Category Archives: Revelation

How to learn about Judaism

We have had many people join, coming from non-Jewish backgrounds. As adults, it is hard to even understand Judaism, when everything one reads is first viewed through a lifetime of Christian theological assumptions. So the only way to learn about Judaism is to put Jesus aside, and study Jewish sources.

What do Jews believe about the Bible? Read “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible” Joseph Telushkin.

What do Jews believe about God? Read “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion” Abraham Joshua Heschel. A profound work that reflects on how man can apprehend God and have an encounter with the ineffable, and the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine.

What is Jewish theology – what are the ways in which we believe? Check out “Great Jewish Thinkers: Their Lives and Work”, Naomi E. Pasachoff
This short (200 page) introduction to Jewish thinking. Presents the lives and work of classical Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides (Rambam), Mystics such as Moses de Leon (author of the Zohar), Isaac Luria and Israel Ben Eliezer – The Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism.) Modern Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Theodore Herzl (founder of modern Zionism), Ahad Haam, and also 20th century Jewish philosophers

How has halakhah developed over time? “A Tree of Life: Diversity, Creativity, and Flexibility in Jewish Law” Louis Jacobs. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

What does it mean for a Jew to believe in God? How can we use words to describe God? Is God “one”? The Unity of God

What is God?

What are the many different ways that religious Jews have traditionally understood God?

Major ways of understanding God

Revelation: Judaism affirms that the Bible is, in some way, the product of divine revelation. But what does that even mean? How can God “speak” to people? Here is an overview of several Jewish responses.


What about Bible prophecies? Most non-Jews were raised in a culture where they were assured that the Bible made specific prophecies about the future, and they all came true. But outside of the most strictly Orthodox communities, most religious Jews have never read the Bible in this way: The Bible is a not a sci-fi manual already laying out the future.

Supposed Bible prophecies about the future

Why study Judaism’s oral law? Isn’t the Bible alone, enough? Not at all, and here is why:

Mishnah: the beginning of Judaism’s oral law

Judaism is NOT identical with the religion of the Bible. Judaism is based upon the way in which the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the Bible, and for good reasons. Here is why and how Judaism differs from more fundamentalist faiths.

Tradition and change in rabbinic literature

These online introductory essays are unlike most other websites: They don’t push the view of one specific theology. Instead, they include a range of traditional Jewish views, and note differences in interpretation by those in the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform communities.


What really happened at Sinai?

What Really Happened at Sinai?

Henry B. Balser

Conservative Judaism, Vol.XLVII, No.2, Winter 1995, p.64-68

Non-Orthodox Jews are extremely uncomfortable with the question, “What really happened at Sinai?” You cannot ask a question afraid of the answer. Those intrepid souls who have tried to examine the issue have tended to disregard the account given in the book of Exodus and instead imposed their theology on it. For Mordechai Kaplan, revelation by a supernatural God is impossible, so the Sinai event is a mythological event, of little importance to him. Buber asks the question directly in his book Moses. He tries to make sense of the text but admits:

It is precisely when we make the most earnest efforts to establish a reality, a reality consisting of actual facts, that we are possessed by the feeling that the words of the Covenant, the Ten Words could surely not have entered the
world thus, in such optical and acoustical pomp and circumstance; and where the narrative reports them as having them been written on Tablets of Stone, things happen quite differently, in and solitude. We the late-born,
oppressed as we are by the merciless problem of Truth, feel in our own minds a singular echoing of the protest which found its expression in the story of the Revelation at Sinai.

We interpret the text in the light of certain assumptions. We reject the story we are given a priori; it could not have happened that way. But what is this Truth that oppresses us? Of course it is the truth of modern rationalism which assumes that the story left to us by our ancestors could not be true. God cannot be heard in a loud and clear voice. Nor can God be seen. Yet the Torah is very clear that the people heard and saw God. We start with assumptions that make the biblical story impossible, and then we try to interpret that story.

In practical terms, we can pretend that we believe they heard God, and we pretend that the text does not say that they saw God. But hearing God is no more rational, no less anthropomorphic than seeing God. So perhaps our ancestors heard the voice of catholic Israel at Sinai.

I propose taking the experience of our ancestors seriously. Without assuming that we accept the text literally, I would like at least to start with the possibility that the text we have received reflects a real experience. Once we get rid of our modern arrogance, the confidence that we certainly know more about Truth than they could possibly have known, we might be able to be struck with the same sense of God’s presence and have the same awe for God’s appearance that they did.

Modern biblical criticism does not prove anything about the nature of the Sinai event. It may show us that there is more than one source and that it was not all written down at the same time by the same author. But the text tries to tell us a story in which the voice of God was heard and the glory of God was seen.

I am making the following assumptions about the text: What we have is the memory of the event as it was passed down through the generations. I do not assume that the words are all from God. We have the integration of several stories of the event, but they do represent what was reported about a real event. We do not have to interpret the story exactly as they interpreted it, but we do have to take seriously their experience of it. And the heart of that experience is that they heard and saw God.

Is it possible to hear or see God? Or can God be apprehended only intellectually? To answer this question we have to go to Maimonides. According to Maimonides, all the prophets with the exception of Moses used their imaginative faculty in apprehending God’s message. In other words, they saw and heard certain things, but only Moses understood God’s message without the intermediary function of the imagination.

According to Maimonides, Moses had become pure intellect and had ceased to be a body. So he heard no sounds and had no visions. His understanding of God was purely rational. The text, on the other hand, is purely metaphorical when it talks of hearing God’s voice or seeing God’s kavod.

While Maimonides does violence with the text, his defense of the Torah can work within his intellectual framework. He can assert that Moses was the one and only human being to reach the level necessary to apprehend God, and so the Torah is the only form that God’s “word” can take once it is put into human language. Thus, the Torah, while it is written in the language of ordinary human beings, is the only purely divine document that we can possibly have. There is no revelation. Imagination would impose subjectivity and cultural bias on the Torah. Thus, if Muhammad had attained the same level of intellect and prophecy that Moses had, the Quran would have had the same commandments as the Torah. The only difference would be that the Quran would be written in Arabic for the benefit of its audience.

Maimonides assumes that God is pure intellect and can be apprehended, to the extent that it is possible, purely intellectually Words and pictures distort God. Intellect is totally objective, while imagination is subjective. But if we were to talk to God as pure consciousnrss, we might conclude that the rational faculty and the imaginative faculty are both avenues to apprehending God. Neither is purely objective and neither is totally subjective either. (A deconstructionist might say that everything is subjective. A modern Marxist might say that everything is based in class, gender, culture, and race bias. But I will assume that we are not fully in these camps.)

One of the most profound developments that has come from modern physics is the acknowledgement that there is no such thing as pure objectivity The Heisenherg Principle asserts that the observer always affects that which is observed. This does not mean that there is no truth in the observation, but it does mean that the observer is part of the picture or equation. This concept has been extended into other intellectual endeavors. The historian and social scientist, as well as the scholar of literature, must now be aware that they view the subject matter or the text from a particular vantage point.

We cannot maintain today that Moses was a totally unbiased, nonsubjective receiver of God’s message. There is no such thing. The cultural relativist will maintain that Moses was a product of his time and culture, and the Torah and the commandments are only artifacts of that time and culture. They therefore have no divine mandate. We assert, however, that it is possible for a limited human being, who speaks a particular language and is grounded in a particular society and time, to reach out and perceive God’s will, even though the perception will be influenced by who that person is.

Why should a rational perception of God’s will be preferable to an imaginative perception involving sights and sounds? If reason inevitably has an element of subjectivity in it, can we not assume that imagination has an element of objective truth in it? Is a Mozart symphony a purely subjective creation or does it contain elements of divine revelation? Would a painting by Rembrandt or Picasso be a more immediate way of expressing a truth from God than would be a logical train of thought?

Even Maimonides asserted that prophecy involved a flow that could be called superrational, in that it is above and beyond the limits of human language. Maimonides makes the assumption that any translation of the flow into the imagination faculty is necessarily a distortion Only Moses gets the message in a totally undistorted fashion. Today we must describe prophecy as the touching of the human consciousness by the pure consciousness which is God. Then, if we can avoid prejudging the relative merit of the internal dialogue which we call reason and the hearing of sounds and the seeing of visions, We come closer to understanding prophecy in genera] and Sinai in particular.

When consciousness flows from God to humans, we experience a bifurcation into reason and imagination. This, to a large degree, parallels the division in our brains into right and left hemispheres. Consciousness is not simply a product of the brain and its functions. The brain and its functions enable humans to tap into consciousness, but consciousness comes from God and returns to God. It is the rational faculty that reaches out from the human experience and drives us to seek the truth. It is the imaginative-creative faculty that allows us to tune into God.

When the flow of consciousness comes from God to the prophet, it splits into thoughts and immediate experiences and sensations. The two together make up the whole of the revelation. The rational side evaluates the experience: It questions whether this is truly from God; it attempts to filter out that which is not God. The imaginative side experiences it directly. If the critical side is totally dominant, we do not experience God at all. Indeed, we may question if there is a God or there can be revelation. If the imaginative side is dominant, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the real from the unreal, that which is from God and that which comes from other sources.

Let me share with you an experience I once had lying in bed as I was drifting off to sleep. I found myself on the boundary between dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness. For a short while I was able to control the process and move back and forth between being awake and being asleep. I could see a thought turn into a picture and then reverse the process. The thought and the picture were two forms of the same thing. It was a startling experience. Neither was more true than the other. One was a critical rational experience, the other was a direct imaginative experience. If the only experiences that are real are those that are critical and rational, then we are truly oppressed and incapable of an active engagement with the consciousness that is around us. If we are incapable of critical distance, then we are imprisoned by our immediate sensations, which may or may not correspond to external reality.

Kaplan and Buber were both “oppressed … by the merciless problem of truth.” For Kaplan there is no consciousness beyond that which is in nature, so Sinai did not happen. For Buber, God’s consciousness does not translate into words, thoughts, pictures, or sounds. We, however, may not have to be oppressed by rational Truth as it is perceived by Kaplan and Buber. For those who are oppressed by the Truth, the biblical story at Sinai is either an invention of later generations or a hallucination.

This is the critical juncture for the non-Orthodox Jew. Is there really such a thing as prophecy? Did Sinai really happen? I have absolutely no reason to discredit the account passed down to us and preserved in the biblical record. The fact that the text has different versions of the experience does not trouble me. What we have is the event as our ancestors experienced it and passed on to the next generations.

Thus there was a group of escaped slaves who experienced their freedom from bondage as coming from God. At Sinai they encountered their God. He spoke to them. They heard Him and saw Him. Our rational faculty asks: Was what they heard truly the voice of God? Was what they saw truly the Glory of God? But if our rational faculty can be convinced that the imaginative faculty has its own way of perceiving truth, then we can begin to accept that they “heard” God and “Saw” God, not as we see the physical objects of the world, but as best as they could perceive, given their human limitations. What they saw and heard was God-as-Israel-sees-and-hears-Him.

We cannot separate the God of Israel from our experience of Him. Similarly, I cannot separate my wife and my children from my experiences of them. Surely they exist apart from me, but I cannot know them as they are totally apart from me. My feelings, needs, and understandings necessarily color my view of who they are. So God’s speech cannot be separated from our understanding of it. God’s appearance cannot be separated from our vision of it. Was it a hallucination? The people present certainly did not experience it as such. They were certainly critical of the appearances of other gods. In judging it, all we can say with our rational faculty is that we have an experience of God, one that we can reexperience in the life we live as Jews. On Pesah we are back in Egypt. On Shavuot we stand at Sinai. On Shabbat we stand both at Sinai and in Egypt. As we reexperience, not as nostalgia and not as a long dead story but as a living event, then we know that what happened was real and powerful.

Possessing critical reason, we understand that we can testify only to what our people experienced at the Exodus and at Sinai. That is our gateway God. It is true for us. When I say that, I do not mean that it is just a subjective experience that is true only for us. It is true for us because we can verify it as an authoritative experience. We then try to bring its truth into the world by our action, our mitzvot, and our testimony. Our job is to make the world into the image of our revelation. It then begins to ring true to others as the way the world ought to be.

Meanwhile, other groups have had their own experiences of God. Muslims have Muhammad and the Quran as their gateway. Christians have Jesus and his resurrection. I have no personal way to verify the veracity of their claims except by the witness of their experience. I also cannot attack the veracity of their relationship with God. I can only judge where their revelations may conflict with the truth of our experience. I start with truth of our revelation.

For modernists, for people whose world-view was framed by the idea that there exists an objective reality whose nature can be deciphered only by our rational intellect, Sinai remains a metaphor, a mythological event, or a hallucination. But if we assume that human beings grope for truth both through their intellect and with their creativity and imagination, them we have to acknowledge that the revelation at Sinai is as real as any other event, probably more so. It really happened. And our ancestors saw and heard God.
Henry B. Raiser is Rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Manttoba.

Responding to “Saying Kaddish for Open Orthodoxy”

On his blog Harry Maryles writes:

I say this with a heavy heart. But I think the time has come to say Kaddish for Open Orthodoxy. Kaddish is the prayer traditionally recited upon the loss of a loved one – like a parent or child. This is how I feel about this loss…. But even with all of that, speaking for myself only, I did not think they warranted being expelled from Orthodoxy. Until one fine day Zev Farber, one of YCT’s prime products revealed that after studying biblical criticism he concluded that the Torah was probably written by different people at different times in history. That is a heretical view.

YCT president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin reacted to that by reaffirming his belief in the traditional view that the Torah is the word of God as recorded by Moshe; and this is what his Yeshiva YCT teaches. But he nevertheless defended Zev Farber’s right to question those foundational beliefs – calling him a major Talmud Chacham, and continued to embrace him as one of YCT’s own. That (as I have indicated in the past) is a deal breaker for me. I challenge my good friend Asher do explain how you can assert traditional views to be the truth and at the same time say that one of their brightest graduates has a right as an Orthodox Jew to question it?…


Okay, so he says that these Orthodox Jews are no longer Orthodox, because they accept the results of higher biblical criticism (they show that the text of the Torah is like the rest of the Bible, and like the Mishnah – it has a history, it was edited over time.) So I just submitted this response to the blog. Let’s see if this comment is approved:

Harry, your article here is very well intentioned, and in general I do agree that words only have meaning when they have specific meanings. But your essay here shows a complete lack of knowledge of the true, traditional, historic Jewish view of this subject. Your entire argument rests on the assumption that historic Judaism is the same as modern day Orthodox Judaism, and that this religion requires a literal belief that Moses literally wrote every single verse in the Torah, in his lifetime, and that this text came down to us today with practically zero changes and editing.

i’m sorry, but any educated person knows that this is complete fantasy, in every way. First off, the various versions of the documentary hypothesis are not ‘disproven’, as so many fundamentalist apologists claim. While certain dating aspects are still under consideration, it is considered a proven fact that the Torah, as have it today, has indeed been edited from earlier, yet post-Mosaic, sources. For a good summary, see “Who Wrote the Bible?” by Richard Elliot Friedman.

Yet equally important is the fact that historically, Jews have *not* been required to believe this. The idea that we all were required to do so is literally an urban myth. Please read The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization) by Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro,

Further, by yet a third line of reasoning, your claim is wrong: Most Orthodox Jews who claim to follow Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, have literally no idea what Maimonides believed. His only detailed explanation of what he means by God, Revelation, Torah, etc. is in his Guide for the Perplexed, and that work is totally meaningless when read, unless one already is familiar with with Greek Aristotelian philosophy, which is not studied in most yeshivas.

The only Jews I have met who actually understood any of Maimonides’s 13 principles come from western enlightenment-tradition friendly Modern Orthodox Jews, who studied philosophy and the Guide, from Conservative Jews, and from members of “the academy”, professors of medieval Jewish philosophy (they’re a mixed bag of open modern Orthodox and tradition leaning non-Orthodox)

Every single Hasidic Jew, who claims to follow Maimonides’s 13 Principles, doesn’t, as Kabbalah violates Maimonides’s understanding of Jewish theology.

Saying Kaddish for Open Orthodoxy

How Many Biblical Authors? Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

In the Think Judaism blog, Yitzchak Sprung writes:

….Rabbi Rackman tells us that revelation is a historical fact, its historical reality is crucial to his faith, and that he’s not sure how it took place. This presumably means that like most of us, he does not know how prophecy works. He continues:

“The most definitive record of God’s encounters with man is contained in the Pentateuch. Much of it may have been written by people in different times, but at one point in history God not only made the people of Israel aware of His immediacy but caused Moses to write the eternal evidence of the covenant between Him and His people. Even the rabbis in the Talmud did not agree on the how.”

I’m not sure what Rabbi Rackman’s intent is in this comment. Does he mean that God encountered man, who wrote down or preserved pieces of prophecy, before Moses rewrote it from scratch through his own prophecy? Or when he suggests that “much of it may have been written by people in different times”, does he simply mean that indeed, the Bible may have multiple authors, because the patriarchs wrote down their prophetic experiences which were supplemented and perhaps edited by Moses, who wrote the “eternal evidence of the covenant between” God and the Jewish people?

The latter understanding, controversial as it is, seems to better explain his note that “Even the rabbis in the Talmud did not agree on the how.”

Crucial to our understanding of this point is another quote from Rabbi Rackman, which I saw in a guest post by Rabbi Michael Broyde on Hirhurim:

“The sanctity of the Pentateuch does not derive from God’s authorship of all of it, but rather from the fact that God’s is the final version. The final writing by Moses has the stamp of divinity-the kiss of immortality.” (Judaism, Spring 1969, page 153)

As R. Broyde explains it, This is a sort of “Orthodox version of the documentary hypothesis”, allowing for “claims that there might have been a J, P, E or D, but the R (who the secularist call “the redactor”) really is Moshe Rabbenu mipi haGevura.”

This view seems to imply something which our first quote did not: perhaps when God, through prophecy, instructed Moses to write and edit the Torah, the instruction was to include materials which were not originally prophetic at all!

At any rate, Rabbi Rackman writes that while the mode and details of prophecy are subject to some disagreement, there is something the Rabbis all agreed on:

“But all agreed that the record was divine and they cherished it beyond description, even as they cherished a manner of exegesis which Moses simultaneously transmitted to his colleagues and disciples. In their ongoing relationship with God they sought to fathom the meanings- apparent and concealed- of every word and letter of His revelation. And that quest has not yet ended.”

This being the case, Rabbi Rackman seems to emphasize in two short paragraphs that the importance of revelation is that it occurred in history, but not how exactly it occurred in history, which may seem to fly in the face of Rambam’s seventh and eighth principles, which we have summarized elsewhere. However, Rabbi Michael Broyde, in the article noted above, writes explicitly that he does not consider Rabbi Rackman’s views to be in violation of the 13 principles. In his opinion, Rabbi Rackman doesn’t contradict the Jewish dogma that “each and every word” was given to Moses at Sinai; “He just speculates as to where God got the original material for the Torah from.”

See the rest of Yitzchak Sprung’s essay here: How Many Biblical Authors?: Rabbi Emanuel Rackman