Jewish Theology For a Neo-Traditional Age

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Steven Gotlib

Review of Jerome Yehuda Gellman, The People, The Torah, The God: A Neo-Traditional Jewish Theology (Boston; Academic Studies Press, 2023).[1]

In his newest book, Yehuda Gellman seeks to articulate a “neo-traditional” theology that “provides a new concept of the Jews as God’s chosen people; gives a new way of thinking about the Torah being from Heaven… and puts forward a conceivable way of squaring God’s perfect goodness with a good deal of the evil in God’s world.”[2] While admitting that he must “depart from the standard understandings of these three principles in order to meet challenges that cannot be ignored,” Gellman is committed to making “only the minimal changes needed to solve the problem in a satisfactory way.”[3] As such, his intention is only to demonstrate that these concepts are true “in an important sense.”[4]

Notably absent from the book are arguments for God’s existence.[5] This is presumably because Gellman’s “primary audience is people who are traditionally minded… or are attracted to tradition, and for whom the topics in this book are of importance.”[6] In other words, Gellman is not interested in convincing non-believers, but in providing justification for continued belief. Taking God’s existence for granted, this review will evaluate the three pillars of Gellman’s theology one by one, with a particular eye towards whether that “important sense” is maintained. This will be determined by whether or not they pass  the “satisfaction criterion” that Gellman lays out in his previous work, This Was From God:

A contemporary approach to traditional Judaism must leave 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.[7]

The Jews: A Designated People
Jewish chosenness is important because “without a theological explanation for why Judaism should be for Jews only (including converts who become Jews), Judaism is in danger of being a mere elaborate folklore, a vehicle solely of ethnic identity, or simply what Jews happen to do.”[8] At the same time, we ought to “be careful to reinterpret Jewish election in a way that prevents racist understandings as much as possible.”[9]

Gellman responds to this challenge by contending that God loves all people equally and that the Jewish people are meant to be a figure of that universal love displaying to the world that, despite the trevails of life, God stays the course for all.[10] This is explained with a conception in which the Jewish people “have been and continue to be a sacrifice for God, participating in all of the joy, and all of the tragedy, of being God’s designated people.”[11] In this way,

Jewish pain is a picture of the world’s pain. Our suffering, a figure of the suffering of Gentiles. Our sinning, a mirror of the sinning of others. And our goodness, a depiction of theirs. And our past redemption from the suffering of slavery, our continued existence despite all, and the promise of our future redemption are the hope held out to all humanity.[12]

Gellman places his approach against that of Michael Wyschogrod, who wrote that God’s exclusive love for the Jewish people is a direct carry-over from God’s love for Abraham:

“If God continues to love the people of Israel – and it is the faith of Israel that he does – it is because he sees the face of his beloved Abraham in each and every one of his children as a man sees the face of his beloved in the children of his union with his beloved. God’s anger when Israel is disobedient is the anger of a rejected lover. It is above all jealousy, the jealousy of one deeply in love who is consumed with torment at the knowledge that his beloved seeks the affection of others…

God also stands in relationship with [non-Jews] in recognition and affirmation of their uniqueness. The choice, after all, is between a lofty divine love equally distributed to all without recognition of uniqueness and real encounter, which necessarily involves favorites but in which each is unique and addressed as such… As a father, God loves his children and knows each one as who he is with his strengths and weaknesses, his virtues and vices. Because a father is not an impartial judge but a loving parent and because a human father is a human being with his own personality, it is inevitable that he will find himself more compatible with some of his children than others and, to speak very plainly, that he loves some more than others.”[13]

Gellman rejects this understanding for three reasons. First because God, unlike human beings, would be able to love every person and all nations equally. Pulling no punches, Gellman writes that Wyschogrod’s understanding of Jewish chosenness “works, if at all, only for those who share his severe humanizing of God.”[14] Furthermore, if God can literally fall in love, then God can fall out of love, or fall in greater love, with someone new. This is especially true if God only loves the Jews because of His love for Abraham. Indeed, a doctrine of Jewish chosenness has to maintain the idea that “the Jews exemplify God’s love no matter what suffering they endure and how much of a nuisance they make. This requires a steadfastness that survives all events and all challenges.”[15] If such a framework is not clearly in place, perhaps God “falls madly in love with Jesus or Mohammad and grants a divorce to the children of Abraham to now love the followers of Jesus or Mohammad.”[16]

This critique may also apply to Gellman’s position. While quick to note that he does not see the Jewish people as a Christ-like figure of atonement, one cannot help but read Gellman’s articulation in conversation with Augustine’s claim that Jewish survival has been divinely orchestrated to serve as “a testimony to [Christians] that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ [in the Hebrew Bible].”[17] Gellman writes elsewhere that his position is an inversion of Augustine’s. The latter is ordinarily understood to say that God keeps the Jewish people in perpetual suffering to “be witness to what befalls His deniers,” while Gellman understands Jewish survival and resilience in the face of suffering as “a positive, rather than negative, testimony to God’s grace.”[18]  An Augustinian, though, could respond that Gellman has simply mis-read history.[19] As such, we still require a definitive reason to accept Gellman’s position over that of Wyschogrod.

One reason that Gellman offers is that although Wyschogrod’s understanding of divine love is not overtly racist, it is perhaps too vulnerable to racist tendencies. After all, if God loves one person so much, there must be something superior about them that made God feel that way. This leads to Gellman’s final critique of Wyschogrod’s view: God does not really love the Jewish people, for when He looks at them, He does not see them for who they are; only for who their ancestor was. In Gellman’s view, God only loves the Jewish people because they are Jewish, but “Jewishness is a foundational fact about me, not an incidental fact. [It] permeates my being as oil permeates the olive through and through.”[20] An olive may have to be squeezed for the oil to reveal itself, but when God loves someone because they are Jewish, it is still them that God is loving in a true sense. God’s love for all Jews then shows all of humanity that such love is equally available to them as well.[21]

Gellman claims that his view should be preferred over Wyschogrod’s because it avoids unnecessary anthropomorphism, avoids falling into racist tendencies, and allows for specific divine love to flourish. On the other hand, Gellman’s approach can be read to neatly fit into Christianity’s narrative of continued Jewish survival as bearing witness for the world to see (albeit that Augustine viewed such survival as divine punishment while Gellman views it as a demonstration of Jewish steadfastness). One must then choose between a theology which overly humanizes God and one that is perhaps too easily compatible with Christian theological narratives[22]

Both views pass Gellman’s satisfaction criterion, since either living as an example for others to be inspired by, or being favored with divine love, provide ample reason for self-sacrifice. Gellman’s neo-traditional approach to chosenness, then, succeeds at maintaining chosenness in an important sense even though it may also provide a brds-eye view view of Judaism that may be too hard for some of his readers to swallow.

Torah Guided by Heaven
Gellman notes that in our time, “natural sciences, biblical studies, archeology, and the study of ancient civilizations have together formed a broad, reasoned agreement among scholars that the Torah is not a dependable source of historical information.”[23] Combatting this, thinkers like Sam Lebens and Tyron Goldshmidt have taken to utilizing a modern version of the infamous Kuzari Principle:

A tradition is likely true, absent evidence to the contrary, if: 1) it is accepted by a majority of a nation or a significant majority; and 2) describes an alleged national experience of a previous generation of that nation; and 3) the national experience would be expected to create a continuous memory on a wide enough scale until the tradition is in place; 4) is insulting to that nation; and 5) makes universal, difficult, and severe demands on that nation.[24]

Those utilizing this principle assume that the stories in the Bible must be more-or-less true since people would not just accept such narratives if they had no tradition already, especially those that come with high demands. Gellman, however, notes that people might be inclined to accept them if given a good enough reason why they had no memory of them. Therefore the Kuzari Principle stands “unless at any time in the past the telling of the traditional story was accompanied by the telling of a reason convincing to the listeners for why they had no memory of it.”[25]

Gellman also notes that the Torah itself provides numerous commands to remember/not to forget its most important narratives, and that multiple references in Tanakh report that the people did forget such things. Therefore, “someone who wants to invent stories of miracles has only to point to the authority of these verses to explain how it could possibly be that their ancestors experienced those miracles and yet the miracles had been forgotten.”[26]

While Gellman grants that the Kuzari Principle highlights “an intuitive likelihood that something of utmost religious importance took place back then,”[27] he finds it difficult to believe that the Torah is a reliable historical document on that basis. This is because the principle itself does not “have what it takes to neutralize the considerable evidence against the truth of at least the details of the stories of the stay in Egypt and the sojourn in the desert.”[28] This reality “too often leads people to conclude that the Torah is no longer relevant to their lives and no longer commands their allegiance.”[29] Therefore Gellman proposes a new understanding of revelation.[30]

His proposal revolves around a notion of “moderate divine providence” in which “God can direct desired outcomes without needing to control all specific events down to their last details.”[31] This places certain constraints on what ends up happening while still allowing for unordered or even random events.[32] These lower levels include “not only unprogrammed specific natural events in relation to God’s aims, but also free human choices… within outside framework boundaries imposed from above.”[33] That is to say that the divine plan can encompass a large number of potential decisions made within it.[34]

Gellman believes that “the undermining of the historical reliability of the Torah is the culmination of millenia of gradual guidance away from the centrality of historical content of the Torah as it appears” and leads towards “an understanding of the divine word free of a commitment to the historical accuracy of those narratives.”[35] Just as it was the divine plan for human beings to believe in the Torah’s historical truth for centuries, it is now the plan for us to embrace new understandings. Such a view not only “allows for human choices in the Torah content and for textual criticism of how human choices lead to alternative writings,”[36] but also supplies readers license to view the Torah’s narratives through their unique subjective lens.

This approach seems similar to Tamar Ross’ idea of cumulative revelation. She wrote, based on her understanding of Rav Kook, that “revolutionary developments in the world of ideas… are a clear sign that humanity has outgrown more primitive forms of spirituality and is ready for a new, more sublime level.”[37] This view also “allows for the liberty of conceiving of the Torah of Moses in terms of a revelation that occurred over a period of time, via a process that is totally consonant with the findings of biblical criticism and archeological discoveries (to the extent that these are scientifically verifiable and convincing).”[38] It would simply have been God’s will for such a process to unfold over time.

Ross herself clarified that she and Gellman

differ regarding the ontological status of such God talk itself: [He] is prepared to acknowledge that context can change the import of religious claims relating to the natural world, but he is not prepared to apply that same measure of flexibility to the realm of metaphysics… I, on the other hand, emerge more skeptical and regard even this looser picture of God’s nature and His relationship to the world, which [Gellman] proposes, as a picture grounded in human choices and interests rather than in inescapable constraints regarding the facts of the matter.

Gellman even notes that his satisfaction criterion is a corollary of his belief that Judaism is an “ultimatist” religion which

  1. Endorses that an ultimate being, state of affairs, truth, or mode of being is ultimate, that is, signifies the deepest fact about the nature of reality, and in relation to which an ultimate good is to be attained and
  2. Has an ultimate commitment to cultivating the attainment of the ultimate good, through organized participation with others in a tradition of revered texts, rituals, and/or other activities for expressing, advancing, or understanding, and living in accordance with clause 1.[39]

Ross’ view, then, fits neatly within a postmodern philosophical context in which fundamental truth is inaccessible, while Gellman’s position is modernist in that he makes a genuine, epistemic truth claim about God’s hand in the Torah’s formation.[40]

While acknowledging that his project is ultimately “a theological exercise built on emunah in the truth of something,” Gellman maintains that “we do not doubt God when we walk through that threshold [of rejecting the Torah’s historical accuracy]. We follow god when we go forward,”[41] in a very real sense. Science “cannot say that the Torah is not from God, as long as one accepts the theory of moderate divine providence.” At the end of the day, “the Torah remains the result of God’s holistic providential regard, and, so, being from God, is holy.”[42]

While Gellman’s theology is more traditional than many,[43] it still falls to the left of others. For example, Sam Lebens proposed the following view:

At an event at Sinai, God gave an endorsement to a religious tradition that would evolve among the nation of Israel. That tradition would come to view the Pentateuch as a sacred written constitution, never to be amended (at least not without a second Sinai-like event). His endorsement demands that, today, we should relate to the Pentateuch as if it were dictated word for word by God to man (which, perhaps it really was). Whether or not this is an historically accurate account of the genesis of the Pentateuch (which, perhaps it really is), God foresaw that the religious tradition stemming from Sinai would (at least) evolve to endorse this attitude as central to its very identity. Accordingly, even if God didn’t write the Pentateuch word for word (which he may well have done), it is as if God has now appropriated the text of the Pentateuch as his own, by his very appearance at Sinai. The Pentateuchal text is only one part of the Torah. That which is fixed is the words; not their interpretation. God also endorsed, at Sinai, the process of evolving traditions and interpretations that the faithful of Israel would develop over time, including their relationship with other books of the Bible. There may be wrong turns from time to time, but guided by ruach hakodesh (the holy spirit of God), the general trajectory is such that the unfolding content of the revelation, through the religiously observant communities of the Jewish people, brings the content of the Earthly Torah ever closer to the content of the Heavenly Torah.[44]

While Gellman takes the academic consensus against the Torah’s authenticity for granted, Lebens remains agnostic. Perhaps the Torah really was dictated word for word by God, and perhaps it really is an accurate historical account.[45] He goes on to write that this is because

we don’t have overwhelming reason to think that the national narratives of the Bible are inaccurate… [W]hen you’re dealing with the miraculous stories of the Exodus and the wilderness years, there are good reasons to assume that there wouldn’t be too much empirical evidence left over—Egyptians wouldn’t have been keen to record their own downfall, and the miraculous sustenance of the wilderness encampments wouldn’t have left behind regular archeological remains, nor do we really know exactly where to look.[46]

Furthermore, Lebens strongly believes that the Torah “is divine, so long as we have reason to think that the theophany at Sinai occurred. We can have such reason, without transforming the Bible into a history book against its will.”[47] Gellman leaves it to his readers to decide between Lebens’ points and “the strong expectation that something should have shown up somewhere,”[48] and this review will do the same.

Ultimately, Gellman and Lebens both provide justification to make significant sacrifices as a result of their views of revelation.[49] However, if the Torah being from Heaven is understood as requiring an accurate, word-for-word revelation, then Gellman’s view may have a hard time finding acceptance.[50]

Goodness in a World of Evil
Gellman’s argument about divine goodness is based on Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This implies that we are commanded to love God maximally. If every single person is required to love God to the greatest possible extent, then it follows for Gellman that God can only be a perfectly good being as well as perfectly deserving of such love, since all humans could not possibly be called upon to love God in such a way if He is anything less.[51] This is the basis for Gellman’s position elsewhere that

The criterion for a religiously adequate conception of God in my tradition should be that God be such that it be most appropriate to love God with a love than which there can be no greater. Here we are talking about a being to whom maximal love is most appropriate for everyone across the board and in every situation. Love of God is not context dependent but valid for all contexts and always. [This] criterion of God being worthy of our utmost love plausibly yields a God suitable for the required degree of awe of God. This sounds credible since whatever being is most appropriate for maximal love likely will be more than adequate for being the object of the desired awe.[52]

The existence of evil, then, ought to give one pause before accepting the existence of such a being.[53]

The most common response is the Free Will Defence, popularly presented by Alvin Plantinga:

A world containing creatures who freely perform both good and evil actions – and do more good than evil – is more valuable than a world containing quasiautomata who always do what is right because they are unable to do otherwise. Now God can create free creatures but he cannot casually or otherwise determine them to do only what is right; for if He does so then they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; but he cannot create the possibility of moral evil and at the same time prohibit its actuality.[54]

This certainly addresses human-caused evils, but what of natural evils like earthquakes, hurricanes and the like? Elsewhere, Plantinga writes that perhaps certain people “would have produced less moral good if the evils had been absent.”[55] Witnessing the damage of an earthquake or tsunami may, for example, inspire activism and greater relief efforts in the long run. Richard Swinburne even goes so far as to argue that “being allowed to suffer to make possible a great good is a privilege.”[56] He also argues that natural evils caused by the laws of nature working as they do gives humans knowledge of how to bring about or prevent such evil moving forward while also providing a choice in how to respond to the suffering caused by them.[57]

While these sorts of arguments show that there is not necessarily a logical contradiction between the existence of a good God and evil, they do little to confront what Gellman calls the “autobiographical problem of evil” which “is not a claim of a contradiction or even a claim of improbability. It is rather a direct, visceral, emotional reaction to evil (as such, or its amount, or its horrendous quality) experienced or known about.”[58]

It was in facing this particular challenge that Rav Soloveitchik wrote that “man, submerged in the depths of a frozen fate, will in vain seek the solution to the problem of evil in the context of speculative thought, for he will never find it.”[59] Rather, one should say 

“There is evil, I do not deny it, and I will not conceal it with fruitless casuistry. I am, however, interested in it from a halakhic point of view; and as a person who wants to know what action to take.”[60]

He then notes that, on a halakhic level, suffering is meant to inspire confession and repentance. Gellman, however, finds this response wanting. It may provide an answer for why criminals and sinners suffer, but “loses force once the subjects of the suffering are those who do not have the mind-set to realize or believe that they are suffering for that reason [of spiritual development].”[61] This is especially so if those who are suffering are minors or little children who cannot yet require such atonement.

The problem of evil, then, is hard to solve, and Gellman does not even attempt to do so. Nor does he attempt to win over those who do not already believe in a perfectly good God. His goal is to “alleviate the problem somewhat for the believer or would-be believer, to the point that emunah, faith, might well prevail in the face of the challenge”[62] by offering a conceivable explanation in order to “show that a justification for many evils is at least imaginable, even if the explanation is not the real one.”[63]

The explanation that Gellman offers is based on the idea that all human beings are destined to eventually join with God in eternal intimacy.[64] God, in Gellman’s understanding, knows not only what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future, but also every possibility of what can happen in the present.[65] For every possible person He could create, God knows exactly what they would do of their own free will in any possible situation. By using this knowledge, God can selectively create those whom He knows have the best chance of achieving such intimacy. That, in turn, would allow as many created human beings as possible to achieve that goal while still making free decisions.[66]

Given that “God’s creative abilities for good far surpass the ability to create only one world… God being perfectly good would create a plurality of separate universes, the better to do good.”[67] There is still, though, evil in this multiverse, so this proposal alone does not address the problem at hand. Gellman responds with the explanation that since it is the case that there is so much evil in the world and it is also the case that God is good, it follows that “this lifetime cannot be the only lifetime of a person.” If one is not able to achieve intimacy with God in their current life, they will be able to achieve “continuous development of character in future lifetimes”[68] which may be lived in different, better, universes:

When one dies, or otherwise exits a universe, one will preserve a memory of life in the universe one has left and regain the memories of all previous universes one has inhabited. A person knows them as her life, thus able to integrate the latest universe into her accumulated trans-universe memories. She looks to the future with these memories in place.  But more than that happens. A person is now able to look back on that life and draw lessons from it for the future. And God will have created only people who will in fact freely draw conclusions from the way life was back then. Taking it all to heart, the person is now placed in another universe with a personality consequently somewhat different from that of the previous universe to the extent of having been able to learn from the past lives as remembered. One might start out in a new universe closer to God than before or it might take several universes for a person to even start to become closer to God.[69]

By passing from universe to universe, a person’s essence progresses closer to the Divine. The universe one finds themselves in is the one most conducive to their growth towards attaining intimacy with the Divine in their current life. But why does our universe, with all of the evil that it contains, exist as part of this multiverse at all? Gellman answers that

On earth, we learn what it is like to live with chance, while being ourselves equipped with a robust quantity of self-concern and self-indulgence. We come to know what it is like to experience pain as suffering. We become acquainted up close with how it is to respond to events as severe disappointments and causes of paralyzing sadness… Our life on earth is one, perhaps among many, in which we are shown the consequences of self-absorption and the ideal of self-giving. It is one in a series of universes from which, looking back at it from the vantage point of what follows it, we gain a measure of appreciation as to what extent our suffering is in our hands, both as perpetrators and victims of evil. With the new understanding as our starting point, we proceed to the next universe-station, where we might do more of the good and less evil, and where natural evils are lessened to the degree we have learned our lesson in the previous universes we have inhabited. Some universes along the way will be over-brimming with goodness and closeness to God, with their inhabitants having gained from living in earlier universes. The amount of good and freedom from suffering that accumulates at an accelerated rate through the universes we occupy, together with the rich goodness of the future Messianic Age universes, justifies the journey in the best way possible.[70]

The universe we are in has so much evil within it because it is a place to witness and learn from the great power that we possess and the responsibility that it takes to wield it wisely. The pain and suffering is caused by a combination of chance events and the human ability to fall into self-centeredness. It is ultimately worthwhile because our experience in this universe will lead us to a better and better-informed one in the future.

Gellman admits that many may object to such a theodicy, since reincarnation is “not exactly a chief doctrine of traditional Judaism,”[71] despite being common in Hasidism and kabbalah. It may also seem too similar to a view in which future lives are lived as punishment for sins rather than additional opportunities for growth. However, we must recall that Gellman’s theodicy, by his standards, need not be probable but only possible. Are all of these universes really out there? Gellman does not know, and only advocates that “it would be fitting for God to have created them to bring as many people as possible to become freely one with God, in line with perfect goodness. The existence of such multi-universes is consistent with everything we know. And their existence is coherent with theism. Hence, a conceivable theodicy.”[72]

But if the multiverse does exist, it is completely unobservable to us. Scientists may very well predict its existence, but, at the end of the day, Sean Carroll notes that “some physicists would put the chances [of a multiverse] at nearly certain, others at practically zero. Perhaps it’s fifty-fifty.”[73]

Are there other conceivable responses to the autobiographical problem of evil that do not require a multiverse? One attempt was offered by Lebens and Goldshmidt:

Imagine that God gives us free will and then, so to speak, He says, like a film director, “Take 1.” Then we live our lives. We do some good and we do some bad. All of it is of our own creation. At the end of time, God says, “Cut.” Imagine that scenes 1 and 3 are fantastic, but that scene 2 is horrific. Well then, wouldn’t God simply edit the film and cut out scene 2, because, even after the scene has happened, God can change the past? Admittedly, this would leave a gap in the history of the world. But then God can say, “Scene 2, take 2.” We’d then get another shot at linking scenes 1 and 3 together. Take 2 of scene 2 would, once again, be of our own authorship. God is a patient director. We can do a take 3, or 4, or however many more takes are required. Every evil that now exists will one day never have existed. These evils aren’t just temporary; they are what philosophers might call hyper-temporary. A temporary evil is one that doesn’t last forever. A hyper-temporary evil is one that will one day never have existed at all – once the past has been edited.[74]

Like Gellman, Lebens also makes the case that “it doesn’t matter whether the Divine Proofreader theory is true or not. What matters is that it could be true, and that it doesn’t seem like an ad hoc explanation.”[75] 

The major hole in Lebens’ argument is that he himself admits that although natural evils like earthquakes, diseases, and animal suffering can ultimately be edited out, we have “no explanation as to why those things had to occur in the early takes of this film called history.”[76] Lebens’ theodicy, however, can directly respond to the “but what about the holocaust?” objection that serves as an explicit counterpoint to Gellman’s.

Gellman’s argument, reliant on a multiverse and reincarnation, may be less than compelling to Jewish “rationalists” who find reincarnation too mystical of an idea. However, it also provides a reason for why evil had to exist in the first place, while Lebens and Goldshmidt’s does not. Both theodicies, though, are weakened by their admission that they are merely possible and not probable. Without active reason to believe either, and without clear precedent in Jewish sources pointing to them, there is seemingly little reason to accept either. It is only if one can accept that significant limitation that both arguments pass the satisfaction criteria and provide justification for one to make personal sacrifices on the assumption of a good God despite the problem of evil.

Gellman’s exploration exemplifies the heights to which theology can go in conversation with philosophy, while also showcasing the limits of traditional responses when faced with modern challenges. While he is able to walk his readers part of the way on their journey in constructing a neo-traditional theology, it is ultimately up to them to “raise up the experience of God both in individual terms and Jewish peoplehood” and “to appreciate the goodness of God, so that God will no longer be a stranger.”[77] In that his target goal is justifying Jews who already believe, one might call it a successful project in Jewish apologetics.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Emmanuel Bloch noted that apologetics “is not another word for “hypocrisy”: a good apology facilitates the transition from an older mindset to a more contemporary one [and] makes it possible to incorporate modern moral insights while remaining loyal to tradition.” Indeed, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has written that good apologetics serve not only to strengthen believers and potentially convince non-believers, but also to shape the culture that they are offered in. The way that religious people talk about religion impacts how the surrounding culture sees religion. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said on many occasions, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect their Judaism.”

Agree or disagree with Gellman’s final proposals, The People, The Torah, The God is an invitation to all of us to think about Judaism more seriously and confidently. Are we up to the task?

Thank you to Professor Yehuda Gellman for encouraging me to review his book and for providing invaluable insight and constructive criticism throughout the writing process. Thank you as well to Rabbi David Fried for editing and to Rabbi Avi Herzog for copy-editing.

[1] All unspecified references to Gellman are to this work.

[2] Gellman, vii. It is important to note that Gellman views this book as an expansion of his most recent trilogy of works: God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People (2012), This Was from God: A Contemporary Theology of Torah and History (2016), and Perfect Goodness and the God of the Jews: A Contemporary Jewish Theology (2019).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Emphasis in the original. 

[5] For a discussion on that, see Samuel Lebens, a Guide for the Jewish Undecided and my review.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jerome Yehuda Gellman, This was From God: A Contemporary Theology of Torah and History (Brighton; Academic Studies Press, 2016), 13.

[8] Gellman, 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This articulation of his main contention is based on personal correspondence with Gellman. One may note that it avoids addressing the problem of evil, which will be addressed below.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] Ibid., 16. Gellman explains elsewhere that this is God’s way of saying to the world,  “See my passionate desire to be God to the Jewish people. For here, in my turning to the Jews, is a concrete figuration of my desire for all humanity. Keep this before you when you discern my presence as non-compelling. Keep this in mind when I call to you but do not compel you. Don’t take that as insufficient interest on my part. Here, in the Jews, is proof of my wanting all of you with me.” Therefore, in Gellman’s words, “every act of God’s love toward the Jewish people also speaks to all peoples. Each such act is an invitation, a call, an offer, by God to all peoples to receive God’s love, as demonstrated by God’s relationship to the Jewish people” (Jerome Gellman, “Jewish Chosenness – A Contemporary Approach” in Alon Goshen-Gottstein (ed), Judaism’s Challenge: Election, Divine Love, and Human Enmity (Brookline; Academic Studies Press, 2020) 79). 

The immediate response to this is, of course, “What about the Holocaust? Doesn’t that present a counter-example to God’s love for the Jewish people?” Gellman is not oblivious to this objection and writes that “the Holocaust stands out as a black hole in every Jewish theology asserting God’s goodness and God’s irrevocable love for the Jews” (14), and that he will return to the question when addressing God’s Goodness in the third section of the book.

[13] Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith, cited in Elliot N. Dorff and Louis S. Newman (ed.) Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader (New York; Oxford University Press, 1999), 250-251.

[14] Gellman, 40.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Augustine, City of God, 18:46. This also supports the Christian theology of supersessionism, which posits that Jesus “has obtained a more excellent ministry [than Moses], inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6) and that “In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).

In private correspondence, Gellman clarified that his view differs from Augustine’s in that the latter viewed Jewish suffering as a punishment, while Gellman views it as a model of steadfastness under God. Gellman’s primary point is that the Jewish people serve as a figure of God’s love for all humanity. The Jewish history of suffering demonstrates that the Jewish people have been prepared to witness God through all strife and problems that we face. In doing so, we serve as a model to others of how to move forward in their own times of trouble.

[18] Gellman in Goshen-Gottstein, 80-81.

[19] Another Christian thinker to weaponize Jewish history against the Jewish people was Martin Luther who, according to Goshen-Gottstein, “appealed to Jewish history and to the present condition of the Jews as proof for the invalidity of Jewish interpretations [of Scripture]. What validates interpretation is God, and Jewish history shows that God has abandoned the Jews. Luther could not conceive of any other explanation for 1,500 years of exile and the almost subhuman conditions of Jewish life. What for Jews is the highest sign of faith was not recognized by this theologian and was rather taken as a sign of rejection and invalidation of Jewish religion and scriptural interpretation” (Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Luther the Anti-Semite: A Contemporary Jewish Perspective (Minneapolis; Fortress Press, 2018) 35-36). Goshen-Gottstein notes on the very same page that this position demonstrated internal inconsistency and a “theological failure of nerve” on the Protestant Reformer’s part, Luther’s position is still a prevalent one.

[20] Gellman, 42.

[21] One may ask how God feels about Jews who are non-religious. A Gellmanian perspective may be that the fact that accepting observance is always an option for them implies that God’s love extends to them as well. In fact, any time that an otherwise secular Jew stands up to antisemitism or the like, they may be seen as returning God’s love in a real sense.

[22] Of course, compatibility with Christianity is not in-and-of-itself a reason to reject a view. Nor does it imply any implicit agreement with Christianity on Gellman’s part. It is simply a fact that might give more traditional readers pause.

[23] Ibid., 46.

[24] Ibid., 58. Gellman’s summary.

[25] Ibid., 59. Emphasis original.

[26] Ibid., 65-66. Gellman also notes that one could come up with a “Maimonidean” reply to the Kuzari Principle, saying that one never heard of certain miracles because over time the stories of them were replaced by naturalistic accounts.

[27] Ibid., 61.

[28] Ibid. One of Gellman’s primary arguments here is that the lack of evidence of the Exodus from Egypt and travels in the desert have left no evidence that has yet been discovered. This goes against his Expected Evidence Principle which posits that if an event occurred that “would have left behind an imposing body of relevant material evidence that would have come to the surface after extended massive efforts to find it,” then “if little or no such evidence does surface after extensive efforts, then probably [that event] never occurred” (62). See Footnote 41 for how some have attempted to counter this principle.

Another objection that Gellman raises against the Kuzari Principle is that the argument is actually too successful. If the argument “works to establish Torah miracles, it also works to establish the historical veracity of miracles in the scriptures of the world’s dominant Buddhism” (78). Discussion of this argument, however, would be too lengthy for this review.

[29] Ibid., 53.

[30] This articulation can also be found in Gellman’s 2016 book, This Was From God: a Contemporary Theology of Torah and History.

[31] Gellman, 83. Gellman utilizes principles of quantum mechanics to demonstrate how such a process might work. Other recent works which have done so include Ari Tuchman’s Principled Uncertainty: A Quantum Exploration of Maimonides’ Perfect and Infinite God (Kodesh Press, 2023) and Avinoam Frankel’s translation and elucidation of Shomer Emunim: The Introduction to Kabbalah (Urim, 2021).

[32] Gellman also relates this idea to evolution, noting that on the “micro level” there can still be random mutations on the ground while the “macro level” is still moving in a particular direction. 

[33] Gellman, 86.

[34] One might object to calling this free will due to the constraints that it is operating under. Gellman responds by noting that such a restriction “simply joins any number of other limitations on human free choices… freedom of the will does not mean freedom utterly unconstrained” (86). Similarly, the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett has noted that “in the vast space of possible configurations of ‘matter’ there are some that persist better than others, because they have been designed to avoid harm. The process by which these entities emerge uses information gleaned from the environment to anticipate general and sometimes particular features of likely futures, permitting informed guidance. This proves that evitability can be achieved in a deterministic world.” Daniel C. Dennet, Freedom Evolves (New York; Penguin, 2003), 62.

[35] Gellman, 90.

[36] Ibid., 90-91.

[37] Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism 2nd Edition (Waltham; Brandeis University Press, 2021), 207.

[38] Ibid., 223.

[39] Gellman, This was From God, 14.

[40] For a more recent articulation of Ross’ theology, see Behind Every Revelation Lurks an Interpretation: Revisiting “The Revelation at Sinai” – The Lehrhaus, as well as my response.

[41] Gellman, 90.

[42] Ibid., 93.

[43] Gellman’s view is also substantially different from Benjamin Sommer’s participatory theory of revelation that “the specific words found in scripture are a human response to God’s commanding but nonverbal self-disclosure” and, as such, “all Torah, ancient, medieval, and modern, is a response to the event at Sinai [in which God wordlessly revealed Himself to the Jewish people]” Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (New Haven; Yale University Press, 2015), 95.

While both believe in a true God truly revealing Himself, Gellman notes that “the paradigmatic form of revelation in the Torah, far before Sinai, is God speaking directly to a person and that person understanding precisely what God is saying and wants” Jerome Yehuda Gellman, This was From God: A Contemporary Theology of Torah and History (Brighton; Academic Studies Press, 2016), 163. He then writes that this can be justified in his theology because

On my conception of Torah from Heaven, always and forever, God is hovering over the face of the earthly Torah process, not merely by being present but by imposing higher-level, top-down organizational grids on what can take place. And at times God “descends” to see what humans are doing and will intervene in the course of Torah with revelational moments, sometimes noticeably, at other times imperceptibly, nudging things along when necessary. God’s providence blends with, yet dominates, the paths of human endeavor in Torah. Hence, the best way to think of the Torah is that it is God’s Torah. To think otherwise is to take for our own credit that which we could never have done without a great deal of siyatah dishmayah, “help from Heaven,” at every moment (ibid., 165).

[44] Samuel Lebens, The Principles of Judaism (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2020) 220. A less rigorous exploration of this idea is also featured in his more recent book, A Guide for the Jewish Undecided. It is important to note that Lebens proposed this view “not with the apologetic motivation of standing up to its contemporary critics [but rather] in response to the internal problems that it had to circumnavigate within the Jewish tradition itself (ibid.).

[45] Lebens counters Gellman’s Expected Evidence Principle by noting that “the encampment in the wilderness is reported to have been so miraculous that you might not expect any remains to have been left.” Furthermore, Lebens argues that

Gellman doesn’t argue that lack of evidence is proof that something didn’t happen. Gellman rather argues that where there’s a strong expectation of evidence, then—and only then—does a conspicuous lack of evidence suggest that something didn’t happen… And yet what we call the Sinai desert is 60,000 km2 of forbidding terrain. The Israelites often stayed for long periods of time in just one place. Place names in the narrative are ambiguous, making it hard to retrace their steps. Archeological surveys may have been extensive, but surely, we’re talking about needles in a haystack. Moreover, we also have no reason to think that what we call the Sinai desert is the same expanse of land as that which the Bible calls the Sinai desert. When are we to assume that the failure to find traces of the Israelites, in such a massive, difficult, and ambiguously located terrain, constitutes proof that the story didn’t happen? How many stones have been left unturned? How many need to be turned in order to render the story unlikely to a person already assuming that God exists and that the revelation at Sinai likely occurred? (Lebens, Principles, 213-214).

It is important to note, though, that he also acknowledges that “as long as we have reason to think that there was a theophany at Sinai, even if it happened only to one or two tribes—who were, at that time, an entire nation— that later merged with others, you still have reason to think that the national religious traditions that tumbled out of that moment received a divine stamp of approval” (ibid., 216).

[46] Lebens, 216.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Gellman, 51.

[49] Due to the nuances of their positions, I do not believe that Ross and Sommer are able to provide sufficient reason for personal sacrifices to be necessitated.

[50] One major weakness of both arguments is that they are ultimately unfalsifiable and can easily be applied to any religon’s texts. One who accepts either Lebens’ or Gellman’s argument must then accept the fact that a Christian, Muslim, or even paganist can make a similar argument to justify their belief in the divinity of their own texts.

[51] For Gellman, a perfectly good being must

  1. Have a perfectly good character, such that “God acts with perfect moral goodness, with full moral empathy, always doing what is of overriding moral importance” (101);
  2. Be able to “actualize the good acts, intentions, and sentients of God’s perfectly good character” (ibid.);
  3. Possess “all the knowledge God needs for perfect use of his goodness and power for the good” (Ibid.);
  4. Be “metaphysically secure to be reliably there for doing good, both now and into the future” (102).

God, however, need not be a necessary being, and cannot be fundamentally simple, as that would contradict His ability to be good (which is inherently complex). This conception of God also need not be all-powerful or all-knowing, but only powerful and knowledgeable enough to be able to actualize His perfectly good character. Even a God like this still must confront the fact that there is evil in the world despite His goodness, which is why Gellman next attempts to present a response to that problem.

[52] Jerome Gellman, “A Constructive Jewish Theology of God” in Steven Kepnes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Theology (Cambridge, 2020), 456. One may argue that such a God is still not necessitated by anything other than the biblical verses that Gellman quotes (which could perhaps have been commanded by any being regardless of their truly deserving such maximal love). Gellman preemptively responds to this objection by writing that “agreeing with me on what traditional Judaism demands of the concept of God does not mean that you must believe that such a God exists or that such is your God. Recognizing that Judaism makes a particular demand does not in itself entail your having to accept that demand.” Indeed, as a result of that admission, Gellman explicitly omits from his argument “any reasons from outside the tradition one might have for rejecting the God that I propose” (ibid., 454). This is consistent with Gellman’s admission in The People, the Torah, the God that his arguments are meant to bolster those who already hold traditional beliefs rather than convince non-believers or even neutral observers. Since Gellman is explicit about who his intended audience is, this admission does not in itself constitute a weakness in his argument, though it does seem to allow for those who come from a different starting point to reject it off hand. 

[53] Samuel Lebens frames the problem of evil as follows:

  1. If God exists, He would be powerful enough to remove all evil;
  2. If God exists, He would be knowledgeable enough to know where the evil is and how to remove it;
  3. If God exists, He would be loving enough to want to remove all evil;
  4. Evil Exists;
  5. If God exists, there would be no evil;
    God doesn’t exist. Philosophy of Religion: The Basics (New York; Routledge, 2023), 111.

[54] Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God (Ithaca; Cornell University Press, 1990) 132. Jewish readers may be familiar with this style of argument from the early chapters of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s Derech Hashem.

[55] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids; Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1974) 57. He alternatively suggests that many natural evils could be attributed to “Satan or to Satan and his cohorts… So the natural evil we find is due to free actions of nonhuman agents” (58). Since Judaism rejects such a conception of the Satan, this answer is unhelpful to us.

[56] Richard Swinburne, Is there a God? 2nd Edition (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2010), 89.

[57] Ibid., 94-95.

[58] Gellman, 106.

[59] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen – My Beloved Knocks (New York; Yeshiva University Press, 2006), 4.

[60] Ibid., 7.

[61] Gellman, 111.

[62] Ibid., 108.

[63] Ibid., 112. Emphasis my own. It is also important to note that Gellman’s suggestion “will not be enough of an alleviation of the autobiographical problem for those of us challenged by the methodological murder of Jews in the Holocaust and its haunting aftermath… the holocaust is a black hole, emitting no light, in every theology since then. Every theology, when finished, must face the response of “Yes, but…” Still, I am just trying to do the best I can with what I can, for others, for myself.” (108).

[64] Possible exceptions being the likes of Hitler, Stalin, etc.

[65] This does run into the problem of free will and divine foreknowledge, but Gellman purposefully leaves that aside since “the traditional Jew is asked to juggle both, as twin operative pictures in her mind” (115, n. 10).

[66]This understanding seems consistent with Rav Soloveitchik’s articulation of the Maimonidean understanding of creation:

Before God created the physical world, He created the blueprint, the scientific idea of that world. But where does that scientific world exist? Maimonides answers: In God’s thought. Later the concrete world crystallized, which is just a reflection, an echo of that scientific universe. We have here an idealist notion where thought precedes existence… Thus cognition is a monistic intellectual act performed by a universal agent; God Himself. In the moment of intellectual illumination man is permitted to partake in this universal act of divine knowledge, in this great act of divine cognition. Lawrence J. Kaplan, Maimonides Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide for the Perplexed (Brooklyn; Ktav Publishers, 2016), 148.

[67] Gellman, 118.

[68] Gellman, 117.

[69] Ibid., 122. Gellman clarifies that his understanding of reincarnation and the ultimate attainment of intimacy with the Divine is “for all human beings, not only for Jews.” (118).

[70] Ibid., 129-130.

[71] Ibid., 120.

[72] Ibid., 130. The multiverse hypothesis is, in fact, quite popular amongst contemporary cosmologists. Sean Carroll has written that

“it’s completely possible that out beyond our visible horizon, there are regions where the local laws of physics… are utterly different. Different particles, different forces, different parameters, even different numbers of dimensions of space. And there could be a huge number of such regions, each with its own version of the local laws of physics.” Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York: Dutton, 2017), 306.

While scientific methodological naturalism provides no possible way for a single identity to move between universes, Gellman notes that his traditional audience already posits a non-material realm through which that would be possible.

[73] Ibid., 309.

[74] Samuel Lebens, A Guide for the Jewish Undecided: A Philosopher Makes the Case for Orthodox Judaism (New Milford: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2022), 165.

[75] If we can understand “why God might want to create a history in this proofreading way” which, in this case, maximizes free will while minimizing the evil that is actually done at the end of the day, then it is demonstrated that “the existence of evil is no slam-dunk proof against the existence of a loving and powerful God.” Ibid., 166.

[76] Ibid., 165. Another apparent hole in Lebens’ and Goldshmidt’s  argument is that as long as God Himself still remembers the evil having occurred in a prior version of the timeline, then it still can be said to have occurred in a true sense. The extent to which the Divine Proofreader theodicy adequately responds to the problem can then be thrown into question.

[77] Gellman, 123


Steven Gotlib is Marketing Manager at RIETS and Director of the Capital Jewish Experience. He is the incoming Associate Rabbi at Mekor Habracha - Center City Synagogue in Philadelphia and has held a number of rabbinic positions in Ottawa, Toronto, and New York. A graduate of Rutgers University, Rabbi Gotlib received ordination from RIETS, 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 can be reached for questions, comments, or criticism at