.

In short, the logical problems make it difficult for us to take revelation seriously, and the modern genetic-evolutionary explanation of religious history absolves us of the duty to do so. Which is the reason why, in modern Jewish theology, the concept of revelation lies dead and buried.


But perhaps revelation has been buried prematurely, after all. It is possible that this burial proves, not the demise of the interred, but an indecent haste on the part of the undertakers.

If the modern historian believes himself to have refuted the possibility of revelation, this belief is doubtless fostered by what he has done to one particular account of revelation: the Orthodox account. This he has refuted, at least in principle. “Judaism,” wrote the late Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, “stands and falls with its belief in the historic actuality of the Revelation at Sinai.” True to Orthodox tradition, the rabbi regards revelation as a source of information concerning empirical facts; a view which implies that these facts. are to be exempted from critical examination. The critical historian rejects this demand as running counter to all scientific method. He has already proven that much supposedly Sinaitic material is of different origin, and quite possibly he will prove one day that Israel never was at Sinai. Hence a battle ensues, and—in view of the achievements of Biblical criticism and archeological research—there is no doubt as to who will be the eventual victor. Orthodoxy escapes an immediate rout only to the extent that the relevant facts are sufficiently remote in history to elude precise verification.

Has modern rationalism, in its refutation of Orthodoxy, also refuted the entire Jewish tradition? For it is a fact that revelation is accepted by this tradition. Moreover, it is a central doctrine: the Mishnah considers the denial of Torah min hashamayim (“Torah from Heaven”) so serious an offence as to deny the one who commits it a share in the world to come. If we wish, we may explain this insistence as a mere tactical device, designed as a prop for the tradition itself; but if we do this, we take a low view indeed of Talmudic Judaism. No religion of integrity regards its central doctrines as mere useful fictions, and it is difficult to picture a man suffering martyrdom for the sake of an illusion created by himself for his own benefit.

Was the traditional insistence on revelation perhaps the result of a lack of sophistication about natural causation, as in the Bible itself? It does not appear so. Judah Halevi writes: “Moses held direct communication with God . . . his words were not creations of his own mind. . . . He had not seen a vision in his sleep; nor had someone spoken with him between sleeping and waking, so that he only heard the words in fancy, but not with his ears, so that he saw a phantom, and afterwards pretended that God had spoken with him.” Halevi is not a primitive believer in miracles, unaware of natural causation: he fully faces the contemporary doctrine of natural causation, and maintains supernatural revelation in spite of it. Even more impressive is the case of Maimonides. Supreme Jewish rationalist of the Middle Ages, he rejects any unnecessary recourse to the supernatural. Yet the chief theme of his Guide for the Perplexed is a defense of the world’s creation which he regards as a “fundamental principle of the Torah . . . next in importance to the principle of God’s unity”; and he takes this view because, to him, only if the world has been created is revelation possible. Even in post Enlightenment Jewish theology, from Moses Mendelssohn on, the doctrine of revelation survives, albeit precariously. But with the decline in the quality of theological thinking, there is little effort to meet head on the challenge of the modern outlook, and the modern reassertions of revelation sound often like mere pious repetitions; nevertheless, even as such they reflect an uneasy, though ill-defined, reluctance to surrender the concept to the triumphant anti-supernaturalism of the age.

At least in one respect this uneasiness is justified: if revelation must go, with it must go any possible religious justification for the existence of the Jewish people In the absence of a binding commandment supernaturally revealed to a particular people, it makes as little sense to have a Mosaic religion for the Jewish people today, as, say, a Platonic religion for the modern Greek nation. A person is a Platonist because he accepts the truth of Platonism, not the authority of its author—much less because he shares his national origin. The truth of Platonism, if true it is, is universal; whether one wishes to be a Platonist or not is a matter of individual choice. Similarly, the values of Judaism, if valid, are universally so; Judaism becomes a matter merely of rational individual subscription to a particular doctrine or school of thought, and any religious basis for the existence of the Jewish people lies in shambles.


To be sure, it is always possible to seek refuge from this dilemma in evasive rhetoric. So, in these days of strong Jewish feeling, much is heard about “Jewish values” created by the “religious genius” of our forefathers; to these, it is asserted, modern Jews have a unique obligation. This is no doubt an attempt to save Jewish religious particularism on non-supernatural grounds; but it succeeds only at the cost of moral and religious ruin. There are no more “Jewish” than German or Russian values, or, for that matter, Communist or capitalist. Values are universal and are either valid or invalid; and their source is significant only to the historian, not to the people who live by them. To assert a special Jewish obligation to special Jewish values is to subscribe, wittingly or unwittingly, to a doctrine vicious in its implications. An outgrowth of modern nationalism, it exalts the particularity of national or cultural expression at the expense of the universalism that values inherently require. If we Jews have indeed produced religious genius, we have given it, long ago, to the world; we cannot and dare not keep its insights to ourselves. We try in vain to save Jewish religious particularism on non-supernatural grounds; in the end, we are led to a perversion of classical Jewish doctrine: the substitution, for the worship of God, of the worship of the “Jewish vision” of God.

Moreover, the uniqueness of Jewish genius is a fiction. How can it be maintained in the face of modern scholarship? We cannot have it both ways: either Judaism is unique as a divine revelation to the Jewish people, or Judaism emerges as gradually evolving from, and in interpenetration with, surrounding cultures, making its contribution, no doubt, but a contribution which has, at least in good part, been absorbed by non-Jews. We Jews are not alone in erecting fictions to escape this dilemma. Certain liberal Protestant theologians, having abandoned Christian supernaturalism, nevertheless find early Christianity unique on natural evidence, i.e., its moral superiority over contemporaneous Judaism; this superiority, needless to say, is wholly fictitious.


If, then, revelation is impossible for all the reasons mentioned, only one religion remains tenable in the end: the religion of humanity, expressed in what one might call a “bible of mankind,” a compendium of what is best in world literature and art. There are, indeed, important thinkers who have come to exactly this conclusion. But our situation would be quite different should we be able to save the principle of revelation after all. Should there be a direct interference of God with time, it would not only be possible but necessary that this act address itself, not to mankind in general—an abstraction—but to concrete individuals and peoples. All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that Judaism stands or falls, if not—as Rabbi Hertz maintains—with the revelation at Sinai, then at least with the possibility of revelation in principle.

But it is, of course, possible that Judaism falls rather than stands, and that more than two thousand years of Jewish existence were lived by a fundamental illusion. Hence we must, with unremitting insistence, return to our original question: is revelation possible? Can there be a direct incursion of God into history?


The question is: “Is revelation possible?” But wherever we may have to look for an answer, it cannot be in science or metaphysics.

Science deals with empirical facts, in categories which exclude the miraculous. But revelation is miraculous by definition and thus cannot be an empirical fact. If there is to be such a thing as revelation, it will have to take place, not in time, but in the timeless moment in which eternity passes into time. That which has already happened in time is empirical fact, and this comes under the scrutiny of the scientist. But what has not, or not yet, taken on a temporal extension is outside scientific proof as well as refutation. Hence revelation is by its very nature impossible within the framework of science; and whether it is possible outside that framework, science is unable to decide. Any attempt to do so is doomed from the start.

Metaphysical attempts are similarly doomed. The area of metaphysics, while not necessarily empirical, is yet rational; but the miraculous, if it exists, is extra-rational. Hence if the metaphysician discovers that revelation is rationally impossible, because paradoxical, he only discovers what revelation by definition implies; and if he discovers that it is rationally possible he has discovered not revelation, but something else.

But are not then all our difficulties removed? If science and metaphysics remain neutral in the matter of revelation, what is to prevent us from accepting it simply on faith? Indeed, why worry about its possibility, instead of accepting, without further ado, the actuality, say, of the historic revelations of Judaism? There are those who are prepared to make such a gesture of acceptance. But there are surely many more for whom such an act adds up to a defense of sheer, blind faith, unmitigated in its blindness by any sort of rational argument, and therefore intolerable.

The truth is that by defining the province of science and metaphysics we have merely cleared the path to the crucial difficulty. Within the categories of the empirical and the rational, reality is too restricted to have room for the miracle of revelation; but with these restrictions removed, it is so wide as to make revelation meaningless—it becomes a wholly unintelligible break into time occurring at the most sublime or most ridiculous moments, which could be the message of God or the devil, or simply a manifestation of the unintelligible. As a wholly unintelligible break into time, revelation would not add one whit of meaning to the time it invades. Indeed, it might destroy such meaning as time possesses when taken in itself; for there would be no reason why revelations should not invade time constantly and anywhere. Formerly, the supernatural seemed to elude us; now, by a swift and somewhat ludicrous reversal, it is the natural which seems to travel toward dissipation. In other words, through blind faith we are in danger of turning back to primitivism.

This surely raises, of all objections, the most formidable. Science and metaphysics do not refute the principle of revelation, but neither do they seem to offer evidence for it. Why not, then, discard this superfluous and troublesome concept? Ockham said wisely: “Principles ought not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

Is the concept of revelation unnecessary? Or does it solve a problem otherwise insoluble? This, and this alone, is the correct way of putting our question. Indeed, it is the proper question to ask of any doctrine of faith. For religious faith is neither knowledge nor superstition: not knowledge, because its evidence is subjective and outside public proof; not superstition, because it is outside refutation as well as proof, and because it is not arbitrary. Faith may be defined as the sole positive answer to questions of ultimate importance, the asking of which is still reason’s prerogative but which reason is no longer able to answer. Questions that reason can answer as well as ask belong to knowledge; statements that are not answers to intelligible questions are superstitions, both arbitrary and meaningless.

Is revelation the solution of a problem implicit in existence, and otherwise insoluble? Unless we can answer this question affirmatively we shall be compelled to discard the concept of revelation as useless and devoid of meaning.


“The world and the fullness thereof,” says Rabbi Banayah in the Midrash, “were created only for the sake of the Torah.” Even after maximum allowance is made for rhetorical extravagance, this statement can only mean: man’s existence is incomplete without revelation. Such, indeed, is the consistent traditional teaching. Largely ignoring the physical universe, Jewish tradition is chiefly concerned with the existence of man; this it views in terms of a history moving on from Creation to the Messianic “end of days”; and the crucial events within that history are a succession of revelations. But creation and redemption are themselves doctrines of faith; hence one must first consider, however briefly, their function; only then can Rabbi Banayah’s statement become intelligible.

Creation and redemption are doctrines designed to solve the riddle of human existence. For man is a riddle unto himself; the core of the riddle lies in his apparent participation in two worlds, that of nature and spirit. Like all animals, he is doomed to death; but to realize this is to be able to form a concept of death—and of immortality. Like all animals, he is subject to amoral natural needs; but to judge them amoral is to look to a moral standard. Man appears to be mere nature; but in order to recognize himself as “mere” nature he must be spirit also. Perhaps Rabbi Akiba had the human riddle in mind when he said: “Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God; but it was by a special love that it was made known to him that he was so created.”

Attempts to resolve this riddle appear forever doomed to failure. If man interprets himself as an overgrown animal—different from other animals only in complexity—he finds that his natural urges may fit into this interpretation, but his moral and spiritual nature do not; what his interpretation will not explain is the fact that he is capable of—an interpretation. Yet if he interprets himself as a pure spirit he fares no better: nature in him forever stubbornly refuses to be transcended. Is then man in insoluble contradiction with himself—a “broken vessel”?

History supplies further evidence that this is, indeed, the case. If man were but a complex animal he would have no history. He would realize no meaning beyond what already inheres in his essence as a species. His history would be but quantitative variation—in other words, no history at all. Yet if man were an entirely spiritual being, all that is evil and meaningless in history would be mere temporary accident, and he would, properly speaking, have no history either. As Plato implies, whenever a man achieves the perfection potentially in him he has risen above history. As animal, man would exist in time below history, as spirit, in eternity above it. History itself thus appears intelligible only as a composite of time and eternity, nature and spirit; for it is a domain of meaning, indeed, but of a meaning forever partially frustrated. There is equally much—and equally little—truth in those opposite views of history: the eternal, meaningless recurrence of the Greeks, and the necessary moral progress of the moderns. The one finds too little meaning in history, the other too much; the one tries to reduce history to nature, the other to spirit. Both vainly attempt to resolve the human contradiction as reflected in human history.

Religious faith rests on the conviction that this contradiction is a paradox—either insoluble, or else soluble only by virtue of a mystery, to be asserted on faith. Precisely that solution is offered in the doctrine of creation. Says the Zohar: “After all the creatures were made, God said unto them: ‘Let us make one more creature in partnership. Each of you shall have a share in him, and I will give him a portion of Myself.’” In contrast with philosophical syntheses, the doctrine of creation holds on to both sides of the contradiction, thus making it naturally and rationally insoluble: man has an animal and a divine aspect, the one irreducible to the other. Yet what is naturally irreconcilable is supernaturally reconciled in the mystery of creation.

However, taken by itself, creation raises as many problems as it solves. To make God the author of time and eternity, nature and spirit, light and darkness, good and evil, must mean, if it means anything, that these contradictions are not ultimate. But, as we know them, they do seem ultimate: evil is still evil, and darkness, dark, their divine origin notwithstanding. Hence the idea of creation must be complemented by the idea of redemption: not one, but both sides of the human contradiction will be redeemed, and nothing will be lost. The creator of all is also the redeemer of all.


Creation and redemption thus form a religious solution of the human problem, a problem which reason can state but not solve. God will redeem man, but not by making him either less or more than human; either assertion would make human existence meaningless—a tragic contradiction to no purpose. God redeems man by preserving the contradictory elements that constitute his humanity, yet by transforming them in such a way as to take the sting out of the contradiction.

Creation establishes time and history, redemption consummates them. But it is only revelation that can establish the significance of the here and now as unique. Revelation is the religious category of existence as such. If revelation is impossible, there is significance only to the human situation in general, even though God is its creator and redeemer. Man may then know a law and a promise, but both remain in strict universality—individual men, and individual historic moments, are universally interchangeable. God may then be related to man in general; he is only indirectly and accidentally related to myself, my people, my historic situation.

But existence is inexorably particular. The moral law to which I am obligated may be universal, but the situation in which I must realize it is unique; indeed, the tension between universal law and concrete realization is part of the essential human contradiction. Israel is a manifestation of mankind, but what makes her Israel is unrepeatable and uninterchangeable. A historic situation exemplifies what history as such is, but it is nevertheless something all its own. If revelation is impossible, the particular in existence is a meaningless weight upon time and history—from creation until redemption. History then has meaning only at its beginning and its end; nothing meaningful goes on within it.

But such a history is in the end no history at all. The Platonic philosopher, having risen beyond time to the contemplation of the universal, may leave the particular a meaningless weight. But what if the particular is not accidental? What if, as traditional Judaism asserts, man’s temporal aspect is as essential as his eternal one? If this be the truth, we cannot, in the Platonic sense, rise above the particular; and it continues to defy us, even in a world that is God’s creation. It requires, not a philosopher speaking in terms of the universal, but someone who can speak in the here and now, and yet give it absolute meaning—in short, a prophet. If man cannot heal his self-division by ascending from time into eternity, then it can be healed only by God, descending from eternity into time.

A history without God is an unmitigated tragedy—a domain of frustrated meaning. A history which is, as a whole, in the hands of God, but in which revelation is impossible, may be, as a whole, beyond tragedy; but the particular in it, as such, remains a dead and sodden weight. A history in which revelation is possible is one in which every event, no matter how trivial and insignificant, may in its stark particularity be lit up with unique meaning; it is a history characterized by the crucial fact that fulfilment is possible within history and not only by abolishing history.

In a history in which revelation is impossible, man’s ultimate achievement is to wait for redemption. In his moral actions, he is merely an accidental case of the human species, and all his accomplishments are affected by the contradiction inherent in that species. In a history in which revelation is possible the individual is, potentially, singled out; his actions and existence may become a unique fulfilment. To be sure, they cannot become completely redemptive, but neither need they be of a merely repetitive character: they may become unique contributions toward redemption. The Hasidim taught that the deeds of any individual may leave unique traces in the upper world; for a history in which revelation is impossible, such a doctrine would be meaningless.

Revelation is the solution of the religious problem of the here and now. To assert that revelation is possible is to assert faith in the relevance, before God, of this man, at this time, in this place. Only if there is, or at least can be, revelation, does the God of the philosophers become the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.


A Hasidic rabbi used to say: “We thank Thee, Source of all Blessing, for being at once revealed and concealed.” Revelation at once reveals and conceals. It lights up the particular as such; it must therefore reveal. Yet it remains concealed as well, for if it did not it would dissolve time itself in its glare. Why, the Midrash asks, did God descend in fire? Because revelation is comparable to fire: “If one comes too near it, one gets burned. If one keeps too far from it, one is cold. The only thing for man to do is to seek to warm himself against its fire.” Another Midrash puts this perhaps even more profoundly: “On the instant when Israel heard the First Commandment their souls left them. So the Commandment returned to God and said: ‘sovereign of the universe! Thou art life and thy Torah life; yet Thou hast sent me to the dead!’ . . . Thereupon God modified the communication so as to make it more palatable. . . .”

Revelation thus remains a mystery even while it is revealed; and every single word spoken by any prophet is inexorably shot through with human interpretation. Franz Rosenzweig observed: “Revelation is not identical with legislation; it is, in itself, nothing but the act of revelation itself. Immediately, it is its own sole content; properly speaking, it is completed with the word vayyered (‘and He descended’); even vayyedabber (‘and He spoke’) is already human interpretation.” This may be a point of extreme subtlety, but theologians ignore it at their peril. Orthodoxy identifies the human—if ancient—interpretation of the revelation with the revelation itself; it is this literalism which lays it open, as we have seen, to fatal attacks. Modernism, too, identifies divine revelation and human interpretation, but commits the opposite error: instead of making the interpretation divine, it makes of revelation a purely human “creation.” Hence modernist theology is in the end indistinguishable from a sort of eclectic philosophy, leading a precarious existence by the grace of whatever trends may dominate the age. To this abject condition its present feeble search for props in anthropology, psychiatry, and even quantum physics bears eloquent testimony.

All interpretation of revelation is human; and Orthodoxy errs in its belief that a revelation could be possessed in the form of a body of truths and laws unaffected by human contingencies and hence unchanging in validity. But it would also be an error to depreciate all interpretations because of their human character. Revelation must pass into human interpretation, else it does not become accessible at all. But this gives rise to the question: what is the proper interpretation? Or, if proper interpretations differ with time, circumstance, and perhaps even individual condition, at what point do such interpretations cease to be legitimate? Or again, to put it more concretely: where does the revelation become the religious law of Judaism? What is that law for the modern Jew? And is there but one such law for him?


Religious leaders in Reform and Conservative Judaism have recently given increasing attention to the religious laws and ceremonies of Judaism, and there has been growing concern with the problem of “authority.” This present attention to Halachah (Law) reflects a highly creditable appreciation of the problem of the concretely human: Jewish existence, it is realized, loses its specific reality and meaning if it expresses itself religiously only in the moral law, which is, after all, binding for all men. But it is extremely important to realize that this problem cannot be solved by conventions that simply formulate codes of religious practice. It is a useless, more, a dangerous procedure to ask for a code of practice without at the same time inquiring into the foundation and ultimate significance of such practice. If revelation is in principle impossible, all such practices, no matter how “creative” or “inspiring,” become in the end indistinguishable from folklore; and attempts to foster them consciously are a brand of nationalism with too many religious incongruities to mention.

Any fruitful theoretical concern with Halachah must be preceded by an affirmation of revelation. In this essay, it has merely been asked whether revelation is possible and what it would mean were it to happen. A religious concern with Jewish living presupposes the assertion that revelation actually happened, touching Jewish history at least at one point—for this is all that is needed—and singling it out forever for a special task and destiny. Only then is it possible to interpret that revelation in its challenge and promise. Only then is it possible for the Jew to seek out the positive content of his Jewish existence.


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