Athens and Jerusalem Revisited

Images of devastated parents burying their little sons and daughters, senselessly murdered in their classrooms, have stunned the nation. How could a teenager raised in an ordinary Texas town perpetrate such unspeakable crimes? Wall Street Journal editors blame “the rise of family dysfunction and the decline of mediating institutions such as churches and social clubs.” This assessment is confirmed by survey data. “No matter how researchers measure people’s faith—such as attendance, giving, self-identification,” reports the Washington Post, “Americans’ attachment to institutional religion is on the decline.” For the first time in eight decades, church membership has sunk below 50%. America seems morally rudderless.

Modernity is supposed to have elevated reason at the expense of faith; if so, the results are dismal. University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss explained that Jerusalem and Athens—the former rooted in faith, the latter in reason—constitute the twin legacies of our moral civilization. But fully grasping their inseparability takes “going beyond the self-understanding of either,” and asking: “is there a notion, a word that points to the highest that both the Bible and the greatest works of the Greeks claim to convey?” Strauss was convinced that “[t]here is such a word: wisdom. Not only the Greek philosophers but the Greek poets as well were considered to be wise men, and the Torah [first five books of the Bible] is said, in the Torah, to be ‘your wisdom in the eyes of the nations.’”

Conceding that faith could not be scientifically proved, as Baruch Spinoza had contended (1632-1677), Strauss nonetheless rejected the rationalist Jewish thinker’s bold claim to have repudiated the Orthodox belief in God as Creator. In the preface to his celebrated 1930 book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, he argued that Spinoza would have had to provide rational “proof that the world and human life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of a mysterious God.” Without such proof, one “cannot legitimately deny the possibility of revelation.” If knowledge requires reason, revelation can at least justify belief.

It wasn’t much. But it proved sufficient for one University of Chicago philosophy student, Jeffrey Bloom, for whom Strauss “’broke the spell’ of secularism, giving my inner skeptic permission to take the claims of Orthodox Judaism seriously.” He thus decided to reach out to Orthodox Jews to learn how they explained faith to themselves, with help from Jewish scholars Gil Student and Alec Goldstein. The three became co-editors of a remarkable collection of intellectually stimulating, often quite personal, attempts to convey the basis of their own spiritual beliefs. Titled Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai, it is bound to help others, both Jews and non-Jews, in their search for higher meaning in a cynical world.

A Moral Revival

Dismissing ubiquitous calls for “moral revival” as little more than “paper airplanes launched at the advance of secularism,” Bloom charges that “there is little thinking in the public square about how one could actually move from a secular outlook to a religious one.” Note that “a religious outlook” is fully consistent with Wilfred McClay’s notion of political secularism, which not only allows for the possibility of communion with something it is not afraid to call a Creator but encourages it. By contrast, a secular outlook as ordinarily understood finds such communion incomprehensible and even dangerous, which is why it should be banned.

Far from opposing a religious outlook, Strauss admitted that one may believe in a Creator. Yet he stopped short of accepting that one may know it. Belief is assumed to be merely subjective and intuitive, as opposed to real knowledge, which is objective, rational, and certain. How we define belief and knowledge thus becomes key. Interestingly, the use of Hebrew helps re-set the conceptual stage in refreshing new directions.

As several of the contributors point out, knowledge for the ancient Greeks, as for Spinoza, was abstract, rational, and impersonal, untainted by error-prone, subjective sensuality. That rigid dichotomy does not exist in Judaism. The Hebrew word daat refers to understanding that is completely integrated into the self and the person. This suggests that belief or intuition is not necessarily less reliable than cold reason as a source of knowledge and understanding. The word for “intuition,” binat ha-lev, refers to things that can be known even if they can’t be proven.

The great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, cited by several contributors, considered daat and binat ha-lev as points on a continuum. So too did the great medieval philosopher Maimonides (1138–1204), for whom belief in God’s existence was the strongest kind of knowledge and actually superior to rational certitude. It is no accident that faith, in Hebrew emunah, occurs for the first time in the Torah in connection with Abraham, for whom it means simply trust and reliance in God. It does not consist of propositions that may be true or false; emunah is not an abstract idea but a participatory experience. Religious belief is all the better known for being felt.

Contributor Rabbi Jeremy Kagan thus deplores the overemphasis on reason and the intellect at the expense of intuition, symbolizing the victory of Athens over Jerusalem. Important aspects of human experience have been lost: “We became trapped in the natural reality of our comprehensible universe.” He traces the trajectory of Western perceptions of reality from a physically based self-consciousness to greater abstraction, which allowed us to conceive of a truly transcendent Source. But “eventually, a watershed was crossed and man’s intuitive sense of himself as an extension of something greater was weakened sufficiently that we lost our instinct for worship.” The worldview that further emerged from Athens through Rome was “a materialism that is, in its unadulterated form, completely secular.” As prosperity resulting from improved technology grew, the religious outlook atrophied.

But it did so by misunderstanding the very nature of human knowledge. For while “Western thinking prides itself on approaching objective truth through its relentless use of logic,” Kagan points out that “[i]t conveniently ignores that all logical argument begins with premises—self-evident truths.” Rabbi Professor Sam Lebens similarly argues that “logic and language themselves point to their own limitations. …[for] there are things beyond the limits of language, which you might experience somehow, but which you cannot discursively describe.”  

Perhaps it’s time to trust what seems self-evident, and stop being afraid to look for guidance in a tradition that has proved reliable for so many for so long.

Simultaneously, a narrow concept of knowledge fails to account for what Adam Smith has called “moral sentiments.” Rabbi Eliezer Zobin writes

Like inducive and deductive logic, morality too seems to be a basic axiom of human life… [W]e humans find morals axiomatic; we see that the suffering of a child, an innocent being suffering, for no purpose is sheer evil. In which case there is no coherence we can bring to the world, unless the world has meaning. Indeed, the scientific endeavor itself is premised upon the assumption we live in a world that can be made sense of, that has a coherence to it.

For Maimonides, as for Orthodox Jews and indeed all believers, the one axiom upon which all others rest is that existence has both a purpose and a Creator, and the two are intertwined.

By ignoring the premises upon which thought as well as action is ultimately based, we are impoverished as human beings, declares Rabbi Kagan. “The Western secular outlook may have truth, [but] it is an incomplete truth. When we identify it as complete, we turn it into a lie. So much of us that is essential is missing. As a consequence, so much of what reality has for us is also missing.” And part of that reality transcends logic.  

If this sounds like a flight into mysticism, it isn’t, at least, not entirely. “The path to truth runs through character,” concludes Rabbi Kagan, as do other contributors to this fascinating volume. It takes character to be “willing to open ourselves to the possibility and seize upon the questions that compel us to investigate alternative approaches to reality.” It takes character to admit that what gives life meaning is some form of revelation, an unveiling of meaning that makes one feel at once infinitely small and at one with the infinitely great. It also takes character to resist the natural inclination to self-centeredness, which is a sure way to prevent the experience of deeper transcendence, which is predicated on humility.

A Restoration of Hope?

In this sense, Strauss understood that Athens was closer to Jerusalem than many presupposed. In his 1967 essay, he concluded “[t]hat both Socrates and the prophets are concerned with justice or righteousness, with the perfectly just society which, as such, would be free of all evils.” To be sure, the two approaches define the perfectly just man differently, for

according to Socrates, [it is] the philosopher; according to the prophets, he is the faithful servant of the Lord. The philosopher is the man who dedicates his life to the quest for knowledge of the good, of the idea of the good; what we would call moral virtue is only the condition or by-product of that quest. According to the prophets, however, there is no need for the quest for knowledge of the good: God “hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6.8).

And there Strauss leaves it. But reading further into that biblical book, the forecast is ominous. As Micah looks around him and sees internal disarray—“from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain” (echoes of “America the Beautiful”)—he woefully predicts: “your land shall become a desolation because of those who dwell in it.” The greatest enemy was then, as now, lodged within. So are we doomed?

In a recent issue of the Atlantic, Brookings senior fellow Shadi Hamid argues that what was once religious belief has been replaced by political commitment. He cites political theorist Samuel Goldman’s “law of the conservation of religion,” which holds that in any given society, there is a relatively constant and finite supply of religious conviction. But transcendent zeal is hardly a measure of spirituality, even if, for some, politics takes the place of religion. It is no accident that in 1938, the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin used the term “political religion” to describe the universal‐historical relationship between Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism, presciently anticipating the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed in 1939. That year, Raymond Aron would similarly use “religion politique,” and later “religion seculiere,” to damn the murderous hybrid. Political and secularist ideologies, far from replacing religion, defile it.

But secularist ideology, which historian Wilfred McClay calls “philosophical secularism,” should be distinguished from the “political’ kind.” The latter, argues McClay, opposes the official establishment of any one sect yet recognizes the legitimacy and even moral necessity of religious faith. It is thus designed not to suppress but indeed to encourage precisely the kind of vibrant religious life that Alexis de Tocqueville believed underlay the success of democracy in America. The American version of secularism is political, not ideological (or  “philosophical); accordingly, reflecting the highest principles of Western civilization. It is for this reason, argues McClay, that “Martin Luther King’s finest rhetoric can, with equal plausibility, not only invoke the prophetic books of the Bible, of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, but also the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the words of the founders.” 

Nearly two centuries after the Declaration of Independence, King’s invocation was still plausible. Strauss could advise finding answers to contemporary dilemmas by reflecting upon the roots of Western civilization, of which America is the latest and most successful incarnation. Today, this approach is no longer taken for granted. America, and Western civilization, are under siege, vilified by its own elite.

But there still may be hope. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks seriously suggested that Jews invented hope.) Notoriously kvetchers, Jews nonetheless shun despair. In the end, Micah prophesizes that God will, ultimately, “keep faith” with his flock. In the original Hebrew, the word translated as “faith” is ’ĕ-meṯ ( אֱמֶת֙): it means truth. Perhaps it’s time to trust what seems self-evident, and stop being afraid to look for guidance in a tradition that has proved reliable for so many for so long. If we can no longer believe that human beings are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, or understand what that means, civilization as we know it is unlikely to last long.