Review of Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, eds Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student

For millennia, the greatest thinkers jostled with theologians about the meaning of the good life.  Is the good life one of faith or reason? Because of the deep penetration of the ideology of progress into most of our educational, political, and social institutions, the main question these days is different. The more “woke” people amongst us at this moment of history don’t seem to be concerned with the ancient philosophical and theological question about the meaning of the “good life.”   

The good life – today – involves neither reason nor faith.  It is concerned with politics and power. The progressive political life – which aims to destroy the institutional and ideological foundations of Western colonialism and racism, for the sake of redressing historical injustices – is the only meaningful one. This kind of life is that of the activist. The only way to live this kind of life is to dismantle the foundational institutions built by the West, which for that mindset, are based on racism, colonialism, etc.  Ancient philosophy and religion are two such foundational institutions.

The good life – today – involves neither reason nor faith.  It is concerned with politics and power.

Calling philosophy and religion out as the products of whiteness or white privilege is something of a duty on many college campuses and on social media.  Given this situation, philosophical and religious questions about the good life don’t matter to most people because western religion and philosophy are seen as being a part of the same West that produced racism, colonization, and the genocide of indigenous peoples. That’s the “reasoning” that we hear so often these days. But it’s not just in academia; it’s on Netflix and Disney Plus, in board rooms and organizations, it’s baked into institutions and policies around North America.

How then, today, can we think about the good life without being deemed complicitous?  

Over fifty years ago, the famous scholar of philosophy and politics, Leo Strauss framed the situation we still face, today, in terms of a choice between progress or return.  We either go forward and deem the past as something to be rejected and reactionary or we return to it and take it on as the foundation of the good life. Progress deems the past as something to leave behind. Return is about going back to things in the past that are fundamental to a moral, intellectual, and political existence: such as revelation, a past event in which the divine entered the realm of the human and (for Strauss, primarily) gave the law.

(The relationship of law to revelation is of great interest to Strauss.  The assumption being that a morality or a covenant commanded by God is more powerful and binding than one that human beings institute. As the scholar David Novak argues in several of his books, the American constitution is founded on the covenantal idea which, he argues, is the basis for all real trust and faith in the government and citizens to do what is just. As he argues, it is prior “historically and ontologically” to the constitution and to all ethics which rely on trust. To be sure, trust is the glue of society. Without it, no society can function.  For Novak, building on Strauss, that historical and ontological basis for law and for the trust it draws on is in revelation and covenant.)

Strauss seems to suggest that return and progress can keep each other in check because, on the one hand, a modern philosopher like Baruch Spinoza can’t know for certain that miracles or transcendence in the physical world is impossible; on the other hand, religion cannot definitively prove the existence of God, miracles, etc. It believes in God; it does not know God.   

When Strauss argued that the question about the good life is an ancient question that is at the foundation of the West, he thought that it should be deeply meaningful for us, even today, in a time informed, primarily, by progressive thought and politics. Leo Strauss brings the call for return, back from the dustbin of history; thereby suggesting something that presents a challenge that can prompt us – who are caught up in a misperception about who we are and what makes for a good life – to think. Thought is premised on opening oneself up to possibilities rather than denying them.   

For Strauss, this is a return to the tension between Jerusalem (Revelation) and Athens (Reason).  Today, we live in a world that has (seemingly) chosen Athens (reason and progress) over Jerusalem (return). (I say seemingly, because it is not the life of reason that we are living under today; it is the life of progressive political zealousness.) To be sure, the tension between Jerusalem and Athens, which Strauss appeals to in many of his writings, is based on giving equal credence to two entirely different answers to this very question about the good life. Strauss called it “the quarrel of the ancients.”  It is the tension that can prompt us to think about the good life and its meaning.

Thought is premised on opening oneself up to possibilities rather than denying them.

In the spirit of Martin Heidegger, who wrote about the “forgetfulness of the question of Being,” Strauss argues that this fundamental question and tension has been forgotten by modernity and has caused us to go off in the wrong direction.   

A major part of Strauss’s project was to – like Heidegger did with the “question of Being” – recover the quarrel and repeat it (wiederholung) in the modern period.  He wanted to present it as unresolved, as opposed to the progressive Enlighteners who mistakenly thought that, as Strauss puts it in his 1935 book, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and his Predecessors, their “mockery” of “orthodoxy” was sufficient to win the argument and end the quarrel.  But, as Strauss notes and as any logical person knows, mockery is not how one wins a philosophical or theological argument. It remains, to this day, unresolved. 

I would suggest that the question of the good life, the tension between Athens (Reason) and Jerusalem (Revelation), the quarrel of the ancients, can be seen, today, as a form of Counter Enlightenment (something that was of interest, at the time of Strauss’s first major writings, to the Frankfurt School and thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin). If enlightenment chooses progress over return, there is no tension.  

Counter enlightenment puts the notion of progress and its conclusions into question and allows us to rethink the meaning of Jerusalem and Athens.  It allows for ancient questions to enter our way of thinking about ourselves and the world we live in rather than take the quarrel as a settled issue. Even today, it can put into question our smug sense of progress and our ideas of what constitutes meaning and value. As Strauss says in one of his essays on Maimonides, also in the spirit of Heidegger, one must allow oneself – one’s thoughts and one’s beliefs – to be put into question by this tension, which has been repressed by the Enlightenment and the ideology of progress.

The question of the good life, the tension between Athens (Reason) and Jerusalem (Revelation), the quarrel of the ancients, can be seen, today, as a form of Counter Enlightenment.

What do Orthodox Jews think about Strauss’s Challenge?  

Since Strauss sees the “quarrel of the ancients” as directed at what he calls “orthodoxy” (associated with Revelation), Orthodox Jews are implicated and should, for good reason, ask whether his distinctions are accurate or insightful, if his form of counter-enlightenment has any relevance for Orthodox Jews today. To be sure, Strauss’s work on Jerusalem and Athens suggests that Orthodox Jews can engage in the task of return and renew the quarrel of the ancients in our own time. What do Orthodox Jews think about this challenge and how Strauss has framed it?

In the new collection of essays, Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith ed. by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student, we are given a unique opportunity to see how Orthodox Jews look at Strauss’s arguments, his framework, and how they fare in our world. We are given an opportunity to relive this ancient quarrel and entertain the meaning of faith, specifically the faith of Orthodox Judaism (which as Strauss notes, is the basis of this quarrel). This book, to be sure, also recovers and repeats this tension and should be studied rather than just read, if one is to feel the impact of the questions it raises.

In this review, I’d like to briefly discuss some of these contributions so as to convey a sense of the urgency that these essays have about how we think about faith today vis-à-vis the work of Leo Strauss and Spinoza (two names that most young people today have never heard of before, unless they, for some odd reason, start trending on social media).   

Before touching on some of these pieces, which represent the main motifs in this collection, I will cite a part of the main passage from Strauss’s Preface to a famous essay on Spinoza, since this passage was sent to all of the orthodox scholars included in this book by the editors of this volume. What is most interesting about this group is that they are not Strauss scholars, by and large, so their response taps into an Orthodox Jewish reading of Strauss’s claims and distinctions and makes us give more thought to his descriptions and his very framework.  

One of the main distinctions, which is deemed problematic by most authors in this volume, is Strauss’s distinction between belief and knowledge (which I noted above): 

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 of 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. Given this premise, miracles and revelations in general, and hence all Biblical miracles in particular, are possible. Spinoza has not succeeded in showing that this premise is contradicted by anything we know…. Certain it is that Spinoza cannot legitimately deny the possibility of revelation. But to grant that revelation is possible means to grant that the philosophical account and the philosophical way of life are not necessarily, not evidently, the true account and the right way of life: philosophy, the quest for evident and necessary knowledge, rests itself on an evident decision, on an act of the will, just as faith does.  Hence the antagonism between Spinoza and Judaism, between unbelief and belief, is ultimately not theoretical but moral. (My emphasis, in bold.)     

Jack Abromowitz starts the volume off with an essay that frames Strauss’s approach to Judaism in terms of dichotomies we find in Plato’s famous dialogue, the Meno, about knowledge and belief. Do Orthodox Jews think in terms of this distinction or not?

Abromowitz suggests that Strauss is explaining orthodoxy to non-orthodox people and for this reason, he uses a dichotomy that they are familiar with (between knowledge and belief).   Citing Strauss, he demonstrates that his argument is based on the claim that Jews believe in God’s existence, the Creation, etc. If they claim to know it, argues Strauss, Spinoza will win the argument (based on knowledge, which deals with certainty, verifiability, etc.).  

But this argument is off, argues Abromowitz, citing Maimonides. Judaism is a kind of religion in which the goal is ultimately to know God (as the psalms say, “in all His ways”). Belief and knowledge, in other words, are a part of the same continuum. It isn’t an either/or situation.   Faith is commitment, a relationship. It is not about belief. As one contributor to the volume, Simi Peters puts it, one does not believe in one’s wife or husband, one is committed to them.   This is a primary metaphor for the relationship of God with his people.

Shalom Carmy’s essay, “An Argument for Businessmen,” builds on this idea when it argues that proofs of God’s existence (that God “may” exist) “will yield a conception of God limited by those premises.”  “What is left out” by Strauss, argues Carmy, “is precisely the vitality and personal sovereignty of God.  When real people seek God, their starting point may well be such initial insights and yearnings and concerns; yet when we encounter Him, we will always be confronted: we will be pushed and provoked to transcend those premises.”  

 Belief and knowledge, in other words, are a part of the same continuum. It isn’t an either/or situation.   Faith is commitment, a relationship. It is not about belief.

Carmy points out that Strauss makes fun of what he calls “businessmen,” who don’t understand such arguments about Jerusalem and Athens. Strauss, argues Carmy, thinks that they are more driven to God by passion: “If, by contrast, the ‘businessman” refers to the kind of person who is more hungry for truth than attempting to prove beyond refutation abstract and unprovable theories, it may not be the worst way to pursue one’s life.” Carmy is interested in the personal God, which he thinks is missing from Strauss’s account of Orthodoxy: “If God is personal, as Orthodoxy believes, and if what is most valuable in human existence is personal, as seems the case to potential religious believers…then Strauss’ way of thinking is more an obstacle than a way to the truth that is worth struggling for and living in.”

Paul Franks, in his essay “Reason, Faith, and the Overcoming of Shame,” also sees proofs of God’s existence (that God “may” exist) as secondary to the I-Thou relationship with the personal God. He focuses in on the commandment: “The primary concept (of Orthodox Judaism) is that of the mitzvah or commandment…. Only insofar as it is first commanded by Moses on behalf of God, the ‘lover of the people’ addressed in the sconed person in the preceding verse – only insofar as it is a commandment grounded beyond the human yet in love for the human – is the Torah a heritage or a commandment.”

Citing Franz Rosenzweig, Franks argues that “as commandment, the Torah is part and parcel of a covenantal I-Thou relationship between God and the people of Israel, and between God and each Jew.” Franks adds that the overcoming of shame – namely, of the moment in the Torah of discovering nakedness after eating of the tree of Good and Evil – is made possible through this I-thou relationship which is epitomized by Torah Study between two people, of passing the tradition on to the children, the next generation. A living tradition – based on an I-Thou relationship – epitomizes Orthodoxy. According to Franks, this account is missing from Strauss’ description of Orthodoxy.

Alec Goldstein’s essay, “The Validity of Religious Experience in a Post-Kantian World,” also turns to the difference between the religious experience of God and the argument for God’s existence. Goldstein goes through several Jewish sources such as The Kuzari by Yehuda Levi, which turn to experience as the basis of faith: “For the Kuzari, the foundation of Jewish faith is not philosophy, but prophesy.  It is prophecy, tradition, and the religious experience, which offer a far greater level of certainty than philosophy.”   

Goldstein sees faith in terms of a kind of mystical experience with God. He turns to modern sources to argue that the sciences, which look for “verification,” don’t understand faith since “mystical encounters, by their very form, cannot live up to this standard of verification, they are not replicable. These are intensely personal experiences, unique to the individual, and cannot be corroborated by another distinct person. In other words, the method of verification that empiricism demands cannot be applied in these cases.”

Goldstein ends his essay with a description of the sensations he has (or fails to have) when he prays. This sensation nourishes and challenges his faith. But this seems to confirm what Strauss says about the difference between belief and knowledge. The two seem to be divided; one is based on experience, the other on the observable and verifiable. Faith can’t be verified or measured. Be that as it may, this essay and others see the I-Thou experience as missing in Strauss’s account of Orthodoxy and faith. Belief, they wish to show, is rooted in experience rather than a lack of knowledge or an assertion about God, Revelation, and Miracles.

In “Leo Strauss and the Lure of Orthodoxy, or, How to ‘Awaken a Prejudice,’” Mark Gottleib takes an in-depth look into Strauss’s reading of Orthodoxy and his use of it to challenge not just the Enlightenment but also Jewish thinkers who were influenced by it (from Mendelssohn to Herman Cohen): “By claiming he is trying to ‘awaken prejudice in favor (of this view of Maimonides)…and even more, to arouse suspicion against the powerful opposing prejudice,’ Strauss is signaling that all philosophical eras and periods, including the Enlightenment, ultimately reflect their own intellectual prejudices…Strauss’ deconstruction of the claims of universal rationality implied in the Enlightenment project evens the playing field when competing worldviews and rival conceptual schemes square off against each other, rendering Orthodoxy as philosophically plausible as Enlightenment skepticism if not decisive proof can be offered in either direction – which is exactly what Strauss claims is the case.”

Gottleib correctly points out how Strauss saw the “return” of Rosenzweig, Buber, and Cohen to the sources was ultimately based on the influence of Enlightenment thinking that emerges out of historicism: “While culturally attractive advocates of ‘new thinking’ wanted to free themselves from the grip of Enlightenment rationality, their own arguments against traditional Orthodoxy often brought them back into the bosom of that Jewishly-alien system of European thought that they claimed to be relinquishing.”  

For this reason, he rightly points out that Strauss sees the return to a pre-modern Orthodoxy (epitomized in the work of Maimonides) as the best way to challenge the Enlightenment. This return consists of a return to the relationship of revelation and law (which Strauss) sees as integral to pre-modern Orthodoxy: “For Strauss, the linchpin of the entire medieval project is foregrounded on the concept of law. Thus, Maimonidies’ defense of divine law, and not the question of religious belief and knowledge as it was traditionally understood.” He adds, “the superiority of the medieval synthesis over its modern successors rests precisely in the prioritization of law over truth and community – or state-forming over the profession of belief…. For Strauss, the way forward was back.” This formation hits directly at the counter-enlightenment aspect of Strauss’s work and also shows us how law and the polity figure in Stauss’s distinctions.

Simi Peter’s essay, “Why Should a Jew Choose Belief,” is also an important contribution to this collection because it situates God in history, much like Emil Fackenheim sought to do. The historical revelation of Godliness, a collective revelation, is the basis for faith, and the basis for the commitment to the covenant. God must be encountered in history, not simply in this or that private experience. The covenantal relation, the relationship with the law, which is a mediation between God and the Jewish people, is a public experience.

What we find in this collection on Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinaitic faith is thought-provoking. As Strauss would argue, Jerusalem is much different from Athens. Nonetheless, the two must be thought together. The question is how? This volume suggests different answers to that question, but it also suggests that religion in general (but Judaism in particular) still matters in a world that seems to have abandoned it. Orthodox Judaism has a role to play here.

This suggests that, in the postmodern era we are living through, any relationship with God most likely doesn’t follow from reasoning and proofs of God’s existence. It emerges out of a passionate relationship with God, the Torah, and the law that has been handed down – as Maimonides notes – from one link of tradition to another.   

Ultimately, relationships, what Levinas calls the face-to-face, are the basis of faith and trust.  We are, as Levinas says, “elected by the other.”  When Abraham – the father of three monotheistic religions – says Hi’neni (Here I am) in the Torah, in response to God’s calling, Levinas says that this means that I am here, ready to serve the Other (with a big O and a little o).  This Hi’neni is something that is not arrived at through thinking; it is arrived at by simply being in the presence of the other. It is – regardless of how much we resist it and proffer a sense of individuality – inevitable. Response-ability, in other words, is built into Judaism and basically all experience. It is particular and universal. 

Using such ideas, Levinas tries to revitalize Judaism in our time – like Franz Rosenzweig did before him, via his writings and the founding of the Lehrhaus – by situating it in this relationship with the other. We need to – as Leora Batzniksy has attempted in her book, Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation –  think about Strauss, and his interest in law and revelation, in terms of an interlocutor like Levinas who sees the face-to-face experience as fundamental. We see this possibility lingering in this volume. All we need is, as I mentioned above, to study it and connect the dots (or as Strauss says of Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed, read for the connection between one chapter heading and another).

This matters today because, as these essays show, the good life is something that we can only think about when we think about what brings us face-to-face with each other. Religion brings us face-to-face, and so does politics and the law.  

If we lose the divine basis of law and see Judaism and philosophy as colonialist, racist, or marginalizing gender, etc., how can we carry on the trust that the law invests in us and in all human beings to be just? Living a good life is not just about living a life according to reason or faith; it is about deciding on what is the best life for all of us. It is situated between the two. If one is negated, if return is negated, if not just Jerusalem but also Athens is negated, what is the basis for trust? What is the basis for good and evil if the past and all foundations are deemed to be racist?   

We need the counter-enlightenment suggested by Strauss and by this collection because we need to take these questions seriously instead of seeing ourselves as beyond good and evil while, at the same time, blindly and hypocritically declaring that both Jerusalem and Athens must be canceled if we are to live a good life. If we don’t live in their tension, besides power and its redistribution, what are we living for and how can this kind of life be called good? That kind of life is more akin to Hobbes’s war of all against all, and as he once famously said, it is nasty and brutish. It’s really not what one would call a good life.  Perhaps it’s time to return so that progress – redefined by those who see the past and the foundations of the West as a curse – doesn’t end up putting us into a Hobbesian nightmare where power is the law and might is right.