REVIEW: The Principles of Judaism

Howard Wettstein Tradition Online | February 7, 2021

REVIEW: The Principles of Judaism
Howard Wettstein

Samuel Lebens, The Principles of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 352 pages

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens teaches philosophy at the University of Haifa. He is co-founder of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism, an important if nascent organization of young philosophers doing significant work in the fundamentals of Jewish thought. Lebens has unusually broad interests in philosophy and this is reflected in his recent book, The Principles of Judaism. The book is formidable and stunning in its range and sheer intelligence. I offer the following as a guide to its issues. 

Lebens’ aim is to formulate what he calls a “minimal axiomatization” of Orthodox Judaism. Here he enters into a dialog with Maimonides’ principles of faith, principles that Lebens and others take to be too restrictive. Lebens instead begins with R. Yosef Albo’s suggestion that at the core of traditional Judaism are three theses: God as creator, Torah as a revealed system of laws (and wisdom), and God’s divine providence encompassing reward and punishment and the future coming of the Messiah. 

What is original, timely, and challenging is Lebens’ way of fleshing out and clarifying these skeletal ideas, along with his attempt to make them as plausible as he can. His articulation is admirably humble: he does not expect that his developed picture will be generally accepted. Nor does he think it should be; his philosophic way has its own biases, as is inevitable given the difficulty of the issues and the range of available options for thinking about them. He thus leaves room for, as he says, many Orthodoxies, each working out the Albo principles in its own way.

Lebens’ way is breathtaking: Creation—he argues for creation ex nihilo — is best understood in terms of a (very) radical background metaphysics. Here Lebens’ ideas become challenging: he takes us on a whirlwind tour of metaphysics, both historical and contemporary, from Aristotle through medieval Jewish philosophy and contemporary analytic theorists. Perhaps most surprising, certainly at first, are appearances by R. Hayyim Vital, the Besht, the Baal HaTanya, the Izhbitza Rebbe, and other Kabbalists and Hasidic thinkers.

The outcome of Lebens’ discussion of creation is an endorsement of what he calls Hasidic idealism, roughly the idea that created things (ha’aretz u’melo’a) are no more than ideas in the mind of God. As he puts it, what was created ex nihilo was not, as we ordinarily think, a physical reality, but rather an idea (274). I would prefer to state Lebens’ conclusion as, “God creates an idea of Himself creating a physical reality.” 

Sorting this out would be quite a task. For one thing, we ordinarily think of our world as a physical reality, something much more solid, as it were, than merely an idea in the mind of God. And one might well suppose, with Leibniz, that God considered alternative universes before making this one real. How then might our world be merely an idea in the mind of God? 

It is notable and worthy of attention (and, indeed, praise) that Lebens turns to works of Kabbala and Hasidut for illumination. This is not at all usual for those of us trained in Litvish approaches to Talmud and their in-some-ways counterpart, analytic philosophy. Philosophy, as practiced in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy departments, stood in contrast with philosophy as practiced on the continent. The former was characterized by conceptual clarification, definition, argument and proof. It was born in discussions of mathematics and science. The latter was born of reflections on the arts and on life. Both focused on meaning, but for the analytic philosopher it was the meaning of words and sentences that were at issue. For the continental philosopher, it was the meaning of life and meaning in the context of the arts and of religion. Gratefully, the barriers have been breaking down. Lebens, a talmid of Yeshivat Har Etzion, analytic to the core, thus breaks new and important ground in his appeal to the Hasidic masters.

In his discussion of revelation (Albo’s second thesis) Lebens endorses continuous revelation. One way he puts it: “The theophany at Sinai [was] like a divine stamp of approval of the religious tradition that grew out of it,” that this event was “the beginning of a long process aimed at bringing the Earthly Torah ever closer to its heavenly paradigm” (185). The ideas here, as in the discussion of creation, are subtle and resist quick encapsulation. But on the face of it, continuous revelation leaves room for history to reveal ethical truths, and thus to revise the ethical beliefs of our forebears. Slavery, we have learned over time, is not acceptable to God. There are implications for issues highlighted by feminists and LGBTQ advocates.

Finally, with respect to Albo’s third thesis (God’s providential role) Leben’s puts forth a philosophy of time, developed by Lebens and Tyron Goldschmidt, and its consequences for salvation. This is Lebens at his most speculative, advancing an account of God’s ultimate justice from which he draws hope “even if we’re not convinced” that it is correct (268). He offers his philosophy of time in support of the idea, which he attributes to the Izhbitza Rebbe, that God will in the end remove all present and past traces of evil. Good luck.

Whether or not Lebens’ working out the details of Albo’s theses are palatable, the illumination that emerges from his work is more than worth the price of admission. And this aside from his truly noteworthy contribution in bringing the mystical side of Jewish thought into contact with medieval and even current analytical philosophy.

Howard Wettstein is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside.

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