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Samuel Lebens





Modern Faith in Sinai





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Samuel Lebens





Modern Faith in Sinai








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Modern Faith in Sinai

Notwithstanding modern day biblical critical and historical critical claims, applying the tools of contemporary philosophy demonstrates how room still exists to have faith that something extraordinary happened to our ancestors and that this event had a permanent effect on the development of Torah and Judaism.


Modern Faith in Sinai

Gobelins by Marc Chagall in the foyer of the Knesset in Jerusalem.  © Irina Opachevsky /123RF

Part 1

Distinguishing between Faith and Belief

Daniel Howard-Snyder is a philosopher at Western Washington University. One key interest of his, in recent years, has been to distinguish faith and belief – a distinction that too often gets overlooked, as Howard-Snyder documents:

[L]inguist Steven Pinker writes that faith is “believing something without good reasons to do so.” Similarly, philosopher Alex Rosenberg began a recent debate ostensibly on the question of whether faith in God is reasonable by declaring that reasonable faith in God wasn’t even possible since “by definition, faith is belief in the absence of evidence.” Not to be outdone by his fellow brights, biologist-rock-star Richard Dawkins goes one step further: “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” But no one goes as far as Mark Twain: faith is “believing what you know ain’t so”![1]
Prof. Daniel Howard-Snyder, Western Washington University

What all of these thinkers have in common is the view that faith is simply a species of belief – either belief without good reason, or belief in the absence of evidence, or belief because of the lack of evidence, or belief in spite of knowledge to the contrary.

Howard-Snyder argues, however, that faith has a much more complicated relationship with belief. Indeed, not only is faith not a species of belief, belief isn’t even necessary for faith (though it can sometimes be jointly sufficient for faith). If belief isn’t necessary for faith then, whatever else can be said against faith, it cannot be characterised as unreasonable belief, since it isn’t belief at all!

Propositional Faith

There are a number of different types of faith. You can have faith in something – such as when a person has faith in democracy; or faith in someone – such as when a person has faith in their spouse. Call these types of faith, ‘faith-in’. You can have faith that something is the case, or will be the case. Accordingly, we can distinguish between faith-in, and faith-that. Howard-Snyder is interested in faith-that, he calls it ‘propositional faith’. What does it mean to have faith that something is or will be true? What can make propositional faith reasonable?

Howard-Snyder suggests that propositional faith has four ingredients:

(i) Positive Evaluation

If you have faith that something is true, then you need to think that it’s the sort of thing that people should want to be true. Imagine that you’re a heroin addict. You really want to stop taking the drug. But desire keeps getting the better of you. You wish that you’d stop wanting the stuff. But you can’t stop yourself. That you will continue to take heroin – is something that you desire. But you know that you shouldn’t desire it. You don’t want to desire it!

If the proposition is, you will take heroin, then even though you may desire that it will be true, you know you shouldn’t desire that. Therefore, you don’t have what Howard-Snyder calls ‘a positive evaluation’ of this proposition. You may believe that it will be true, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to say that you have faith that it will be true; since you know you shouldn’t want it to be true.

(ii) – Positive Conative Orientation

Now, let’s imagine that you’re a heroin addict doing much better at recovery. The proposition we’re interested in now is, you will never take heroin again. It seems that this is something that you should want to be true. You know that, and therefore you give this proposition a positive evaluation. But, because you’re really recovering, and you have, to a greater degree than in our previous example, conquered your desire for heroin, you actually want it to be true.

Imagine somebody says: “I have faith that the Red Socks will win the World Series, but I really hope that they don’t.” That statement would ring strangely in our ears. It would seem like a misuse of the word ‘faith’. You can believe that they’re going to win without wanting them to, but it seems wrong to call that faith.[2]

Combining the first two ingredients then, you can’t have faith that something is true unless (a) you want it to be true, and (b) you think that it is the sort of thing that you should want to be true!

(iii) – Positive Cognitive Attitude

There is a grey area between belief and disbelief. Different philosophers account for this grey area in different ways. Some philosophers think that your confidence in the truth of a proposition can be anywhere between 0, which would mean complete confidence that it’s false, and 1, which would mean complete certainty that it’s true. At some point between 0 and 1, you start to say that you believe the proposition, but that you’re not certain. Other philosophers reject this model, put off, perhaps, by the implication that our degree of confidence can be so precisely mapped onto numbers between 0 and 1. But all agree that there is such a thing as being somewhere between belief and disbelief; not having enough confidence in a proposition to say that it’s true, while not having enough confidence in its denial to say that it’s false.

When Howard-Snyder talks about a ‘positive cognitive attitude’ towards a proposition, he’s talking about a degree of confidence that’s at least in the grey area. Of course, fully-fledge belief, or certainty, is also a positive cognitive attitude. So, if you believe that something is true, and want it to be true, and think that it’s the sort of thing that you should want to be true, then you can be said to have faith that it’s true. In other words, belief can do the job. But belief isn’t necessary.

If you’re not sure that something is true, but you do think it’s a plausible option, it could still makes sense to talk about having faith that it’s true. In fact, many thinkers within the Rabbinic tradition, and even within contemporary Orthodoxy, would be willing to say that a life of faith is compatible with doubt and an avowed lack of anything approaching knowledge. [3]

Example 1: Faith in Your Team Winning

Imagine, you’re watching your favourite team, playing your favourite sport. Your team is good enough to win, but you can’t be certain that they will. You have faith. But then, for the first ten minutes of the game, they look to be lacking in concentration. You start to have reason to doubt that they’ll win. But you don’t have enough evidence to form a rational belief that they’re definitely going to lose. You’re just in a state of doubt. You’re in the grey area. It can still be reasonable to have faith; faith is compatible with doubt. Of course, once your team is losing by a huge deficit, and there are only seconds left of the game, even faith might be irrational, the rational thing might be to belief that they will lose.

Example 2: Moments of Doubt in God, Is It a Loss of Faith?

Imagine a pious Jew who never deviates from halakhic observance, and prays with all of his or her heart each day. At some points in the life of this pious Jew, God’s existence and providence are as clear to them as the light of day. But there are other periods. Darker periods. In those moments, the pious Jew worries about God’s distance. He or she suffers from doubt, but never stops yearning, observing, and praying with a contrite heart. One day, this Jew opens up to God and, echoing Moses (Exodus 33:18) says, ”Father in Heaven, please save me from these doubts. I love you so much, but belief in a Hidden God is often hard to maintain. Show me, please, your Glory”

At no point in this story would it be appropriate to say that this Jew had lost his or her faith. At no point do they disbelieve, even though there are times when their confidence in God’s existence may dip lower than fully fledged belief. At every point in the story, they want God to exist; they think that this is the sort of thing a person should want, and, at every point in the story, God’s existence is a plausible possibility to them. This person can be considered to have faith, even on the days where fully-fledged belief is missing.

(iv) Resilience to Counter-Evidence

Of course, faith will be resilient to counter-evidence – this is Howard-Snyder’s final ingredient – because you could start out believing that something is true, until some counter-evidence comes along, robbing you of your previous certainty, leading you to think that it is merely probable; further counter-evidence might make you reassess, until it starts to seem merely plausible, or possible. Finally, of course, the evidence could be enough to make you lose your faith altogether, since the counter-evidence might eventually be enough to make it rational to disbelieve. But, since faith is consistent with so many different levels of confidence in a proposition – faith will be a resilient sort of attitude.

Summary: Reasonable Belief Versus Reasonable Faith

It turns out that having enough evidence to make belief rational and reasonable is unnecessary in order to make faith rational and reasonable. Reasonable faith can be justified simply by the claim that,

  1. You desire it to be true.
  1. The truth of your proposition is desirable (which would, of course, lead us into interesting philosophical territory of its own – when does a truth become objectively desirable?).
  1. Evidence allows that it is a live possibility, even if the evidence falls a long way short of proving its correctness.
Part 2

“Something Extraordinary Happened at Sinai” – Enough for Faith (if Not for Belief)

Biblical criticism challenges the compositional unity of the Torah as well as the historicity of many of its accounts. I have to declare that, although I respect the academic expertise of biblical scholars (an expertise that I don’t share), I have serious concerns – as a philosopher – about the methodology of higher biblical criticism and what it can realistically establish. But let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that the academic challenges to the compositional unity of the Torah as well as the historicity of many of its accounts succeed.

I would argue that even if these scholars succeed in making continued belief in the compositional unity of the Torah as well as the historicity of many of its accounts irrational, it might be the case that we’re left with rational grounds for continued faith. In the scope of this short article, the best that I can do is to sketch a roadmap for constructing such a case.

The Kuzari Principle: Not a Proof but Evidence of Plausibility

The Kuzari Principle famously argues that the revelation at Sinai had to have happened, since it would have been too difficult to spread such a story, after the fact, if it hadn’t really happened.[4] How does a story about a mass revelation, a story which includes the claim that the memory of the event was transmitted from generation to generation without break, come to be accepted if it wasn’t true?

Unfortunately, the Kuzari Principle is riddled with weaknesses and holes. It simply isn’t a sound argument. Even if the story of Sinai had been faithfully passed down by eyes witnesses, it could have been a mass hallucination or a freak natural occurrence that captured the imagination of a primitive people. Who’s to say that the story wasn’t exaggerated over time? Who’s to say that there wasn’t a break in the transmission of this story – perhaps indicated by the need for a mass re-education at the time of Ezra?

But, is it possible that there was a mass revelation in the Sinai desert? Well, if you’re not a convinced atheist, then it should be a possibility. Does the Kuzari principle prove that there was a such a revelation? No, but it might make it seem more plausible to you, raising your confidence in it’s having happened, not yet to the level that you could call belief, but perhaps enough for faith.

Valuing the Sinai Revelation and its Implications

With our account of the nature of faith, the Kuzari principle doesn’t have to be strong enough to provide evidence sufficient for belief, but can still play a role in making your faith reasonable. The more pressing question is less to do with evidence, and more to do with values. Is it desirable that there should have been such a revelation, and that God should have chosen a certain people, and communicated that which He was said to have communicated to them? That seems to depend a great deal upon how you view the notion of the Jewish election (was it exclusive, and what end did it serve), and what you take the content of the revelation to be – how do you interpret the laws and their ethical significance?

Some atheistic philosophers, perhaps inspired by a proper understanding of what faith is, have realised that it isn’t enough to attack the evidential grounds for religious faith – since reasonable faith can be resilient to a degree of counter-evidence. Instead, they’ve started to attack the values that underlie faith. Would it really be a good thing for God to exist?[5] I take this to be a much stronger challenge, than challenges focussing exclusively upon evidence. But, since this challenge has less to do with Higher Biblical criticism, I leave it to one side, recognising that it must be answered in any real defence of Orthodox faith.

Faith in the Continuous Development of the Religion

If I have reason to have faith (though not belief) that something extraordinary happened at Sinai, then, in conjunction with religious experience, and certain attitudes towards the inspiring evolution of Torah throughout the ages, I may very well have reason to have faiththat a revelation began at Sinai and is still unfolding until this very day.

Take Zev Farber’s wave theory, or take Tamar Ross’s notion of a cumulative revelation, but add two further elements: a belief (or faith) in a personal, conscious God, rather than a more abstract Deity, and add the sort of reasonable faith in an event having happened at Sinai that might grow out of the Kuzari principle. What do you get? I think that you might have the ingredients for reconstructing something that looks very classically Orthodox, even if you accept the academic consensus regarding the compositional unity of the Pentateuch. How so?

An Authentic Evolution from Sinai

One feature of wave theory, or the doctrine of cumulative revelation, is that it can open us up to criticise the way in which Orthodoxy traditionally treats the text of the Penateuch – the omnisignificance that it gives to each crown and letter. If the texts are the product of an ongoing revelation, through human hands, and we now have had revealed to us the ethical shortcomings of certain passages, why can’t we simply edit the texts themselves?

But, if I have reasonable faith in a personal God, a God with plans and foreknowledge, and, if I have reasonable faith that he oversaw a revelation at Sinai, then I can have a reasonable faith that God knew what God was starting, and knew how these things would evolve; and, if I have reason to believe or have faith that Orthodox Judaism is an authentic evolution from that ancient encounter in the wilderness, then I have reason to have faith that, even back then, God was giving something of a divine stamp of approval for the religion that would unfold from that point in time.[6]

Appropriating the Pentateuch as God’s Text

This nexus of faith and belief positions could quite easily serve as a bedrock for justifying the practice of treating the Pentateuch as Orthodox Judaism now treats it – as word-for-word the word of God, even if you have significant doubts that that attitude reflects the real historical genesis of the text.

This isn’t even a case of treating the text in a way that you know to be inaccurate. To have faith that a personal God foresaw that this religion would evolve from Sinai is to have faith that God gave it a stamp of approval. If that religion claims that God wrote a text word-for-word, then even if He didn’t, God’s giving that religion a stamp of approval is almost equivalent to His writing those words. It would be an act of appropriation of a text, and an act of appropriation can make a text your own, and give it new meaning.

An Example: Appropriating the Wine-Rack as Art

Marcel Duchamp went and bought a wine-rack. He placed it in an art museum. This was part of his ready-made art project in which he took everyday artefacts and transformed them into works of art, not by changing them in anyway, but merely by designating them as works of art. His appropriation of the wine-rack was during a period when his art was obsessed with his bachelorhood and his childlessness. This has lead art-critics to view the wine-rack in a very specific light, as ‘waiting for wet bottles to be hung on its prongs … obviously, laughably Freudian…’[7]

I doubt that people in the shop, looking for a wine-rack, had found it to be obviously and laughably Freudian. I think that the wine-rack only took on that significance once it had been appropriated by an artist preoccupied with bachelorhood and childlessness. And act of appropriation can bestow new meaning.

Conclusion: Faith in the Pentateuch’s New Meaning

Accordingly, even if you accept the narrative of biblical criticism,[8] you can consistently entertain the belief, or the hope, that God has appropriated the text of the Pentateuch, making it his – word for word.[9] This can give a person reason to protect the omnisignifance that Orthodoxy imposes upon the Pentateuch.


Inspecting Judaism Philosophically from the Inside as an Academic Discipline

What I’ve done in this short article is to apply the tools of contemporary philosophy (philosophy of language, epistemology, philosophy of religion) to articulate, or at least to sketch, a Modern Orthodox response to certain academic challenges to traditional Judaism.

This type of effort is rare in academia. Jewish studies traces the history and socio-intellectual context of Jewish culture, texts and ideas. Jewish academics are much less likely to use the tools of their academic disciplines to articulate and defend new approaches to Jewish faith and practice, and when they do, they are either limiting themselves to unpacking the theology of the Bible (as in Jewish Biblical theology), or they are inspired by Continental philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Kierkergaard, Levinas, Buber, Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism). English speaking philosophy is overwhelmingly dominated by different schools of philosophy that are almost never brought into conversation with Judaism. I am here talking about analytical philosophy.

Things are different in Christian circles. Systematic Christian theology in the departments of Divinity and Theology, and analytic Christian philosophy in departments of philosophy, are well respected sub-disciplines within their fields.[10] Many of the greatest and most prominent analytic philosophers of the last half-century were Christians who were unafraid of using their philosophy to articulate and defend their Christian faith (Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, Robert Adams, and more). Jewish Studies departments tend not to have Jewish thinkers articulating and defending new faith positions, and when they do, they are rarely, if ever, in touch with contemporary trends of philosophy as studied in philosophy departments (i.e., analytic rather than Continental philosophy).

Historical and Contextual academic studies of Judaism have enriched our knowledge and our culture, and even our faith. I, however, look forward to a time when scholars, trained in a different academic discipline – the discipline of academic analytic philosophy – start to engage with Judaism, not as a socio-historical phenomenon, but as a set of narratives and claims, inspected from the inside. What sort of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics emerge, not from a particular stratum of Jewish text studied historically, but from the Jewish religion as its presents itself to its adherents (or to any given sub-sets of its adherents, or indeed to any particular adherent) today.[11]

If you recognise what it takes to have a reasonable faith in such a religion, the process of mining that faith, academically but ahistorically, as a living faith takes on a new and distinctive importance of its own.


March 30, 2016


Last Updated

June 3, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Samuel Lebens is a post-doctoral research fellow in the philosophy department at the University of Haifa. He holds a Ph.D. in Metaphysics and Logic from the University of London and Orthodox rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. Lebens is co-founder and chairperson of the Association for Philosophy of Judaism (www.theapj.com) and is a contributing blogger for Haaretz Jewish World..