American Orthodoxy

What’s Divine about Divine Revelation?

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Steven Gotlib

Professor Tamar Ross is one of today’s great Jewish thinkers, whose innovative work on theology and philosophy have had a wide-ranging impact on many Jewish educators and thought leaders. I have personally benefited tremendously from her writing and am grateful to have been given the opportunity to engage with her work so directly.[1] In a recent Lehrhaus essay responding to Professor Marc B. Shapiro and Yoram Hazony, Professor Ross sought to clarify her influential, yet frequently misunderstood, theology of revelation.[2]

Ross’ view of revelation involves making “two distinct moves that are not necessarily connected.” The first relies on the following three assumptions:

  1. “An infinite eternal message cannot be relayed to finite minds in one shot.”
  2. “God does not communicate via vocal chords, but rather through the mouthpiece of history.”
  3. “Although successive hearings of the Torah may appear to contradict the original message of Moses at Sinai, that message is never replaced” (emphasis in original).

The second move that Ross makes is reframing what it means to be a religious believer. For Ross, belief should not be viewed as “simple statements of fact” that must either be empirically defended, qualified, or rejected when faced with challenges. Rather, focus should be placed on “what religious truth claims mean to the believer in the context of a religious way of life.”[3] As she clarifies elsewhere,[4] religious truth for Ross primarily “refers to my deepest choices, loyalties, and commitments” rather than an objective description of reality. Embracing such a notion of truth leads to the religious believer painting a mental image that “will regulate her entire life and may bring her to take risks or make sacrifices that she would never dream of for the sake of other opinions that she knows to be far better grounded from a scientific point of view.”

Both moves seemingly place Ross’ theology outside of mainstream North American Orthodoxy, according to standards agreed upon by both the centrist Rabbinical Council of America and the more liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.[5] While Ross’ first move comes with a “fringe benefit” of being able to withstand the threat of biblical criticism by untangling divine revelation from a particular historical moment,[6] it also rejects the traditional interpretation of Torah from Heaven by acknowledging

troubling evidence of time and culture-bound imprints on the Mosaic text, such as obviously dated standards of morality, pervasive male bias, or inaccurate accounts of science and history, which to my mind support the simple common-sensical understanding that any revelation, even that attributed to Moses, is inevitably colored by its surrounding cultural context.

Responding to a spread of similar views, the Rabbinical Council of America resolved that a position which asserts that the Torah “was written by several authors who, in their ignorance, regularly provided erroneous information and generated genuine, irreconcilable contradictions” is “unequivocally contrary to the faith requirements of historic Judaism.”[7] While the RCA’s resolution primarily addresses proponents of source criticism, a position which Ross does much to distance herself from, their focus on human authors displaying all-too human fallibility which shows throughout the text can equally be applied to Ross’ theology as quoted above. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah also resolved that “belief in Torah MiSinai… as understood by the Torah-committed community throughout the ages, is non-negotiable.”[8] Furthermore, their Talmud Chair, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, is on record saying that Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber’s position of revelation as a “human channeling of the divine rather than divine dictation to a human recorder” and the Torah’s text reflecting “the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way”[9] is that of “an apikores.”[10] Given Professor Ross’s own descriptions of her position, it is not a stretch to assume that these criticisms would apply to her views as well

These proclamations came about because positions like Farber’s and Ross’ are significantly at odds with a plain understanding of the Torah as a divine document. The Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 99a) writes that if someone says that even one verse of the Torah was written by Moshe Rabbeinu of his own accord (mipi atzmo) they have rejected its divinity and Maimonides codifies this (Misneh Torah Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:8).[11] Even readings that take into account the many manuscript variations that have come to light, acknowledging that it “must not be taken literally [to imply] that all the letters of the present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu,” make clear that the core idea is that Moshe “had no input of any kind but functioned only as the mouthpiece of the Almighty.”[12]

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman has noted that the Rambam’s halakhic formulation is “that one must believe that all of the Torah is from heaven”[13] and does not make any claims about the possibility of additional prophets being involved. However, the mechanics of the Torah’s divinity must still be explored. Dr. Daniel Rynhold, dean of Yeshiva University’s Revel Graduate School, notes that even if one accepts that the Maimonidean “incorporeal God does not speak… not because He chooses not to, but because He is not the type of being that speaks” and that Maimonides’ view of prophecy “does not require an interventionist type of God at all,” divine communication in some real sense is still possible. Indeed, he writes that “God is most certainly responsible for prophecy, just not in the simplistic manner that we might have assumed” and that “Moses did indeed receive an objective form of divine communication from God, without God having to do anything other than what God always does… eternally emanate all truths of which he is the source.”[14] This is so because God being infinitely beyond human comprehension need not preclude God from also having a real message for humanity to receive.

Additionally, Professor Samuel Fleischacker of the University of Illinois-Chicago, writes that even those who renounce the idea of God literally speaking to Moses still ought to accept a model of verbal revelation in which

God encounters us, first and foremost, in language—not just, and not primarily, wordlessly. The aspects of language that are beyond our control can of course be explained naturalistically. Social scientists can and do put forward plausible explanations of the emotional, sociological, and historical factors about language that prevent individual speakers from fully mastering what they say. But it is perfectly reasonable for a religious believer to take these factors of language as, in addition, ways by which God shapes our world and destiny: vessels or vehicles through which God works. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God also shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, then God can also be present in language: God can speak.[15]

As such, “if one believes that the universe is structured by a personal force or being, which can reasonably be thought of as supremely good and as loving us, then one can expect that force or being to structure our language as well as everything else… Believers in a personal God should therefore be able to encounter that God in language. And Jewish believers should be able to encounter God in the language of the Torah.”[16] Fleishacker’s position differs from Ross’ by providing a mechanism through which the words of the Torah can literally be understood as communicated from God as opposed to being filtered through many layers of metaphor.

While Fleischacker notes that many “wordless encounter theologies” (like Ross’s) are advantageous in that they fit neatly with modern scholarly approaches to the Bible and allow for radical halakhic change, they are actually “neither necessary nor sufficient for either of these projects”[17] since verbal revelation can be defended even under critical assumptions and Halakhah can be a binding system regardless of one’s theology. Rather, wordless encounter theologies generally seem to be employed as an excuse to lessen the sense of authority that Torah possesses. Louis Jacobs, for example, wrote that “it is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human development of [Torah and mitzvot] is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law”[18] and that “one is entitled—I would say duty-bound—to be selective in determining which practices are binding.”[19] This trend is apparently the case regardless of the significant amount of traditional sources that Ross skillfully marshals to support her position.[20] Exploring Ross’ second move will hopefully shed light onto why this is the case.

Ross’ second move, that she herself describes as the “far less traditional” element of her theology, results in a “relatively naturalist view of Torah from Heaven” which                       

does not rest on inherent and undeniably God-given properties embedded in the biblical text that simply bang us over the head, compelling us to accept them as such. Such commitment rests, rather, on my willingness as an individual believer, and on the willingness of the Jewish people at large, to formally accept this text as such, and to view it as the fundamental narrative from which all other beliefs and practices of Judaism are derived.

Treating empirical observation and metaphysical claims as non-overlapping magisteria has much precedent. As Stephen Jay Gould poetically put it, “science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”[21] Similarly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Ztz”l wrote that “science is the search for explanation” while “religion is the search for meaning.”[22] Replacing facticity with instrumentalism in an extreme way, though, can be quite dangerous. While religion is certainly multifarious, providing numerous practical benefits in addition to whatever else believers obtain from observance, it should also correspond to observable reality in a meaningful way. Otherwise, religious identification becomes like any hobby that a person may invest themselves in one day and drop the next. Ross even seems to acknowledge that religious belief involves embracing a perspective that “may” lead to making sacrifices and taking on observance for it, but seemingly does not have to do so. This violates Jerome (Yehuda) Gellman’s “Satisfaction Criterion” for an acceptable existential stance towards traditional Judaism, which requires leaving one “with a good religious reason to make great personal sacrifices for the sake of his or her Judaism and to teach one’s children (and others, when relevant) to make similar sacrifices.”[23]

In her correspondence with Gellman, Ross goes even farther, clarifying that “talking about God as orchestrating history, or even about God Himself in the manner established in the monotheistic tradition, is to my mind a mythic way of relating to the totality of what is, in a manner that gives life meaning from a human point of view.”[24] She also writes that “God is not a person or an object that exercises agency on the world from without” and that “the meaning and significance of the belief in revelation, divine accommodation, and all religious doctrine making metaphysical claims, is best understood in light of its function in the life of the believer” rather than as factual truth claims.[25] If this is so, then it is fundamentally impossible to reach an “ultimate commitment” to Judaism, defined by Gellman as attempting to “live to the standards proposed by there being an ultimate, existent truth, or mode of being, in relation to which an ultimate good can be attained.”[26] Without an objective standard, Judaism ceases to function as an all-encompassing lifestyle and instead becomes a menu from which to select particular behaviors at particular times or to discard as one pleases.

Ross’ understanding of religious truth in this way is heavily based on her reading of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who wrote that “in relation to the highest divine truth, there is no difference between formulated religion and heresy. Both do not yield the truth, because whatever positive assertion one makes is a step removed from the truth of the divine.”[27] In her understanding, “although every explanation of the ultimate reality misses the mark, all sincere explanations and formulations are valid components of its infinite character, and should be graded hierarchically based on their instrumentalist value.”[28]

This general understanding of Rav Kook’s view is in fact corroborated by Rynhold[29], who wrote that

what remains important and distinctive with regard to Rav Kook, therefore, is that there is an absolute truth “embodied,” so to speak, in the infinite unity that is God. But as humans, we cannot fully gain that ultimate divine perspective, at least not so long as we remain human. Our understanding will always remain partial. As such, even when we are convinced by the truth of our particular perspective, we still need to respect other views – not merely for the pragmatic reason that we are currently powerless to do otherwise, but because there is an extent to which they are similarly expressions of an underlying reality. There is truth contained within the opposing views, and it is imperative that we engage with them in order to uncover that truth and improve our grasp of our own truths.[30]

However, Dr. Rynhold also noted that “while it might be true that in the realm of abstract theoretical truths all views are partial, we cannot and do not live in a manner that reflects this… Rather, we find ourselves convinced by a particular view of matters that we do not deem to be simply one among many that we could equally choose to act upon.”[31] Indeed, “this view need not – and for Rav Kook, must not – undermine one’s fundamental and non-negotiable commitment to mitzvot and the beliefs that underlie them. When you get to the most fundamental assertions regarding beliefs about one’s way of life, you will always get to rock-bottom principles about which people will have substantive disagreements.”[32]

Rynhold’s understanding of Rav Kook maintains that we find ourselves in a world that we can only understand from a particular perspective, thereby necessitating a practical acceptance of principles that exclude certain options even if on a theoretical level those alternatives remain valid. Ross, on the other hand, maintains an understanding in which the theoretical truth of all options having validity ought to render all of religion an endeavor guided by a combination of multiple subjective interests (“descriptive, aesthetic, pragmatic, imaginative, and spiritual”).[33] This is perfectly in line with Ross’ proclamation that “the widespread assumption of Modern Orthodoxy that embracing Torah u-Madda mandates equation of religious belief – such as Torah from Heaven – with the “facts of the matter” (along with the eclectic grab-bag of ad hoc apologetics that this assumption has engendered), has outlived its usefulness.” It is also, though, reminiscent of the reality that Conservative Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove recently observed in which “mitzvot are volitional lifestyle choices, not commanded deeds” and “the difference between Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Jews is a difference of degree and not of kind.”[34] Is this a reality that Orthodox Judaism should look at as an ideal? Is it one in which God-awareness permeates everything or is it rendered so diffuse as to mean nothing at all? In the spirit of Professor Ross, that determination is left in the reader’s capable hands.[35] 

[1] One of my first introductions to Orthodox Jewish Feminism was excerpts from Professor Ross’ Expanding the Palace of Torah and one of the first responses to biblical criticism to sway me was by Professor Ross. Though I am in a different spiritual place now than I was then, it is very possible that I would have left Orthodoxy behind without her writings. As such, I am profoundly grateful to her willingness to confront challenges head on in creative ways.

[2] All quotations, unless stated otherwise, are from Ross’ article.

[3] This, at least in part, stems from Ross’ sympathy with philosophical schools of thought that reject equating “empirically observable statements that are liable to verification or falsification with metaphysical truth claims, which – more or less by definition- are not given to empirical testing.”

[4] Realism and Constructivism: A Correspondence between Professors Yehuda Gellman and Tamar Ross – APJ (

[5] It is very possible that Israel differs significantly in what views are generally acceptable. On this question, see Professor Adam Ferziger’s 2019 article “Fluidity and Bifurcation: Critical Biblical Scholarship and Orthodox Judaism in Israel and North America,” Modern Judaism 39:3 (October 2019): 233-270. If her views are accepted in Israel, it is very possible that they will come to be accepted in North America as well, given how much diaspora Modern Orthodoxy is influenced by their Israeli Dati Leumi counterpart.

[6] This benefit, which she devoted an entire series of articles to unpacking, seems to be the main contributor to Orthodox criticism of her position. Her second move seems to be largely ignored by the North American rabbinate, possibly due to its largely “a-theological” and pragmatic nature. (Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism (

[7] RCA Statement on Torah Min HaShamayim – Rabbinical Council of America (


[9] Avraham Avinu is My Father: Part 4 –

[10] Open Orthodox Opens Up On Its Beliefs – Halacha Headlines

[11] Of course, there are numerous sources within the traditional canon that complicate this picture. The approach presented above, though, is the one which is taken for granted in North American Orthodox circles.

[12] Maimonides #8 – Divinity of the Torah –

[13] Joshua Berman, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid, 2020), 240.

[14] Daniel Rynhold, “Maimonides’ Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Theology ed., Steven Kepnes (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 118.

Such prophecy is still objective because, according to Maimonides, “if you have passed the intellectual threshold for human perfection, you will, as a result have the capacity for prophecy through your ability to see clearly the consequences of particular courses of action given your almost perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, both natural and human.” This is so because the Maimonidean conception of prophecy is one that is “not a supernatural endowment that God bestows on the chosen few. It is rather an intellectual achievement attained naturally by those individuals who are able to reach the necessary and exalted intellectual level, and one that is founded on prior moral and physical perfection.” (117). Moses, being the most perfectly developed human to ever live, would then be able to tap into the divine emanations better than anyone who ever lived before him or would live after him, to the point where it could be called true divine communication.

[15] Samuel Fleischacker, “A Defense of Verbal Revelation,” in ibid, 444.

[16] Ibid, 445-446.

[17] Ibid, 429.

[18] Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Littman Library, 2004), 52.

[19] Ibid, 240.

[20]Given the amount of traditional sources that Ross uses in support of her position, it is hard to weigh in on its fundamental validity. What I hope to have demonstrated is only that the position is rejected by the mainstream North American Orthodox establishments and that it is not philosophically necessary to maintain such a view of revelation even if one otherwise shares Ross’ assumptions.

[21] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Random House Publishing, 1999), 10.

[22] Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), 37.

[23] Jerome Gellman, This was from God: A Contemporary Theology of Torah and History (Academic Studies Press, 2016), 13.

[24] This does not necessarily contradict the second assumption of Ross’ first move, since that articulation itself can be assumed to be a mythic mode of communication rather than a literal description of how God communicates.

[25] Tamar Ross, “Divine Hiddenness and Human Input: The Potential Contribution of a Postmodern View of Revelation to Yitz Greenberg’s Holocaust Theology,” in Yitz Greenberg and Modern Orthodoxy: The Road Not Taken, eds. Adam S. Ferziger, Miri Freud-Kandel, and Steven Bayme (Brookline, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 126-127.

[26] Gellman, This was from God, 14.

[27] Orot Ha-Emunah, 23-24. Translated by Prof. Ross.

[28] Tamar Ross, “The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth-Statements: Rabbi A.I. Kook and Postmodernism,” in Hazon Nahum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought, and History Presented to Dr. Norman Lamm on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, eds. Yaakov Elman and Jeffrey S. Gurock (Yeshiva University Press, 1997), 525.

[29] This general understanding of Rav Kook seems to be the academic consensus, even amongst Orthodox scholars. For more articulations of his theology and how it was practically applied, see Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality, eds. Lawrence J. Kaplan and David Shatz (NYU Press, 1994).

[30] Daniel Rynhold, “Unity, Plurality, and Human Limits: Secularism in the Thought of Rav Kook,” in Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, eds. Meir Y. Soloveichik, Stuart W. Halpern, and Shlomo Zuckier (Maggid, 2015), 33-34.

[31] Ibid, 32.

[32] Ibid, 35.

[33] This disagreement may reflect a sort of hasidic-misnagdic divide in understanding the nature of reality and how we ought to view it. Ross herself examines this divide in her piece “Rav Kook: A This-Worldly Mystic,” in Cambridge Companion to Jewish Theology (cited above), writing that Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady believed that “although the light of the Ein Sof fills all worlds so that nothing is void of God’s presence, the very delineation of our world (in contradistinction to God) renders the derivative ray of light which sustains it as qualitatively different from its monolithic source. Precisely for this reason, the supreme religious goal is to pierce our illusory sense of separate existence and merge—to whatever extent possible—with God’s undifferentiated unity.” On the other hand, Rav Chaim of Volozhin contended that “although God’s aura (originating in His primordial Torah) appears to us as a ray of descending gradations so that its final and lowest point is so far removed from its source that it appears qualitatively different, ontologically our world and God’s remain one and the same. Hence, there is no reason to strive for dramatic shifts of consciousness on the earthly plane.” (192)

[34] A Choosing People — Sources Journal

[35] One may argue that this is itself an instrumentalist argument, rejecting Ross’ position on the basis of being unable to guarantee halakhic commitment rather than evaluating its metaphysical merits. If religious belief ought to be measured by such standards, though, this should be a fair line of argument.

Steven Gotlib is incoming Director of the Glebe Shul in Ottawa, Canada. He currently serves as Assistant Rabbi of the Village Shul and an Avreich (Community Scholar) at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov of Toronto. A graduate of Rutgers University, Rabbi Gotlib received rabbinic training from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, a certificate in Mental Health Counseling from the Ferkauf School of Psychology in partnership with RIETS, and a certificate in Spiritual Entrepreneurship from the Glean Network in partnership with Columbia Business School. He and his wife, Ruth Malkah Rohde, live in North York, Ontario. He can be reached at