The Odds of Orthodoxy

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Steven Gotlib

Book Review of Samuel Lebens, A Guide for the Jewish Undecided: A Philosopher Makes the Case for Orthodox Judaism (New Milford: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2022).

“If rabbinic Judaism has anything to say across its borders, it lies in how the voice of religion might be authoritative without being authoritarian, unifying without ceasing to be pluralist, and rational without lacking passion.”
-Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Ztl[1]

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens concluded his most recent book by stating: “For the person rooted in the Jewish community, reality is calibrated such that the only reasonable course of action is to commit oneself to live by and continue to shape the unfolding Torah from Sinai.”[2] This claim, if true, has the potential to revolutionize Jewish discourse and pedagogy for the better.[3]

Lebens frames his argument as “Pascalberg’s wager,” a Jewish alternative to “Pascal’s wager”: If God exists and wants Jews to be Orthodox, then Jews can only receive eternal reward if they are observant of Halakhah. If, however, it turns out that God does not exist or does not care about human actions, then nothing is lost by living such a life.

Importantly, this wager addresses only those who already cherish Judaism.[4] In Lebens’s words, “Pascalberg’s audience are what we might call the Jewish undecided. They are certainly Jews, and they are committed to their identity. But they’re undecided about how religiously observant they should be; or at least, they’re open to reassessing how religiously observant they should be.”[5] For such an audience, Lebens claims, the only thinkable options are to commit to being a religious Jew or to live as a Jew who is not religious. All other options are what he calls “unthinkable” in that they will not be factored into the practical deliberations of a person who already feels rooted in the Jewish community.[6]

It should be noted upfront, though, that being a religious Jew and being an Orthodox Jew are not necessarily the same. Other denominations of Judaism also consider themselves religious.[7] Lebens must, then, do extra work to demonstrate a “case for Orthodox Judaism,” as the Guide’s subtitle promises.

Unfortunately, Lebens provides no working definition of Orthodoxy in this book. Elsewhere, Lebens defines it as the sum of three propositions, based on R. Yosef Albo’s Sefer Ha-Ikkarim: One God created the world, revealed the Torah, and exercises divine providence.[8] This definition is quite broad and allows for a very big tent of Orthodoxy. Such a move, however, comes with problems that will be discussed below.

Regardless, what is the threshold of confidence needed to embrace Orthodoxy? Lebens writes:

If there is a 50 percent chance that God exists, and a 50 percent chance, if He exists, that He wants Jews to observe Jewish law, then there is a 25 percent chance that both claims are true together. And if there is a 25 percent chance that God exists and that God wants Jews to keep Jewish law, and especially if the odds are better than that, as I think them to be, then it would be crazy for Pascalberg’s audience not to commit to a life of devout religious observance – however hard that may be.[9]

The minimal threshold, then, is demonstrating at least a 50% chance that God exists and another 50% chance that, if He exists, He wants Jews to be observant of Halakhah. If both are provided, then a 25% total chance should be enough to warrant commitment to Orthodoxy by the Jewish undecided since they are already pragmatically predisposed to some form of Judaism. Though Lebens notes that the wager would still be effective even if one ends up with considerably lower credence, he assumes that “if you’ve taken Pascalberg’s wager, on the basis of this book’s argument… your confidence in the most fundamental principles of Judaism must be around 25 percent (or more).”[10] Therefore, 25% total credence is the magic number that this review will measure toward. While there is perhaps room to critique the view that pragmatic concerns ought to influence one’s epistemic judgment, this review will work within Lebens’s assumptions, as laid out above.[11]

Is there at least a 50% chance that God exists? Lebens defines God as “at least this: a supremely good and intelligent agent, powerful enough to bring this universe into being, and to govern its evolution, in accordance with Its will.”[12] God, then, must minimally possess a mind, a moral capacity, and the ability to create the universe. Lebens’s first case for this sort of being is the sheer unlikeliness of life developing without a guiding hand and how that universe seems to be fine-tuned for the development of intelligent life.[13]

Of course, this argument does not automatically prove God. Scientists may posit, for example, that we exist within a multiverse in which most other universes were not as lucky. Lebens rejects this idea since it replaces one unobservable God with an infinite number of equally unobservable universes.[14] Does this really render God more plausible than a multiverse though? Naturalists may respond that the only theories that can be taken seriously are ones that are testable or follow from theories that are. Sean Carroll, for example, writes that “the multiverse wasn’t invented because people thought it was a cool idea; it was forced on us by our best efforts to understand the portion of the universe that we do see”[15] (emphasis added). Ultimately, “some physicists would put the chances [of a multiverse] at nearly certain, others at practically zero. Perhaps it’s fifty-fifty… What matters is that there is a simple, robust mechanism under which naturalism can be perfectly compatible with the existence of life, even if the life turns out to be extremely sensitive to the precise values of the physical parameters characterizing our environment.”[16]

The above case, however, is far from the only one that Lebens brings in defense of theism’s plausibility. A full chapter is dedicated to exploring nearly two dozen arguments for theism from Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the world’s most renowned Christian analytic philosopher.[17] While Lebens acknowledges that no individual argument can ultimately prove the existence of God, they “can serve, cumulatively, as an important source of consideration for weighing up how likely – or plausible – it is that He does.”[18]

Lebens then dedicates a chapter to examining personal religious experience. We generally assume that our experiences correspond to something real, so if you have ever had the experience of an encounter with the divine, you should take it seriously. Indeed, Jerome (Yehuda) Gellman argues that “the phenomenon of mystical experiences of God provides initial evidential sufficiency for the conclusion that human beings at least sometimes genuinely experience God” in the same way that our personal experience of anything provides initial reason to believe it, unless proven otherwise.[19]

The atheist, though, can respond that they have no reason to change how they believe on the basis of another’s description. Such experiences can also come from many stimuli, and they do not necessarily have to be the result of an encounter with the divine. Gellman himself confirms that “the Argument from Perception [of religious experience] is not universally rationally compelling, in the sense of rationally obligating all who would ponder it.”[20] Such an experience may be sufficient for the one who actually perceives it, but it need not influence one who does not share it. They can, of course, choose to assign weight based on the descriptions of others or based on the sheer amount of people who seem to share a common experience of the divine if they feel so compelled.

While none of the arguments presented by Lebens definitively prove God’s existence, he notes that “what speaks most strongly in favor of God’s existence is the stunning ability of this one simple hypothesis… to make sense of science itself, and mathematics, and philosophy, and value. When one simple posit can explain so much, you’ve got a very good reason to endorse it.”[21] One can perhaps conclude like Graham Oppy that “theism and non-theism are both reasonable responses to the evidence that people have.”[22] The atheist has a reply for each argument, but the theist remains on firm footing.

Lebens’s case for Orthodoxy, however, is less smooth. His personal reasoning is that “it seems very likely (on the assumption that [God] exists) that there was some sort of massive revelation to the Jewish people, quite unparalleled in global history: the revelation at Mount Sinai.”[23] But what reason do the Jewish undecided have to believe in such a revelation? Lebens’s main argument is the “Jumbled Kuzari Principle,” championed by Tyron Goldschmidt, which posits:

A tradition is likely true if it is (1) accepted by a nation; describes (2) a national experience of a previous generation of that nation; which (3) would be expected to create a continuous national memory until the tradition is in place;[24] is (4) insulting to that nation [e.g., it calls them stiff-necked and lists their sins]; and (5) makes universal, difficult and severe demands on that nation.[25]

Lebens notes that “adding so many clauses to the principle makes it look ad hoc, as if it has been reverse engineered to bring people to believe in the biblical story of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai” but also claims that “each clause of Goldschmidt’s version of the principle, when seen in action, contributes something compelling.”[26] The issue with Lebens’s presentation of Goldshmidt’s argument, however, is that it calls for a thought experiment to bolster its claim rather than providing clear examples of stories that match the five criteria which we also know to be historically accurate and cases of proven myths not meeting those criteria. Additionally, while Goldshmidt’s argument may be enough to warrant belief in the divinity of the Torah, Lebens presents no argument to get from there to the Talmud and broader rabbinic tradition. The reader is therefore left unsure of how much credence to actually assign based on the argument alone.

Even then, the 50% chance of a revelation is only half the battle. Lebens still has to show that the Torah, and its Orthodox interpretation, authentically represents it. He does so by noting:

If an all-knowing God exists and orchestrated the Sinai event, then He foresaw the literature, ritual, and law that would come tumbling into being as a result of the Jewish experience at Sinai. And yet, God chose to initiate the experience.
    Consequently, I would argue that we should view the theophany at Sinai as something like a divine stamp of approval for the religious tradition that grew out of it.[27]

Lebens notes that such an approach “ignores the fact that many competing traditions can be described as tumbling out of that one event. Presumably, God can’t have been endorsing them all – given their incompatibility.”[28] How, then, can he argue specifically for Orthodoxy?

Lebens responds by limiting the scope of God’s approval: “Much of the time, God might not mind which particular route, within the parameters of Jewish law, is chosen by the process of rabbinic debate; God simply endorses the process.”[29] At any time, in any generation, engagement with Jewish texts can lead to their own set of rituals, cultural expectations, and the like within the communities most committed to studying them and implementing the practices learned therefrom. As long as interpretation stays tied to the source texts, which had God’s initial approval, that which is learned out from them can also have been said to be approved by God. Most forms of non-Orthodox Judaism, in rejecting so many of those source texts and the lessons contained in them, then, are out of the running as candidates for divine approval. As Lebens points out, “If you’re looking for a community whose membership defines itself in terms of commitment to the Jewish textual tradition, you’re likely to find only Orthodox candidates.”[30] We will see below, however, that this is not necessarily true.

But it’s also not easy to join an Orthodox community given the appearance of anti-progressivism, anti-intellectualism, elitism, sexism, and homophobia that many perceive. Right or wrong, this impression leads to Orthodoxy being seen as an intuitively unethical choice for many. Even convinced of the viability of revelation, then, Orthodoxy may be a hard sell for the Jewish undecided.

This, however, is not a problem for Lebens. For him, God need not be responsible for every decision that the Orthodox community makes. God endorsed the general process of religious development, not every particular twist and turn along the way. Halakhah, though binding as part of a divine process, is an approximation of God’s will rather than a reflection of it.[31] Over time, Orthodox communities may develop in a different direction. If one does not have the patience to wait, though, Lebens advocates picking a sect that is more in line with their moral intuition:

If some pockets of Orthodoxy are unthinkable to you, because of the things that they stand for, and because of the ways in which they understand the tradition, then you might want to find that cross section of the Jewish community that (1) defines itself in terms of commitment to the Jewish textual tradition, but which also (2) embodies as much ethical sensitivity, and worldliness, as can be rendered consistent with that commitment to the Jewish textual tradition.[32]

This however, need not lead one to Orthodoxy. While for Lebens “a modern Orthodoxy is the safest bet, since – to my ethical constitution – certain forms of ultra-Orthodoxy are simply unthinkable,”[33] others may rule out even Modern Orthodoxy due to the same sort of concerns. As long as the community one joins meets Lebens’s criteria, why does it need to be Orthodox at all?

Hadar, for example, defines itself by its staunch commitment to “Torah, Avodah, and Hesed” in a fully egalitarian environment. Indeed, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg publicly posted on Facebook that “Hadar is my fantasy of the future modern Orthodox community… committed to Torah learning and full observance of mitzvot. At the same time, the principle of egalitarianism was so precious and important that they practiced it in the here and now, not in a distant future.” Furthermore, the Conservative Movement’s Statement of Principles notes that Halakhah “is an indispensable element of a traditional Judaism,” and Rabbi David Golinkin has written that “commitment to the centrality of the halakhah has been a hallmark of Conservative Judaism”[34] for theocentric, ethnocentric, and anthropocentric reasons.[35]

While one may argue that these communities do not practice what they preach in this regard, it is important to note that Lebens’s criteria is that a community “defines itself in terms of commitment to the Jewish textual tradition,”[36] not that it always lives as such. If one is content being part of an observant minority, they can do so while still fitting within Lebens’s criteria for Orthodoxy, despite themselves being part of many different non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Many of those streams, no doubt, even believe that God would prefer people join them than be Orthodox!

It is hard, then, for this approach to guarantee staying within Orthodoxy, especially since Lebens himself offers no practical definition of what Orthodox Judaism ought to look like outside of the abovementioned criteria. In a book with the subtitle “A Philosopher Makes the Case for Orthodox Judaism,” this is a glaring omission and major challenge to the premise.[37]

Lebens seems to be aware of this critique, since he acknowledges in The Principles of Judaism that “Orthodoxy can only coherently claim that the warrant of Sinai flows most forcefully in the direction of Orthodoxy. But this is neither to say that Orthodoxy has a monopoly on religious truth, nor is it to say that Orthodoxy has no religious lessons to learn from other Jewish movements.”[38] Lebens even argues that the existence of other Jewish denominations (and, for that matter, other religions) are themselves integral for Torah to properly unfold:

… Many factors play a role in bringing the Torah closer to its heavenly paradigm. Social and political movements, other religions, and more directly, non-Orthodox denominations within the Jewish world, all play a role in awakening certain sensitivities and attitudes within the Orthodox community. Liberal segments of that community agitate for change within the halakha. Conservative elements within the same community resist any change. The legal traditions themselves create obstacles to some changes, whilst being more amenable to other changes. The changes and evolutions that make it through this process can claim to be an echo of Sinai.[39]

Under that assumption, one can easily argue that God wants them to be part of the element advocating for change. In doing so, whether on the liberal extreme of Orthodoxy or as a member of a competing denomination that still views Torah as divine, they can argue with total intellectual honesty that they are continuing the Sinai tradition under Lebens’s assumptions. As Benjamin Ish-Shalom wrote, “When every view and idea are seen as modes of revelation, skepticism and relativism become transformed into certainty regarding the truth value of any particular view, on the condition that awareness of its relative status within the framework of the all-inclusive unity is preserved.”[40]

Lebens’s second argument, then, is mixed. If one presupposes the existence of God, there is some degree of plausibility that He also revealed Himself to the Jewish people. But does it reach the 50% threshold? That’s harder to measure and largely depends on how much weight one assigns Goldshmidt’s Jumbled Kuzari Principle. If one is convinced by it, then the likelihood may very well be over 90%. But if one finds it lacking, the chance may be more like 20% or 30% at most. It’s clear, then, that only those members of the Jewish undecided who are predisposed to accepting Goldshmidt’s argument will have sufficient credence to embrace observance. Though it remains unclear why one who accepts Lebens’s argument should specifically be Orthodox.[41]

Since Lebens himself does not expect anyone to take the wager with less than 25% credence, it can be assumed that the arguments formulated in his book will not convince all of the Jewish undecided to become Orthodox, or observant in general.[42] But even for those who reached 25% credence, does it really make sense to become observant on the basis of such a wager? Lebens notes in his 2022 book, Philosophy of Religion: The Basics, that allowing one to accept the claims of their current religion with minimal credence as long as there is no extreme counter-evidence can apply to any religion.[43] Should a Jew really be willing to accept Orthodoxy on the basis that we need “better evidence for the falsehood of Judaism than we do for its truth” and that “all the evidence we really need is evidence sufficient to show that Judaism isn’t obviously false”[44] if doing so implicitly allows for Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and more to be justified in doing the same?

Basing one’s faith on such a bet also requires responding to several additional objections. Perhaps it is selfish to base one’s faith on a wager, which effectively turns God into a means to an end. Lebens responds that obeying God’s commands, even without 100% certainty that He exists, is not turning God into a means to an end. It is just obeying what you understand His will to be. God commanded things with the understanding that following them entailed costs and benefits, so it is hard to call calculating those factors avaricious. Additionally, Judaism has a long tradition of encouraging people to initially do commandments not for their own sake, in order to eventually perform them for their own sake.

Another objection may claim that attempting to make yourself believe something despite a lack of sufficient evidence is inauthentic. One could respond that trying to force belief may lead to developing true belief over time, though Lebens relates this approach to “self-hypnosis.” One might also compare this response to the sunk cost fallacy, which mistakenly assumes that significant investment in a project automatically justifies its continuation, even if the project appears to be failing. In other words, a person would not automatically be justified to continue putting effort into making themselves believe in the absence of evidence just because they have already put in a good amount of effort. But Lebens would respond that this “doesn’t mean that [trying to believe] isn’t the reasonable and rational thing to do given the potential risks, and benefits, and the odds in question.”[45] Despite a lack of clear evidence, then, it may be that the most rational thing to do is attempt to make yourself believe regardless of whether the minimal threshold is met.

Unfortunately, this response does not fully address the situation that many readers will end up in. Even for those who end up with more than 25% credence, it is far from certain that the only reasonable course for someone rooted in the Jewish community is to embrace Orthodox observance. As noted, there are many ways that one can potentially live as a Jew, each of which sees themselves as rooted in a divinely inspired textual tradition. If one is to view Orthodoxy as the only reasonable way to experience Judaism, they need to have good epistemic reason. 25% credence may be enough to justify general observance, but not necessarily within Orthodoxy.

Furthermore, even if one accepts a 25% credence for Orthodoxy, that still allows for 75% against it.[46] This is a problem since Lebens himself notes that “to the extent that [the fundamental propositions of Orthodox Judaism] are ill-grounded by the evidence, and certainly to the extent that they are victim to counter-evidence, the religion will be less justified.”[47] This problem is made all the more worrying by the fact that, as Sean Carroll points out, one of the principles of credential reasoning is that “evidence that favors one alternative automatically disfavors others.”[48] Therefore, the 75% credence that does not support Orthodox Judaism ought to actively count against their credence in Orthodox Judaism. For many, this is likely an uneasy concession.

We are left, then, at an odd point. While there is ample room to demonstrate a 50% credence that God exists, revelation is a mixed bag. While many will be at least 50% convinced, others may reject the Jumbled Kuzari Principle to varying degrees. Furthermore, even those who end up with a 25% or higher total credence still run the risk of not ending up within Orthodoxy at all. Even those who do would need to find peace with the idea of resting their commitment to Orthodox Judaism on a wager that has a significant chance of not paying off. While this may be a wager that many accept, there seems to be little reason to assume that Orthodoxy is the only rational option for the Jewish undecided.

Regardless, The Guide for the Jewish Undecided is a remarkable step forward in a genre that can loosely be described as internal Jewish apologetics. This in itself is a major accomplishment since, as Etai Lahav noted in his own review, Jews in search of high-level analytic philosophical cases for theism could only find affordable and accessible works by Christian authors until now.

Lebens makes a strong, passionate, modest, and non-coercive case that does not shy away from difficult questions or sacrifice rigorous philosophy on the altar of popular spirituality. As an argument for commitment to Halakhah in general, it is one of the strongest yet made. In the spirit of Rabbi Sacks, his argument is truly “authoritative without being authoritarian, unifying without ceasing to be pluralist, and rational without lacking passion.” While it may not be fully convincing to some, it will no doubt strengthen and guide many on the path toward thinking actively about their Jewish identities and the place of Halakhah therein.

Thank you to my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Sam Lebens, for encouraging me to write this review, Rabbi David Fried for invaluable editorial insight, and Ashley Stern Mintz for copyediting. 

[1] Jonathan Sacks, ed., Tradition in an Untraditional Age: Essays on Modern Jewish Thought (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1990), 200.

[2] Lebens, 271.

[3] Initial drafts of this review were over double the length of the current version. Anyone who wishes to see the arguments presented fleshed out in more depth is welcome to email me to receive an expanded version.

[4] Whether this, or a similar, argument would be sufficient to move the “Jewish Disillusioned” as opposed to the undecided is not the subject of this review.

[5] Lebens, 65.

[6] One may perhaps accuse such a person of being closed-minded. After all, they are blocking off potentially legitimate lifestyle options for reasons that may be practically, but not necessarily epistemically, warranted. To this critique, Lebens responds by writing that

…Having epistemic roots doesn’t entail closed-mindedness. Granted: it will take a lot more evidence to convince the Christian that Jesus was a liar, or to convince the Jew that Jesus was the messiah, than it might take to convince a neutral bystander. But so long as there is a threshold beyond which the evidence would make inroads, and undermine that loyalty, uprooting a person – and so long as people are willing to listen to other opinions and to gather that contrary evidence – then we cannot say that being rooted is straightforwardly closed-minded.
             Furthermore, if a member of the Jewish community, for example, can justify her decision to be a member of her community, in terms of its contribution to her own flourishing, in just the way that she can justify her decision to enter into friendships and loving relationships, rather than opting for the life of a hermit, then her demand for overwhelming evidence before she embraces Christianity – the unthinkability of Jesus being the messiah – is rational for her. Her steadfast refusal to believe that Jesus is the messiah is rational, either because the stakes are higher for her, or because her steadfastness is practically rational (irrespective of its epistemic merits). (Lebens, 44-45)

Put differently, people are not to blame for being in such a situation unless and until they’re provided with an overwhelming amount of evidence to change their mind.

[7] For Lebens, in the Guide, Principles of Judaism, and Philosophy of Religion, a group is “religious” if they: (1) live as part of a community that defines its identity around a system of beliefs and/or practices; (2) have faith that the fundamentals of the community’s system of beliefs, or that the fundamental propositions that make sense of the community’s practices, are true; and (3) imaginatively engage with the canonical narratives, metaphors, prescribed games of make-believe, and/or perspectives of the community’s system of beliefs and/or practices.

[8] In Lebens’s words, “(1) the universe is the creation of one God; (2) the Torah is a divine system of laws and wisdom, revealed to us by the creator of the universe; and (3) the creator exercises providential care over his creation, manifest in the creator’s continued sustenance of the world, reward and punishment for human action, and in the promise of ultimate salvation.” Lebens, The Principles of Judaism, 3.

[9] Lebens, 73.

[10] Lebens, 261.

[11] Similar debates are currently happening within the world of Christian apologetics. This lengthy video, in which the atheist youtuber Paulogia critiques Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s favor of pragmatism over epistemology in assigning credence to Christianity, highlights it well.

[12] Lebens, 79.

[13] In his words,

The Big Bang theory, minus the intervention of an outside intelligent power, renders the evolution of life exceedingly unlikely. It becomes much more likely once you posit a power outside of the universe, caring enough to want life to evolve, and powerful enough to have guided things to come out right. (Lebens, 82)

Lebens presents this argument in a more philosophically rigorous format in Philosophy of Religion:

1. It is extremely unlikely that life would have evolved without a sufficiently intelligent and powerful designer overseeing the creation of the universe.

2. It is not at all unlikely that life would have evolved had there been a sufficiently intelligent and powerful designer overseeing the creation, interested in the evolution of life.

3. Life has evolved.

4.It is much more likely than not that the universe has a designer, interested in the evolution of life, and sufficiently intelligent and powerful to have ensured that life evolves. (Samuel Lebens, Philosophy of Religion: The Basics [London: Routledge, 2022], 62)

[14] Not to mention that “some of those universes, presumably, contain very powerful God-like beings of their own” (Lebens, 83).

[15] Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York: Dutton, 2017), 307.

[16] Carroll, 309.

[17] These include his evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) and modal ontological argument as well as arguments that make sense of truth and possibility, arguments that make sense of mathematics, arguments that make sense of science, and arguments that make sense of value. Much of the arguments found in the latter two groups also feature heavily in Lebens’s first book (based on his Phd dissertation): Bertrand Russell and the Nature of Propositions: A History and Defence of the Multiple Relation Theory of Judgement.

[18] Lebens, 89.

In addition to providing several positive arguments for God’s existence, Lebens also devotes two chapters in response to the problem of evil – largely regarded as one of the strongest objections to theism. As one friend of mine, an atheist philosopher who identifies strongly with Judaism, put it: “The world is a pretty bad place. That’s not to say life isn’t worthwhile, or that there’s not a lot of good stuff. But until there’s even a remotely adequate response to problems of evil, nothing else matters.” Additionally, one can argue that the very existence of problems of evil (regardless of whether or not they ultimately succeed) should inherently lower the credence one assigns to the plausibility of a supremely good God. Lebens offers creative arguments in response to this challenge, but analyzing them would significantly lengthen this review and significantly weaken its general accessibility. As such, I will assume that if a supremely good God can be demonstrated with sufficient confidence, They would surely be able to adequately respond to the problems of evil.

[19]Jerome Gellman, Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry (Routledge, 2019), 17.

[20] Gellman, 133.

[21] Lebens, 125.

[22] Graham Oppy, Arguing about Gods (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 47.

[23] Lebens, 185.

[24] Lebens adds to clause 3 that “we don’t just expect there to be a continuous memory, but that the nation claims to have passed the memory down in an unbroken chain.”

[25] Lebens, 187.

[26] Lebens, 187.

[27] Lebens, 199. This articulation is similar to that of Emmanuel Rackman, who wrote that “the sanctity of the Pentatuch does not derive from God’s authorship of all of it, but rather from the fact that God’s is the final version. The final writing by Moses has the stamp of divinity – the kiss of immortality.” (quoted by R. Michael Broyde here: Biblical Theology of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman – Torah Musings)

[28] Lebens, 199. This argument, importantly, can apply as easily to Christianity and Islam being said to stem from the Sinai event and not just to competing denominations of Judaism.

[29] Lebens, 200.

[30] Lebens, 202.

[31] As Lebens frames it:

A committed Jew can be committed to Jewish law and accept it as binding, all the while recognizing that the revelation is ongoing, that the laws are still evolving, and that what we have in our hands today – however binding it may be – is still, and must be, a mere approximation of God’s inestimable will. God gave His endorsement to a process, which comprises the evolving legal traditions of committed Jews – the halakha as it is taught and practiced, at any given time, by cross sections of Jewish communities living in faithful dedication to it. (Lebens, 217-218)

[32] Lebens, 203.

[33] Lebens, 203.

[34] David Golinkin, Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law (New York: United Synagogue of America, 1991), 7.

[35] For that matter, Reform Judaism views the Torah as “as a living, God-inspired document that enables us to confront the challenges of our everyday lives” and encourages adherents to actualize it “through practice that includes reflection, study, worship, ritual, and more.” If so many decidedly non-Orthodox forms of Judaism can potentially be considered “Orthodox” by Lebens’s definition, we seem to have a reductio ad absurdum.

[36] Lebens, 203. Emphasis added.

[37]Lebens confirmed with me that he did not come up with the book’s subtitle. He, therefore, should not be blamed for this issue. Nonetheless, it is a major issue with the book’s presentation which highlights just how nebulous the term “Orthodox Judaism” is.

[38] Samuel Lebens, the Principles of Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 1. The reason for this difference between works, I think, lies in their respective goals: the Guide is ultimately an apologetic work while Principles is simply the presentation of a philosophical analysis. This difference is subtle, but important.

[39] The Principles of Judaism, 218.

[40] Benjamin Ish-Shalom, “Tolerance and Its Theoretical Basis in the Teaching of Rav Kook,” in Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality, eds. Lawrence J. Kaplan and David Shatz (New York: NYU Press, 1995), 182.

[41] An earlier version of this review also discussed whether Lebens’s position, which avoids questions of biblical criticism by suggesting that the Torah may itself be the result of such a process of divine approval over time, would itself be accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy or if it is in conflict with Maimonides’s eighth principle of faith. That section has been removed due to space considerations as well as Lebens’s insistence that, regardless of the Torah’s historical origins, Orthodox Jews have reason to assume that God wants the Torah to be treated as if it were dictated to Moses word for word at Mt. Sinai.

[42] Some, however, may still choose to opt in and should obviously be supported in doing so.

[43] In more formal language,

Call the religion in question, religion X. Find a group of people who belong to the community associated with religion X; these people are proud of their cultural identity, and rooted in their community, even though they’re not all that religious. Let’s call that group Audience A. Audience A are, let us imagine, blamelessly rooted to their community in such a way as to render religion X thinkable, and religions other than X unthinkable. For members of A, the only live choices to feed into their practical religious deliberations (until they receive overwhelming evidence for some other religion) will be commitment to X, or little-to-no commitment to X. Other religions are simply not live options. (Philosophy of Religion, 97)

[44] These quotes come from Lebens’s chapter, “Is It Rational to Be An Orthodox Jew?,” in Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, eds. Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student (New York: Kodesh Press, 2022), 209. That chapter was itself heavily based on Lebens’s conversation with Rabbi Dovid Bashavkin on the 18Forty podcast.

[45] Lebens, 266.

[46] To use the words of a friend of mine, a thoughtful member of the “Jewish undecided” on his own path: “According to Halakhah, when there is a sfek sfeikah (double doubt), even in a matter that is de-Oraita, one rules leniently. Hence, there is (1) a safek whether God exists and (2) an additional safek that even if God exists, He didn’t give the Torah (and/or authorize the halakhic process as a reflection of His will). Thus, employing this Talmudic logic, one can absolve themselves from halakhic obligation.”

[47] Lebens, 268.

[48] The Big Picture, 81.


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