Friday, November 16, 2018


Yoram Hazony wrote a great book entitled The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge, 2012), in which he argued that the Bible could be “more readily understood if read as works of reason rather than works of revelation” (p.66). Being a religious naturalist, this line of thought suits me better. 

Very often, the Hebrew Bible states, “The Lord spoke to me,” or simply, “God told me.” If, as I maintain, God is the impersonal energy of the universe, these expressions for me could simply mean, “I have got a new insight,” or “a new idea came to my mind.” Here, “insight” simply means, the ability to have a clean, deep and often sudden intuitive understanding of a complicated problem or issue. This does not diminish the importance of the message, but it places it within the naturalistic realm. The new quandary for us then would be to try to find out the source of the new insight. Most people would say that we get it from the combination of our reasoning mind and our natural inquisitive personality. 

I have a hard time comprehending the meaning of the expression, “God said.” In other words, I do not know how divine verbal revelation really works. For example, when the Bible states, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea” (Hos.1:1), what exactly took place in that dialogue? Did God speak with a human voice, in Biblical Hebrew? Did the prophet hear articulated sounds? Similarly, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the text reads: “God spoke all these words, saying” (Ex.20:1), many thinkers throughout history had a hard time imagining the format of the conversation. According to some ancient Rabbis, when God gave the Torah, “the whole world hushed into breathless silence, and the voice went forth” (Sh’mot Rabba, 29:9). For Philo of Alexandria, during the giving of the Decalogue, “an invisible sound” was created (Decalogue,9-10). In the Middle Ages, Maimonides, the rationalist, had to agree that the Israelites only heard “inarticulate words” (Guide, 2:33). Even Mendel of Romanov, a Hasidic teacher of the 18th cent. maintained that the people only heard the letter ALEF, the first letter of the Decalogue (Zera Kodesh, II, 40). Assuming that the entire episode is historical, which is hardly so, wouldn’t it be better to understand that Moses simply had a remarkable insight, and shared it with others?

Using reason, instead of revelation, would make the sacred text, more relatable to many who are not ready to accept mysterious and unverifiable divine articulations?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Nov. 15, 2018

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