Shavuot – Revelation and the post-modern age

R’ Herzl Hefter wrote an enlightening article for the Jerusalem Post, quoted in this week’s Australian Jewish News. Traditional faith could be summarised by Rambam’s words “It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom to know that there is something (ie G-d) that existed before anything else”. Post modernism does not challenge articles of faith such as the existence of G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah, but the way beliefs are derived. The post-modern critique of a belief system which insists on its absolute superiority over the belief systems of other civilisations, is hostile and dismissive.


These are conflicting world views for the modern Orthodox community. On the one hand, basic Western democratic values, equality of races and between the sexes, and  respect for the rights of others to differing strongly held beliefs, and on the other hand holding on to the “absolute truth of our own meta-narrative”.


R’ Hefter looked to the teachings of  R’ Mordachai Yosef Leiner (1800-1854) and his son R’ Ya’acov Leiner, both of Ishbitza. R’ MY Leiner commented on the first of the 10 Commandments, “I am the Lord your G-d”  in which the word “anochi” is used instead of the word “ani” for “I”. His comment was that if     G-d had used the word “ani”, it would have implied that G-d had revealed Himself entirely to Israel, precluding the possibility of further delving into His words. Instead, the “chaf” in “anochi” denotes that the revelation is not complete, but rather an estimation and comparison to the light that G-d will reveal in the future. The correct translation of the verse would be “I am as the Lord…..” The revelation at Mt Sinai would be understood then as a partial and incomplete picture of the divine as “as if”.


This commentary not only claims that G-d’s revelation is imperfect, but that it must be so. If one were to claim perfect clarity, this would be a transgression of the second commandment, of constructing a graven image. R’ Mordachai Leiner equated certainty with idolatry. We mortals are finite with limited capacity to understand, whereas G-d and His will are infinite.


R’ M Leiner drew a sharp distinction between “G-d as He is” and “G-d as he is perceived”. The gap between these two is occupied by uncertainty. R’ Hefter calls this the theological uncertainty principle. R’ Leiner wrote that “ it is possible to doubt the existence of the creator, as the divine light is so concealed”!


R’ Hefter wrote that prior to this approach, certainty and steadfast faith were generally equated as being more “religious”, whereas the opposite is true. Uncertainty is an essential part of the spiritual landscape in which we develop. On a meta-narrative level, the theological uncertainty principle teaches us that a system with pretensions to explain all in the most certain terms must be naïve and ignorant of the complex and constantly changing world in which we live. Acknowledging theological uncertainty enables the Jewish tradition to engage in the constantly changing present with its infinite possibilities and surprises. Here is an opportunity for authentic humility and a more profound faith in G-d.


Australian Jewish News p24, June 3, 2011.

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