Reason vs. Revelation by Rabbi Michael Shevack

For one thousand years, Jews, if not many religious people, have been stuck in intellectual chaos.

The chaos began innocently enough.  There was some kind of ancestral memory of some kind of spiritual experience, maybe a “teaching” given by some prophet, a Moses. This was a living prophetic revelation–  and if you’ve personally had the spiritual experience of a sudden intrusion of knowledge or guidance (which I have), there is no rational reason for doubting it as a real human capacity.

Over time, the results of this living spiritual experience– the lessons obtained– were orally transmitted and then written down. Over more time, other lessons were appended to it, from other times and places. Over even more time, the composite of all these, amalgamated to meaningful spiritually-instructive stories or accounts of history, became a canon: an officially-sanctioned written account.

But now the chaos really begins. We have quite a different animal from where we began. In our hearts, we may retain the “romance” of a living prophetic revelation, but, a canon is no longer, factually, a living prophetic revelation. Now revelation is considered identical, mistakenly so, to canon.

Then, even more chaos ensues when this canon becomes LAW, a constitution for the people. Now we have gone all the way from a living, spiritual awareness of some kind of Higher Guidance, occurring in the present, under a Living God, in the living Moment of experiential-need— to a fixed legal system for running a society-system.

Over time, when the Jews became disconnected to their own native sovereignty on their land, this kind of constitutional-canon was then turned into an intense guidebook for legal and personal inspiration. The Rabbis created a religion.

It worked!  The Torah is a masterpiece that infuses rabbinic-style prophecy into the written document through a spiritually-driven interpretative process. The Torah could then become a brilliant portable tabernacle to carry Jews through the Diaspora. It could serve as a model for Christianity, Islam, and other religions that have scriptural-based leadership.

But eventually chaos ensued!  After waves of human enlightenment we had cries for human freedom!  Humans questioned Religion and Revelation.

Reason questions:   What is this thing called “the Jewish religion”?  Who made the Rabbis “god” (which we spoke about in the last article, to proclaim authoritative interpretation of the law, “God’s Will?)  What about me?  What about my own decisions for myself? Your laws are not the criteria of my life!

The call of the individual surfaced to challenge the governmental-consolidation of religious power. The call for new individual, creative, perspectives on religion take place, i.e. heresies. The call for the authority of individuality, of “democracy”, takes place.

Now the very concept of religious “revelation from God” is questioned. It isn’t working anymore; it became all clogged up. With the help of some very creative philosophers, we proclaimed “Reason in the Sky”, a disembodied LOGOS, which served as a “transcendental-justification” for non-religious authorities, such as democratic governments, to proclaim their laws with less religious interference.

At the same time, we see the emergence of rational truth– Scientific Truth– based upon the only real revelation of which any of us can be certain:  observation of Life.  How does Life work?  How does Life work “for God”, i.e. to experience Good?  For example, “don’t eat contaminated food”, a fairly important observation that one can come to, through the use of reason, especially after the learned-experience of septicemic death.

Such scientific-spirituality DEFIES sentimental religious proclamations with REALITY, threatening religious formalisms with chaos. Then, religious groups fight back. Reason-based groups fight back too. A war of thought takes place; going on now for a thousand years and counting.

Now, some like Maimonides, tried to solve this problem four hundred years earlier. He began to interpret the religious text in a “more rational way”.  For example, he began to view kashrut as primarily a hygienic thing, which is fairly obvious, because if you eat scavengers who eat decayed flesh, you might get sick— i.e. less good or “God” might result. However, in interpreting it this way, the religious-revelational-sentimentality of Sinai tends to be destroyed. That’s why so-called “rationalists” just leap upon Maimonides for their justification, in a way that would have been trafe to the Rambam.

Is kashrut revelational, in terms of the religious-structure discussed above?  Or, is it revelational, in terms of scientific discovery?  Welcome to the chaos of “modern” contemporary Jews.

Underneath this chaos is a real, deep, divide within Judaism. The divide is this:  When the Great Rabbis of Blessed Memory developed their religion, and their “mitzvah system”, which, by performing it, someone would get their reward in the olam ha ba, “world to come”, they, in essence, DEFINED the goodness of the canon laws in terms of an other-worldly reward. Hygiene is not (on the surface) an other-worldly reward.  An other-worldly reward is for a disembodied soul, whereas hygiene is for an embodied soul, fleshly-alive on earth.

When you peel away the blessedly sentimental idealism of early rabbinic religionism–  Judaism’s traditional  “other worldly authority” for the performance of Jewish law is not defensible. It is somewhat defensible:  God designed us to eat uncontaminated food, or we get sick. Whether this is a hygienic observation by a scientist, or a recorded “religious” observation in a canon, does not change the REASON:  This is how the world is designed!  God’s “order” or “commandment” on earth; scientific observation of earth. 

Revelation. requires reason and reason, if it is to evolve, requires revelation; you cannot have one without the other and have discovery, a sudden intrusion of knowledge.

Let’s get real:

In what way is hygiene NOT revelational?  How is it possible that some primitive creatures, like humans, one day, discovered the mixture of animal fat, and ash, with a drenching rain, that would create SOAP?  How can one have a REAL-EARTHLY salvation, without hygiene and health, and a sudden intrusion of knowledge thereof?  In what way can you say that a REAL GOD, the Creator of Life— a Living God— SAVES US, if it does not produce increased health and well-being through increased revelation of knowledge? Can one have a real soteriology— a teaching of salvation— that is NOT real-earthly?

In order to re-JEW-venate the Jew, we must put the critical importance of real-earthly salvation, the health and well-being of our Jewish society, and the larger, increasingly globalist, scientific-secular culture in which we live, front and center. The issues around other-worldly salvation, and the so-called “reward” that God gives our individual souls for “being good”, should be a secondary and speculative exploration. Barring intense, and deep spiritual experience, which can be consensually-validated in the spirit of any good science— this speculation cannot be declared “a law”, i.e. “How Life Actually Works”. It is merely speculative, sentimental or folkloric.  Exalting it to the status of universal law is the cause of poisonous religious wars!

Contemporary Jews cannot divide themselves or others, Jewish or non-Jews, according to speculative, unproven, spiritual notions, such as the Olam Ha-Ba. And of course, once this notion is created, if we receive back its poison, through others, such as coercively-baptizing Christians, then, we need to become spiritually awake!   What is the idol we created, that we passed to them?  What is our suffering teaching us about our own false beliefs?

The Re-JEW-venation of the contemporary Jew requires us to stop being apologetic for seeming apostasy against religious excesses. We have a real, critical role in the economy of Jewish thought. We have a real, critically-important role in the economy of World-thought, which is only now, beginning to institutionalize hygienic laws and government-protection of animals, which our people instituted thousands of years before.

In the name of sanity, and for the sake of re-JEW-venating the contemporary Jew:  I declare the declare war between reason and revelation OVER.

If not over— I declare an immediate cease-fire!

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