Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai. Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student. New York: Kodesh Press, 2022.
Let’s begin with a story. As an undergraduate triple major, I suffered an identity and intellectual crisis as many do at this stage of intellectual and identity exploration and maturation. In the course of sorting it out, a number of figures—especially in philosophy—proved to be steadying anchors and shepherds in the maelstrom of transformation. One of those shepherds was Leo Strauss.
Strauss is best remembered for a number of things for a number of different people. I had a vague familiarity with Strauss from shoddy hacktivists like Shadia Drury and other pedantic “scholars” who claimed Strauss was a closet fascist (gee, how familiar a line of rhetoric to discredit someone you don’t like) who was the dark intellectual godfather to populist right and, by extension, the neoconservative masterminds influencing the Bush Administration’s push to invade Iraq. A lot of persuasive scholarship on Leo Strauss over the last 15 years has all but discredited these views despite its pernicious legacy (a lot of pseudo-intellectuals on the internet may still lap up this garbage). Others see Strauss to be a “conservative” political philosopher and intellectual, ardently anti-totalitarian but also a critic of the moral softness (relativism) of liberalism and the implicit tyranny that its moral softness induces. This is probably the most common Strauss in public consciousness. Others more, like myself, count Strauss as a great teacher of the classics with brilliant insights to the writings of Plato, Thucydides, Aristotle, and the Greek tragedians.
Among Strauss’s intellectual contributions were in his reflections on “ancients and moderns” and the questions of theology and politics in the Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment paradigm that we now inhabit, the latter of which is less well-known to the reading public. To this end, Strauss’s name is intimately connected to the theologico-political debate inaugurated by Baruch Spinoza. It is Strauss the implicit defender of religion that often goes under the radar but is vitally important for us to understand in light of modernity’s ailments.
Is there room for revelation in a reductionist rationalist weltanschauung? Where does this leave faithfully religious believers in a world that has supposedly moved beyond divine revelation? While most pertinent to Jews, it is also an issue that must be contended with by all members of any of the Abrahamic traditions as they each claim some form of revelation for their religious authority and knowledge. In this battle for values to live and die for, Strauss was attuned to the permissive hedonistic nihilism of liberalism: no one is going to die for a television with hundreds of HD channels and a frozen TV dinner and the myriad of other countless “choices” and consumer goods offered by the materialistic market state. His critique of Spinoza and attempt to offer some room for orthodoxy—conceived and redefined as “belief” instead of “knowledge”—makes him an important (if not somewhat secondary) figure in religious and theological studies though he is often overlooked.
For those unfamiliar with this side of Strauss, the sage of the University of Chicago offered a critique of the dismissive criticism of Spinoza regarding revealed religion (Judaism in his specific example) and, by extension, those who followed in Spinoza’s footsteps. Trying to carve space for the retention of revelation against naturalistic atheism, Strauss wrote:
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 [the first five books of the Bible], 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 peculiar to the known.
Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student is a primer to the other side of Strauss that has less public attention but retains intensive academic consideration, namely Strauss’s contributions to the defense of religion and theology in a post-Enlightenment age. Luckily for us, as readers, this book brings those academic questions and considerations to an educated audience capable to reading some of the best and brightest Jewish scholars, rabbis, and writers dealing with the theologico-political question. One need not be Jewish to gain tremendous insights from this volume. But the volume is certainly aimed at Orthodox Jews. And it takes aim at Strauss’s crucial distinction, something that isn’t necessarily true to Jewish Orthodoxy—the subversion of knowledge to mere belief and the problem that belief, rather than knowledge, can create.
Strauss may be a friend to “religion” in a more moderate sense, but he is certainly insufficient to “orthodoxy” insofar that orthodoxy is predicated on knowing the life, ritual, and virtue being drawn and embodied from that knowledge rather than having the possibility of belief and God’s existence as a viable (though ultimately unknowable) option to predicate our lives on. In this seventeen essay/chapter volume, just as Strauss interrogated Spinoza and the insufficiencies of the Enlightenment, our contributors interrogate Strauss (and by extension, Spinoza) to find out whether he offers a sufficient middle-path for orthodoxy to chart in the post-Spinozistic world and whether his attempt can still produce the necessary virtue and high moral life required to sustain modernity from collapsing in on itself through its excessive materialistic success and broader nihilism. The heart of this volume, then, deals with whether Orthodox Judaism (or any revealed religion, for that matter) can survive with “belief” instead of “knowledge.” Implicitly related to this issue is whether the moral and political virtue Strauss preached as necessary for rejuvenating modernity and avoiding backsliding totalitarianism can realize itself out of belief rather than knowledge. The answer is from our contributors is a definite no. Though some of our authors do consider Strauss a bridge—we must eventually cross that bridge and continue the journey on the other side.
Step by step, author by author, essay by essay, our contributors seamlessly weave biblical stories, Plato, Maimonides, Spinoza, Pascal, Kant, Heidegger and more into a breathtaking overview of culture, philosophy, theology, politics, modernity, faith, and the problems of faithful living and virtue in a world that is so quick to renounce the essence of Jewish Orthodoxy and moral virtue. Through this interrogation and dissection of Strauss’s critique of Spinoza, the insufficiency of Strauss’s approach and the need to return to Sinai, our authors offer a rare, comprehensive, and engaging dialectic of what used to characterize the heart of academic discourse and discussion now frighteningly absent in our age of social media hot-takes and implicit materialistic dogma. In this journey, an exodus from the exodus that took away Sinai and brings us back to Sinai, any reader who is engaged with serious intellectual and metaphysical—even moral—considerations on the problem of modernity and the place of revelatory faith in it needs to own a copy of this book and read the delightful insights offered in every chapter. While written from an orthodox Jewish perspective, the insights and knowledge contained in these seventeen chapters can be of value to anyone but the dogmatic closed-minded atheist. (So much for openness and tolerance.)
As such, the work straddles many fields that would be of interest to many students, teachers, and readers. Philosophy, religion, the Bible, classics and moderns, politics, and ecumenism, all make their appearances. There is something for everyone and insights aplenty. Of exceptional note, for me, were the chapters by Alec Goldstein on religious experience, Mark Gottlieb’s fantastic chapter on Strauss’s critique of historicism that includes comments on Heidegger, Maimonides, and Karl Barth, and Jeremy Kagan’s breathtaking history of the progression of consciousness through cultural conflict which brings us into the hearts of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. But this is not to say any of the chapters fall short. Every chapter has something to offer to its readers. I certainly found insights aplenty in every chapter from every contributor—a rare feat that is a testament to this volume’s importance and significance.
Rather than accept Strauss’s compromise of belief and possibility of God’s existence, our contributors offer explanations and arguments about why God’s existence and the lives we form and live around that knowledge (rather than hopeful belief) is the only real solution to modernity’s malaise. As Jack Abramowitz writes, “If that causes Strauss to change his vote in favor of Spinoza, so be it.” While crude Enlightenment propagandists still exist, Steven Pinker comes to mind and the specter of the late Christopher Hitchens ensures that the ghost of Enlightenment crudity—despite florid rhetoric—persists, the actual reality is that the Enlightenment is dead. (Only the intellectually numb cannot see or at least sense this.)
The civilization built on the belief that unhindered reason would expel the prejudices of the past and usher in a new utopia of contractual relations has proven hollow especially after the totalitarian genocides of the twentieth century (which were, as the best philosophers and intellectuals know, part and parcel of the Enlightenment dream and not repudiations of it). Some pundits may remain, in an implicit way (and we know who they are), committed to this hollow vision of life and society but those who actually have intellectual substance—something often missing in our (fake) “intellectual” pundit class—know better. The authors of this volume are among those better thinkers though they do not write for The New York Times, Washington Post, or The Bulwark. For readers attune to the crisis of the exhausted spirit we are living in, Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai is an indispensable read and is a must read for 2022 and beyond.
This review was first published at VoegelinView, 3 April 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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