Book Review of Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student (eds.), Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith (New York: Kodesh Press, 2022).
If orthodoxy claims to know that the Bible is divinely revealed, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, that Moses was the writer of the Pentateuch, that the miracles recorded in the Bible have happened and similar things, Spinoza has refuted orthodoxy. But the case is entirely different if orthodoxy limits itself to asserting that it believes the aforementioned things, i.e. that they cannot claim to possess the binding power peculiar to the known. For all assertions of orthodoxy rest on the irrefutable premise that the omnipotent God whose will is unfathomable, whose ways are not our ways, who has decided to dwell in the thick darkness, may exist. – Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion
Leo Strauss’ defense of Orthodoxy from Spinoza, on the surface, is similar to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s portrayal of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Under NOMA, science oversees questions of empiricism while religion oversees questions of meaning and morality. To put it more poetically, “science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”
Such an approach completely removes religion from the jurisdiction of science, broadly construed by Jerry Coyne as “any endeavor that tries to find the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation, and experiment.” This framework, however, has faced considerable pushback. Daniel Dennet has noted that “in the minds of the religious it proposed abandoning all religious claims to factual truth and understanding of the natural world…whereas in the minds of the secularists it granted too much authority to religion in matters of ethics and meaning.” Likewise, Michael Ruse bluntly said that a NOMA framework succeeds “only by making religion so thin that none of us want to give a damn about it.”
This is not to say that no scholars who identify as religious accept this sort of divide, though. R. Jonathan Sacks Zt”l wrote in The Great Partnership that “Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning.” James Kugel even went so far as to state that these two ways of thinking “are simply not given to synthesis or integration.” Indeed, “modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable” and allowing one to inform the other would be “altogether alien to the spirit of Judaism and the role of Scripture within it.” But is such a move compatible with Orthodox Judaism on the ground? Contemplating the concept of religion absent empirical assumptions, Stewart Shapiro wrote that “what an Orthodox Judaism stripped of all of its factual claims would look like” is unclear, “but it would be nothing like the religion we have now.”
So what do contemporary Orthodox theologians and philosophers make of this suggested bifurcation between religion and empiricism? Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith presents a collection of multi-disciplinary perspectives in an attempt to answer this question. In presenting these varied voices, the volume aims to provide anyone from thoughtful students or laypeople to seasoned philosophers with a substantial conversation about the often-ignored assumptions that underlie Orthodoxy itself. In addition to examining Strauss’ attempt to defend Orthodox Judaism against Spinoza, the essays also attempt to determine if it is “possible to recover belief in the God who commands the particulars of Judaism” at all.
In his chapter, Joshua Golding outlined seven general strategies for navigating the impasse that results from having no way to prove that naturalist assumptions are false or that traditional understandings are true. Such strategies include emphasizing the Oral Tradition’s primacy over the Written Torah, advocating for faith beyond the realm of reason, seeing the intellectual beauty and internal cohesion within the Torah, accepting Jewish traditions by default in absence of compelling reason to do otherwise, making rational arguments for monotheism, appealing to personal religious experience, and making values-based or pragmatic arguments for Judaism.
Every essay in Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai fit into one or more of these categories. This review will survey a selection of the approaches presented in the volume, with the aim of determining whether they are indeed sufficient to warrant identification with and participation in Orthodox Judaism or if something more is needed in order to justify such a decision.
Ari Kahn asserted that the oral tradition is “quite elastic and can be incorporated in the understanding of new discoveries” rather easily while R. Meir Triebitz argued that Orthodox Judaism, unlike science, “locates the truth in the emergent tradition of interpretation that the Jewish people have experienced.” This moves Orthodox Judaism away from the Written Torah’s apparently objective statements about the nature of reality to the ever-evolving realm of oral tradition. Indeed, R. Avraham Edelstein wrote that the primary motivation of his faith was not any empirical argument but rather the experience of “constant awe upon delving into a new Torah subject, or upon revisiting an old one in greater depth, and finding out how all the little pieces fit so exactly together.”
But what would make someone want to engage with such a system to begin with when there seem to be so many other justifiable options? This is where the pragmatic argument for Jewish tradition, championed in Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai by R. Dr. Samuel Lebens, comes into play. Lebens argues that there are two fundamental types of rationality. Epistemic rationality asserts that the more evidence there is to support a particular belief, the more one should believe it. Practical rationality, on the other hand, asserts that the interests, personality makeup, beliefs, and desires of an individual should determine what is rational for them to do or believe in absence of compelling evidence pointing in another direction. This is similar to Tamar Ross’ argument that “instead of facticity being the ultimate test for truth in the religious sense, the real measure of such statements is instrumentalistic.” In other words, the truth of religious belief is measured not by the metaphysical reality, but by how beneficial they can be in the life of the believer.
For Lebens, as long as no evidence for the truth of another religion is compellingly presented, the only two live options for those already committed to Jewish identity are commitment to religious Judaism or Jewish secularism. Those who are already committed to living Jewish lives, then, need “better evidence for the falsehood of Judaism than we do for its truth… In fact, all the evidence we really need is evidence sufficient to show that Judaism isn’t obviously false.” Similarly, Paul Franks argues that “where no demonstrative arguments decide the issue, it is rational to believe in what follows from a necessary condition for the possibility of one’s community’s traditional practices and beliefs.” In the case of Judaism, this requires active participation in Torah study as well as an experiential “I-Thou” relationship with God. From there, one “can have knowledge of that relationship and at least some of its features – knowledge that is both non-observational and that involves the commitment of the will.”
Judaism not being “obviously false,” though, would seem to be a rather low bar for belief’s plausibility. R. Gil Student noted that plausibility is subjective and that any argument can seem plausible “if a context is created in which the argument provides the most explanatory power.” Therefore, we must focus instead on cultivating a context based on trust in our tradition rather than plausibility or lack thereof. R. Student recommends doing so by “establishing trust in the sages of today in order to develop faith in past sages.” Though acknowledging that this might be difficult for many people “due either to unfortunate experiences (sometimes distorted in the perceptions of a young mind, sometimes all too real) or lack of access,” the confidence in tradition that comes from (re-)establishing such trust can itself make belief more plausible. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once wrote,
Regardless of what issues – moral, theological, textual or historical – vexed me, I was confident that they had been raised by masters far sharper and wiser than myself; and if they had remained impregnably steadfast in their commitment, so should and could I…
Another argument for adherence to Orthodox Judaism in absence of completely compelling evidence for it might be found in appealing to personal religious experience. R. Lichtenstein concluded the above-quoted piece by writing that “the greatest source of faith, however, has been the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself… nothing has been more authentic than the encounter with Avinu Malkeinu, the source and ground of all being.”
Alec Goldstein leans in this direction as well, noting that arguments for God based purely on subjective religious experience may be written off by scientists as non-observable/non-replicable or naturally resulting from neurochemistry and evolutionary biology, but “when it comes to real-world decisions, we do in fact accept the claim that others are in pain or in love, without verification” and should be able to accept such claims when it comes to religious experiences as well.
Meanwhile, Judaism can also be found by transcending the realm of reason entirely. R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, for example, recently wrote that “reason is not the way to go” when it comes to religious beliefs. R. Jeremy Kagan acknowledged this as well, writing that God is ultimately unfathomable but could still be approached, engaged with, and embraced since “the Torah identifies reality and truth with being rather than ideas or rational structure.” This sense of being is actualized by “participating in God… through character development – the removal of egotistic aspects of self that block awareness of this participation.”
Synthesizing aspects of each of the last few positions with a Maimonidean push towards ethical development, R. Shmuel Philips suggests that a curriculum of character development and intellectual training can ultimately move human minds away from subjectivity and towards objectivity. Philips writes that those “who have either been privileged personally to travel this path, or who believe that they can identify co-religionists whose minds have been refined in this way” can feel confident in claiming objective knowledge once that personal subjectivity has been removed by the discipline of character development. This move eliminates subjectivity by going all-in on the experiential front.
This combination of Orthodox Judaism maintaining minimal plausibility requirements, faith in tradition, and trust in religious experiences does much to weaken competing arguments. Indeed, Moshe Koppel wrote in his book, Judaism Straight Up, that “in absence of a compelling reason to act otherwise, maintaining one’s traditions is a perfectly natural and harmless default” while removing certain traditional aspects of a lifestyle because of personal preference or subjective ideology could cause irreparable damage to societies that are bound by them.
The above arguments each consist of what R. Dr. Neil Gillman referred to as soft verifications of religion – “not the hard verification that science uses to prove its discoveries, but rather a much more subjective, subtle, and emotional sense of a reality that somehow helps explain the other dimensions of the created world, such as human life, human feelings, meaning, morality, moral behavior, and, for the Jewish people, their historical experience.” But is maintaining Orthodox traditions because of soft verifications but in absence of empirical evidence for its legitimacy really harmless? Simi Peters (unfortunately the volume’s only female contributor) aptly points out that there are many reasons for one to be wary of accepting Orthodox Judaism, and even to reject it out of hand if not presented with a compelling justification for acceptance. For example, Peters notes that Orthodoxy is regularly seen as anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, elitist, homophobic, and sexist. Since much of Orthodoxy is seen as intuitively unethical to much of contemporary western society, the level of certainty required for one to accept such a life can therefore be hard, if not impossible, to sustain without sufficient confidence in its underlying truth claims.
Choosing a commitment to Orthodoxy in absence of proof, then, is not a value-neutral decision. Fostering positive associations with the Orthodox community and its leaders might be a good educational strategy, but Peters points out that it “doesn’t guarantee long-term fidelity to a tradition that demands a great deal from believers.” Torah study may fascinate some and frustrate others, Halakhah may provide a scaffolding for one person and a straitjacket for another, and communities can be supportive but may also be stifling. Joseph Levine, reflecting on his exit from Orthodox Judaism, demonstrates in his reflection that as long as he believed the basic tenets of Orthodox faith and was immersed in the yeshiva world, he faced few issues. However, “once the special nature of the Jewish People was no longer underwritten by divine writ, I found the communal sensibility stifling and in conflict with a sense of my own autonomy.”
Accepting Orthodoxy then requires more than appealing to pragmatism and personal experiences. Peters finds additional empowerment by noting that a rational understanding of history would expect Orthodox Judaism to have eroded long ago due to antisemitism, enlightenment, and emancipation. But, she writes, “something in the consciousness of the Jewish people will not allow us, as a people, to abandon God. Our passionate insistence upon an identity that demands so much of us, at such a high price, cannot be explained by reason alone.” That something, for Peters, must have been a real moment of Divine revelation in history. Anything less than the Jewish people truly having experienced a communal revelation of Divinity would not be so stubbornly held onto by an entire people for so long. In her words, “Our ancestors’ perseverance in transmitting the Torah to their descendants is their testimony that something real happened when they stood at the foot of the mountain… only Sinai can explain who we are, what we should strive for, and why we are still here.”
This point was also made by R. Chaim Jachter in his book, Reason to Believe. To R. Jachter, someone who is observant only because of pragmatic concerns is not necessarily in a better position than someone who is not observant at all. This is because a healthy relationship with Hashem is only possible when it results from full commitment. Jachter wrote that “Hashem expects unwavering commitment, just as a spouse demands and deserves unconditional loyalty, not one born simply of crass opportunism.” Commitment to Orthodoxy requires some kind of grounded knowledge that it represents the will of God if it is to be sustainable. Peters’ grounding comes from interpreting Judaism’s survival through history as being rooted in a real historical moment.
Similarly, R. Jack Abramowitz wrote that he was not too enthusiastic “about a faith whose foundations are so admittedly tenuous,” as results from Strauss’ distinction between claims of belief and knowledge. R. Abramowitz would prefer his religion “to demonstrate a little more conviction in itself before [one becomes] too emotionally invested.” Trading away claims to objective knowledge in favor of subjective belief simply “doesn’t reflect [Orthodoxy’s] goal of acquiring real knowledge through understanding, which we believe to be an achievable objective.” He does not, himself, offer a way to achieve this objective though, settling to “keep the door open to achieving actual knowledge [rather than] limiting ourselves to mere belief.”
Likewise, R. Shalom Carmy wrote that “why asserting this bare possibility [as opposed to certainty in religious knowledge] offers comfort to the believer or encourages belief in revelation is a mystery.” If human beings want to live lives in light of truth and beliefs central to Orthodoxy are as remote as Strauss claims, “then the appropriate response, it would seem, is to reject [those beliefs].” In fact, Carmy argued that such an arbitrary choice may actually be more dangerous than a passionate rejection of Orthodoxy “precisely because it edits out the living spirit that constitutes religious commitment.” Furthermore, Carmy argued that such a faith would strike any sincere believer as a parody. Daniel Garber affirmed this, writing that belief in God absent rational reasons “would seem to be a fraud, a belief we hold simply because we want to live in a world in which God exists.” Believing only for such reasons, according to Garber, might even strike one as pathological. As a result, such a way of thinking “is more an obstacle than a gateway to the truth.” Asserting belief in Orthodoxy without rational conviction, then, would seem to be inadequate according to theists and atheists alike.
But is it really possible to know with certainty that God exists as opposed to merely believing it? Most contributors who made such a distinction did not go on to offer particular proofs. R. Avraham Edelstein, however, argued that Orthodox Judaism is “a natural extension of certain rational and empirical claims” going back to the revelation at Sinai. Other religions, including Spinoza’s naturalism, actually require a greater leap of faith than Judaism does. Edelstein also argued, like Peters, that proof for Judaism’s truth can be found in the fact that “there has always been a strong core of Jews who have been truly energized by living Torah-true lives under an astonishing range of differing circumstances.” But arguments against revelation like the Documentary Hypothesis only survive “in the stuffy corridors of academia whose impact on themselves – let alone the broader world – is negligible” and “is hardly a claim for vibrancy.”
Of course, arguments against these particular proofs can easily be rallied. Many books have been written showing that the “Kuzari Proof” utilized by Edelstein and Peters does not hold up as well as many assume, and belief based on unprovable assumptions easily becomes tautological. The claim of the Documentary Hypothesis only surviving in certain academic corridors rather than in the broader world can also be turned on its head by the realization that Orthodoxy represents a distinct minority of world Jewry which often self-relegates itself to batei midrash and kollelim rather than engaging with the broader world.
Even if it were possible to rationally prove God and revelation, though, there is an additional problem that arises when faith and observable reality become “overlapping magisteria.” Ben Rothke wrote in a review of Harold Gans’ The Cosmic Puzzle that “if science can be used to prove God, then it can be used to disprove God….would anyone want their belief in God to be based on something that could be scientifically disproven?”
This would seem to leave us at a crossroad. On one side, proofs for God and revelation can potentially be refuted. If such refutations are successful, then those beliefs are called into question on an objective level. On the other hand, arguments for living an observant life that are based on pragmatism, personal experience, or appeals to tradition can be met with justifiable reasons not to live such a life. Contemporary Orthodoxy seems to have three options: 1) abandon claims of empirical and epistemic objectivity and acknowledge that it cannot make a claim on all people in all contexts, 2) maintain the current arguments while opening itself to potential refutation from empirical arguments offered from critics, or 3) present stronger objective arguments in its favor – perhaps found institutions where these questions can be grappled with by scholars well versed in both religious and secular fields to achieve this. Which, if any, of these three options is the best direction for Orthodox doctrine to move in?
Regardless of how anyone would answer that question, Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai does an excellent job of presenting the options that currently exist within mainstream Orthodoxy without preferring one model over another. This pluralism is for the best since, as R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik recently noted, “it is difficult to rate one form of religiosity over another. Every form has its pluses and minuses.” Some will be stable but inconsistent while others will be consistent but brittle. Each contribution, though, argued strongly against Strauss’ position that subjective belief is sufficient to live a religious life. Religion in general, and Orthodox Judaism in particular, make claims about the nature of our universe, not only morality. Belief in Orthodoxy cannot be arbitrary. Being a thoughtful Orthodox Jew today requires not only being able to articulate what we believe, but also why we believe it. We also need to understand, as Moshe Koppel wrote, that our attempts to discuss topics like what it means to be good, how to tap into universal truth, and how to live in accordance with both of those goals require making many prior assumptions, “not because the evidence is especially compelling – philosophers regularly marshal evidence against free will, moral realism, and scientific induction – but rather because without these assumptions our discussions about truth and meaning can’t even begin.”
At the very least, Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai asks readers to take an accounting of those assumptions and ask whether they are truly enough to warrant living an Orthodox Jewish life. If they are, we can live those lives passionately and confidently. If they are not, perhaps we should re-examine why we made the assumptions that we did and whether they are still sufficient justifications of the lives we live. As Jeffrey Bloom wrote in the volume’s introduction, these are questions which “no serious person can approach with indifference.” If there is any consensus shared by all contributors to Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai it’s that we Jews must strive to live lives in which our beliefs and our practices are fully integrated and internally justified. The onus is on each and every one of us to get there.
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 A notable difference may be that Strauss sees Spinoza’s Ethics as remaining purely in the hypothetical realm and therefore not fundamentally different from the Orthodox account of reality on a cognitive level. Science, on the other hand, is able to present a purely naturalistic vision of reality as opposed to only an alternative to an equally plausible religious worldview.
 Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Random House Publishing, 1999), 10.
 Jerry Coyne, Faith Vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 55
 Daniel C. Dennet, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 30.
 Shai Held and Michael Ruse, “God After Darwin: Belief, Non-Belief, and Modern Science” (lecture recording, Hadar), minute 30:19, located at https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/god-after-darwin.
 Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), 37.
Laying out a response to the claims of Biblical Criticism in a letter to R. Louis Jacobs, R. Sacks also sought to separate the empirical and religious realms, writing that “even aware of all recent scholarly developments, a Jew might, without willful oblivion, still say something like 1) Criteria of meaning depend on the light in which the text is viewed… and the authorship which is attributed to it… 2) The issue of authorship, when one of the candidates is G-d (not Moses), is not an empirical question. 3) The issue of the light in which the text is to be viewed (qua revelation, qua history, qua saga, qua myth) is not an empirical question either, any text being able to bear a number of coherent but mutually incompatible readings… 4) Therefore, if 1), 2), and 3) are true, there is a choice between alternative interpretive schema, so long as each is internally consistent. 5) Therefore a Jew may choose a traditional reading of the text without laying himself open to a justified charge of ‘lack of objectivity.” (Cited in Meir Persoff, Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate (Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2010), 12.)
 James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 681
 Louise M. Antony (ed.), Philosopher’s Without God: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 15.
 Yaakov Elman and Jeffrey S. Gurock (eds.), Hazon Nahum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought, and History Presented to Dr. Norman Lamm on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1997), 496.
 This argument, however, is by no means definitive. Take, for example, Joseph Levine’s words about his own experience learning from Rav Simcha Wasserman:
It’s extremely hard to explain what it was like to be in the presence of a man like Rabbi Wasserman as he lectured on a passage of Talmud. Of course, he had the appearance one expected from any yeshiva rabbi—beard, black yarmulke, worn suit, general Eastern European facial features. But the really special ones, like Rabbi Wasserman, had a sparkle in their eyes, and exuded a warmth and spiritual joy that, combined with penetrating intellectual power and a keen sense of irony and humor, was spellbinding. Even as a small child I could see what distinguished him from others who looked the look and talked the talk but didn’t really have that something special that made them stand out. Having this encounter with the genuine article at this age, someone who instantiated what was best about the tradition that produced him— as it were, the ‘‘form’’ of the yeshiva rabbinical scholar—left an indelible impression on me… it was precisely this appreciation of authenticity, instilled in me by my exposure to figures like Rabbi Wasserman, that eventually played a major role in causing me to lose my faith in the doctrines they taught me. (Louise M. Antony (ed.), Philosopher’s Without God: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 21).
 Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” Jewish Action (Fall 1992), located at https://jewishaction.com/religion/faith/the-source-of-faith-is-faith-itself/.
 Alec Goldstein, “The Validity of Religious Experience in a Post-Kantian World,” in Strauss, 95.
 For extended treatments of this sort of position, see Jerome Gellman’s Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief and The Mystical Experience of God.
 Jeremy Kagan, “The Nature and Pursuit of Truth in Different Cultural Contexts,” in Strauss, 141.
 Ibid., 150.
 Shmuel Philips, “Knowledge, Morality, and Maimonides’ Elusive Quest for Objective Truth,” in Strauss, 250.
 Neil Gillman, Believing and its Tensions: A Personal Conversation about God, Torah, Suffering and Death in Jewish Thought (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 26-27.
 In personal correspondence with Mr. Jeffrey Bloom, it was made clear that this was not by design. Many qualified women were asked to contribute to the volume, but only Peters was available to submit an essay at the end of the day. The fact that significant effort was made to solicit women’s voices on these crucial theological questions is reassuring, and I sincerely hope that future volumes like this go to the same effort and are able to include women’s perspectives. As Tamar Ross has noted, “the feminine perspective has something valuable to contribute, challenging prevailing male conceptions of truth as the irreducible, self-evident, and exclusive prism of reality.” The shortage of such challenges was deeply felt.
 Simi Peters, “Why Should a Jew Choose Belief?” in Strauss, 219.
 Located in Joseph Levine, “From Yeshiva Bochur to Secular Humanist,” in Philosopher’s Without God: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, ed. Louise M. Antony (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 28.
 Peters, “Choose Belief?” in Strauss, 226.
 Ibid., 231-232.
Chaim Jachter, Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith (New Milford, CT: Menorah Books, 2017), 17.
 Jack Abramowitz, “Spinoza, Strauss, Meno, and Maimonides,” in Strauss, 2.
 Ibid., 7.
 Shalom Carmy, “An Argument for Business-Men,” in Strauss, 10.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 12.
 Located in Louise M. Antony, “For the Love of Reason,” in Philosopher’s Without God: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, ed. Louise M. Antony (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 36.
 Carmy, “Business-Men,” in Strauss, 15.
 Edelstein, “Spinoza,” in Strauss, 28.
 Ibid., 31.
 Haym Soloveitchik, Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Modern Orthodoxy: The Landmark Essay Revisited (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press) 71.
 Moshe Koppel, “Why Revelation but not Orbiting Teapots,” in Strauss, 201.
 Jeffrey Bloom, “Introduction,” in Strauss, xi.