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Jeff Bloom: Some Guy Wrote a Book about Jewish Theology

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Jeff Bloom about the assumptions that Orthodox Judaism makes about ideology, and how we ground our faith even if we don’t have irrefutable evidence.

Jeff is some guy who is a lot more than just some guy. Jeff unpacks Leo Strauss’s defense of Orthodoxy and explains how our personal life stories dictate how we see the world. 

 

  • Why have we designed a system in which we don’t rummage around assumptions?
  • How do we read the Bible in an Orthodox lens?
  • Is Orthodoxy merely a warm infrastructure or is it a rationally grounded approach to life?

 

Tune in to hear a conversation about intellectual authenticity and the axioms of belief. 

Interview begins at 14:25

 

Jeffrey Bloom is a graduate of the University of Chicago. After college, he studied in a number of Orthodox yeshivot in Israel and now lives with his wife and family in New Jersey. He works as an analyst at a hedge fund and is the co-editor of Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. To get an entry point into Jeff’s thinking, read his thoughtful introduction to the book, and once you are there, check out Jeremy Kagan’s thought-provoking article on the history of rational thinking as well as the crucial conclusion to the work, accessible here

 

References:

18Forty – Samuel Lebens: The Line Between Rationality and Mysticism

18Forty – Zohar Atkins: Between Philosophy and Torah

18Forty – Simi Peters: Building New Faith Foundations

18Forty – Shmuel Phillips: Reclaiming Judaism

18Forty – Anxiety and Rationality: A Personal Anonymous Account

Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein & Gil Student

Judaism Straight Up by Moshe Koppel

Children of Skeptics” by Thomas Merrill

Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver: Honoring the Work of Leon R. Kass edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merrill and Adam Schulman

18Forty – Agnes Callard: A Philosophy of Change

An Argument for Businessmen” by Shalom Carmy

Permission to Believe: Four Rational Approaches to God’s Existence by Lawrence Kelemen

Permission to Receive by Lawrence Kelemen

Reason To Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith by Chaim Jachter 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré

Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Joshua Berman

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis by Leon Kass

Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon Kass

The Revelation at Sinai: What Does “Torah from Heaven” Mean? by Gil Student and Yoram Hazony

Jewish Self: Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World by Jeremy Kagan

The Choice to Be: A Jewish Path to Self and Spirituality by Jeremy Kagan

The Intellect and the Exodus: Authentic Emuna for a Complex Age by Jeremy Kagan

The Nature and Pursuit of Truth in Different Cultural Context” by Jeremy Kagan

The book of Daniel

David Bashevkin:
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore a different topic, balancingmodern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin. And this month, we’re returning back to the topic of Is Religion Rational? This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s 18forty.org where you could also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

There has been a long-standing debate between myself and my partner, Mitch Eichen, who really is the one who prompted me to begin 18Forty altogether about what topics should we be covering. And in the beginning of last year … and when I say beginning, I still, like many adults … when I say the beginning of the year, there are like three ways you could think about it. You could be one of those people who beginning of the year is January. You’re one of those people who the beginning of the year is whatever your first quarter is. Or like me, who never really left school. The beginning of the year is still September. I’m curious. What do you think about when you say “the beginning of the year?” I still think September, the school year. My goodness. I’m a grown adult, but the beginning of the year is still when I pack my book bag and go to OfficeMax to buy supplies.

But whatever it means to you, around the beginning of September, October time, I was talking to Mitch. And he pushed me, as he often does, to return and really do a deep dive into the topic of the rationality of religion. And I pushed back. I said, “This is not what our audience wants. This is not what really gets the listens. This is not what gets people excited.” People like more heartfelt experiential stories about people’s lives. And in many ways, I am right. And the hesitance came from a very good place.

I think when you think about what moves you religiously, very often, it is those heartfelt stories. Those sound clips that provide meaning, and really give you that spiritual nourishment that we so often don’t even allow ourselves to engage in. But I was wrong, because we’d launched Is Religion Rational. I think it dropped in November of 2021, and I was very skeptical. We began with an interview with someone anonymous, though a lot of people figured out his identity, who was struggling with grounding his religious faith. And that struggle began causing him actual panic attacks. And his own story, and then the experts in the field that we spoke to, including Sam Lebens, Zohar Atkins, Simi Peters, Shmuel Phillips.

We spoke to a few people in the field, and what we discovered really from the amount of listens, and even more importantly from the responses, was that there’s a really urgent need to address and to ground faith itself. And in some ways, I should have known this. I was shocked. In January, the real beginning of the year, we did on social media we did a campaign of our top ten episodes. And I would say nine of the top tendid not surprise me at all. It’s the ones that made the rounds and get forwarded on WhatsApp. And I’m so appreciative, and it means so much to me.

One of the ones that was in our top ten most listened to episode was this episode with Anonymous, with somebody who was grappling with faith itself, was grappling with the rationality of faith. And that did surprise me because this was a niche need. It was something that I knew some people grapple with. I didn’t realize how far and wide this had become. And in some ways, the issue was staring right in front of us in terms of the trends of the Jewish community itself.

I think that we have now entered the stage or have now almost become victims of our own success to affiliate with Judaism, particularly Orthodoxy in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s … probably way into the ’80s required a deep ideological commitment. You had to want to be Orthodox. You had to believe in the tenets of Orthodoxy itself. And those were the families who made incredible sacrifices to buy kosher food, to live in communities that had a day school and whatever it is. And that doesn’t dismiss the sacrifice that we are making now. But the inertia … the momentum with which the Orthodox community particularly now stands upon, and the amount of cultural and experiential capital that has been invested in our schools is absolutely catastrophically amazing.

I say catastrophically amazing because there is something that we have lost from that. In that for many who grow up within our community, they never really grapple or are forced to confront with the ideology of why on earth do I actually believe in this? Do I actually believe in this? And very often, the only people who are asking this question are people who made the choice to join our community. And that are maybe baaleiteshuva people who grew up without a yeshiva day school education didn’t have all the trimmings. Didn’t go to the right camps, and the right schools, and lived in the right community.

And in some ways there is a … and I hate using the term, but it’s true. There is a bubble of sorts. What I would call an experiential bubble that protects so many … and myself included in many ways, who grow up within the community. And I use “the community” very broadly. I use “the community” as a culturally dense religious Jewish community. And they grow up in an experiential bubble. The experiential bubble is powerful. It allows you to engage, and affiliate, and amass a rich Jewish culture in ways that when you were growing up in the 1960s in my parents’ generation, you had to make a choice to continue and to be involved in the Jewish community. It is not something that I think most in that generation took for granted at all.

And I think right now, we are at this cultural tipping point where almost if you grow up within it, it is so culturally rich you lose more by leaving than by staying. And that certainly was different in the ’50s and ’60s. There was so much more to gain. You weren’t getting the real estate deals, and all of this incredible cultural and organizational infrastructure serving you as part of the community. But there are real sacrifices. We’ve spoken about the financial sacrifices, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.

What we’re following up on is the sacrifice that I believe we are making, which is that we’re not really talking about, why are we doing this anymore? And for many people… though I think not for most. Most are successful. I love this. I’m doing it because it’s wonderful, because we’ve built this incredible infrastructure and universe that I want to engage and affiliate. But for some… And it’s not a small number, and I know that from the people who reached out from the amount of listens. There is a nagging feeling of, “I want to know that this is true. I want to know that this is capital T True. I want to know that this is real.”

And because there is so much buried underneath the cultural and experiential affiliations, which just as a side note personally, I see deep realness and spirituality in the experiential universe that we have created itself. But you need to make an argument to convince someone of that. And we’re not really making the argument anymore. We are basically standing on the laurels of the experiential universe that we’ve created. We are giving ourselves standing with that we’re number one trophy, and in many ways we deserve it. It’s incredible what we have built in the United States of America, in particular. The communal infrastructure. The rich affiliation that people leave with.

At the same time, attrition, and that nagging feeling that many people have, and find it increasingly difficult to find an answer to of how do I figure out if this is real? How do I reaffirm and reassert my ideological commitment to the community that I am a part of? Where do I go to to find that? And very often, especially in our contemporary discourse, when we talk about … this is an emunah problem. We have to strengthen people’s emunah. And I am not dismissing that, and I think that’s very important. But that language can mean different things to different people.

When some people talk about emunah, they talk about emotional inspiration, which nourishes me. I love that. But that’s not what everyone’s looking for. Some people are looking for the real intellectual grounding of their faith. They want to know if this is real. And what we often call “emunah” is really far more an emotional appeal and saying, “Look, this is wonderful. Listen to this story. Look at this example. Look at who this person was. Look at what this community has done.” And while that may be emotionally and spiritually nourishing, very often, there are many who still find themselves intellectually starving to figure out why do I have this ideological commitment? How do I make sense of the community around me? How do I uncover that first principle’s commitment to Yiddishkeit and to Judaism?

The religion is buried underneath so many of the sociological, experiential, and emotional infrastructure that we’ve built upon it ever more furiously, probably beginning in the 1990s. That’s when I was coming up. And the notion of a young and dynamic rebbe, and having experiential programming in schools, and having color war and the Yeshiva League as a term … And if you’ve never heard that term, you should look it up because I think it’s one of the most important trends in Orthodoxy. But yeshiva league, which is basically a Modern Orthodox centrist schooling. And that doesn’t discount the yeshiva world. I want to be absolutely clear. This is a major issue in the yeshiva world. People raised in Chabad…

This question of uncovering your ideological commitments underneath the incredible edifice of infrastructure that we have built around experiential, emotional, sociological affiliation is something that is not denominational. It is not based on a specific category. It’s not something that just the Modern Orthodox deal with, grow up. No. And it’s not something that just the yeshiva or just the, “Well, we need to do this in the chassidic…” No, this is a real issue that so many grapple with. And to minimize it as an issue in one community means that you don’t really understand what the problem is.

It’s not a problem. It’s religion itself. It’s grappling, and looking up, and saying, “What is this that I am a part of? How do I better understand how my sociological affiliations can reinforce something real? A connection to God? A connection to Amcha Yisrael, to Knesses Yisrael, to the Jewish people itself?” And that is why this topic, I believe, resonated with so many, and why I thought it was so important to return to it. And I hope this is not the last time we are going to return to it again.

But I’m beginning this return to this topic in an unusual way. And that is, I am talking to “some guy”. And you’ll see in the interview why I refer to him as “some guy.” I don’t expect anyone who does not live in his community to have ever even heard of him. And his name is Jeffrey Bloom. Jeffrey Bloom is, in fact, more than some guy, though that’s how he referred to himself. And I thought it was a charming way to almost entitle this very discussion.

Jeffrey Bloom edited a book that came out just after we released the series on religion and rationality. And the book is called Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. I love Jeff. I don’t think it’s a good title. I think Strauss, obviously named after the philosopher, Leo Strauss, and Spinoza are really just in the background of this conversation. But what he essentially did is he edited an entire volume, along with Alec Goldstein and Gil Student, and asked leading Jewish thinkers to weigh in on this question of how do we ground our faith? How should we be grounding and responding to our faith?

And he asked many former guests of 18Forty, including Simi Peters, Samuel Lebens, Moshe Koppel on a different series, Shmuel Phillips, Meir Triebitz, all former members … I think half of the contributors were former guests on 18Forty. So, we do have similar taste in dealing with the problem. But the problem to him is which what we talk about was really different, because he was not raised within the Orthodox community. So, the urgency with which he wanted to uncover and really ground his faith was something different, but something that I think all of our listeners could and should learn from.

The book in some ways is deeply satisfying. And as with all questions of faith, I have no doubt some will find it deeply unsatisfying. But that’s what I wanted to kind of return to and spend time with this month,really reacting, and trying to understand why did he write this book Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith? Jeff is, what I would call, a fairly yeshivish community. Sends his kids to really yeshivish schools. What are you doing dabbling in these questions? We have a good thing going as I ask him in the interview.

And I think his response, and the earnestness, and the fact that he’s not a trained philosopher. The fact that he’s not a rabbi. He works in finance. He is some guy … I think grounds our return to this subject in something so real, and is able to articulate it in a way this search for the grounding of faith. It’s something that we try to do all the time in 18Forty, which is to integrate scholarship into lived experience. To take the most pristine, lofty, and sophisticated ideas that sometimes stand on the top of the ivory tower, and build a bridge for others to grapple with.

So his book is absolutely fantastic. Again, he edited it. It’s called Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. And that is why I am so excited to introduce our conversation with Jeffrey Bloom.

So we’re going to jump right in.

Jeff Bloom:
Jump.

David Bashevkin:
It is my absolute pleasure to introduce someone who I have known through email for, dare I say, three, four years. We have exchanged many, many emails. Most of which I ignore. But it is very exciting to introduce really a thinker who I assume most of our listeners have never heard of, but is on a journey and has facilitated a journey that really relates to so many of the topics that we talk about in 18Forty. Thank you so much for joining us today. Our friend, Jeff Bloom.

Jeff Bloom:
David, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it. And I laugh when you say someone most of the listeners have not heard of, because I just want to say it’s the opposite. I’m just, like, some guy.

David Bashevkin:
You’re some guy.

Jeff Bloom:
You know, basically.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Jeff Bloom:
One of my kids once had one of these writing assignments at school where they had to say a reading log. What they read, and who wrote it. And one of my kids wrote like, “Some some book by some some guy.” I’m like some guy. You know? I’m just some some guy.

David Bashevkin:
But you know, what’s really interesting is, A, you’re not some guy because we built really a friendship, dare I say-

Jeff Bloom:
Sure, 100%.

David Bashevkin:
… through email. You emailed me cold, out of the blue. Feedback, thoughts, ideas. And you wrote this book, which is what I want to talk about. Because we started 18Forty for a host of reasons. We deal with points of dissonance, whether it is theological dissonance, sociological dissonance, emotional dissonance. How your religious life as an adult doesn’t always cohere with the stories or the way that you had hoped it would turn out as a teenager. Maybe somebody in your early twenties.

And this book really addresses head-on theological dissonance. It is called Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. And you edited this. Out of the clear blue sky, some guy edited this book with a rogue’s gallery of scholars, and more importantly, former 18Forty guests. People who have been on. Feel like you just went through. And you invited me to participate, and I regretfully turned you down, mostly because your email was really convoluted.

I could not understand what you wanted me to do. It was structured in a very scary way. I feel like we’re close enough that I can make fun of your email style right out of the gate. But I want to, can I read … I received this email. The email’s in the introduction. I want to read just the first couple sentences, and then we’ll unpack it.

Jeff Bloom:
Please. Sure.

David Bashevkin:
This is how the email began. “Leo Strauss…” Again, right out of the gate, I’ll be honest. I only know Leo Strauss really from-

Jeff Bloom:
I didn’t say like, “Dear David Bashevkin?”

David Bashevkin:
No, you did a, “Dear Rabbi Bashevkin,” but then you said, “Here’s the prompt.” This is what we were supposed to react to. Ready?

Jeff Bloom:
Okay.

David Bashevkin:
I’m going to read it to my listeners. Leo Strauss made what appears to be, at least at first glance, a very powerful defense of Orthodox Judaism against the claims of enlightenment. Strauss was not Orthodox, but he argued that Spinoza and the enlightenment that followed in his wake had failed to refute Orthodoxy, meaning Orthodox Judaism in a way. Here is Strauss in his preface to Spinoza’s critique of religion, meaning you’re now quoting Strauss’s introduction to his edition of Spinoza’s critique of religion.

And I’m not going to read the whole thing, but I’m going to read the beginning. “The results of this examination of Spinoza’s critique may be summarized as follows: if Orthodoxy claims to know that the Bible is divinely revealed, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, that Moses was the writer of the Pentateuch, that the miracles recorded in the Bible have happened and similar things, Spinoza has refuted Orthodoxy. But the case is entirely different if Orthodoxy limits itself to asserting that it believes the aforementioned things, that i.e. that they cannot claim to possess the binding power peculiar to the known.”

And this goes on for another few hundred words, essentially. And maybe you could jump in … what Leo Strauss, this great and storied philosopher, was pushing back on Spinoza is that maybe you haven’t refuted it. Because the world as we know it, we don’t necessarily have to trust the epistemic, which is a word for how we know things. We don’t have to trust science in this area. Maybe the whole world came about miraculously exactly as told in the Bible. And the language of faith and religion cannot be undermined by the language of enlightenment, because it can’t be disproven. Am I stating that correctly?

Jeff Bloom:
I mean, more or less. I don’t know exactly if I’d say it exactly like that, but it’s a complex argument, and we can try to unpack what it is. Let me if I can, can I kind of explain … how did we get to this point where I’m sending you this random email out of nowhere saying, “Hey, can you respond to this prompt?”

David Bashevkin:
I want to get there. I just want you to distill-

Jeff Bloom:
Sure.

David Bashevkin:
… what is this basic idea that he’s saying? Just distill it really plainly for me, because I was scared off by the email.

Jeff Bloom:
Sure.

David Bashevkin:
But I know it’s a search that our listeners have, because the series that we did that we’re going to talk about on the rational basis for religion reached so many more people than I could have ever expected. I didn’t want to do it. So, what’s the basic idea?

Jeff Bloom:
Fine. So, basic idea is that Strauss says that he does not think Spinoza and the enlightenment that followed in his wake refuted Orthodoxy if Orthodoxy is willing to make a certain concession. The concession is, in Strauss’s telling, that Orthodoxy can claim to believe the basic tenets of Orthodoxy, Orthodox Judaism. But it cannot claim to know them. He makes a distinction. He introduces a distinction between, simply put, belief on one hand and knowledge on the other. And I think the easiest way to sort of flesh out his argument, the example that always resonated with me personally that I use in the introduction to the book is the question of Bible criticism. It’s a question that you’ve talked about on 18Forty.

David Bashevkin:
Don’t remind me.

Jeff Bloom:
Don’t remind you. Sure. So when I was becoming Orthodox … and even today, one kind of Orthodox approach … a semi scholarly approach is to litigate every little detail. Academic Bible critics say X, and Orthodox scholars say not X. And then it’s on and on sparring back and forth. I always wanted a broader principle than just sort of refuting point by point these sort of thousands of details.

David Bashevkin:
I call this whack-a-mole theology. Another problem comes up. You bop it on the head and hope, wait for the next one.

Jeff Bloom:
And I always felt myself, I’m not going to have the time to research every single scholarly crevice of academic, biblical criticism. Some people have. One of your guests, Rabbi Joshua Berman, is an expert in that field. But even his thinking about this is not whack-a-mole.

David Bashevkin:
Correct. He is a founding principle.

Jeff Bloom:
Exactly. I think what Strauss is suggesting here is that you could look at biblical criticism, and say that these contradictions that are in the text. That biblical critics have classically examined, highlighted … One way to interpret them is as the way academic biblical critics have, and say, “This reflects the authorship of one group. This reflects the authorship of a different group.” And within the assumptions of academic biblical criticism, this is a very … I’m not knocking it.

David Bashevkin:
It’s compelling.

Jeff Bloom:
It’s within those assumptions.

David Bashevkin:
Sure.

Jeff Bloom:
It’s compelling. But the question is what are the assumptions? The assumptions are that the Orthodox story of how this book came to be is dismissed at the outset. I mean, the Orthodox version of events is there’s God, and Moses dictated the Torah according to God’s dictation, essentially. However you want to put it. Whatever sophisticated version of that thing you want, but there is a classic Orthodox picture of the God that transmitted the Bible to Moses at Sinai.

If you assume that did not happen because this seems preposterous. And then you have to figure out, “Well, how did this text get together?” Based on excluding that first assumption, we’ll explain the text. And within that assumption, like I said, who might argue with the academic Bible critics? I think the place where it’s interesting to me is you don’t have to make that assumption. You could make a different assumption. You could assume that the Orthodox account of how the Bible came into being, and then those contradictions that are explained as historical anomalies and telling us this, that, or the other about how the Bible was stitched together are actually vehicles by which God is communicating some kind of message to the Jewish people in the world, whatever those theological messages are. That’s the whole world of midrashim and Talmudic interpretation that takes all those contradictions, and deals with them, and gives it a different interpretation to what they mean.

David Bashevkin:
It almost lowers the bar of certain meaning. We don’t know it to be true, but we can still believe it because we don’t have irrefutable evidence. Is that what he’s saying?

Jeff Bloom:
Well, at the end of the day, I think what you have is to paint with broad brush strokes … I think brings out the problem is that you have two possible assumptions that you can bring to reading the Bible. One is that it’s a human document. It’s a purely human document. Or you could bring the Orthodox assumption to reading the Bible. I mean, look. Within that, there could be a lot of fancy subversions-

David Bashevkin:
Sure, sure, sure.

Jeff Bloom:
… within that, but let’s just paint with a really broad brushstroke. The question then becomes not all this whack-a-mole, let’s litigate every little detail. The real question that I think I felt I faced as a person coming to Judaism and trying to make sense of it all was, what assumption should one bring to the table? And I think that’s where Strauss is very helpful. He basically seems to say that the enlightenment brings one assumption to the table, and Orthodoxy brings a different assumption to the table. Each one has a coherent system within its assumptions. Once you’ve accepted the first move, everything else kind of can follow from that. So the real question facing a person, the debate between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy is really a question of what assumption you embrace.

David Bashevkin:
That is really well-stated. That first move, like a chess game that almost determines the rest of the outcomes is that founding assumption.

Jeff Bloom:
Yes.

David Bashevkin:
Now, I want to zoom out and talk not about-

Jeff Bloom:
Sure.

David Bashevkin:
… the book. I want to talk about you for a moment because you allude to it in the introduction. Jeff, will you let us say you live a fairly satisfying, nice Jewish life?

Jeff Bloom:
I don’t know. I mean, I hate to say yes to that because it sounds smug beyond-

David Bashevkin:
But yeah, you seem like a happy guy.

Jeff Bloom:
I mean-

David Bashevkin:
You don’t need to pour out your problems. I’m leading up to a question here.

Jeff Bloom:
Yeah. I mean, look, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in a non-Orthodox home. My parents got divorced when I was five years old. They were probably better at being divorced than they were being married. I spent weekends with my father. They basically got along after the divorce. I’m an only child. My father remarried, and I actually have a half sister. But the point is that I became Orthodox after college.

David Bashevkin:
Wait, I’m going to get to your Orthodox story. I want to start with the founding question. You look like a very easygoing, fully integrated. You seem like a really well-integrated. You live in a very frum community. You do. You’re living a frummer community than me. You’ve got, I’ve never seen-

Jeff Bloom:
I’m sorry. I have to stop you because it’s one of my favorite jokes, and I told you this once. We’re sitting around at the Shabbos table, and my wife and I were talking about that we’re well-integrated baalei teshuva. And my teenage son said to me, “If you have to talk about it, I just wonder how really well-integrated you are.” So yeah, yeah, but oh, for all intents and purposes, yes, we are, we live in an Orthodox community. Yeah. That’s us.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah, you look fully integrated. You look k’neina hara. You have a wonderful, beautiful family. And my question is, what are you doing messing with the system? What are you asking these questions for? We got a good thing going. You don’t like kiddush in your shul? You don’t like cholent? And I think you allude to this in your book, meaning, you write, and these are your words. You step outside. You said, along with the goal of giving Orthodoxy a chance to speak for itself, you have two ulterior motives for this collection. Sounds spooky, exciting. What is it? One touches, and I really appreciated this, on how we, Jews, talk among ourselves about Judaism, and the other touches on our participation in the larger conversation that goes on around us.

In terms of the internal conversation, Orthodox Jews produce a tremendous amount of erudite and thoughtful writings about Judaism. But the vast majority of it assumes the reader already accepts the assumptions of Orthodox Judaism and then proceeds to speak intelligently within those assumptions. But there is very little serious conversation about the assumptions themselves. This collection seeks to fill this gap. And the reason why I’m asking this question-

Jeff Bloom:
Sure.

David Bashevkin:
… to you in such a mischievous and personal way is because I think there’s a reason why we don’t talk about these assumptions, because we assume that if we can skip over the assumptions and justify it internally, we have a good experiential life that Orthodox Judaism offers. So don’t go rummaging around in the assumptions. The whole thing might collapse. So what I want to ask you is, why are you rummaging in the assumptions? You already made the leap. You already live an integrated, nice Orthodox life, it seems. Why would you rummage in the assumptions? Like isn’t there a risk? And I’m not talking like a rabbi looking to censor you. God forbid, I love this stuff. I get the heat for it. You live, you’re a professional. You’re not a professional writer. Why would you start rummaging around in the various assumptions in Orthodoxy if, in my opinion, I think the reason we don’t talk about it is by design?

Jeff Bloom:
So it’s a great question. It really, really is. It’s not just, so if someone asks a question and you say it’s a great question condescendingly, like, “It’s a great question.” No, it’s a truly great question, David. And I think that, first of all, I want to nod along in assent to the premise that Orthodoxy doesn’t have to per se answer these questions, or Orthodoxy has developed an effective strategy to more or less sidestep these questions or give a different kind of experiential answer to the question.

I said to someone who is involved in the education of baalei teshuva who didn’t write for the book, and I said, “Is your answer essentially that, give people such profound experiences, such profound Jewish experiences through learning Torah, through living a life of Torah and mitzvos, through exposure to that life, that it touches essentially the most foundational parts of their soul and they know that it’s the right thing to do, whether they can articulate in any kind of compelling way to maybe into themselves in the language of Western rationality exactly why this all makes sense?” Maybe they can’t paper over all the differences, the questions that come up, but it doesn’t really matter because it has the, quote-unquote, “binding character of the known” at a deeper level. And I think a lot of people live that way. And I think at some level, I might live that way at certain level. One of my contributors, Moshe Koppel, has a whole book called-

David Bashevkin:
Judaism Straight Up, former 18Forty, yes.

Jeff Bloom:
Which is a love song to living that way in certain respects. So I think you’re right that that itself is an answer to the question. How do you adjudicate between these two different assumptions? You have certain profound experiences that tell you, this is the way to live, and you go do it. And you live a life, and it makes sense. So why am I still rummaging around these-

David Bashevkin:
Yeah, we got a good thing going. Why rummage?

Jeff Bloom:
I think that, for me, it goes back to having a bit of almost a guilty conscience about something. I’d put it this way. I know for myself, and you and I have talked about this in different context, I know for myself, and I mentioned that my parents were divorced when I was five years old, I know that my initial attraction to Orthodox Judaism was very, very driven by exposure to Orthodox Jewish family life. I did not have that growing up, anything like that growing up. And it rings a very, very deep bell.

So the reason why I flag this is because I always wondered, well, is the reason I became Orthodox just because I’m attracted to the lifestyle, and therefore I’m willing to sort of gloss over all the tough questions? There was a famous argument within Orthodox Judaism. I think the main modern person who says it is Rabbi Elchanan Wassermann. Basically it’s, “Why aren’t people Orthodox?” He makes this argument that people are not Orthodox because it’s easier to live a non-Orthodox life. You don’t have to keep kosher. You can marry who you want. You can do what you want. You don’t have to get up for prayer services during the week, so on and so on.

David Bashevkin:
That’s the part that I always… A lot of Orthodox just don’t wake up for prayer services, but yes. That’s a famous argument that the reason, it’s because they’re not disciplined enough, but it’s obviously true.

Jeff Bloom:
Well, more than that, I wouldn’t even say the way he says not that they’re not disciplined enough. He puts it basically, they are bribed. They are bought off by the ease of life that a non-Orthodox life presents. So really, if they were intellectually straight about it. They would come to the conclusion of Orthodox Judaism, but because they’re bought off and bribed, their straight intelligence is sort of detoured by the desires of the body, the desire for more comfortable life. So they rationalize why not to be Orthodox. So that argument, put it like this. I’m not saying Rabbi Elchanan Wassermann is wrong. What I’m saying is-

David Bashevkin:
But doesn’t resonate with you, that argument.

Jeff Bloom:
Well, I’m saying the problem for that argument for me is that I knew deep down I had a counterclaim to it. I had a lot of bribe. Maybe my intellect was being bent the other way. Maybe I romanticized Orthodoxy because I wanted to, because I wanted to get in on this great lifestyle that appealed to me based on how I grew up. And what if someone comes to me and says, “Jeff, look, I get it. You grew up. Your parents were divorced. You had met Orthodox Jews. They were compelling. You saw family life. You saw a Shabbos. This is really nice. You wanted in.” I grew up very differently. I grew up in circumstances that led me to very opposite conclusions of yours. And therefore, I don’t romanticize Orthodoxy in the least spit. In fact, I don’t like it, and I am going to slam the door on the way out as I leave it.

So I always wondered, how does one adjudicate between these sort of claims? It’s clear that there’s some connection between our autobiographies and how we see the world. How far does that go? The bigger question for me was really, how to put it, that I knew at a certain level that I had certain attractions to Orthodoxy that were not rational. And I wanted to, I didn’t want to fool myself. I wanted to really push hard on myself and demand myself that I was trying to make as honest an assessment of why I was doing what I was doing as I could. And even after becoming Orthodox, so you’d say, “Good. So go to yeshiva, spend a year hashing this out, and then make a decision and get on with your life.” That’s kind of also implied in your question. And I think that yes and no. Life demands decisions of you, right? You’re in your 20s, you have decisions. Well, what lifestyle you’re going to live? How are you going to work? Who you’re going to marry? You don’t get to wait around until your 50 with perfect knowledge of 25 years-

David Bashevkin:
To figure everything out and then start looking.

Jeff Bloom:
And then, I’m going to get a time machine. Now go back to 22 and decide how to live. You have to pull the trigger. So I felt that I certainly had enough to pull the trigger and believe in what I was doing. But did these things stay? They don’t go away. It’s like a stone in my shoe. It’s still there at some level, this thought. I don’t think I ever worked this out to such an extent that it just disappeared. I think people are more complex in these kind of binary faith. Now, I’m Orthodox. Yeah, now I’m Orthodox with a whole lifetime of minivans full of baggage coming with me, intellectual, emotional. And part of it was this question, which, when I got to yeshiva, I talked about it with people, with some of the people who are in the book, some of the people who are not in the book, and it didn’t go away. It sort of stayed with me through the years.

And then just to sort of catch up to the introduction of the book, I read an essay by someone named Thomas Merrill, who’s a professor at American University, who’s a student of Leo Strauss’s thought. He wrote an essay that unpacks this essay of Leo Strauss’s. And one of the things that Thomas Merrill says in his essay about Leo Strauss is that when Strauss talks about Spinoza and Orthodoxy, he says that Orthodoxy, he calls it a silent interlocutor. Orthodoxy never gets a chance to speak in its own name. Basically Strauss puts an argument in its mouth and says, “If Orthodoxy says A, B, and C, then it has an adequate repudiation of Spinoza,” but he never asks Orthodox thinkers, “Is this how you approach it?” Or maybe-

David Bashevkin:
Is this you? Is this… Yeah.

Jeff Bloom:
Or do you have a different approach? So when I was in yeshiva at the beginning, I was asking people this exact question.

David Bashevkin:
Do you remember the name of that essay?

Jeff Bloom:
Sure. I quoted, cited in the introduction to my book. It’s an essay called Children of Skeptics. It’s in a volume-

David Bashevkin:
Called Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver. What a beautiful title honoring the work as a festschrift, it sounds like, honoring the work of Leon Kass.

Jeff Bloom:
Who was a very influential teacher of mine when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and a very influential teacher for Thomas Merrill. So they put together this volume, and I went to that essay looking for something else. It turned out it was unpacking this argument of Leo Strauss. And then, like he said, when I saw that Professor Merrill mentioned this point, it was electric for me because, wait a second, I was asking Orthodox Jews 20 years ago to explain to me how they think about this very question. Now I can go to Orthodox Jews today and ask them, “Well, is this how you think about it? Or do you have a better answer?” And that was really the genesis of the book.

David Bashevkin:
Now you wrote this book and really, I can’t emphasize enough. It’s not a criticism. In some ways it’s a lament of how little time. And I think we’ve almost forgotten the decades of the ’50s and ’60s when people really were, I think, more engaged in these type of foundational questions of belief and commitment. And I think we are a victim of our own success in the Orthodox community that we don’t have to pay as much attention to these questions of assumption because like I said in my question, we’ve got a good thing going, and most people don’t have the almost intellectual patience, or they don’t feel that rock in their shoe. However, it came to really question these foundational assumptions and the system more or less, again, with some very glaring exceptions of people whose Orthodox life does not cohere for some major reasons, what we would call, sociological dissonance or emotional dissonance. But for the large majority, we’ve really created an incredible system sociologically, and we offer a good life. But it doesn’t address necessarily these foundational assumptions.

Jeff Bloom:
Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think that’s great if all we want to do is talk to ourselves. But if you want to talk to someone who is outside of Orthodoxy and say, “Hey, you know, Judaism might have something to say to you,” then I think maybe the simple answer to that is, you just have to bring them in and kind of get them into the lifestyle at some level.

David Bashevkin:
I think most outreach organizations operate under that assumption, that a principled point-by-point or developing these essential assumptions is sometimes beyond the intellectual capacity of both the people on the outside and, frankly, a lot of people involved in Jewish outreach. It’s too much for them to bear. You know, it’s a lot.

Jeff Bloom:
So I think that a lot of baalei teshuva, people who become Orthodox, they want to speak somehow back to where they came from. So where I came from was this sort of University of Chicago, great books, intellectual milieu. And the people in that milieu, there’s a certain part of the population that’s going to want to have some serious engagement with the intellectual premises of what they’re doing. And I think this book is an attempt to really speak to that audience and a broader audience even beyond that to a non-Jewish audience, where we really… As I said in the introduction, my second ulterior motive, which you didn’t read out but I’ll just say it, is that there’s a constant drum beat among what I’ll call social conservatives, many of whom I’m incredibly sympathetic to, that if there was a return to God, if there’s a return to religion in America, many of our problems would be solved. Whether that’s true or not, there’s many people on the left who would say our problems would only be worsened if we return to God and religion.

But let’s stipulate for a second that you believe that a return to God and religion, at some level, would be a good thing. Let’s say for a second that you say that. But saying that, wishes aren’t horses. Just wishing it to be, what kind of thinking would we have to do to even get there? We’re so far from touching religion that what’s the bridge? And I think the bridge is thinking about, what kind of thinking would we have to do to think our way back into religion at any level? And that’s the second ulterior motive of the book, just to sort of provoke that conversation.

David Bashevkin:
So it’s always tricky to reflect on your own book, and what really fascinates me, honestly, even though you’re just, as we introduce you, some guy, what intrigues me more than anything else is you, frankly, because there is something very universal about your search, about your concerns. And the more highfalutin concepts in the book, while I found them fascinating and nourishing, I’m really intrigued by your journey. And I guess I would ask the question, given that there was something deeply personal about what brought you to the book and figuring out, “Why did I come to this, does it cohere? Was it just because I was looking for that warmth, that infrastructure, and the community of the Orthodox world can provide? Or was this really rationally grounded?” after finishing this book and looking back at it, do you think that you were successful?

Jeff Bloom:
If successful means slam dunk entire ribbon on it, I think when you’re dealing with questions that are sort of touching on infinite, infinity, and infinite topics, there’s no answer. They’re just asking the question better, kind of moving it forward, a little bit, the proverbial half an inch. But I feel like definitely, if I would kind of rephrase the question, what did you learn from writing the book?

David Bashevkin:
Well, get to that. That’s my next question.

Jeff Bloom:
That’s your next question.

David Bashevkin:
I’m curious about the rock in the shoe. Did it diminish? Is it the same rock that you feel in your shoe, that same nagging feeling?

Jeff Bloom:
It’s different. It’s like a better rock. It’s a much better rock. Do you want me to tell you what the better version of the rock is?

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. Why is the rock better now?

Jeff Bloom:
And it was only after the book was published and I got some feedback from people outside of the writers of the book. I have this friend, who he e-mailed me and said, “Were you offended by Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s essay? Were you personally offended by it?”

David Bashevkin:
Why would you be offended? Just give our listeners a nutshell.

Jeff Bloom:
So what Rabbi Carmy says, basically, in a nice way is he sort of says, “One of the things I’m asking my introduction is, ‘Is Strauss’s argument a good Orthodox Jewish argument?’” And Rabbi Carmy says, “Before we get to that, is it a good argument at all? Is it a good philosophical argument? Is Strauss even adding anything here?” And when Rabbi Carmy… He can speak for himself to paraphrase, but what I think he’s saying there is, at best, all Strauss does for us is make Orthodoxy a very remote possibility. So if you have on one hand, the axioms of the enlightenment, which seem so self-evident and so powerful-

David Bashevkin:
Obvious, yeah.

Jeff Bloom:
… and sort of, duh, and then you have the far out possibility of, yeah, God gave, Moses wrote the Torah as ascribed from the Orthodox account of the giving of the Torah. What does that get you? And why would anyone take that argument and be like, “That’s helpful”? Basically, my friend was saying to me, “You know, Jeff, if this turned you on to Orthodoxy when you were out of college, why? It was not such a great argument.” So that really helped me. And now I’m going to invoke, I’m going to bring in some 18Forty action because what it made me realize was you had on… I’m going to do a David Bashevkin. I’m going to talk about how I don’t know how to pronounce something, Agnes Callard or Callard-

David Bashevkin:
Agnes Callard, who I’ll just say-

Jeff Bloom:
Callard. That’s how she pronounces her last name?

David Bashevkin:
I have no idea, but we had her during the Teshuva series and one of the thinkers I am most proud of bringing on. Even though many people hadn’t heard of her, engaged with her work, but she was a game changer for me. But why are you mentioning her now?

Jeff Bloom:
So I knew of her before that because she’s sort of part of this University of Chicago, Leon Kass, she’s friends with Thomas Merrill, she was in the same undergraduate program that I was in in University of Chicago years after me. So I kind of knew of her from afar, but I didn’t know of the paradigm that you talked about with her, her book about aspiration. And even when I listened to your interview with her, I didn’t put all the pieces together. Only after my friend sort of was pushing me on, “Weren’t you offended by Rabbi Carmy’s essay…” He’s basically saying, “You’re an idiot,” in a nice way. And I think if I would put the pieces together, they go something like this, that what I needed from Leo Strauss, I needed Orthodoxy to be a more than zero possibility. Before Leo Strauss, Orthodox Judaism was something that I didn’t even consider to be worth talking about.

You’d come up to me in high school or even college, even though in college I’d had a very important seminar with Leon Kass where he taught Genesis and the wisdom of Genesis was sort of percolating me, but if you’d come to me in my senior year in college and said, “Orthodox Judaism,” I would’ve laughed at you. And I think that laughter, that’s a very important thing that Strauss says in the essay that I’m dealing with. He says that you could think for all intents and purposes that the enlightenment didn’t intellectually refute Orthodoxy as much as it mocked it. And sort of the mockery, for all intents and purposes, might be the refutation. And I think that I had that view. I think that that view, in a way, because the premises of the enlightenment are so… they are our premises, those are the premises we live with, so just to put Orthodoxy in the conversation, that’s what I got from Leo Strauss.

So to go from zero to more than zero is a big deal, at least from where I was starting from. Now to bring in the Agnes Callard thing, I already had a preexisting desire to take Orthodoxy seriously. I wanted to take Orthodoxy seriously. She talks about in 18Forty. I don’t think it’s the language she used, but you’re in a bit of a catch-22. You aspire to something, but you don’t really know what it is. So how do you know if you really want to do it or not? So you’re sort of like, “Where does that initial desire come from? How does that work out?” So for me, however we trace the initial desire, Jeff Bloom’s parents divorced when he was five, meeting Orthodox Jews, seeing Orthodox Jewish family life, you know, having my nose pressed to the window, you know, there was a little bit of an aspiration that was cooking, but intellectually, it wouldn’t even dawned on me to be Orthodox. And then Strauss sort of says, “No, it’s intellectually possible to be Orthodox.” It opens the door up enough that I can start walking through it and exploring it.

So I want to expand a bit on Agnes Callard’s idea of aspiration. I see my own religious life as roughly comparable to someone who grew up, let’s say, on rock and roll and popular music and didn’t even know that there was some kind of classical music that came before. So at first when I go out put on Bach or Mozart, I’m baffled by it. I’m bored. I have no taste for it. But if over time I start doing the things that one does to appreciate classical music, I get a teacher, I study it, I take piano lessons, I might develop a taste for it and really start to enjoy it. The same thing in a rough directional sense here. I grew up with an interpretation of the world based on the premises of secularism. I had no idea that there was a different way to see the world based on different premises.

I learned from Strauss that there might be another way to see the world. And as I started exploring it, I came to the conclusion that the rabbis of the midrash and the Talmud saw and understood things that I don’t and, quote unquote, becoming religious, means that I aspire over the course of a lifetime to see some part of what they saw, understand some part of what they understood, and participate in their world.

So, the same way with like music, you start doing the things that fulfill that aspiration. You get a teacher, you study, you participate in the world of Torah study and mitzvos, and that changes, kind of, what you appreciate. What kind of music resonates with you, so to speak, if that makes sense.

Does that answer the question you’re asking?

David Bashevkin:
Your intellectual and religious honesty and authenticity, honestly, I really mean this, is so moving. It’s moving to hear. You are a rare person, because you are so healthily situated within this world. But at the same time, you are intellectually fearless, courageous, and really confront your own assumptions in a very moving way.

Jeff Bloom:
David, I appreciate that, but I just want to say something. Why don’t we just talk about them more? I’m more of an exhibitionist about them. I mean, I think everyone has some version of this. Just not everyone wants to write about it, not everyone wants to talk about it.

David Bashevkin:
I think that you are making it too easy to talk about. There is a reason why it is hard to talk about, because I think most people within our community insist upon a level of certainty that even you in your own recounting, and you are a fully integrated from Orthodox, dare I say, yeshivish, or at least yeshivish-curious Jew.

And the level of certainty that we want people to arrive at is so high that I think we are afraid to have these conversations, and it’s just easier to skip over it, and cultivate that certainty through experience. Which is what we’ve been talking about. And I think it takes a measure of A, courage coupled with you don’t have the stakes, because you’re not a Jewish educator.

Jeff Bloom:
Right.

David Bashevkin:
If you fail, there is a safety net underneath you.

Jeff Bloom:
That’s a great point, and a really… I just went back to the University of Chicago, and I gave a talk to the people in this program, it’s called, Fundamentals: Issues and Texts. It’s the undergraduate version of a storied graduate program that are called the Committee on Social Thought where Leo Strauss was, where Leon Kass was. And they’re the real University of Chicago nerds. That’s how you produced Agnes Callard, that’s how you produced Thomas Merrill.

And the talk I gave to them was about living the life of the mind outside of the university. And it was from the same talk you’d give to a guy in kollel, who’s now about to go into the work world and become an accountant. He’s worried, what’s going to be with me? All my spiritual intellectual aspirations, what’s going to be? And when you just said to me this idea, because you’re not a Jewish educator, it’s you can go there. I think that’s a great point. Because people, they ask me, “Why didn’t you become a rabbi?”

I think I gave them bad answers. I think the real answer is because I think, if you stand up there and you’re the rabbi then, my shpiel is not acceptable.

David Bashevkin:
Correct.

Jeff Bloom:
Not acceptable just not because the community won’t allow it, because no, it’s really not acceptable. I mean, I saw certain rabbis, certain people that in the Orthodox world, we would call the gedolim, big rabbis, important rabbis, leadership rabbis, you know.

When I studied in Israel, I was in synagogues and I heard them speak. But more than that, I remember seeing a couple of them pray, and someone’s got to be really doing it.

David Bashevkin:
Correct.

Jeff Bloom:
And I felt when I watched these people, I’m not in their heads. I’m not between them and God, but it looked like whatever real prayer looks like. Wasn’t like you know, a lot of swaying and hands waved to the air.

David Bashevkin:
But they were really in dialogue and holding up-

Jeff Bloom:
I don’t know. I mean, as far as-

David Bashevkin:
We hope.

Jeff Bloom:
So, I’m saying, if you want to be a rabbi, you got to… Maybe I’m wrong about this, and maybe rabbis will tell me I’m wrong. I feel you have to be able to stand up with a degree of certainty that I, as some, some guy, that’s my official academic title, some, some guy, doesn’t have to have.

David Bashevkin:
Yes.

Jeff Bloom:
Do I have enough certainty to live my life? My little per se, Clifton Orthodox Jewish life, and commit myself and my wife and my children to this lifestyle? Yeah.

The only five people I’m responsible is my wife and my four kids. I’m not educating the Jewish people.

David Bashevkin:
Correct. It affords you a intellectual authenticity. And I am an educator, I am not a pulpit rabbi. Probably, in large part, because of what you’re saying. My dear friend and mentor Moishe Bane, when he, one time, was telling me why he didn’t become a pulpit rabbi. He said, “I don’t know that I would’ve become the rabbi that I would respect and look up to.” And I feel the same way with myself.

I’m doing something a little bit different, but it is scary. Meaning, if I don’t get to the finish line that my listeners want me to, people can write letters to get me fired. They could say that I’m fostering doubt and concern. I don’t have the luxury of being as intellectually open publicly. Though, obviously, I push that boundary as a layperson.

So, the theme throughout has been that you are some guy and obviously, that comes with certain advantages. How do you look at being some guy? You are not the official rabbi of a synagogue. You are not a leader of a educational institution. You’re not a teacher. How do you look at being some guy? Is this an advantage or disadvantage?

Jeff Bloom:
One of the downsides of just being some guy, is that there’s no way as just some guy I could get a project like this done. I was very lucky to have an early advocate and colleague in Rabbi Gil Student who, when I emailed him, the project resonated with him. He made two really crucial introductions from there.

He introduced me to Alec Goldstein, who is the publisher of Kodesh Press, and also the co-editor on this volume. And he introduced me to Rabbi Shalom Carmy who became a contributor, and had a lot of good suggestions about who else would add value to the project. And I just want to say here, that Alec Goldstein is really the unsung hero. I’m going to sing. I’m going to sing his praises. He doesn’t have to be the unsung hero, because we can sing his praises.

The book would not exist without him. He really rolled up his sleeves, besides all the things that a publisher does of actually the physical production of the book, and knowing how to do that. But he edited all the essays at a professional level that I would not be able to do on my own. And I just want to thank him. If anyone appreciates the book, then they’re really appreciating his work as much as mine or Rabbi Student’s.

David Bashevkin:
So, I love the way you described it, of allowing this to be a possibility. And then, almost the experiential aspiration, nurturing that possibility into full embodiment. I’m curious, and I know you could speak, and we could speak, any time we talk on the phone, it’s never for less than a half hour. I mean, we just don’t speak in five minute chunks, and now’s the first time that we’re seeing each other. I don’t expect it to be all that brief either.

What other essays for you resonated in a very deep way? It’s interesting that I asked, what did you learn? And you went to the one essay that was most dismissive of the very pursuit you were after, which was Rabbi Carmy’s essay, which has this absolutely lovely title called, An Argument for Businessmen. Is this an actuarial table to figure out the possibilities?

And obviously, you were the editor, so these are people you invited to write. I’m not asking you to knock or to rank, but I’m asking Jeff, not the editor, but Jeff, the some guy.

Jeff Bloom:
Yeah.

David Bashevkin:
What resonated with you? What were the ideas that really nurtured a part of your own commitment?

Jeff Bloom:
Do you want me to do it in a five-minute mentality?

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. Because I know what.

Jeff Bloom:
Fine, fine. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I can do it.

There’s three essays I would flag, and this is not to throw the rest of them under the bus. The rest of them-

David Bashevkin:
God forbid.

Jeff Bloom:
I want the book to be a buffet for people, take what you like and leave the rest. And if there’s something that is useful for you, I say it, I want it, if there’s something useful for your thinking there, great. If not, then you know, not.

So for me, the things that were particularly useful were, there’s two essays which essentially, make the argument that the axioms of belief are actually superior to the axioms of disbelief. That’s Rabbi Eliezer Zobin’s essay, and Moshe Koppel’s essay. I think they’re kind of similar. They’re related.

David Bashevkin:
Just give me another sentence on what they’re saying. The axioms of belief are superior.

Jeff Bloom:
The question I’m asking is, how do you adjudicate between these two different assumptions? To go back to our beginning of our conversation, I could assume one thing, or I could assume the other. How do I decide which thing to assume?

David Bashevkin:
Correct. The founding assumption. Faith versus enlightenment.

Jeff Bloom:
So, Rabbi Zobin and Moshe Koppel, Professor Koppel, they both make arguments to say why one should assume the assumptions of belief. That’s their approach to the questions, and they make arguments down that road. I don’t want to rehearse them here, but that’s the approach they take.

The other essay that for me is very important, is Rabbi Jeremy Kagan’s essay because… And I say this in the conclusion to the book, we wrote an essay trying to tie together the different themes. And what I say there is he’s from Hawaii, he’s a nice person. He wouldn’t come out and say it this harshly. But what he’s really saying is that the question that I’m asking is a mistake, because the question is trying to use a certain set of tools.

It’s trying to use the tools of Western rationality to decide between these two different foundational assumptions you can make. But the answer is coming from a different genre than Western rationality. And his essay explains and explores what that genre is. There’s this word that we have no other word, but God, if we could just retire it called, spirituality. He’s talking about what this is and where it comes from, and that was very, very powerful to me.

And it gets back to, again, to the beginning of the conversation. The question assumes… I’m just going to repeat what I say in the conclusion for the people who haven’t read it or are not going to read it. I came to the book, and you know there’s a guy who says, “If God could just do a miracle for me, then I’d believe”?

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Jeff Bloom:
If I could just see like something. My question was sort of, if I would kind of make a cartoon out of my question, if someone could just give me an intellectual reason to pick one assumption over the other, then I could really be this wholehearted Orthodox Jew and believe. And Rabbi Kagan’s saying that’s just a really bad approach. Yeah, that’s not it.

Faith, emunah is not a thought you think, but it’s an experience you have. He basically, again, language is hard. I’m going to say it and leave it. Essentially, I think what he’s saying is that you participate in the truth of God. You don’t think about the truth of God, you participate in the truth of God. That’s sort of the thunderous crescendo of his essay.

David Bashevkin:
Those resonated a great deal with you.

Jeff Bloom:
For Jeff Bloom, personally. Jeff Bloom, personally.

David Bashevkin:
For Jeff Bloom, not the editor, Jeff Bloom-

Jeff Bloom:
Some, some guy.

David Bashevkin:
The some guy.

Jeff Bloom:
Some, some guy.

David Bashevkin:
Some guy. There’s one thing that I think was missing, and maybe I missed it in the book, but I’m so intrigued. You came and were nurtured from what we would call the baal teshuva world, which is the world of people who come to Orthodox life later on in life, you weren’t raised in an Orthodox home. You came to it later in life. And you wrote a book about Orthodox Judaism and modern questions of faith.

Yet, there was something that I saw missing in the book, and maybe I missed it and it’s there, but I thought it would feature much more prominently. And those are the more classical proofs of Orthodox Judaism, of God in general, that were featured quite prominently within the baal teshuva movement. Whether in Discovery seminars, or the way that you introduce somebody, you want to wow them, you want to knock them off their feet.

Why isn’t that featured more prominently in your book, if at all? Maybe I missed it.

Jeff Bloom:
Good question. Truth be told, one of the main expositors, Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, I think is sort of magnum opus. He’s got a big book on it. He is well known for this. I asked him to write for us. We reached out to him. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t have time. We couldn’t get him and-

David Bashevkin:
Well, I’m not asking.. This is Jeff the editor answering. I asked Jeff, some guy, do they play a role in your faith? You haven’t mentioned them until the very end now. And I brought it up.

Jeff Bloom:
Yeah.

David Bashevkin:
We have a classic set of books that deal with foundations of faith that we use. I’ve seen them used in multiple settings. And here I am talking to a baal teshuva, and you’re quoting Leon Kass, you’re quoting Leo Strauss. You’re quoting Thomas Merr… What about the classic, I would call kiruv literature.

What we give out to somebody to give them Permission to Believe, Permission to Receive, Reason to Believe. We have a genre of writing that addresses these type of questions, and it seems that they are missing from Jeff Bloom’s journey.

Jeff Bloom:
You’re right. I think I’ve read a decent amount of them. And I know some of these people, and I respect these people. The authors who… These authors.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. We don’t have to… I’m not asking you to come at… I’m just, I’m noticing a lacuna.

Jeff Bloom:
No, you’re right. And I think the reason is, when I read this material as a baby baal teshuva a long time ago, I just felt it didn’t resonate with me because of the Strauss question. What I mean is to say, that all the arguments that were being made always sounded good, sort of, if you sort of accept, I still felt the tension between the two premises.

Because I always felt anything that these books say, someone else can make a counter argument against. This could be whack-a-mole again. I’m going to be playing an elaborate game of whack-a-mole. People can critique these books and there’ll be, “Well, what about this? And what about that?” And they’ll answer, “No, this…” And I just, to me, it was like exhausting.

But the critiques had one set of assumptions. The books had one set of assumptions. So, I felt like I’m back again. I felt like I was always, at the end of the day, I felt for me personally, maybe other people will hear this and disagree and just think it’s bunk. And that’s fine. For me, Jeff Bloom, some, some guy, the most fundamental question of faith was how to make sense of these two starting assumptions. The assumptions were the key, not what came out of the assumptions.

Does that make sense?

David Bashevkin:
Yeah, no, I appreciate it. And I’m just really fascinated with your approach and what you’ve put together is really, really a marvel. I’m curious now in your day-to-day life, do you interact with people who are on this baal teshuva journey? Because the questions and the way you deal with them are not what I have typically seen associated with the movement.

And I know I’m painting with a very big brush. I am somebody who works within the baal teshuvamovement. If I recommended this book to be used inside of most baal teshuva circles, I think I’d be laughed out of the room. Like, “Are you crazy? Are you serious? Are you kidding me? Nobody has these issues.” Or, “This is not going to solve anything for anybody.”

Do you deal with people who are struggling with this?

Jeff Bloom:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, look, my most immediate contact point are the people who went to the yeshiva that I went to, so I know a lot of these guys, I’m part of that community. I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from people in my immediate baal teshuva circles, that people are reading the book, that they’re getting a lot out of it. That it’s meaningful to them, that it’s dealing with stuff that they’re dealing with.

And I think that the idea that no one’s dealing with this is people might not articulate it in this way, but I think that most people… And this is where I’m a little bit different than Moshe Koppel, with tremendous respect to him. He influenced my thinking a lot, his book and his essay in my collection. But I feel like the secular world is so powerful in our lives. It is so dominating and domineering.

What I mean to say is, that even if you’re Orthodox and you live in your Orthodox bubble, you are constantly… It’s like the ether. It’s like it’s just there and the assumptions, and the premises, and the power of it. The power and the reach of modern science and that as a sort of ta-da, look, if you assume these premises, you get a man on the moon, and you get an iPhone, and you get so forth and so on.

It just, it’s so ever present that to me… Maybe it’s just me. Maybe this is just my little weird soapbox. But to me, I feel like it’s the boogeyman that’s lurking for a lot of people, and therefore, we get so defensive. Therefore, “Ah, the secular world, it’s terrible.” Blah, blah. We get so angry. Because what do you get angry at? There’s this great line. Again, doing a classic Bashevkin, how do you pronounce John le Carre? Is that the spy-

David Bashevkin:
Oh, I know it’s spelled in a way that I would never even attempt to pronounce it.

Jeff Bloom:
Right. I’m going to Bashevkin it as LaCuray, John LaCuray. So, he has a book called, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

David Bashevkin:
Sure. It was made into a movie.

Jeff Bloom:
Made into a movie. I don’t think this line is in the book, I think it’s in the movie. But basically the British spymaster says he’s going to beat the Russian spymaster. Because the Russian spymaster, he’s a fanatic. And a fanatic always harbors a secret doubt.

David Bashevkin:
Such a beautiful line. It’s said by the character George Smiley, “He’s a fanatic, so we can stop him. Because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”

What a beautiful, powerful line to think about that. But what do you take from that?

Jeff Bloom:
What I take from that is that, I just wonder people who are humming along living their sort of experiential from life, and they kind of know what’s true, and it’s nagging them. It’s bothering them at some level that there’s a secular world. They don’t have answers for it. It’s so powerful. It’s so ever present. Do people harbor a secret doubt?

Maybe they don’t, maybe they don’t. And therefore, no one needs Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. But if someone is harboring a secret doubt, because they feel like the secular world in their life is this sort of boogeyman that has not been addressed. I guess, since we’re living in the Western intellectual world, we’re immersed in it, it’s hard for us to live in a way and say, “Well, I can’t answer it on its own terms, but that’s fine.”

And it’s a hard way to live. I would struggle to live that way. I just wonder if it’s more of a stone in people’s shoe than they let on. I don’t know. I don’t know. My experience is unique. I’m a baal teshuva coming in from the outside. So, maybe I think everyone has these problems and they don’t. But maybe more people do than… I don’t know.

David Bashevkin:
It’s interesting. I think it affects a lot of educators. I think that because again, and I’m the inverse, maybe I’m the Jeff Bloom of educators. I’ll pull a Jeff Bloom. But this idea that we need to have a concrete answer and path for people who are struggling with faith, and to have it built out sequentially. And if you don’t have it, that’s somehow an indictment on your life choices and decision, is a hard pedestal to be placed on. And I don’t think, halevai, so to speak, that people placed you on a moral pedestal. I don’t think that’s what it is.

But people are like, “If this is what you’re doing with your life and you better be able to articulate pretty clearly why for yourself and for others.” And that’s really tough because I find that the sophistication of questioning, much like your own, has really accelerated, and it’s easier to just not confront with the assumption-type questions. And it’s exhausting, and it’s sophisticated, and it’s tricky, and it’s elaborate.

For me, and the position that I’m in, 18Forty and the circles that I have, I feel that I run on empty many times. I need things to nourish me, because I have so many people like, “Okay, if you don’t have the answers, then they’re probably not even out there. So, like what do you got? Give me your best shot.” And I do think that your book was a very noble attempt at confronting the question, giving it the dignity that it deserves, which I think very often, it does not. We skip that over, and give me something to hold onto. There’s this ocean of modern life that we are all trying to find our way through, and books like this.

And really people like yourself even more than the book, frankly, is a raft. It is a float and say, “At least collect yourself and find a way to ground yourself, because these waters are really difficult to navigate. They’re really, really challenging.”

I always wrap up my interviews and I really can’t thank you for your time on that. You’re laughing right now. Why are you laughing, Jeff?

Jeff Bloom:
Because I’ve listened to enough 18Forty. I know I’ve got to embarrass myself how bad my sleep hygiene is and I have to-

David Bashevkin:
Oh, no spoilers, no spoil… Please, please. No spoilers. That’s a grave sin on 18Forty. We don’t jump the gun on questions. No sirree, my friend. My first question I always ask, and I’ll maybe rephrase it.

Somebody who is struggling with their faith and is looking for grounding. We’ve mentioned your book, Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Questions and Modern Questions of Faith.

What other books would you recommend that they put on their bookshelf to serve as a raft of sorts? Some way to ground them, perhaps even a cruise liner. Something to help ground them in this ever changing, ever kind of being lost in this modern world, what books would you recommend?

Jeff Bloom:
So, I think there’s three, two and a half come to mind. The first is Rabbi Joshua Berman’s, Ani Maamin, which is sort of a… I’m going to call it a high-middle brow articulation of, I mean, versus his… He’s got a whole body of academic work that I think would be challenging for most people, including myself. I’m not going to hack through it all, but he’s sort of-

David Bashevkin:
And my partner in 18Forty, just you should know, actually sponsored the book and we’ve had him on the podcast really early when we dealt with, and almost drowned talking about biblical criticism.

Jeff Bloom:
What I love about the book is that he’s not playing whack-a-mole, as we said at the outset. His book is its own freestanding answer to the question I’m asking in my book. And to answer this question, he’s basically articulating a very sophisticated, I’d say as sophisticated as I’ve seen, picture of how, what’s called the Oral Law in Judaism, works.

And that is a huge service because what I’m saying is, the question that he’s dealing with is, how is it that Judaism and Jewish texts have a history, but they still can speak beyond their historical context and make a claim to be universally true? That is the third rail or to mix metaphors, it’s like a tightrope.

David Bashevkin:
Oh, the third rail was the right analogy, because having touched it in the past on this very podcast, it burns, my friends. Oh, it burns.

Jeff Bloom:
Because if you go one direction and historicize then, you’re basically diluting the truth claims of Judaism in a way that Orthodoxy refuses to do. But if you go too far the other way, you’re making Orthodoxy this absolutely ahistorical thing that is untethered to history. So, he’s done as good a job as anyone I know. I mean, again, some, some guy, maybe.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. I’ve spoken about it. I have some gnawing, and I love his work and I love him. I have some gnawing issues with the conclusion, but I think he really does an incredible book. Okay. That’s book number one, Ani Maamin, Joshua Berman.

Jeff Bloom:
Yeah. And I just want to say, I’m not signing off on everything that he writes, but I’m saying that the framework that he presents is a very powerful, helpful framework.

That is a book I’ve given to people and said… A friend of mine said, “I think you have a cartoonish picture of biblical criticism in your introduction.” I said, “Okay, good point.” I’m not dealing with the sophisticated, mini claims of biblical criticism. Ani Maamin, I would read that book.

David Bashevkin:
Okay.

Jeff Bloom:
The other book I would give to someone, an insider or an outsider, someone who’s Orthodox or someone who’s not Orthodox, or maybe both, it doesn’t matter.

David Bashevkin:
You tell me.

Jeff Bloom:
I happen to be a big, big fan of Leon Kass’s two books. One is called The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. The second book, more recent, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus. They’re not Orthodox books, and they don’t claim to be Orthodox books, but what they do so beautifully, it’s as good a shot as you’re going to get as sort of you’re a Jew, or even a non-Jew, do these books have wisdom? Is there something here? Is there something to talk about?

And what’s so beautiful about those two books, in my mind, it just hit me, the depth of the subtitles, “Reading Genesis” it’s not an interpretation of Genesis. It’s not an interpretation of Exodus. He’s teaching you how to read. And he is a world class reader of texts. And I think that if someone progresses from Leon Kass’s beis midrash to an Orthodox Jewish beis midrash, as I have, you find that some of the best readers of Jewish texts in the Orthodox beis midrash read very similarly to the way Leon does. So in a way, it’s like a gateway drug, at least it was for me. So I would really recommend his two books very highly.

David Bashevkin:
My next question, I’m always interested, if somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical with no responsibilities whatsoever, to go back to school and get a PhD, what do you think the subject and title of that PhD would be?

Jeff Bloom:
The subject would be this question of the Oral Law that I was talking about before that Rabbi Berman is, sort of the territory that he covers in Ani Maamin, not the biblical criticism territory. And this is territory that I think you care a lot about. I’m not the first person to want to go down this road and deal with it. I think Rabbi Student and Yoram Hazony

David Bashevkin:
Gil Student, another 18Forty former guest.

Jeff Bloom:
They just edited a book Torah from Sinai. Dealing with sort of these questions of,

David Bashevkin:
I read that. Sure.

Jeff Bloom:
Progressive revelation, which really gets into these like thorny, thorny issues of the Oral Law itself. And what is the human contribution to Judaism? If I could go back and get a PhD, it would be to unpack those issues probably with a thinker that I know you know far better than I do. Rav Tzadok HaKohen, I think is a very important voice

David Bashevkin:
Gil and I do not see eye to eye on this subject, though I admire him and I also fear him. So I’m not going to go unpack that in depth but the question that he is dealing with of “can traditional Orthodox thought and life countenance the notion of progressive revelation?” Is something that needs more discussion, unpacking, and would be a great subject for your dissertation. I hope you get a hold of that great deal of money. My final question I always ask our guests. I’m always curious about sleep schedules. What time do you go to sleep at night? And what time do you wake up in the morning?

Jeff Bloom:
It’s a mess. You know, I think it’s a mess from COVID. I Started working from home during COVID and that’s really thrown stuff off. So it really, I aspire to go to sleep at 11:00, 11:30 and get up at like seven-ish. And in reality, it’s more like 12:00, 12:30, 1:00 and getting up at 7:30, that kind of stuff. Something like that. It’s embarrassing. Cause I really aspire to better sleep habits than I have.

David Bashevkin:
Jeff, nothing that you have shared today could be described as embarrassing, honestly. And I really do mean this, our friendship, which is really bizarre and can’t be rationally explained, there is a mystery to it, really founded just through email, but I already feel comfortable teasing, but more than anything else, you inspire me. And I think there is an authenticity and a courageousness to what you are willing to confront that can help so many. So for your book and everything that you do, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jeff Bloom:
David, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to come and chat with you. Thank you.

David Bashevkin:
Jeff’s introduction, which we’re going to share on the website is absolutely phenomenal. And I just want to read again what I read on the interview because I think it’s so important where he makes that distinction between our internal and external conversation about grounding Yiddishkeit, grounding our faith itself. In terms of our internal conversation, Jeff writes, “Orthodox Jews produce a tremendous amount of erudite and thoughtful writing about Judaism, but the vast majority of it assumes the reader already accepts the assumptions of Orthodox Judaism and then proceeds to speak intelligently within those assumptions. But there is very little serious conversation about the assumptions themselves. This collection seeks to fill this gap.” And I think that’s so important. And so real that sometimes we spend so much time on the sociological experiential. We take it for granted and then start building on top of it, but no one is binding the foundation itself.

And one of the people that Jeff mentioned that I think is so important and that I actually reached out to because he has an absolutely seminal impact on my development and I want to highlight his thought, his books and who he is, and that is Rabbi Jeremy Kagan. I reached out to Rabbi Kagan, and if you’re still listening now, I hope you continue to listen because I want to share some of our conversation, which we will eventually share in full, but I wanted to append it here because I think of all of the essays here, it is the thought of Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, which really comes at this question in a totally different way. Rabbi Jeremy Kagan is the author of several books that I want to mention. Not all of them I think are still in print. The book that had the impact on me is called the Jewish Self: Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World.

It’s a book that I read when I was studying in yeshiva in Baltimore and I literally took notes on it. I still have much of my notes on the book. I read it page after page and in my mind it is the best English introduction to the school of thought of Rav Tzadok HaKohen M’Lublin, the chassidic leader who played a seminal impact on me as interpreted by another towering giant, who we’ve never spoken about really in depth. And that is Rav Moshe Shapiro. If you want an introduction to kind of this American brand, what’s known as “machshava,” Jewish thought, in a really sophisticated, thoughtful and accessible way. The Jewish Self: Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World really opened up my eyes to a new way of looking at myself and the world. His other book, The Choice to Be: A Jewish Path to Self and Spirituality actually won the National Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought. Another fantastic book in his most recent book is by Koren, The Intellect and the Exodus: Authentic Emuna for a Complex Age.

Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, and I’m going to play a clip in a moment, his essay is called The Nature and Pursuit of Truth in Different Cultural Context. And his starting point is absolutely fascinating. It is about our sense of self itself and why the descriptions that we read in the Torah seem so foreign and the evolution of self itself, the evolution of our own consciousness and what he challenges the modern mind to maybe question or think about is whether or not the pair of glasses through which we look at the world, maybe that in and of itself has been corrupted. Maybe our very lens through which we see the world is so isolating, so remote, and the level of skepticism for the outside world is actually not the right way that we should be approaching these massive questions and understanding the gap between the more collective God-infused universe, as described in the Torah, and the more modern, isolating, individualistic sense of self through which we approach the world today may be the starting point for so many important discussions of why modernity and religious commitment have such a hard time operating with each other.

Whenever I think, and I’m sorry if I lose anybody, you know, when I recorded this interview, I said, we might be in the wrong topic. I need to come back to you for when we talk about consciousness itself. And that’s a topic that I very much want to explore. Cause I think the very notion of consciousness, the very notion of epistemology, how do we gain knowledge and how do we assimilate knowledge? How do we acquire knowledge? Are some of the most important questions. When you can Google Boltzmann brains and you know, the starting premise of Descartes, how do we even know that we are real? The questions that modernity leads you to are so startling, so wild, that to maybe ask for a moment and consider the gap between our contemporary modern lens through which we peer at the world, which does rightfully so. It’s the hardening of the self as we discuss in this clip, what have we lost through that? And is there a world, a approach to reality, that sees our collective connectedness that maybe we have lost that underlying divinity in the world itself that modernity has asked us to forfeit? And understanding that gap is really something that Rabbi Jeremy Kagan articulates so masterfully and so beautifully.

So I want to share with you a brief clip of our conversation and I hope in future weeks or a month, we’ll be able to drop the entire episode. But for right now, because I really think it was a standout, not only in this collection, but in the thought itself and how we think about rationality and maybe questioning rationality as a tool in and of itself for where it leads us is so very important.

There is a rabbi, a thinker who, if you are familiar with his ideas, he hovers beneath nearly every page that you have written. You have written some phenomenal books, The Jewish Self, The Choice to Be, you just published a book with Koren called

Jeremy Kagan:
The Intellect and the Exodus,

David Bashevkin:
The Intellect and the Exodus. The choice to Be, it was either a finalist or won the Jewish Book Award.

Jeremy Kagan:
It won the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought.

David Bashevkin:
Which is really, really, really incredible. Makes me incredibly jealous of you. I did not get the gig at any of those prizes though. I desperately wanted them. That thinker is somebody who I’ve only heard from, from a distance I’ve heard them in person is Rav Moshe Shapiro, who was a towering figure of Jewish thought and philosophy. And you wouldn’t say this about yourself, but I’ll say it because I’ve read a lot of people who have presented his thought primarily in Hebrew, the best presentation of his thought, in my opinion, are your books in English. I think they’re better than nearly all of the Hebrew works and certainly anything that they have tried to put out in print in English, your works just tower over them in terms of their clarity, the way that they’re assembled. How did you find him and what is it about his thought that stands at the center of the way that you ground faith?

Jeremy Kagan:
(Laughs) Rav Moshe Shapiro was an astounding genius. To have the opportunity to learn from someone, it’s actually the second towering genius that I ran into in my life. I ran into one when I was at Yale, that gave me a very historical approach to sort of understanding culture and really it turns out to be sort of beliefs or what you might call those truths that we find self evident, understanding that there really is a historical cultural basis to these things. That was the first time I really woke up, I think in a real way, intellectually.

David Bashevkin:
And that’s Karsten Harries?

Jeremy Kagan:
That’s right. And I had all of one conversation with him. And that one conversation was asking him to let me have the lecture notes to a series of lectures that he gave, but so influential over me. But when I got to Eretz Yisrael and I started hearing the classes from Rav Moshe Shapiro, it’s interesting, his presence was so amazing. Also, the first time I heard him speak, I had just entered a yeshiva that he was the rosh yeshiva of, and I was so mesmerized by his presentation that he actually called me into his office to sort of talk to me. I was new guy in the yeshiva and then it became immediately obvious that I don’t speak any Hebrew and had no idea what he was saying, but he said it was such power that I just, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. It was like, it was unbelievable.

And to a certain extent, I learned conversational Hebrew in order to be able to understand his classes. But he was a person who brought a level of depth and breadth. That was the equal of anything I’d heard from this Karsten. Karsten Harries, like I said, was really an awakening for me and Rav Moshe Shapiro. I can’t judge between individuals on that level. And obviously Karsten Harries is not, does not have access to Torah, but he has a very ethical foundation. But there was the ability to be able to look at ideas, see them in their larger context, but also understand them on a detailed level and understand how those details reflect those larger truths. It’s a breathtaking experience. And I had that very much when I listened to the classes of Rav Moshe Shapiro and they really introduced me to a level of depth and sophistication in Torah, which was something coming off of my experience at Yale that I think was really important for me.

David Bashevkin:
I don’t mean to be dismissive and I could hear you because I had met and I had seen Rav Moshe Shapiro. I’m not as familiar with the works of Karsten Harries, but I want to move away from like the adjectives and I want to move closer to it. What I have always found so fascinating at the way that you present the Torah of Rav Moshe Shapiro is almost the analogy of the historiography of consciousness itself, and an understanding that when we peer into biblical descriptions of a prophetic world of what world we are peering into and what lenses we are looking for. What is the central theory that you use to understand the modern world that we live in and the prophetic world so to speak, the biblical world, the world of described when we read the Torah that we lost?

Jeremy Kagan:
I just want to preface this by saying this was a very small part of Rav Moshe Shapiro’s thinking, but it was something that you could hear bubbling up, always in the context of things that he was saying. For him, this was a very small part. And it was one that I was extremely sensitized to because of what I’d done at Yale. So for me, it was very much kind of a continuation, but I basically put it to you like this: you see with the passage of time, that’s the internal awareness, what sort of defines the internal world of a human being, has been moving continuously, certainly from the time of Matan Torah to our present continuously, we become increasingly anchored in our individuality and to a certain extent, our awareness of physical material existence and that the more we become entrenched in that the more we’re cut off from the deeper aspects of awareness and consciousness that connect us to something that transcends our individuality.

You can see very clearly that process unfolding continuously from Matan Torah to the present and that you pass a certain watershed as the Second Temple is being built there’s a Gemara that speaks about it. I speak about it in most of my books that talks about the fact that the Jews petition got to eliminate the evil inclination man to worship idols. But what that really means is that we pass the point where the anchor of our awareness and consciousness, it was in a depth of self that transcended our individuality and became centered in something which was very much defined by us as distinct individuals broken off from everyone around us. And this is something that echoes throughout Chazal on many, many, many different levels. And when, Chazal talk about this sort of cultural development, the development was going on internally, the end of prophecy, the different cultural characteristics of the different empires that have conquered the Jews, ending up with what we call Edom or Rome, which is a modern Western sort of intellectualism is just the direct descendant of everything that represents you see this line taking face very, very clearly.

And just becoming aware of that was so important to me because otherwise when you read Chumash it just looks like a fantasy. It looks like a myth. It looks like I don’t know what you call it, but you can’t take it. It’s difficult when you see all these miracles taking place, you’re talking about prophecy. It has nothing to do with the world as we live in it. And if you’re going to take Chumash seriously, you’re going to have to know how to make a bridge between the nature of our consciousness and the consciousness that you have to project to make any sense out of biblical experience and the experience of Tanach.

David Bashevkin:
Why is, and you used the term, “the hardening of the self,” the fact that the reality, the tangibility, so to speak of my own sense of self as the exclusive arbiter of how I process the world. Why is that such a central component in the way that we look at religious life and modern life? Why is that the fulcrum with which in your presentation, modernity really merges?

Jeremy Kagan:
Well, because the whole point is that means that if I have a sense, the way that I experience myself internally, I project onto the world around me, in terms of my understanding of what the world actually is. This is like a basic idea and the more you think about it, the more I think obvious that it is, but the only being that we have access to is our own. Everything else we see from the outside, it’s what it looks like. So we want to know what it is, we can only do that by projecting our own experience of ourselves onto that world around us. If my internal experience does not give me any access to any reality that transcends my own personal existence and awareness, then I perceive everything as a bunch of individual items that are sort of broken off from everything else and any relationship or connection that these things have to one another, they relate, have to rate externally.

We have no medium. We have no basis for genuinely connecting with people on an essential level because I’m isolated in myself and I have no, there’s no medium of direct joining. Whereas if you’re aware of a facet of your own personality, that goes beyond your own individual existence and awareness, and you’re able to recognize that other people share that, we understand ourselves coming, emerging from some kind of a common route. That means if you can sensitize yourself that deeper part of yourself, you’re actually touching something which is absolutely present in other people also.

You find this in the book of Daniel you already see this speaking about the exile of Edom, of Rome. It identifies it with the iron and clay feet of the statue of Nebuchadnezzar and talks about the fact that just like iron and clay don’t mix, so also this will be a time when people don’t mix and what’s really talking about is the alienation of one person from another that is so fundamentally characteristic of our world and something which is so spoken about with such focus by anyone who’s deeply involved in sort of modern, Western, liberal, secular culture.

David Bashevkin:
And this is a paragraph that he writes in his contribution, again, The Nature and Pursuit of Truth in Different Cultural Context, Rabbi Jeremy Kagan. And again, his books are so important, The Choice to Be: A Jewish Path to Self and Spirituality, The Intellect and the Exodus: Authentic Emuna for a Complex Age. And of course the book that had the biggest influence on myself and that is The Jewish Self: Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World. And he ends his essay as follows:

“We presume that our focus today on physical reality yields truth, because our predictions about nature are born out. So we sense that a turn to faith is a turn from reality. What we have shown in this essay is that though the Western secular outlook may have truth, it’s 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. We do not need to be exclusive in our focus on physical reality in the manner that current Western culture directs us. There is an element of choice involved in the matter if we are willing to open ourselves to the possibility and seize upon the questions that compel us to investigate alternative approaches to reality, Torah can become a gateway to our hidden depths rather than an odd force fit in a foreign puzzle. An incredible thinker and an incredible way of approaching the question itself, looking and peering into our own consciousness. Looking at what rationality affords us, but also considering what may be missing from that picture.”

So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend, Denah Emerson. Hey Denah! And it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt.

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