Is Judaism the Truth?
Jeffry Bloom, a graduate of the University of Chicago who studied in several Orthodox yeshivas (rabbinical schools) in Israel after college, was bothered by what the scholar Leo Strauss wrote in his book Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. Strauss emigrated from Germany to the United States in the 1930s. He taught at the University of Chicago and was the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century until he died in 1973. He grew up in a nominally Orthodox Jewish home but was not Orthodox. He argued that Spinoza did not refute Orthodoxy. Judaism, he wrote, is based on faith, on beliefs but not provable facts. Other religions are also not provable, and even science cannot assert that what it claims is undoubtedly true. Bloom wondered if this assertion belittled Judaism or minimized it. He wrote, “Is Strauss correct that we can only claim to believe in the truth of Judaism, but we cannot claim to know it is true?” He joined with two others in seeking the views of seventeen Orthodox Jewish thinkers, rabbis and professors. Their essays are in the book Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai.
People have been bothered by uncertainty since ancient times. They want confirmation that what they think is true is really true. An oracle considered the Greek Socrates (circa 470 to 399 BCE) to be the most intelligent man of his generation because he recognized his ignorance regarding many subjects he investigated, that human wisdom begins with recognizing one’s ignorance, and that the unexamined life is not worth living. But the Athenians were bothered by his claim that we do not know the truth and killed him.
His student Plato (circa 429 to 347) recognized the difficulty most people have with uncertainty and with ideas that conflict with what they think is certain. He developed the “noble lie.” He told people that certain untruths were true to help make their lives pleasant.
The brilliant Islamic philosopher Ibn Tufayl (1105-1185) wrote about this in his easy-to-read Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale. I recommend this book. There are many valuable lessons in the philosopher Ibn Tufayl’s twelfth-century masterpiece. But what is most interesting in his parable is his view that wise people, philosophers, and religious leaders must refrain from telling what they understand to the general population. This is especially true, he states, about religion. Organized religion, as understood by the masses, is necessary for the masses but wrong for people with understanding because it is not true. Ibn Tufayl introduces his story by telling how his predecessors hid truths from the multitude. They said one thing in their books they expected the general population to read and something entirely different in books they wrote for scholars.
Alfarabi (870-950), for example, wrote in his The Ideal Religion that the souls of wicked people live on after death and are perpetually tortured, but in his Civil Practice and his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics – the Greek Aristotle lived from 383 BCE to 322 BCE – he wrote that the notion of life after death is wrong and that “all other claims are senseless ravings and old wives’ tales.”
Similarly, Ibn Tufayl tells us that the philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) warned intelligent people to be careful in how they read Aristotle because “if you take everything in Aristotle (literally), you will end up far from perfection.”
So too, while discussing Ghazali (1058-1111), Ibn Tufayl points out that this philosopher hid what he truly meant so that only those who were learned would understand what is true. “Most of what he said was in the form of hints and intimations, of value to those who hear them only after they have found the truth by their sight or to someone innately gifted and primed to understand. Such men need only the subtlest hints.”
Ibn Tufayl writes that he, despite years of study and his intelligence, had to work hard to unravel the truth from the lies his teachers and the lies taught him that he saw in books. They are notions not based on the truth but on blind faith and are wrong.
But not all thinkers were willing to live with uncertainty. An example is the Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141). Halevi argues in a circular fashion that Judaism is not based on faith but on historical experience. We know, he insists, that there were six hundred thousand Israelites at Sinai who experienced the revelation of the Decalogue because the Bible tells us so – and we know that the Bible is telling us the truth because six hundred thousand Israelites could not have been wrong. We also know that Judaism is true because what the Israelites saw and heard has been passed down to Jews by tradition. Halevi also “proves” that free will exists by arguing that we know it exists because we feel it exists.
The most outstanding Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204), would not have accepted Halevi’s views. He agreed with the other philosophers. He called the “noble lie” the “essential truth,” the untruths that people must teach people to control them, make them act appropriately, and feel good. That God grows angry when people misbehave is an example of an essential truth.
Like Socrates and Strauss, Maimonides knew that the human mind is incapable of knowing much about God and this world. He wrote that we could not know anything about God. The best we can learn are some things about what God created, including the laws of nature.
So, Strauss is right, Judaism is based on beliefs, not facts.
Some of the seventeen in this book disagreed. Some accepted Strauss’ distinction between belief and knowledge but disagreed with his claim that Judaism rests on belief alone. For example, one writes that he hesitates “to become enthusiastic about a faith whose foundations are so admittedly tenuous… I would prefer a religion to demonstrate a little more conviction in itself before I become emotionally invested.” Another similarly wrote that faith could and should be a stepping-stone to philosophy. One essayist saw the validity of Orthodox Judaism not in faith but in the tenacity and persistence of the Jew’s belief. “Clearly, something in the consciousness of the Jewish people will not allow us, as a people, to abandon God.”
Others spent their time telling us the benefits of Judaism that aid Jews even though we cannot prove Judaism to be true. Some accepted the Protestant theologian Soren Kierkegaard’s notion that we have to have a “leap of faith” that goes beyond reason and rational considerations. This will satisfy us, for we will see the advantages of Judaism over other religions. One sees the significance of Judaism by viewing why people are prompted to convert to Judaism, while another considers the value of Judaism in Jewish history and the Oral Law in contrast to the Bible. Still others stress that it is more important to experience Judaism than to be worried about faith and the truth – be like the married couple that enjoys life together and strives to increase each other’s enjoyment without spending time reading books analyzing how their bodies function.
All seventeen are interesting and thought-provoking, worthy of being read. The value of this book lies in its ability to make us think.
 The book was originally published in German and was translated into English in 1965.