Sunday, January 23, 2011

Notes on Revelation

Excerpts from a discussion of differing understandings of what revelation is, from Michael Morgan's Interim Judaism: Jewish Thought in a Century of Crisis:

Within the Jewish tradition, Buber's conception of revelation as direct, intuitive, non-cognitive, and ecstatic took shape as a reaction to three views of revelation that had predominated within Judaism. One was the tradition, going back to Maimonides, Saadia, and others, according to which revelation occurred through human reason. Throughout the Middle Ages, when Judaism and Aristotelian science and philosophy came into conflict, one common outcome was a view of revelation and prophecy conceived as an accomplishment of reason, especially scientific rationality. A second view held that revelation was the individual and communal reception of Torah, of a divine voice that communicated literally the word of God either in spirit or in fact, to Moses, the prophets, and then designated heirs of the mantel of authoritative receptivity. This view was canonized within the rabbinic tradition as the doctrine of the two Torahs, the Written and the Oral Torah [Torah sheb'al peh and Torah shebichtav]. A final view was that the revelation itself was linguistic but somehow shrouded in the mists of Biblical antiquity, that it was then embedded in the commentaries and later rabbinic reflections, and that contemporary access to it could be had only mediated through the interpretive tradition. This view was enshrined within both the rabbinic texts and within the Kabbalah. What all of these views shared as a common assumption was the notion of mediation; ongoing revelation was an indirect exposure of the divine to the human through some agency-reason, special experience, language, or some combination of these.
Buber had an affinity for the experiential side of mysticism and for the fideist reaction to modern rationalism. Indebted to Kierkegaard and his reaction to the Hegelian tradition, he turned to a conception of revelation as direct divine-human relation. Revelation or faith was, to be sure, grounded in human experience, but it was a larger notion. Faith incorporated the entire life of the believing Jew as he or she sought to respond in language and in action, in myth and in ritual, to the experience of revelation. The believer's experience confirmed or transformed the significance of the pristine encounter between God and the people of Israel, the earliest response to which is recorded in the Biblical story. For Buber, even in his early or mystical period, the revelation of God to the Jewish people was not a revelation of a content as much as the revelation of a presence. This presence made a demand, called for a decision. To be sure, prior to World War I he associated the moment of revelation, on the human side, with ecstatic experience, a view he would later abandon. Nonetheless, the key was that this revelation was not for him a matter of content, rational or linguistic, but rather a matter of demand and decision.

Every single Thou is a glimpse of that. Through every single Thou the basic word addresses the eternal Thou.... [Each Thou] attains perfection solely in the immediate relationship to the Thou that in accordance with its nature cannot become an It. One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world.... Of course, God is "the wholly Other"; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present ... the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I. What is ... the primal phenomenon, present in the here and now, of what we call revelation? It is man's emerging from the moment of the supreme encounter, being no longer the same as he was when entering into it. The moment of encounter is not a "living experience" (Erlebnis) that stirs in the receptive soul and blissfully rounds itself out: something happens to man.... The man who steps out of the essential act of pure relation has something More in his being, something new has grown there of which he did not know before and for whose origin he lacks any suitable words....
Man receives, and what he receives is not a "content" but a presence, a presence as strength. This presence ... includes three elements.... First, [it makes] life heavy with meaning ... second: [the meaning] is guaranteed. Nothing, nothing can henceforth be meaningless.... [The meaning] does not wish to be interpreted by us-for that we lack the ability-only to be done by us. This comes third: it is not the meaning of "another life" but that of this life.... The meaning we receive can be put to the proof in action only by each person in the uniqueness of his being and in the uniqueness of his life. No lprescription can lead us to the encounter, and none leads from it.
Rosenzweig and Beyond

Revelation is a reciprocal event. God and human agency collaborate; the divine reveals and the human receives. Revelation succeeds only when both occur. But, one might ask, how can both occur, for after all the divine is divine and the human human? How can the absolute reveal itself, communicate, touch the relative and limited, and still be absolute? And how can the conditional and finite receive the absolute and survive the encounter?
One solution to this paradox of revelation is mystical union. Not only is the human in touch with the divine; it also achieves unity and wholeness in the very act of encounter. But it does so-the self accomplishes unification-only by grabbing one horn of the dilemma. The divine remains divine, but the human does not, as it were, remain human. The self dissolves into the godhead; distinctness and limitation are overcome. The divine and the human come into direct, unmediated encounter but only by means of the sacrifice of the human.
Franz Rosenzweig, so far as I can tell, never leaned in the mystical direction-although others, from Georg Simmel to Buber, Georg Lukacs, Ernst Bloch, and Gustav Landauer, did. Rosenzweig's response to the need for revelation and transcendence and the challenges of historicism, relativism, and nihilism was, in a sense, to grab hold of both horns, to hold together the divine and the human, to argue for the integrity of each and to accept their ultimate incommensurability, and yet to remain with the immediacy of their encounter. Buber, in his conception of dialogue, came to agree to something similar. Both started with the need for human orientation, for the groundedness of value and direction; both recognized the limitations of reason, nature, and history. Value, purpose, and meaning must be grounded in what transcends nature and humankind. But how? Only by means of an act of divine grace. Humankind cannot bring about the divine directedness; it can receive it, respond to it, and even need it. But God and God alone can enter history and nature, open itself to human acknowledgment, and call forth human response. In the spirit of such a view, in 191$, Rosenzweig became a convert to Eugen Rosenstock's notion of revelation as an event of orientation, which he took to be a decisive response to the problems of relativism and nihilism. It was this view that he developed from 1917 to 1918 into a full-blown account of what revelation is, how it occurs, and what it means to humankind.
But revelation contains no human language as its content. Revelation is an event of-akin to-address and response; yet it employs no concepts, words, or expressions. What language there is in the orbit of revelation occurs before and after, most notably as one mode of response to the orienting directedness itself.

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