July 13, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
July 13, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Orthodox Judaism Today

Reviewing: “Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith.” Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein and Gil Student. Kodesh Press. 2022. English. Paperback. 343 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1947857728.

Throughout our history, the Jewish People have been faced with the twin challenges of physical survival and spiritual flourishing. Maimonides, in the 27th chapter of the third section of the Guide to the Perplexed, says that between the two, the spiritual flourishing of Judaism is the more noble goal, while physical survival comes first in time. The two rabbinic holidays of Chanukah and Purim reflect those twin historical challenges: Purim, the triumph of the survival of the Jewish people in the 5th to 6th centuries BCE, and Chanukah, the triumph of Maccabees’ spiritual vision over the Greek assimilationists in the 2nd century BCE.

The resurgence of antisemitism in America, and the attendant anxiety over our physical security both in the Diaspora and in Israel, has claimed the focus of attention over the past several years. However, this newly published, thought-provoking volume, “Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith,” published by Kodesh Press, is focused on meeting the second, arguably, more noble, and certainly equally challenging goal of the Jewish people: the intellectual and spiritual integrity of Judaism—specifically, Orthodox Judaism—from the challenge of contemporary secularism and atheism. The takeoff point of the volume is an essay by the renowned 20th century political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss, who left Germany in 1932, one year before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, immigrated to the United States and rose to great eminence at the University of Chicago. He passed away in 1973.

In his preface to the English edition of Spinoza’s “Critique of Religion,” Strauss made the somewhat surprising claim that the Jewish Orthodox belief in Divine revelation was as defensible as Spinoza’s unbelief in Revelation. For Strauss, neither believers nor nonbelievers in divine revelation could know that they were correct; neither could credibly argue that the position that each of them espoused was the true one; however, Orthodox believers had as good a case for their belief in the Divine Revelation of the Torah and the Orthodox practice that followed from it, as Spinoza and his secular followers had in their refusal to believe in Divine Revelation and their resultant secular beliefs and lifestyle. In stating so, Strauss pushed back against the academic mainstream of his time that relied on Spinoza and his intellectual heirs to mock Orthodox belief in Divine Revelation and the tenets of traditional religion as just so much archaic superstition.

Although Strauss was raised in a nominally Orthodox home in Germany, he himself was not an Orthodox Jew. Yet this essay had a profound influence on many of its readers including the lead editor of this volume, Jeffrey Bloom. When, shortly after graduating from college, Bloom began taking his first, tentative steps towards Orthodox Jewish observance, Strauss’ essay helped to launch his spiritual journey on rational grounds. After many years of yeshiva study, Bloom went on to become a committed Orthodox Jew, raising a family steeped in Orthodox practice and belief.

After the passage of a couple of decades, Bloom asked himself whether Strauss’ argument, persuasive as it was for him as a young man, was the best argument that could be made today in defense of Orthodox Judaism. Was the best that can be said about contemporary Orthodoxy is that it was no less a reasonable, spiritual alternative than contemporary secularism? Or was the case for Orthodox Judaism today a much stronger one than the one that Strauss posited over a half century ago? To help him answer that question he turned to 17 prominent Orthodox Jewish scholars, including his co-editors, Rabbi Alec Goldstein and Rabbi Gil Student, to analyze, respond to, and build on Strauss’s argument.

I found the essays in this volume, each in their own way, incredibly engaging and thought provoking. For convenience sake, the essays can be organized around several different themes:

Some of the essays, including an especially erudite one by Rabbi Ari Kahn, challenges Strauss’ bifurcation of knowledge and belief. They argue that the distinction between knowledge and belief is actually a linguistic distinction without a genuine, practical difference. Orthodox thinkers from time immemorial, among them such medieval intellectual giants as Maimonides and the Sefer HaChinuch, and my own 20th century teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, argued that Judaism is based on both belief in, and knowledge of, God. In Maimonides different writings, he appears to use the terms interchangeably, citing “belief in God” as the first of the 613 Commandments in his book of the Commandments, “Sefer haMitzvot,” and “knowledge of God” as the first commandment in his code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah.

Challenging the division between knowledge and belief on other grounds, some of the essays, most notably Rabbi Eliezer Zobin’s, argue that knowledge of any sort is ultimately predicated on beliefs. For example, anyone who has studied geometry knows that undergirding geometric proofs are axioms, also called postulates, that enable the entire mathematical structure of proofs that follow. And not only mathematics, each body of knowledge that we have in every discipline is premised on some set of beliefs, whether involving experiential, deductive or inductive reasoning. This makes beliefs actually more fundamental—and in that sense superior to—the knowledge on which it is based. This is the inverse of the premise that assumes the superiority of knowledge over belief.

Yet a third set of essays, most notably a brilliant and powerful one by Simi Peters, updates the “argument from Tradition,” made famous by Yehuda Halevi in his book “The Kuzari.” To wit: Jewish history and tradition, passed down from generation to generation, credibly reflect strong evidence of an “encounter” with God at Sinai. This evidence gives the collective Jewish people not merely belief in the encounter, but experiential knowledge of that encounter. In my book on the Jewish Holidays, “Rendezvous with God” (Maggid Press, 2016), I have argued that all the holidays found in the Torah embody the series of encounters that the entire Jewish people had with God in the first year of their existence. The continuous celebration of those holidays is one of the key ways that our people have transmitted our people’s firsthand experiential knowledge of those encounters from generation to generation over the millennia.

A fourth set of essays argue that the Orthodox Judaism that Spinoza posits and that Strauss assumes, is in fact something of a “straw man.” Within the canon of traditional Jewish texts, there are wide-ranging views that maintain the rational integrity of Orthodox Judaism without having to abandon what we as moderns know to be true of the world. To cite the most obvious example: One can acknowledge the scientific theory of the evolution of the universe over billions of years, without that necessarily contradicting the biblical description of the “six days of creation.” Since, in the biblical narrative, the first three “days” of creation, preceded the creation of the sun and the moon on Day Four, each of those biblical “days” can be credibly understood as “God’s days”—measures of time that may be many billions of years long in human terms. (See Psalm 90:4). In fact, the Bible’s description of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis, as taking place not in one fell swoop, but over a period of time, aligns in principle with the evolutionary development of the universe.

There is more, far more of interest, in this intricate collection of essays, and each essay may be studied and savored in its own right. Bloom and his learned co-editors have provided a great service for anyone interested in a thinking person’s understanding of Orthodox Judaism today. They have put together in one intellectually jam-packed volume, some of the best thinking in print, of the rational basis for Orthodox belief. While each reader may find some authors more compelling than others, every serious Jewish reader will be sure to gain a great deal from a deep dive into this volume.


Rabbi Nathan Laufer received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, and is the author of “Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder’s Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah’s Story Retold” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005); and “Rendezvous With God: Revealing the Meaning of the Jewish Holidays and their Mysterious Rituals” (Maggid Press, 2016).

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles