Photo Credit: Maggid Press

Title: A Guide for the Jewish Undecided
Samuel Lebens
Maggid Press

 

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Perhaps you are a Jew who is deeply committed to your Jewish identity but you don’t feel any obligation to follow the laws of the Torah. Perhaps you are not sure if G-d exists and, even if He does, you are not at all convinced that He cares if Jewish people follow the mitzvot. You then encounter Baruch Pascalberg. He’s a Jewish philosopher – the Jewish version of Blaise Pascal of the famed eponymous wager (and a character in several books and papers also authored by Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens). Pascalberg offers you a choice: commit yourself to a life of Torah and mitzvot or don’t.

If you commit, you will reap significant reward should it turn out that there is a G-d who wants you to keep the Torah. Alternatively, should it turn out there is no G-d (or that He doesn’t care whether you keep mitzvot) you will suffer some minimal penalty for having avoided certain indulgences in this world not open to practicing Jews. On the flip side, if you choose not to commit, you will earn no reward (and suffer no penalty) if it turns out there is a G-d who wants you to keep the Torah. Alternatively, you will earn minimal reward (in this world) if it turns out there is no G-d (or if there is, he doesn’t care whether you keep mitzvot).

Upon a moment’s reflection it will become apparent that Pascalberg structured the wager (intentionally) with a thumb on the scale in favor of his opponents. Nevertheless, Lebens contends that all Pascalberg has to do is convince you that there is a one in four chance that Judaism is true for it to be a no brainer to bet on Judaism. This frames the super structure of A Guide for the Jewish Undecided (GJU).

As Lebens notes, the one in four chance is conservative: he believes the wager makes sense even on much smaller odds (e.g., one in a thousand, or even less). But he clearly chose one in four so that the two central arguments he needs to make: 1. that there is a G-d; and 2. taking the existence of G-d as a given, He gave the Jews a Torah and cares that they follow it – are more likely than not true (i.e., each one is at least a 50/50 proposition). This appears to be a concession he makes to his audience who are neither academics nor philosophers; though he thinks the argument works with lesser odds, how appealing would the arguments in GJU be if all it did was render each of these propositions only somewhat unlikely (as opposed to exceedingly unlikely)? Fortunately, it is abundantly clear that Lebens personally believes that each of these propositions is more likely than not, such that this admitted artifice is not disingenuous.

Lebens opens GJU with a discussion of conversion under Jewish law – even though this book is not addressed to non-Jews – to illustrate that commitment to Judaism begins, first and foremost, with a commitment to the Jewish people. Everything else flows from that first step. And it is this recognition that sets up one of the underlying theses of GJU: our “starting points” (e.g., our having been born to Jewish parents, etc.) and our prior commitments make certain decisions or evaluations rational to us in ways that they may not be to others, and that does not undermine the rationality of our choices. As Lebens notes, “[a] person who feels a strong sense of belonging to, and rootedness in, the Jewish community [ ] will find it unthinkable that Jesus was the messiah.” This concept of “unthinkability,” is a key underpinning of the arguments in GJU as, among other things, it obviates one of the central faults of Pascal’s wager (i.e., that it presents a false binary between atheism and one particular religion and fails to account for other religions as options.)

The heart of GJU presents evidence for both the existence of G-d, and the historicity of a revelation at Sinai (which for purposes of discussion is synonymous with G-d having given the Jews a Torah and caring that they follow it).

As a 21st-century analytic philosopher, Lebens is honest about his (and our) inability to prove that G-d exists. Nevertheless, Lebens marshals “Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for G-d,” standing on the shoulders of contemporary Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, the inspiration for a book by that name. Lebens condenses and rearranges Plantinga’s arguments into “clusters,” noting with his characteristic honesty and humility that, “[s]ome of these arguments and clusters I find more convincing and others less so, but I will present them all as best I can. If one part doesn’t move you, maybe another part will.” The four clusters comprise making sense of: truth and possibility, mathematics, science, and value; and he also adds his own version of an argument from religious experience. Lebens finally argues – again following Plantinga – that there is a further argument from many arguments: “[t]he large number of good (although not conclusive) arguments for G-d’s existence constitutes, in itself, a powerful (although not conclusive) argument for G-d’s existence!”

Throughout the discussion, Lebens raises and responds to counterarguments. He then pays special attention to what he takes to be the strongest counterargument to theism of them all – the argument from evil. He responds with a mix of both classical theodicies (which he finds lacking) and an admittedly “wacky” theodicy conceived by him and his philosopher-chavruta Tyron Goldschmidt. But then Lebens goes one surprising step further. He attempts to put the atheist on the same plane as the theist vis-à-vis the problem of evil by presenting an argument for why the atheist cannot make sense of historical evil. (The argument goes something like this: Any minor change in history is sufficient to preclude one’s existence. It is not rational to regret any historical evil unless one is willing to sacrifice one’s own existence, the existence of one’s loved ones, and all that one values in contemporary culture, none of which would have come about if history were different. Thus, the atheist cannot rationally regret historical evils while the theist is not troubled by the same regret since G-d intervenes in history.)

Next Lebens tackles the evidence for the historicity of the revelation at Sinai on the assumption that G-d exists. For the affirmative argument, Lebens relies on a form of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari Principle. The form favored by Lebens is a slightly modified version of Goldschmidt’s formulation (“the Jumbled Kuzari Principle”):

A tradition (in this case that there was a revelation at Sinai) is likely true if it is accepted by a nation; describes a national experience of a previous generation of that nation; which would be expected to create a continuous national memory until that tradition is in place; the nation actually claims to have passed the memory down in an unbroken chain; is insulting to that nation (i.e., a report of idol worship mere weeks after the theophany makes it less likely to have been altered in transmission); and makes universal, difficult and severe demands on that nation.

Lebens defends the argument on its own terms and then again raises and replies to the counterevidence (challenges from theology, ethics, biblical criticism, and archaeology) with characteristic skill. Importantly, Lebens points out that he has an easier job than most proponents of the Kuzari Principle since he is working with two important caveats: (1) his arguments are addressed to Pascalberg’s audience – i.e., Jews who are fully integrated into the Jewish community (whether they are religious or not); and (2) the argument is being made upon the assumption that G-d exists. (Obviously, as Lebens notes, the Kuzari Principle is more likely to be plausibly violated by the Exodus story if you are not convinced that G-d exists.) One further detail makes Lebens’ job easier: he takes a somewhat minimalist approach to the theophany in view of the many competing interpretations in Jewish tradition regarding what occurred at Sinai and the ambiguity in the Torah itself. Thus, Lebens marshals evidence only for what he asserts is the unanimous core in the tradition: “there was a mass revelation at Sinai in which the Jewish people heard a divine voice speaking (even if they couldn’t make out all or any of the words).”

Applying elementary probability theory, Lebens concludes that if he has convinced you that each of the propositions in the conjunction “(1) G-d exists and (2) if G-d exists, then He wants Jews to embrace Jewish law,” is at least 50 percent likely, then he has succeeded in the goal he set out to accomplish—i.e., to show that you should take Pascalberg’s wager (since the probability is at least one in four).

Finally, Lebens argues for the authenticity of embracing Judaism on the basis of a wager such as the one outlined above. Put differently, authentically engaging wholeheartedly in Judaism is much more sensible if you believe in it. Lebens proceeds to develop a notion of what it means to be religious and spends some time assessing the difference between faith and belief, concluding that one only needs faith for which Lebens provides a rigorous and technical definition but which falls short of belief. He argues that the Jew taking Pascalberg’s wager has already demonstrated the faith necessary to live an authentic Jewish life.

GJU is a pleasure to read even though it requires a few moments of putting on your proverbial “thinking cap” to fully absorb the philosophical arguments (that have mostly been adeptly translated for a lay audience). Lebens also employs his characteristic humor. At one point he comments that he is not able to give a full treatment of an argument based on the doctrine of tzitzum and therefore must “constrain himself.” At another point he notes that transubstantiation is “a difficult pill to swallow.”

A final note about Lebens audience. Although the title suggests that Lebens addresses the “Jewish Undecided,” there is a lot for the average observant Jew to gain from this volume. As Lebens points out, not everyone will be moved by one argument or another, but even if you don’t find yourself struggling with matters of emunah, you may find your faith strengthened by reflecting upon one or another of the arguments. And if you do struggle in matters of faith—as many of us do from time to time – we are fortunate to have a world-class 21st century analytic philosopher who is an Orthodox Jew to help provide rational grounding for our tradition. It was just a few short years ago, that those of us who were searching for this material could only find it being produced by Christian philosophers like Plantinga.

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Etai Lahav is a husband and father of three children living in Brooklyn, New York, where he serves on the Board of Trustees of Barkai Yeshivah and as the Chairman of the Adult Education committee at the Kingsway Jewish Center. Etai is a partner at the law firm Radulescu LLP specializing in patent litigation.