Orthodox Jewish thinkers on authentic religious belief in the modern world

Book review part 1


In recent years the Jewish background of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne has attracted increasing attention, and rightly so. His motto, “que sais-je?” or “what do I know?”  perhaps better translated as “what do I really know?” or even better yet “how do I know?” 

‘How do I know’ goes to the heart of the way Jews have wrestled with their identities, morally and politically, not to mention religiously, long before Ja’akov went mano a mano with his angel in Bereishit 32.

There are those who dismissively think that Orthodox Jews – indeed, adherents of religious orthodoxies of all stripes – are secure and therefore uninterested in their knowledge of what justifies or authorizes their belief.  

New collection of essays

Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. 
Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student. Kodesh Press, 2023.

Leo Strauss’s infamous defense of Orthodox Judaism

This vibrant new collection of essays, which addresses from the position of Orthodox Judaism the way these matters have survived modernity, shows a surprising variety of approaches to this problem.

The contributors all confront the philosopher Leo Strauss’s infamous defense of Orthodox Judaism against the way Spinoza and the Enlightenment more broadly shut the door on any religion that doesn’t elevate reason above faith. As Strauss showed, the critique of faith on empirical grounds hasn’t quite handed the victory to religion, so he not only hasn’t solved the problem – he suggested that the problem isn’t solvable, and may not even be a problem. 

The Enlightenment could not fully and finally refute religious belief.

Unafraid to enact the taboo gesture of historicizing reason, Strauss didn’t argue for the truth of what he called Orthodoxy so much as claim that the Enlightenment could not fully and finally refute religious belief: Reason could not trump revelation except on its own highly self-serving terms: What after all could be more human, more contingent on experience, more fantastical than the idea of reason? But how can an activity as personal as religious orthodoxy be a source of permanent, transcendent wisdom? Or are there as many kinds of transcendent wisdom as there are forms of logic? Perhaps these questions are in Strauss’s view unanswerable because of the way he asks them.  

Athens versus Jerusalem

Inasmuch as Strauss is known at all outside the academy, it is for his now canonical formulation of Athens (logic, reason, philosophy) versus Jerusalem (faith, belief). But it wasn’t a fair fight, if we begin and end from the position of modernity, hence this volume’s insistence on treating Strauss not as a conclusion but a starting point, and allowing Orthodoxy to have its say, instead of relying on philosophers. 

Strauss published Spinoza’s Critique of Religion in German in 1930, but it was not until the English of 1965, with a new preface, autobiographical in nature, that he objected to the sense in which Enlightenment thinkers claimed to have made religion not merely false but irrelevant.  For Strauss, classical proofs were as inadequate to demonstrate the superiority of logic as they were to critique religious faith. 

It was, according to Strauss, a kind of intellectual crisis that exemplified the modern situation, but Orthodox Jews, who to the dismay of many continue to inhabit the modern world, have largely been left out of this debate, an oversight that this volume seeks to correct. These contributors generally come from the world of Jewish Studies or the rabbinate, and not philosophy. 

Nonetheless, readers ought to be prepared for some rather technical discussions, which may come as a surprise to those who think that the Orthodox neither want nor need to address these matters with any intellectual rigor. 

Tradition and Modernity

Of course, we must stop even before we start, so vexed are the problems of terminology. What do we mean by “Orthodoxy,” and for that matter, what do we mean by “religion,” especially since Torah has no word for it that seems to match what we are talking about?  

Indeed, while referring to Enlightenment-style rationality or reason is perfectly satisfactory, to say that we are interested here in matters of Orthodox Judaism is too narrow, and not only because Orthodox Judaism means so many things to so many people in so many places, but because many religions – all of them? – attempt to reach beyond logic and reason to find meaning, not to mention a fully functional epistemology. Nor are the words or the ideas we know as “revelation,” “belief,” and “faith” quite appropriate to Orthodox Judaism. This makes the religious status of Strauss himself important to clarify.

Rethinking modern rationality and empiricism

Strauss is best known in recent years as the zayde (grandpa) of American political and cultural neoconservatism, a reputation that fails to do justice to what was a much more subtle and undefinable career, one that for better or worse operated under the rubric of political philosophy. 

Born in 1899 in Germany, he was raised Orthodox, but he seemed to go “off the derech” from an early age, at least when it came to halachic observance, apparently without much resistance from his family.

He studied with some of the most prominent philosophers of the interwar years in Germany, including Ernst Cassirer, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, all of whom were busy critiquing the intellectual dictatorship of Enlightenment-style moral relativism and pleading for a rethinking of modern rationality and empiricism. 

Plato and Maimonides

Strauss’s contribution was to embrace ancient, classical, and medieval traditions and authority, most prominently Plato and Maimonides. The Zionist circles in which he moved brought him into contact with Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, and Gershom Scholem. It was paradise for philosophers reconnecting with the ancient inquiry into the connection between what we know and how to live.

After rising antisemitism convinced him to leave Germany in the 1930s, he settled in at the University of Chicago, where his students included Allan Bloom, Susan Sontag, and Richard Rorty – Paradise regained? There he doubled down on parsing the implications of a worldview that opposed the ancients and the moderns, reason versus revelation.

Non-logical concept of God

The opposition between Athens and Jerusalem was made possible, indeed inevitable by Spinoza, but his views on Judaism derive from a limited and poorly founded mental approach, at least according to Avraham Edelstein’s contribution to this volume.

It is a bold and even heretical statement to make about Judaism’s greatest heretic. But it’s a convincing approach. If Spinoza’s God is a non-person who exists in time, who lacks agency, and is bound by causality, then he betrayed a shocking lack of understanding of the way the Jewish tradition understands God.

The Jewish conception of God, inasmuch as there is only one, is not so much illogical as non-logical, as Edelstein and his colleagues argue, or unavailable to logical understanding. It was also a question of method. Spinoza, who was determined to consider “human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies” was clearly powerless to explain away any mysteries, contradictions, ironies, and puzzles that he encountered in Judaism. 

Was he simply uninterested in such matters? Or did he realise the inadequacy of his approach?  After all, his main weapon was not argument but mockery, which Strauss saw as cover for the weakness of his position.  

Jewish tradition, a creative and evolving form of authority

If Spinoza and his Enlightenment allies couldn’t refute orthodox religious faith, they had only themselves to blame, according to Meir Tribitz, who contends that they might have availed themselves of another source of knowledge in the form of Jewish tradition, a creative and evolving form of authority – represented by Talmud, Halachah, Kabbalah, and Midrash – that Spinoza saw only as a form of fixed knowledge passively received generation after generation and therefore no match for the powers of reason. 

And we would do well to remember that Spinoza, who admitted that nothing existed outside of nature, which he saw as coterminous with God, went quite a bit further than his Enlightenment colleagues in dismissing religious faith in the name of science. After all, most of them saw that science makes no claim on ultimate truths or even the ability to prove anything in any final way.

As Strauss reminds us, and as Spinoza seemed to deny, science depends on unprovable axioms and therefore only gets us closer to the truth, but not all the way there.

Spinoza’s lack of interest in Talmud

The ultra-rationalist perspective comes under merciless attack from Edelstein because of its inevitable determinism, but Josh Golding’s critique of Spinoza is even bolder, arguing that the lensmaker’s critique of religion is unsuccessful because it betrays a profound lack of interest in Talmud on the one hand and transcendent religious experience on the other.

Scholars have even suggested that although Spinoza received a solid Jewish education, it consisted of Hebrew language training and Torah study, and enough Maimonides to be appalled at the suggestion of Torah’s divine authorship. He received little exposure to the Talmud, or he forsook the cheder for the counting house before he was eligible for yeshiva-level study. 

Spinoza never entered into the non-dogmatic spirit of so many of the ancient rabbinical authorities.

For what it’s worth, his corpus only touches on the Talmud half a dozen times, but it’s a light touch at that. Still, it’s clear that his teachers were accomplished Talmudists, and that his methods owed much to the fearsomely logical methods one finds in the Talmud, though like Maimonides, he never really entered into the flexible, non-dogmatic spirit of so many of the ancient rabbinical authorities.

Going back to Maimonides

Unseating Spinoza as the last word on reason’s relation to revelation means going back to Maimonides, who was perfectly comfortable with the limits of human reason and the existence of the unknowable, and therefore claimed that Torah offered knowledge but not proof. This was not due to the content of Torah, he argued, which is filled with unexplainable miracles, but to our own inadequacies. 

to be continued

Next week in Knowing Ourselves, Knowing God, Knowing Maimonides, we’ll discuss the position of Maimonides in this debate on the opposition between Athens and Jerusalem, and the rightfullness of Wittgenstein’s statement: “We must be silent in the face of what we cannot know.”

Bookreview of Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. 
Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student.
Kodesh Press, 2023.

cover illustration Talma Joachimsthal

Over Jonathan Gill 12 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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