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Does Leo Strauss Choose Jerusalem or Athens?
Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith
Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein & Gil Student
Kodesh Press, 2022
Leo Strauss has since the 1950s been a key figure among American conservatives interested in political philosophy, and attention to him has in recent years intensified as “East Coast” and “West Coast” Straussians contest whether the American “regime” is “low but solid” — about the best that can be expected since the break with classical natural right that Machiavelli and Hobbes spearheaded — or, on the contrary, a revival if not improvement on the wisdom of the ancients. The break between classical and modern natural right is not, though, the only polarity that concerned Strauss. He also wrote about a split between Athens and Jerusalem, and it is an aspect of his work in Jewish thought that forms the central topic of Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai.
In a well-known passage in the preface to his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, a book published in 1930 but not available in English translation until 1965, Strauss said that although Spinoza had shown that the truth of Orthodox Judaism could not be known, neither had he demonstrated its falsity. For all Spinoza had shown, the beliefs of Judaism might be true. If that is so, this throws philosophy into question. Philosophy and Judaism — Athens and Jerusalem — remain as options, for all reason can show to the contrary.
Jeffrey Bloom, one of the editors of this book, had the happy idea of asking a number of eminent Orthodox Jewish scholars, many of whom are rabbis, to comment on Strauss’s vindication of the possibility of faith, if indeed that is what it is. It transpires that for the most part, these scholars spurn Strauss’s aid, viewing it as at best inadequate and at worst wrongheaded. Some of them show little interest in Strauss and devote their articles to their own defenses of Orthodox Judaism. Of the ones who do engage with Strauss’s thought, some view him more favorably than others.
A number of the contributors criticize Strauss for inadequate knowledge of the Talmud and the vast and intricate literature commenting on it written in the many centuries after its composition to the present day; they maintain this impairs his grasp of Orthodoxy. I ought to say that I am not equipped to evaluate this claim, though I gather that at least in part Strauss acknowledged its validity. Rather, what I shall try to do in what follows is to comment on a few issues of philosophical interest discussed in the book.
Before doing so, one preliminary matter should be set forward. What is Orthodox Judaism? Joshua Golding, who is both a rabbi and a philosopher, offers this definition, which I do not imagine the other contributors would reject, though they might well differ in detail and emphasis:
[Orthodox] ‘Judaism’ is that religion or way of life which affirms as true the ‘traditional Jewish understanding of Tanach [Hebrew Scriptures].’ In turn, the ‘traditional understanding of Tanach’ runs as follows: The Torah of Moses is God-given, it is an accurate and true record of historical events that happened to the Jewish people and it represents the divine will for how the people of Israel should act. The rest of the Scriptures is also based on divine prophecy or divine inspiration … Furthermore, the teaching that God ordained to the people of Israel … also includes an Oral tradition which is represented by the Talmud and the rabbinic literature. In fact, the Oral tradition sets the context and parameters in which the Scriptures are to be properly understood.
If we now turn to the passage from Strauss that Bloom sent to the contributors, we shall find that it contains some questionable statements.
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 by asserting that it believes the aforementioned things, i.e. that they cannot possess the binding power peculiar to the known. For all assertions of orthodoxy rest on the irrefutable premise that the omnipotent God … may exist. Given this premise, miracles and revelations in general, and hence all biblical miracles and revelations in particular, are possible.
It is unclear how Spinoza is supposed to have refuted the claim that orthodoxy can be known to be true. Is it that he has given an account of the Bible’s composition that makes no reference to miracles, Mosaic authorship, etc.? But why does the claim of the Orthodox to know that the traditional account is true depend on the nonexistence of a (plausible?) alternative account? Is the claim rather that if an account of a document that makes no use of miracles or other supernatural happenings is available, then one cannot properly claim to know that the supernatural account is true? But why accept that claim—would one not have to weigh the case for the naturalistic account against the case for the traditional account?
It would not be a good answer to this to say that the Orthodox account contains items difficult to credit — e.g., that on that account, Moses wrote about his own death. This is just an instance of the point that the Orthodox account is doubtfully compatible with naturalism. To rule it out for that reason begs the question.
Neither has Strauss shown that it is “possible” Orthodoxy is true. It is right that an omnipotent God can perform miracles, but it has not been shown that it is possible that an omnipotent God exists. If Strauss’s claim is that Spinoza’s philosophical system excludes the possibility of an omnipotent God, but Spinoza has failed to show that his system can be incontrovertibly known to be true, that does not suffice. At most it would follow that, for all Spinoza has shown to the contrary, an omnipotent God is possible, but that demonstrates only that some propositions, namely the ones in Spinoza’s system, do not exclude the possibility that God exists. What if there are other true propositions that do exclude this possibility?
Suppose, though, that Strauss is right about what Spinoza has shown. What is the upshot of this? Rabbi Jack Abramowitz thinks that Strauss’s “vindication” of Judaism has little value: “The crux of Strauss’ defense seems to hinge on the claim that Orthodoxy doesn’t profess to know the truth per se; we only believe certain things to be true … I daresay that I should hesitate to become enthusiastic about a faith whose foundations are so admittedly tenuous as ‘In the beginning, God may or may not have created the Heavens and the Earth; we think that He did.’”
In part, this is misdirected. If one believes God created the universe, then one believes (or ought rationally to believe) it is possible that He did; but it does not follow that one believes it is possible the universe was not created by God. I believe that heat reduces to molecular motion and therefore that it is possible heat reduces to molecular motion; but it does not follow that I believe that it is possible that heat does not reduce to molecular motion. Abramowitz is right, though, that merely to believe something falls short of knowledge, and many of the contributors are concerned with whether Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish philosopher, taught that Jews are commanded to know, not just believe, that God exists and created the universe.
Not only Orthodox Jews but many others wonder whether belief in God is rational, and Paul Franks, a philosophy professor at Yale, responds with a point that seems to me of the highest importance: “Maimonides’s deep insight is that the completeness of natural science and philosophy is not a claim within the system at all; it is a meta-claim, a claim about the physical and metaphysical system. In contemporary terminology, it is equivalent to naturalism, to the claim that neither nature as a whole nor anything within nature has a supernatural explanation. One may be fully committed to natural science without accepting naturalism.”
To return from the respondents to Strauss himself, how much of a concession did Strauss make to Orthodoxy? Many things are possible, but highly unlikely: as Moshe Koppel notes, “At bottom, Strauss is saying that the belief that an omnipotent God did-so-and-so is unfalsifiable … To which the obvious response is that there are all sorts of absurd but unfalsifiable claims regarding which we would neither lend our assent nor waste time justifying our lack of assent.”
Did Strauss himself think of contemporary Orthodoxy as more than an absurd possibility? It is difficult to say — with this enigmatic thinker, omnia exeunt in mysterium — but I am inclined to think that he did not. As Rabbi Mark Gottlieb notes, “For Strauss, the linchpin of the entire medieval project is its foregrounding the concept of law. Thus, Maimonides’ defense of divine law, and not the question of religious belief and knowledge as it was traditionally understood … is the centerpiece of medieval rationalism.”
Though Gottlieb does not discuss this, I would maintain that to understand Strauss’s view, we must bear in mind a passage from Book 2, Chapter 7 of Rousseau’s Social Contract: “The Judaic law, which still subsists, and that of the child of Ishmael, which, for ten centuries, has ruled half the world, still proclaim the great men who laid them down; and, while the pride of philosophy or the blind spirit of faction sees in them no more than lucky impostures, the true political theorist admires, in the institutions they set up, the great and powerful genius which presides over things made to endure.”
In other words, I take Strauss to interpret Maimonides as viewing Moses as a philosophical legislator, rather than the recipient of revelation in a supernaturalist sense, and I am inclined to take more seriously than Gottlieb “the position of one of the most important Strauss scholars … Heinrich Meier [who] maintains that Strauss, despite his exoteric stance defending the coherence of Orthodox faith, was himself an unbeliever who decisively chose Athens over Jerusalem.” I would say rather that for Strauss, choosing Jerusalem in the sense of loyalty to the Jewish people does not entail rejection of Athens, if “Athens” is understood to mean adherence to philosophical reason in a way that excludes a personal God. I do not claim to know this, though — and am not entirely sure I fully believe it. It is because he took Strauss to be an atheist that Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman, whom Gottlieb mentions but does not discuss, offered a “scathing critique” of Strauss. It is interesting in this connection to note that Paul Eidelberg, once a leading student of Strauss, became a disciple of Rabbi Zimmerman.
I have been able to discuss only of a few of the many topics covered in Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai. The essays in it are of a very high standard, and the book is of great value to anyone interested in any of the topics mentioned in its title, as well as the philosophy of religion in general; these, to be sure, are overlapping sets.
David Gordon is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Journal of Libertarian Studies.
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