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Confronting Faith’s Postmodern Problem

In the postmodern world, orthodox religion suffers less for being thought demonstrably false than from claiming the authority of truth at all. This absence of consensus about truth is reflected in the variety of perspectives contained in a collection of essays by seventeen thoughtful Orthodox Jews. Since their reflections on the causes and conditions of belief apply to all religions, all believers are likely to find something instructive in this book.

The public discourse surrounding American religion has a curiously sociological character. Regular Pew reporting of declines in religious affiliation produce lamentation that might as well refer, as Robert Putnam did, to declining bowling league membership. The educated public—including its more religious element—finds religious truth claims awkward, since each religion has its own competing truth. In fact, as Tocqueville observed, a sociological attitude to religion has real advantages: “if it serves man very much as an individual that his religion be true, this is not so for society. Society has nothing to fear nor hope from the other life; and what is important to it is not so much that all citizens profess the true religion but that they profess a religion.”

Tocqueville is rarely wrong. And yet, against the backdrop of declining religious affiliation, it is hard to maintain that contemporary society has no concern with the causes and conditions of belief. Perhaps the times cry out for a resurrection of the lost literary genre of religious apologia. Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith (Kodesh Press, 2022) takes up this challenge on behalf of Judaism. Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student, it is a collection of essays by seventeen thoughtful Orthodox Jews—rabbis, laymen, and academics—addressing what exactly attaches them to their religion and inspires them to continue to believe in it. The answers are necessarily more or less specific to Judaism, but since the questions apply to all religions, all believers are likely to find something instructive in this volume.

Belief and Disbelief

The essayists respond to an argument by the political philosopher Leo Strauss defending the respectability of Jewish Orthodoxy. In Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Strauss argued that philosophy or reason (as represented by Spinoza) is unable to decisively refute revelation or orthodoxy, because philosophy and revelation alike begin with unproven assumptions. Hence the choice between Spinoza (or, perhaps, any philosophy) and Jewish Orthodoxy (or, perhaps, any orthodoxy) “is ultimately not theoretical but moral.” So, according to Strauss’s argument, faith in revelation is respectable because philosophy rests on no more ultimate certainty.

Strauss’s argument is intentionally minimalist; its aim is to persuade rationalists to take religion seriously. Yet by grounding philosophy and religion equally in moral choice, the argument threatens to undermine both. Taken in isolation, Strauss’s argument itself approaches postmodern relativism. Only Rabbi Mark Gottlieb’s essay considers the fuller complexity of Strauss’s position, offering careful and original scholarship that partially exonerates the master of flirting with relativism. Gottlieb concludes that Strauss rests his admiration for Judaism on the scholarly “theological-legal” aristocracy it establishes. The other essayists focus on the narrow argument; all agree that orthodoxy so defended is rather defenseless. A single unspoken point of agreement emerges amid the dizzying plurality of views: today it is postmodernism—rather than science or rationalism—that constitutes the greatest obstacle to faith.

The problem for faith, in other words, is a general skepticism regarding truth. In the postmodern world, orthodox religion suffers less from being thought demonstrably false than from claiming the authority of truth at all. This absence of consensus about truth is evident in the variety of perspectives contained in the volume itself. In confronting faith’s postmodern problem, the contributors demonstrate that it is more or less every believer for himself. And this is hardly a surprise. After all, if religion had a potent stock of ready defenses against postmodernity, we would all know of it.

 

Objective Truth and Postmodernism

Since Judaism tends to place less emphasis than Christianity on leaps of faith, the Jewish perspective is particularly alive to the danger of assimilating religious commitment to the sort of inscrutable inspiration that postmodernism allows to all belief and truth claims. While Shalom Carmy and Alex Goldstein do make appeals to the power of transformative personal experiences (and, interestingly, in doing so offer arguments portable to other religions), most of the essayists are reluctant to reduce their belief to subjective experience or inspiration.

A few of the essays take a hard line against Strauss by insisting that believers can and ought to know something, not merely believe it. Avraham Edelstein proposes a kind of pragmatist conception of truth, in which the durability and “vibrancy” of a belief or a theory establish its truth. Edelstein contrasts the endurance of Judaism with the fleeting tenure of civilizations and the even more rapid turnover of scientific and political theories. This is an iteration of the old appeal to the incredible longevity of the Jewish people and their religion, which has historically served both Jews and Christians as evidence of Providence.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz similarly rejects Strauss’s approach: “belief is just a watered-down form of knowledge. .  . Our goal is to know, not just to believe.” Readers of Strauss will enjoy the irony of the rabbi citing Plato and Maimonides to lecture Strauss, a noted scholar of both and a great enemy of all forms of relativism, on the possibility of objective knowledge. Abramowitz’s short essay does not show how one ascends from belief to knowledge within Judaism, but Shmuel Phillips takes up this challenge by appealing again to Maimonides. He argues that a recovery of the Maimonidean “curriculum of character development and intellectual training” can raise the human mind beyond its subjective biases to “a degree of objective knowledge as to religious and philosophical truths.” In Phillips’s view, moral excellence and discipline are conditions of higher knowledge. Postmodernism, by implication, is a consequence rather than a cause of moral confusion.

But does moral excellence make the revelation at Sinai evident? And why would someone choose the arduous path of Jewish moral training in the first place, prior to having any understanding of the truth of Judaism? Simi Peters picks up this theme in her essay, “Why Should a Jew Choose Belief?” Peters is willing to concede a great deal to postmodernism. She makes the bold and questionable claim that “traditional Jewish thought makes no claim to objectivity” and that “Jewish sources” long ago “enshrined” the postmodern insight that “Human Beings are subjective creatures and everything is subject to interpretation.”

In the tradition of the eighteenth-century German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s attempt to reconcile Judaism with liberalism, Peters attempts to reconcile Judaism with postmodernism by emphasizing the centrality of law in Jewish practice. Jewish thought, she argues, “starts with the assumption that we must make an a priori commitment to a system of beliefs that defines the arena within which choice will be made.” Peters proposes we adopt a juridical approach to truth, based on “evidence” rather than “proof.” Her notion of “evidence,” though drawing from legal practice, seems eventually to converge with Edelstein’s notion of “vibrancy,” insofar as she also appeals to the miracle of Judaism’s longevity.

Ari Kahn comes the closest to agreeing with Strauss’s argument, while at the same time exploding it. He offers an interesting exposition of knowledge and belief in the rabbinic tradition, and questions whether science ever achieves indisputable knowledge. Kahn seems to channel the philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s theory that scientific truth can only be established in relation to a specific community or paradigm. Similarly, within the context of religion, Kahn argues that the ideal of certainty is a distraction; certainty applies in its strict sense only within paradigms, not to the paradigm itself. Let us choose our religions as we choose our paradigms, he writes, following the one that makes the most sense of our lives. This leaves the reader to ponder why so many do reject the Orthodox paradigm Kahn favors.

 

History and Evolution

Two longer essays take notable and very different theoretical approaches from the others. Jeremy Kagan outlines an ambitious and thought-provoking schema of civilizational history, beginning in the exuberant pagan spirituality of the near East, advancing through the piercing rationalism of Greece and Rome, and culminating in the abstract intellectualism of modernity. He locates the human ideal in Abraham’s monotheistic accomplishment, which he sees as the high point of history that optimally combined intellectuality and spirituality.

Kagan asks us to see our own age in the perspective of past ages. This does not lead to relativism. Our age is characterized for Kagan by a desiccated intellectualism. He offers the thought-provoking observation that long before Nietzsche’s dictum that “God is dead,” the rabbinic sages had observed that when mankind lost its impulse to pagan worship, it lost a great part of its inclination to worship at all. Kagan’s heady and idiosyncratic schema of world history indicates the need to recover a lost Hebraic sense of connection to the transcendent, which he calls “the only path to truth.” He does not, however, indicate how such a recovery could be institutionalized, unless he thinks it is embodied in existing Jewish practice.

Joshua Weinstein takes exception to Strauss’s understanding of revelation as unequivocal divine command. He tries instead to split the difference between what Strauss takes to be the Orthodox claim, that all truth is from God, and the postmodern claim, that all truth is a human construct. The tradition of “Talmudic creativity” forms this middle ground. Weinstein examines the Talmudic statement that God Himself studies Torah, and concludes from it, and from Talmudic practice, that Jewish believers have “the responsibility both of learning from God and of offering insights and interpretations that the Blessed Holy One himself could find interesting and meaningful.” Weinstein is right that it is a genuinely Jewish idea that Torah evolves through human discovery and scholarship. But, as with Simi Peters’s attempt to reconcile Judaism and postmodernism, the reader is left to decide if it is possible to be free of postmodern disbelief simply by conceding that postmodernism gets many things right. Neither Peters nor Weinstein pays much attention to the postmodern rejection of authority as such.

Theory and Orthodoxy

With notable exceptions, Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai will disappoint readers hoping to find original reflections on Strauss or Spinoza. These two very different Jewish atheists—one hostile to Judaism and the other respectful—are not the book’s real focus. The volume succeeds rather in the more urgent task of wrestling with the theoretical impediments to belief in our day. In addition to the questions explored by each contributor, the volume as a whole raises a distinctive set of more fundamental but neglected questions well worth our attention.

 

What can apologia accomplish in an age of declining faith? Are the impediments to belief actually theoretical? Only Rabbi Gil Student’s contribution eschews apologetic theory entirely, arguing that postmodernism engenders a pervasive cynicism that erodes faith of all kinds, including faith in people. He calls for trust to be rebuilt by patient work with the young, and “through exposure to saintliness.” Certainly, the nineteenth-century American religion that Tocqueville praised had little need of abstract theory to buttress itself. Rather, those early Americans occupied themselves with preaching and practice.

Any theoretical defense of a religion is necessarily particular to that religion. And even so, the very diversity and variety of the theoretical defenses of Judaism in this volume may well deepen even a committed Jewish reader’s perplexity. This does not mean that people of faith have no common interest or common work. Postmodernism is a challenge to all religion. Since Orthodox Judaism places less emphasis than Christianity on authoritative articles of faith, and because it regulates the whole of life, it has emerged slightly less damaged from the onslaught of postmodernism. Gil Student and Shmuel Phillips are right to insist that religions are much less theories than living traditions. What is seldom properly understood is that postmodernism is likewise not primarily a theory, but rather the living practice of counter-tradition.

This line of thought leads to an inversion of Tocqueville’s observation about society and religion. Society as such may have little to hope or fear from the eternal truth of particular religions, but particular religions have everything to hope and fear from society. Decline in religious commitment signifies—always and everywhere—a decline of faith in the ways of our parents and more distant ancestors. Tradition is not blind repetition, but it is a form of respect for the past and for one’s forebears. This is the reason Jews are instructed to address their daily prayers to “our God and God of our fathers.” This is the type of observation that fills Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai and from which all believers stand to benefit.

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