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What the Straus Center Is Reading — Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith

Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai Book Cover

Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student | Kodesh Press | 2022

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, editors Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student assemble 17 learned reflections on the nature of Orthodox commitment. The contributors (philosophers, Jewish outreach professionals, rabbis, and teachers) were each asked to respond to the late University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss’ argument that Spinoza’s critique of religion has no superior claim to truth than those who profess Orthodox belief. For those in need of a quick recap, Strauss argues that as long Orthodoxy only claims to "believe" its core tenets—as opposed to "knowing" them—Spinoza cannot claim to have refuted Orthodoxy. Furthermore, he goes on to say that, just as Spinoza says that Jews cannot claim to "know" God exists, the Dutch philosopher cannot state with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Both Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment are neither fully provable nor refutable. While Strauss himself was not Orthodox, the prompt serves as an occasion to examine what it means to be an Orthodox Jew, how “belief” relates to “knowledge,” the connection between learning and morality, the nature of arguments for the existence of God and divine revelation, conversion, tradition, and many other themes. Many of the contributors don’t agree with the premise of Strauss’ defense. Some, basing themselves on Maimonides, argue that it is possible to “know,” not just “believe,” the principles of Orthodoxy, and the two concepts lie on the same spectrum. Others cite sources showing the interchangeability of the two. Still, others accept neither concept as the engine that drives Orthodoxy but rather credit the interpretive tradition, lived practices reflecting an I-Thou relationship such as prayer, and God’s hand in history. In a representative conclusion, Meir Triebitz, a rosh kollel in Har Nof, Israel, argues that “Judaism… locates the truth in the emergent tradition of interpretation that the Jewish people have experienced as they march through history. Spinoza has not defeated Orthodoxy, not because, as Strauss argues, he can’t dispute the nonrational belief of miracles by reason, but because he denies the fundamental truth of self-identity which lies at the heart of Judaism as a living tradition.” Philosopher Samuel Lebens, the author of numerous volumes on the nature of Orthodox belief, emphasizes that devoting one’s life to unprovable theses is hardly “ridiculous.” After all, citing both Maimonides and Wittgenstein, language and logic can only carry us so far. “There remains a possibility that the world can only be known in its fullness,” he argues, “if we’re willing to embrace experiences that transcend, without contradicting, the fruits of rational deliberation.” The volume is a comprehensive, deep, nuanced, and thoughtfully assembled anthology. Whether or not one is well-versed in notoriously challenging Straussian thought or is actively bothered by the need to rationally defend Orthodoxy, there is much to be gained in its pages. Ending his own lengthy and learned chapter, Rabbi Mark Gottlieb aptly reflects the editors’ and contributors’ gratitude by writing, “Leo Strauss, Reb Yehuda Leib ben R’ Elchanan,Yehi Zichro Baruch, May his name be for a blessing.” To read more Straus Center book reviews, click here. You can learn more about the Straus Center and sign up for our newsletter here. Be sure to also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram and connect with us on LinkedIn.