Strauss, Spinoza, & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith

Strauss, Spinoza, & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith (Kodesh Press, 2022), edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, & Gil Student

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

I love the basic premise of this book. For the uninitiated, Leo Strauss (1899–1973) is known in scholarly circles for bringing the dichotomy between philosophy (Athens) and revelation (Jerusalem) to the fore. Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632–1677) is infamous as the prototypical Jewish heretic, who left the fold without converting to Christianity or Islam and purported to have presented a philosophical refutation of Judaism that continues to influence secularist attacks on religion to this day. Yet, in one of his many philosophical musings, Strauss commented that Spinoza’s refutation only applies “if orthodoxy claims to know that the Bible is divine 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.” Yet, Strauss concedes “but the case is entirely different if orthodoxy limits itself to asserting that it believes the aforementioned things…” This book explores whether Strauss’ back-handed defense of Orthodoxy can be acceptable from an Orthodox perspective.

To do that, the editors of this volume solicited essays broadly aimed at answering this particular question from various contemporary Orthodox Jewish thinkers. The book consists of seventeen such essays (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname), plus an introduction by Jeffrey Bloom that lays out the question and a conclusion. As to be expected, there is much overlap within the discussions of the various contributors; but unfortunately, the book does not have a proper index which could help the reader map out where similar issues are broached.

Most of the essayists — like Rabbi Jack Abramowitz and Rabbi Shalom Carmy — understandably reject the notion that Judaism suffices with a call for belief in God and the Torah, instead clarifying that Judaism is about knowing Him and His Torah in a sort of personal way. On the other hand, Rabbi Gil Student toys with the idea that belief itself is a form of knowledge, or that belief can only come into play once we’ve reached a stalemate on the question knowledge. Rabbi Dr. Ari Kahn similarly contends that the question of belief versus knowledge boils down to one of semantics and really depends on how one defines those terms. As is his way, Kahn musters the force of many difference sources within Jewish tradition to highlight these various possibilities.

Other contributors, like Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, take this discussion in a slightly different direction, dismantling the logical moves that Spinoza made and showing how Judaism is the most viable hypothesis, even if to some extent, it requires a leap of faith. They elaborate on how biases and preconceived assumptions (under the guise of unchallengeable “axioms”) color the objectivity of “scientific” inquiry into the reality of God and the Torah. The postmodern world has come to realize the presence of such biases more than ever, and Mrs. Simi Peters offers a nuanced take on how this affects the question of Strauss’s defense of orthodoxy.

In his unique way, Rabbi Jeremy Kagan offers a synthesis based on the unlikely combination of teachings from Dr. Karsten Harries of Yale University and Rabbi Moshe Shapiro. Using the two thinkers together, he criticizes the sort of self-centered thinking that motivated Spinoza and his ilk, seeing their approach as the eventual consequence of a shift in mental paradigms. This shift causes modern man to no longer feel the urgent need to worship a higher force/deity, that was more palpably felt during ostensibly more primitive times. In lieu of worshipping a god, modern man turns inwards and hubrically worships himself. While this approach appears esoteric and metaphysical on its surface, the Axial Age revolution which brought about this paradigm shift has actually been recognized and studied by philosophers, historians, and anthropologists.

Rabbi Meir Triebitz similarly criticizes Spinoza’s very limited definition of knowledge. He draws a distinction between reductive reasoning (which haughtily seeks to reduce all of reality as subject to knowable rules) and emergent reasoning (which meekly takes at face value whatever emerges from the unknowable Divine via revelation), arguing that while Spinoza (and paganism in general) follow the first approach, classical Judaism calls for a blend of the two methods.

Another trend in this book is the pivoting away from the sorts of formal logical arguments championed by pre-Kantian philosophers. This pivot leads to appeals for Judaism that are not rooted in the sort of Cartesian logic on which Spinoza bases his arguments. These sorts of approaches find evidence for Judaism in its value as the continuation of a specific legacy/tradition, in the Torah’s aesthetic beauty, in the pragmatic benefits of the religion, and in appeals to religious experience. These arguments are developed at length by Dr. Joshua Golding and Alec Goldstein, who show the pros and cons of such approaches. Rabbi Eliezer Zobin expands on the Hassidic notion of self-knowledge of God (possibly the same thing as experiential knowledge of Him) as a legitimate form of knowledge no less compelling than deductive or inductive reasoning. Whenever discussing pragmatic reasons for adopting Orthodox Judaism, Pascal’s Wager always looms large. But several contributors pointed out that Pascal himself was not swayed by his own argument, and instead was pushed toward religion by his own first-hand encounter with the Divine.

In what I personally consider a particularly compelling argument, Mrs. Simi Peters makes the case that the major appeal to Judaism comes from history and the unique identity forged by Jewish memory. But that’s just my personal taste, because I like to consider myself historically-oriented and naught but a link in the chain of the transmission of Jewish tradition.

Several of the authors who contributed to this volume used well-developed parables to sharpen their points. Notably, Dr. Moshe Koppel employed an amusing analogy that compared the discussion at hand to something that might occur in the fictional city of Metropolis, whose residents might debate the reality of Superman. Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens offers a similar analogy to a debate with conspiracy theorists who argue that William Shakespeare was merely a penname for somebody else.

Paul Franks challenges the reader to consider whether Maimonidean-style inquiry can still serve as a model of a rational form of Judaism nowadays. In doing so, he explores the value of approaching God from a Buberian I-Thou model. This seems to be rehashing the experiential angle with slightly different terminology. Shmuel Philips deals with a similar problem and presents a reading of Maimonidean philosophy in which the whole purpose of religion is to help one shed one’s subjectivity and achieve objectivity.

R. Dr. Mark Gottlieb and Dr. Joshua I. Weinstein are the only contributors who really delved into Strauss’ other writings and betray a deeper understanding of Strauss’ thought as a whole. Gottlieb argues that while Strauss’ noble defense of Orthodoxy does not quite line up with what Orthodoxy itself maintains, it is nonetheless a useful philosophical unmasking of the motives and biases of those who claim to have refuted Orthodox Judaism. Weinstein similarly points out the serious flaws with Strauss’ writings on Judaism and Maimonides, by noting that Strauss is woefully uninformed about Judaism and is simply ignorant of basic rabbinic sources like the Talmud and Midrashim. This makes it much harder for one to take seriously anything that Strauss claims about Judaism or Maimonides.

The real question that undergirds the entire book is the epistemological question of what constitutes valid sources of information in arguing for or against Judaism. This question is implicitly asked on every page but is barely addressed explicitly. Because each contributor employs slightly different epistemological assumptions, some of the well-argued essays in this work end up in unexpected places, like offering what seem to be sound philosophical defenses of such theologies as Da’as Torah and, l’havdil, Orthopraxy.

While a cynical reader might simply dismiss this book as mere apologetics, the discerning reader can recognize its value as a well-spring of intellectual frameworks for answering the basic questions of Judaism in modern times. The end of Rabbi Gil Student’s essay offers several helpful strategies for reducing the sort of destructive cynicism that is so rampant nowadays. These include “personal acquaintance with saintly rabbis” (page 262), which may help lead to establishing rabbis — both contemporary and historical — as trustworthy figures and bearers of tradition.

After presenting all of these essays, the book closes with a conclusion by the editors that summarizes and compares the different approaches taken up by the various contributors.

I, for one, would have enjoyed reading essays on this topic from even more contemporary Jewish thinkers that I otherwise read or listen to, like David P. Goldman (whose writings are dripping with nihilism vs. existentialism), Ben Shapiro (whose 2019 book argues that the influence of Jerusalem on Athens has often been understated), Moshe Halbertal (whose scholarship features a rare combination of rabbinics and philosophy), Natan Slifkin (whose blog serves as the mouthpiece of “Rationalist Judaism”), David Bashevkin (whose work in the forefront of Jewish Education directly relates to the questions at hand), Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz, Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb (from Ohr Somayach), Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, Rabbi Johnny Solomon, and Rabbi Arnie Wittenstein (who are all well-educated Talmidei Chachamim that undoubtedly have important and interesting ideas to contribute to the discussion). I’ve been told that some of these figures were offered to contribute but were ultimately unable to do so.

Not your typical Parashah Books

Bedtime Reading for Briskers: Lomdus and Life-lessons from the Laws of Korbanos on the Weekly Parsha (2021), by Rabbi Ephraim Meth

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

Please allow me to first explain the meaning of this book’s cheeky title. “Briskers” refer to the stereotypical Yeshiva students reputed to engage in pilpulistic casuistry (termed “lomdus”), who are especially known for their peculiar practice of studying the Order of Kodshim. The tractates within that Order of the Talmud broadly deal with the laws of ritual sacrifices and the other rites in the Holy Temple. Those laws have a reputation of being dry and arcane, making them accessible to only the most expert Talmudic scholars.

Rabbi Meth turns all this on its head by offering an easily-accessible work mostly dedicated to the laws of the Temple and its various rituals. For each Parashah, Rabbi Meth finds some related theme (sometimes more loosely than others) and offers a learned study on that topic. Sometimes, his essays are more of a Halachic nature, while sometimes, they are more Aggadic, and sometimes, somewhere in between — but they are always interesting and original.

True to form, most essays revolve around some difficult passage in Maimonides or Sefer HaChinuch, which Rabbi Meth typically illuminates with a novel thought or by citing an earlier scholar who dealt with the issue at hand. When dissecting a topic, Rabbi Meth provides the reader with the requisite background to the Talmudic discussions in plain English, often with analogies that help bring home the point being discussed. Additionally, the author draws from a wide range of sources that people not might be familiar with, like Rabbi Moshe Isserles’ Toras HaOlah (a comprehensive synthesis of philosophy and Kabbalah dedicated to the topics of Kodshim) and Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk’s Meshech Chochmah (a deeply insightful commentary to the Pentateuch). He also cites more familiar sources like Malbim, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and the rabbis of the famous Soloveitchik dynasty. This was a fun book to read, and just to make the author smile, I made a point of reading it at night before going to bed.

From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah (Urim Publications, 2018), edited by Diana Lipton

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

The basic premise of this book is refreshingly original. For each Parashah, the book presents an essay written by a leading Jewish academic that focuses on some aspect of the Parashah related to food and offers some sort of insight into that topic. Then, the editor herself offers her own thoughts on various passages in each Parashah, usually also somehow relevant to talk about food.

Famous scholars who contributed to this volume include Professor Jack M. Sasson (a professor in Vanderbilt University and administrator of the Agade email listserv, who is himself a noted scholar of the Ancient Near East studies), Professor Robert Brody (arguably the world’s expert on the Geonim and Geonic literature), Rabbi Jeremy Rosen (a student of the Mir Yeshiva and Cambridge University, who is a well-known blogger, pulpit rabbi, and lecturer), Professor Gary A. Rendsburg (a renowned authority on Hebrew and other Semitic language at Rutgers University), Professor Chaim Milikowsky (a scholar who dedicated much of his efforts to Seder Olam and preparing a critical edition of that rabbinic work, he is also a former son-in-law of Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky and the current husband of the Mrs. Lipton), and Professor Athalya Brenner (a scholar who wrote an eye-opening work about colors in the Bible and later focused on Feminism and the Bible). Somewhat surprisingly, these scholars tended to offer relatively conservative readings of the Parashah and did not seek to replace traditional understandings with newfangled ideas.

The Journey to your Ultimate Self: An Inspiring Gateway into Deeper Jewish Thought through the Lens of the Weekly Parashah (Mosaica Press, 2022), by Rabbi Shmuel Reichman

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

The title of this book truly gives away exactly what this book is really all about: It’s a self-help book based on the Parashah that offers inspiring ideas that can help a person achieve their true potential. The author presents quasi-Kabbalistic insights (largely based on the teachings of the late Rabbi Moshe Shapiro) along with practical advice to make the book a guide for self-betterment. Interspersed are grey boxes with interesting stories that really sharpen the author’s points and make them come alive more poignantly. The book bears rabbinic approbations from esteemed authorities like Rabbi Asher Weiss, Rabbi Michael Rosenzweig, and Rabbi Zev Leff.

The young author is already a well-travelled speaker who has established himself as a go-to person for inspiration and coaching. He founded the Self-Mastery Academy, an online self-development course (based on Torah principles and high-performance psychology). He also holds graduate degrees in Jewish Thought and Jewish Education from Yeshiva University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Psychology at University of Chicago. Like his venerated father Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, the younger Rabbi Reichman is also a recognized authority on Jewish medical ethics and has lectured on that topic internationally.

Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live

Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live (Macmillan, 2021) by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This book really hit home—and not just because I read the whole thing over Tisha B’Av. The protagonist of this largely autobiographical Holocaust book is a scion of the famed Engelman family from the Hungary town of Bonyhad. The Engelmans lived there for centuries, where the Jewish community seems to have been established in the mid 1700’s. The Engelmans were even the first signatories on the document that officially established the Orthodox Community of Bonyhad as a breakaway from the Neolog Community. Throughout the generations, the Engelmans have proven themselves to be resilient, brave, and steadfast Jews, and Lily’s story simply follows that trajectory. [By the way, other prominent members of the extended Engelman family include Benjamin Engelman, a well-known nuclear physicist in Jerusalem, and his son Mordechai Matanyahu Engelman, the current State Comptroller/Ombudsman of Israel.]

Lily’s story opens with a vivid description of her idyllic childhood and upbringing in the quaint Hungary town of Bonyhad. She was the oldest of several siblings, and was doted on by her loving parents. Already from a young age, Lily shows herself to be a responsible and reliable doer, as well as a figure to whom her younger siblings looked up. Although for most of Hungarian Jewry, the tragedies only began in 1944 when the Nazis occupied Hungary, for Lily’s family the first tragedy came in 1942 with the death of their father. On her father’s deathbed, Lily promised that she will take care of her siblings—a promise which she truly kept.

And then in the summer of 1944, the Jews of Bonyhad were rounded up and confined to the makeshift ghetto — before they were quickly deported to Auschwitz, where most of them sadly perished (on the 18th of Tammuz). Lily too was forced into the ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz, along with her mother and siblings. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Lily’s mother gives over her shoes (in whose soles was hidden precious jewelry) as she realizes that she will not survive the camps, leaving it to Lily to figuratively walk in her mother’s shoes.

Along the arduous and grueling path that her story took, Lily held steadfast to her faith and to her responsibility to her younger sisters. She literally held the hands of her two younger sisters, Piri and Rene, as they survived together the concentration camp at Auschwitz and the forced labor at Alternburg. At the end of the war, they were liberated by soldiers from the American Army, who led them into freedom. Lily and her sisters were directly aided by the efforts of the legendary US Army chaplain, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (1917–2013), who helped them find refuge and recovery in Switzerland; and from Switzerland they found their way to the British Mandate of Palestine through the efforts of Agudas Yisrael.

The Engelman sisters were later reunited with their lone surviving brother Imre (Imi), who eventually joined them in Israel after having been held up under the Soviets for several years. Lily’s mother and other siblings did not survive the horrors of the Nazis. Lily and her sisters settled in the Holy Land and married, with Lily wedding a fellow Hungarian immigrant Shmuel Ebert, with whom she established a family in Tel Aviv. Eventually, with Shmuel’s health failing, the Eberts moved to London, where they have by now established multiple generations of God-fearing Jews.

After the death of her husband, Lily became more open to the idea of publicly speaking about the Holocaust and her experiences during the war years. She frequented the speaking circuit and was a common guest at schools where she lectured about the Holocaust. However, during the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020, all of this came to halt, as the lockdowns prevented public gatherings and essentially confined her to her home. This is where the book’s co-author Dov Forman comes in. He is Lily’s great-grandson and a high school student in London. He teamed up with his spunky nonagenarian ancestor to research some aspects of her story on social media, and eventually they wrote this book together to bring her story to a wider audience.

This book was especially meaningful to me because my own grandmother, Roszi Klein (nee Kuttner), also hailed from Bonyhad. In fact, my grandmother’s older sister, Sari Blau (nee Kuttner), who currently lives in Brooklyn, was Lily’s classmate and is even mentioned in her book (on page 162). Her husband, the late Leslie Blau (1921–2021), wrote Bonyhad: A Destroyed Community (Shengold, 1994), so many of the characters that appear in Lily’s story (like the endearing town doctor Dr. Litzman and the Engelman girls themselves) were already familiar to me through his work. For those who want to be inspired by a tale of resilience, bravery, and commitment, Lily’s Promise is an excellent choice.