Theology on the Far Side of Myth

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January 1, 2002
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By Arthur Green and Or Rose

We wish to thank Rabbi Gillman for initiat-ing this thought-provoking discussion. As students of the Jewish mystical tradition – an ancient body of literature that articulates the unique relationship between myth and theology in evocative and imaginative terms – we are particularly interested in exploring this subject in a contemporary framework.

It must be stated at the outset that we are sympathetic to Gillman’s use of the term myth. Particularly powerful at this moment when the world is so polarized by competing truth claims (both religious and political), his interpretation of the word myth reminds us of the importance of maintaining an epistemological humility even in the midst of heated debate on matters of ultimate concern.

Given the limits of this forum, we shall focus our attention on one central issue raised in his article – the challenges of entering a broken myth, of piecing together the sacred fragments of our lives in the face of theological uncertainty. This process is, as Gillman notes briefly, complicated. It requires several stages of reflection and questioning. One important step in that process is admitting to the pain of losing one’s theological “naivete.” Whether this happens in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood (it likely occurs at various moments in all three life stages), losing this “naivete” can be a disorienting and troubling experience that must be acknowledged and mourned. While this might ultimately lead to positive growth and transformation, the shadow side of this experience cannot be denied.

Related to this is the fact that, when we attempt to enter a broken myth, we do so tenuously, without the confidence or sense of authority that we may have once felt. If, for example, Sinai is no longer a literal event, then we no longer have the weight of divine authority to motivate our commitments. This leads us to ask a difficult question, for which there is no easy answer: Is it ever possible to reconstruct our religious myths so that they inspire serious religious commitment in thought and deed, or does our new consciousness prevent us from ever engaging the tradition wholeheartedly? Further, if we enter our broken myths with appropriate hesitation and uncertainty, what do we have to offer those who turn to us for guidance and support? What can we say to the convert, the school child, or the adult seeker?

As we attempt to reclaim our myths, we must also carefully examine our motivations for doing so. What moves us to return? Is it nostalgia, emotionalism, or perhaps our aesthetic sensibilities? While these factors may be important to our reclamation project, we must also ask, is there a theological impulse guiding our decision? Rabbi Gillman tells us that he is not a literalist. However, he does not reveal the content of his own mythologized beliefs. Does this mean that after one admits to the power of myth, there is nothing left to say theologically? In other words, can one make any faith claims on the far side of myth?

Our response to this question is yes. One can address myth through the use of a post-literalist hermeneutic, drawing truths from the tradition that transcend the details of any particular narrative. Sinai is true not because God may or may not have spoken to the Israelites in the wilderness, but because we have experienced the awesome presence of the Divine in our own wanderings and wonderings. The same is true of the creation story. While the details of this legend may no longer speak to us, we have been touched by the immanent Divine presence within the natural order or during peak creative moments.

Entering a broken myth means that we accept living a life of theological tension. A mature theology holds the paradox of the human condition in its embrace. The Zohar, the greatest of all Jewish mystical works, makes this point eloquently when it teaches that the word Elohim (the generic name for God in the Bible) actually consists of two separate words: mi (who) and eleh (these). Parsing the name Elohim in this manner teaches us that when speaking of God we must always do so in two modes. One is through the use of constructive theological language, through the mode of eleh – “these” are the things that we are willing to affirm about God. The other is through negative theological language, through the mode of mi – we accept the fact that, beyond all of our attempts to articulate a vision of divinity, there exists the God of “who?” – the One who transcends all human language and imaginings.

As theologians we believe that the project of reweaving the fabric of our religious lives requires that we engage, unapologetically, in discussions about God. At the same time we acknowledge that, in our spiraling search for the Infinite, we inevitably return to a place of questioning and mystery.

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Arthur Green is the Phillip Lown Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University.

Or Rose is a Ph.D. student in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.

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