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Shmuel Phillips: Reclaiming Judaism

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to author Shmuel Phillips about the upsides and downsides of approaching Judaism rationally.

Shmuel grew up debating religion, always thinking about why he practiced Judaism as he did. While many people practice Judaism because it’s what they grew up with, Shmuel believes that people could give more grounding to their faith. To that end, he authored a book, Judaism Reclaimed, where he explores the modern issues of Judaism in a traditional Orthodox framework.

  • How can one reconcile the Torah with the morality and science of the modern day?
  • How much should rationality factor into one’s religious experience?
  • How can rationality and an experiential relationship with Hashem complement each other?

Tune in to hear a conversation about Judaism in the modern day.

References:
Forgive Us, Father-in-Law, For We Know Not What To Think by Rabbi Shalom Carmy
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah by Rabbi Shmuel Phillips
Ani Maamin by Joshua Berman

Shmuel is an author and Torah scholar based in Jerusalem. Shmuel holds a law degree, and spent two decades studying Torah in Yeshiva and Kollel. Over this time, he wrote an analysis of some of the greatest challenges and opportunities of traditional faith in the contemporary era, Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to 18Forty, where each month we explore different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities, to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re exploring rationality. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I am incredibly cautious about approaching this topic. It’s a cautiousness that comes from, I think, some measure, if I could say it without sounding egotistical, but humbleness about the intelligence of people who are able to apply the methodology of rationality into their lives and into these major religious questions. And my own self understanding that, while I think I’m an intelligent person, I have not mastered this and I don’t have every answer to every question. And I don’t necessarily know how to apply all of these methodologies to every aspect of my life. So in many ways, I feel deeply unqualified to talk about this, and especially in an area that prizes an expertise, a very real expertise, I’m not looking to diminish or to criticize the notion of rationality itself. I think it’s incredibly important, and anybody who is getting the wrong idea from that, I haven’t done my job. I haven’t been careful enough.

If anything, what I think I’m looking to do is begin a conversation about how these different methodologies can be in conversation with one another. And an article that I keep on coming back to, I’ve mentioned it many times on this podcast, I’m not going to apologize for mentioning it again, because I hope that if I keep mentioning something, someone will go out, go on Amazon, go online, and try to find it, pick it up and read it. But I want to mention, it’s a very little pamphlet that was put out by Atid, which was an educational foundation that was run by Rabbi Jeffreys Saks, who now is the editor of Tradition Journal. And he published this very short article that was written by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, who teaches philosophy in Yeshiva University. One of the most brilliant thinkers, and is on my vision board of future guests who I would love to have on this podcast. He has a short pamphlet that is called Forgive Us, Father-in-Law, For We Know Not What to Think: Letter to a Philosophical Dropout from Orthodoxy.

It is a letter that he wrote to somebody, much like our anonymous guest in our past episode, who is struggling, not with the affiliation of the community, but the very underpinnings, the very philosophical foundations on which his communal life, his commitments and convictions, are built. And anyone who knows the writings of Rabbi Shalom Carmy knows that he is not an intellectual slouch in any measure. He’s really one of the most brilliant, poetic, but deeply analytic thinkers that I have ever met and encountered.

And he begins this letter to somebody who wrote him, it’s a very real letter, in the letter he calls him Reuven, but somebody who says, “Look, I like the community I’m in. I like the affiliation. I like the emotional connection. But rationally, I cannot justify this.” And I find this letter just stands out as something that must be read with anybody who is grappling with these issues, whether it is you, whether it is a friend, whether it is a child, a parent, whoever it is, this is something extraordinary to read. And I want to begin with the beginning of the letter, because I think it’s so important, because it begins with the very humbleness and almost the inadequacy of dealing with this that I had previously mentioned.

Rabbi Carmy begins as follows: “Dear Reuven, I sat down knowing in advance that you will be disappointed with what I write. I could not refute the numerous objections to Judaism that you have harbored for years or loaded off the internet. They go on, and on, and on for dozens of pages. Even if we had world enough and time, I know one thing: any response I could offer, good, mediocre, or weak, in my humble opinion, would simply become the starting point for new quibbles, proliferating in geometric proportion, disputation without insight, wrench religious doctrine from its active systematic context, and every consideration in its favor dissected in isolation is lifeless.”

This resonates with me so much because I’ve been the recipient of such letters. I’ve read such letters. We’ve had people on this very show who have written such letters, and I do believe, wrench religious doctrine from its active systematic context, and you take away the principles from the lived community and the lived experience that they are a part of, and every consideration in its favor, meaning religion, Yiddishkeit, whatever it is, dissected in isolation, is lifeless.

“Start from assumptions,” he continues, “that exclude in advance any personal relationship with God, and all arguments against religious belief seem ironclad. So I can only try to explain why my entire way of thinking about these questions differs from yours from bottom up. I believe that these fundamental differences underlie the host of objections so that one cannot deal with them without going back to the beginning.” And as we will explore, I’m going to read more of this letter in a little bit, I think it’s a reorientation of, whereas rationalistic thinking has a methodology that starts very sequentially, almost detached from experience, which in many ways is healthy, it’s healthy in many aspects of our lives, and in some respects it’s very healthy in our religious lives. Not everything can be wedded to a personal truth. Sometimes we need to objectively measure, is this real or not? But I don’t think all aspects of our lives should be entirely divorced from our emotional experiential lives. And that’s a little bit of the conversation about how these two methodologies can be in dialogue with one another.

So I want to be very clear about what we can and cannot do within this series. One thing that I think we can do is point to thinkers, ideas, articles that I think begin this dialogue, or perhaps address the very specific questions and issues that come up through these explorations. What I cannot do, and what I will never be able to do, is to go point by point in some sort of email or doctrine and address every single question that somebody who is trying to reconstruct the rational foundations of their belief of Judaism, of their lives, whatever it is, and address each and every point. I personally don’t have the background, the knowledge, the intelligence to do it, but even more so, I have an abiding conviction that I don’t think that that is possible.

I don’t think it’s possible in anyone’s life to totally reconstruct the very foundations of their belief, and so to speak start from scratch, removed from any context. Where it does become lifeless, so to speak, and just dealing with the axioms and working from there. I don’t think that’s possible in anyone’s life. And I don’t think, frankly, that’s how anybody really makes the life altering decisions of their life. But what we can do is point to broad heuristics, broad ideas that may help facilitate a conversation.

And secondly, what 18Forty always tries to do is point to people far smarter, far more intelligent, far more articulate than myself. I stumbled on the word articulate. You see how articulate I am? Who are more articulate than I can ever be, and just find road posts, and different people will connect to different thinkers, different ideas, and hopefully keep people within that room of dialogue to continue the symposium of ideas that have animated the Jewish people for generations. And hopefully this will give sign posts along this journey to continue that exploration.

One thing that I found extraordinarily heartening and that I was worried about was that the realness of this topic, while the toughness of this topic, we just addressed, the realness of this topic, how this is a very real issue, particularly within the Jewish community, has resonated with many listeners. We have gotten countless emails and messages from people, both in writing and audio, of people who have struggled with this. One of my concerns, and I actually pushed back, because this topic was not something that I was jumping to do. But one of the things that I found very heartening was people reaching out, a lot of people pointing out different approaches, different ideas, but people saying, “This is something I am grappling with. This is something that people in my life are grappling with.”

And to know that this topic and these ideas resonated and that people see them in their own lives is something that is quite heartening. I was somewhat concerned that this would be dismissed like, “Ah, come on, does this really bother anybody? Is anybody really, come on. This is leibadig, it’s fun. It’s the kiddush club. Come on, stop bothering me with your rationalistic thinking.” And being quite dismissive. I was worried that there would be people who react to this. Maybe there are people who were, but they just didn’t email me or send me voice notes.

But the realness of this topic did very much resonate with our listeners. And I actually want to share with you one of the voice notes that we received from one of our listeners that I found quite beautiful, and we’ll be sharing more of these throughout the episode to highlight different journeys, because I believe with any journey, whether it’s rationalistic on any topic, every journey is going to have its own nuances. And hearing from others, and what worked for others, I always find to be a helpful experience. So this is one voice note, deliberately anonymous, that we received from one of our listeners.

Anonymous Listener:

My story is not all that different from the story on the podcast, although I would say the resolution was somewhat different. My background is that I grew up in a regular family, kind of typical. And I guess from a young age, I was always very inquisitive and analytical as a kid. Even when I started learning Gemara, I remember I would get very frustrated and very precise in the details unless I got it perfect. I would ask, and ask, and ask, and maybe teachers or classmates, family would be annoyed. But it wasn’t until later after I was married, and I was learning for a year and a half after I got married, I was about to go to work. And at that point, for some reason, I don’t know, the questions, maybe I was more mature already, or maybe that was just a long time coming, but it really started reoccurring in my head more and more. What about these fundamental existential questions that you think about once in a while?

And I guess for a while, maybe, throughout high school and maybe during beis medrish, I had these questions in my head that I never really put to rest, but they kept coming up in my head more, and more, and more, until I said, “You know what? I’m going to address it.” And part of the difficulty is when you approach these issues, very often we learn Chumash, and we learn Tanach, and we learn these ideas that really should have a solid grounding. We learned them as kids, and so our intellectual foundation is very weak. And when we approach, when we enter an arena like the internet with that kind of background, it could be a real problem because you don’t have the foundation. And that’s exactly what happened to me.

I said, “Okay, I’m going to give this conversation in my head a shot.” And when I went on the internet, I was just blown out of the water. Obviously, none of the thoughts or the ideas that I had developed in my head were anywhere near the critique of biblical criticism, or different scientific issues, or different philosophical conundrums, and things like that. And I went into full blown panic. And as someone who has anxiety anyway, and maybe a little bit of an obsessive trait, I was in full blown panic attack mode. I don’t know if you or the listeners know what that’s like, but I was incapacitated for three weeks until I got on medication and got that sorted out to the point where at least this struggle was manageable.

And I remember telling my father at the time, and usually I’m not the type of guy to have this kind of conversation with my father, but I was so desperate. And I had a conversation with a few people that I knew personally, that I thought maybe would have some insight or be able to help me. So where did I go from there? What helped me resolve it? Now, it’s important to note that when I first attempted to resolve it, I went to the traditional publications and traditional frum slash Haredi apologists who try to address these issues. But the problem is that in the frum world, by and large, the frumer of the person is, the less likely they are to be academic and be able to develop a rigorous argumentation relying upon peer reviewed sources, and so on, and so forth, to actually put up a substantial and respectable argument and to put up a real defense. Guys like Joshua Berman are only found in the modern Orthodox world, and even those are few far between.

And so I researched topic, by topic, by topic, some areas I was able to find a solid answer, some areas I wasn’t. What really turned the tide is when I watched a debate on YouTube. I know it sounds very unacademic, but that’s really when I first got introduced to William Lane Craig, who is a Christian theologian/philosopher. And he is a interesting blend of a person who has published pretty much all of his work in peer reviewed journals, and is a rigorous academic, and also has the ability to appeal to more of a layman crowd like myself. And he’s able to convey more complex ideas, but to a more general crowd. And during the new atheist movement of the 2010s, he debated all the prominent atheists. And when I first heard his debates, I was blown away to hear a guy who was not the used car salesman of apologists that I was used to.

And that’s when I got introduced to more respectable thinkers like Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. And there happens to be a whole community of apologetics out there that take classic religious issues and put them on full display and really, really, really nail them on the head. And often I hear people asking questions, philosophical questions… God and evil, for example, that’s just one that pops into my head. There is a huge body of knowledge out there on that issue, and the biggest problems that people have with it very often have been laid to rest, and you just don’t know about it.

Because in the frum world, we’re not exposed to rigorous philosophical argumentation that’s typically only found on a college campus. In the secular world, in the Christian world, they send these, evangelical seminaries are not like yeshivas. They actually have college courses and they get exposed to Kant, and Hume, and Thomas Aquinas. And we don’t really have that in our world. Unless someone points it out to you, you’re not really going to find it. And so we’re doomed from the outset to rely upon people who are not really the type that would be the best to defend what needs defending. All right. That’s just a general overview.

David Bashevkin:

What I found so moving about this voice note is that people who have gotten a very serious Jewish education are still grappling on this journey. And one of the things, to return back to that letter from Rabbi Shalom Carmy, that I found so beautiful and so moving is his approach to the letter writer is moving away from these specific problems, which I have no doubt Rabbi Carmy could have formulated solutions for, but really appealing to the meta question of, how much should we be prizing rationality in this discussion? And is there a room for a rational basis whereby the very mechanisms and methodologies of rationalism should be in conversation with the emotional and experiential aspects of our lives?

And this is what he writes: “Your denial of the reliability of any other way of thinking is not an argument. It is merely the assertion that you exclude from the outset any attempt to grasp the world and the things of the world as pointing beyond themselves, or disclosing themselves in any manner other than that which you are committed to. You thus succeed barricading yourself behind a dogmatic skepticism. I am fairly certain that as long as you staunchly maintain your faith in this narrow idea of rationality, you are safe. The fortress of doubt will remain intellectually impregnable.”

“I noted before that your advocacy of reason, according to your definition, as the only way to truth makes sense if God is a rationalist who has ordained the privileged standing of reason, but is false if God is a personal being. Proponents of traditional religion like me,” he writes, “are consciously or tacitly committed to the ultimate value of personal relations while opponents of a personal God value the impersonal. They may even be embarrassed by the ubiquity of the personal dimension in human existence, and therefore reject the notion that God endorses something so undignified in their opinion as personal intuitive modes of knowledge.”

And I’ve met people like this. And in many ways, I have had periods in my life where I was suspicious of the emotional dimension of religious life. You ever sit at a kumzitz and you look around with people’s eyes closed, and you have this inner monologue in your head of, “What exactly is going on around me? What exactly is taking place? Where exactly are they going? Their endorphins are going, but I don’t know if there’s an intrinsic religious quality to what’s happening in this room full of singing. I don’t know, maybe, is this the same thing that’s happening at a rock concert? Is this the same thing that’s happening at some revival meeting with a youth pastor in front?” I’m not always sure. And I’ve had that skeptical voice in my head.

What Rabbi Carmy continues and says is, “Their God is not a personal being, but a great computer in the sky. There’s something that a rationalist prizing rationality over all other modes of consideration, all other methodologies through which you approach life, is inevitably going to translate into your conception of God if you even have one. And that would be the great computer in the sky.” If it’s not God, and I think we see this through our own eyes, I think the notion of computing, and scientific, and the belief in scientific progress, and artificial intelligence, and even the very movement towards singularity, this notion that there’s going to be this massive jump in AI which is totally going to revolutionize what it means to be human itself, very much borrows from religious language. And I might even whisper and perhaps say, quite bluntly, that they’ve replaced this rationalistic notion of a computer in the sky with a religious belief, so to speak, in where computer science is going to take us.

But I think in many ways, this is all stemming from exclusively prioritizing and prizing a rationalistic view of the world over any other type of humanity and prizing it over the very emotional experiential parts of the human condition. “I suspect,” Rabbi Carmy writes, “that you consciously or unconsciously presuppose such a conception. You, however, claim that you are not positing any concept of God at all. Without God the question returns: why grant authority to one neurological component, to one human impulse over another? Calculation, logical reasoning, intuition, emotion. These are all physiological processes. Why is one of them more truth making than the others?”

And I find this extraordinarily compelling, meaning whether or not you project irrationality onto your conception of God or your conception of human progress through singularity and through your hopes of what AI may do to humanity, and to longevity, and to the very experience of thinking, or you have no conception of God at all, why do you prize necessarily reason over the other very physiological processes that animate and make the human condition? In fact, Rabbi Carmy acknowledges that one may argue that the reason why reason should be prioritized is because it is the reason for human survival. It is the best mechanism to figure out how to proceed and lead the most successful life.

But I think he addresses that as well when he writes, “We have been suggesting that the best explanation,” he’s playing devil’s advocate, “for the success of the human species is our mental machinery, which we have defined with rationality. The only problem is that the mental processes in question are not the unsullied commitment to reason that you have enthroned. What makes the human being unique and presumably confers upon him or her a degree of biological fitness, supposedly by orienting human and beings toward truth, is not reason. It is the varied toolbox of mental capacities and ways of apprehending the world. These include the kind of reasoning of which you are enamored. And they also include the full panapoly of intuitive inferences, emotionally based cognitions, and so forth. Common experience tells us that an animal trusting in reason alone would get many things wrong about the world and would not do well in the struggle for survival. Animals that share much of our emotional makeup, but little or nothing of our mental superiority, do survive pretty well. Human beings have the advantage of superior rational powers plus complex forms of non-rational cognition that we have, in large measure, taken over from lower animals.”

And I think what he’s making an argument for is for this conversation, this conversation between rationality and our supra rational capacity of intuition, emotional reasoning, experiential ideas that inform our rationality and inform the way that we perceive the world. And it’s this conversation that I think I am most interested in. In many ways, it reminds me of a dialogue from one of my favorite movies, Goodwill Hunting, where the character, Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, sits down with his psychologist, Robin Williams, to talk about their last therapy session, which was also their first, that went terribly awful. And Matt Damon, in that first therapy session, criticizes his therapist and tries to be a total skeptic and basically say, “You don’t really have what to offer me.” And then tries to find these points of vulnerability in his own therapist. And they sit down on a bench after that therapy session and they have a conversation which, to me, looking back at it, in many ways is a conversation between the rationality that is detached from experience and experience itself.

Will Hunting:

So what’s this, a Taster’s Choice moment between guys? This is really nice. You got a thing for swans? Is this like a fetish? It’s something like maybe we need to devote some time to?

Sean Maguire:

Thought about what you said to me the other day about my painting.

Will Hunting:

Ah.

Sean Maguire:

Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me. I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. And haven’t thought about you since. You know what occurred to me?

Will Hunting:

No.

Sean Maguire:

You’re just a kid. You don’t have the faintest idea of what you’re talking about.

Will Hunting:

Why, thank you.

Sean Maguire:

It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston.

Will Hunting:

Nope.

Sean Maguire:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works. Right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. I’ve seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites, but you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.

You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable, known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling that God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her and be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in a hospital room for two months holding her hand because the doctors could see in your eyes that the terms visiting hours don’t apply to you.

You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you, I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me, because you saw a painting of mine and you ripped my life apart. You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I’ve read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally, I don’t give a [censored] about all that because you know what? I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some book unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. Come in. But you don’t want to do that, do you, sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

David Bashevkin:

Now there’s no question that in this dialogue, the character played by Robin Williams comes off a little bit dismissive, but I do think that very often when we prize rationality, we don’t have a rational basis for why we are being so dismissive of experiential and emotional reasoning itself. Instead, I think what we need to figure out is how to develop a healthy conversation between the two. Before we introduce our guest, and I know we’re going to get a ton of letters that this intro is way, way, way too long. And I apologize for that and feel free to skip ahead at any point. But I want to leave with a paragraph that I found extraordinarily moving, really a retort in many ways, to the very tight grasp of one way of approaching the world. And it comes from a beautiful book that I believe I’ve recommended before. I cite it in my own work. It’s called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman.

Christian Wiman, I believe, teaches poetry at Yale. You can check that up. I’ve reached out to him before, though I’ve never heard back. And he writes as follows about faith: “If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientations are entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations. Motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself. It eats away at the intensity of the experience that that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith. And soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much torn tent in the wind. In fact, there is no way to return to the faith of your childhood.”

“Not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half remembered country into which you come like a long exiled king dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’ve been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life, but intimately dependent upon it. For faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life, which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived or have not denied the reality of your life.” And here’s the paragraph that if you’ve been zoning out to everything I’ve been saying, listen to this. “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”

I’m going to repeat it again. “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” That is Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss. And this introduction has been long enough. I am so excited to introduce our first non-anonymous guest in our series on rationality. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce our Rabbi Shmuel Phillips. I am so excited to introduce someone who I’ve never met personally, but I’ve enjoyed his works, Rabbi Shmuel Phillips, who wrote a book called Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah, which is a fabulous book, which is a collection of essays organized according to the parashah, which is actually my only criticism. My main criticism is in the organization, which perhaps we can talk about, but it’s really trying –

Shmuel Phillips:

Definitely.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, it’s really trying to anchor Jewish thought, the major ideas, the major issues with Jewish theology in a philosophical, dare I say rationalistic framework, but I’m sure you will push back and explain to me why that is an oversimplification. Thank you so much, Rabbi Phillips, for joining today.

Shmuel Phillips:

Thank you very much. It really is a great honor to be on your podcast. I’m getting the reaction from a lot of people that they’ve read the book and they haven’t met me in person. I guess it’s due to the fact that I haven’t really left Israel much in the last couple of years with the COVID lockdowns and the regulations. But it’s been really great to meet a lot of people who’ve wanted to discuss the book in person, over the internet. And at one point you mentioned about, let’s start with the parashah structure of the book.

David Bashevkin:

The parashah structure. It’s a strange place to start, but I always found it interesting. And do you mind, can I call you Shmuel? Are you comfortable with that?

Shmuel Phillips:

Yeah, Shmuel, Shmuelly.

David Bashevkin:

Shmuelly? It’s always fascinating the way people structure books. I’ve published as well and structure plays a big part of the book. It’s unsung. And you chose to organize your book with major questions in Jewish theology, but organized based on the parashah. Why did you do that? You want to tell me quickly why you structured it that way?

Shmuel Phillips:

Part of it was almost an accident of how it came about because I never intended to write a book. There’s a second book I’m writing now where I’ve got to start and a finish and I know exactly what I’m doing and I’m heading from the beginning to the end in an organized way. I started, really, I was sending around answers to people who, I’ve been in the yeshiva world for many years now. And I’ve kept in touch with people who left the yeshiva world in college and workplaces. And they were being confronted with various issues, various challenges, which they felt that their time in yeshiva hadn’t really prepared them for. So I’ve always been very interested in the theological side. Some of it, the more profound writings of Judaism, the Rav Hirsch, the Rambam. And I started putting together different answers, different approaches based on what I’d seen, and adapting it, and repackaging it to answer them.

And after doing this for a little bit, I started sending out a weekly parashah-based about Torah. And these were, at the end of the year of it, people said, “Well, this is really good. Let’s turn this into a book.” So I had a choice at that point: Do I develop what I already have, which is parashah-based divrei Torah with a theological or philosophical or angle to it, or do I try and rewrite the whole thing, start to finish? And I went back on it, back and forth quite a few times. And it was actually Rabbi Sacks of blessed memory, and I went to speak him on another project. He told me, “No, keep it in the parashah form, because that’s what would make it unique. That’s something very different about it.”

David Bashevkin:

And he famously did that as well in his books.

Shmuel Phillips:

Right.

David Bashevkin:

Honestly, as an author myself, I could spend the next hour talking about structure, but I really want to talk about substance. And I’m so glad that you mentioned how this came about. But I want to dig down a little bit deeper before we get into the substance of the book, who this book was for. You mentioned that you were studying in yeshiva. You clearly have a very rich understanding and education in Jewish philosophy and Jewish theology. And you had people who, it sounds like had an Orthodox education, had a Jewish education, but now were out in the world and were now reaching out to you. What exactly do you attribute this tension or the questions that they were confronting that they didn’t have, or weren’t addressed when they were in yeshiva, that they were all of a sudden finding or experiencing doubt from, or trying to look for an approach from, and why you? What on earth drew them to Shmuelly Phillips? You’re wonderful, but what do you think it was about you in particular that drew them to begin emailing you to start this project?

Shmuel Phillips:

Well, part of it is just from having discussed various ideas of Judaism in the past with people. I guess they saw that I was reading and I’d been exposed to various thinkers within Judaism, various strands of thoughts that they just hadn’t been made aware of, various parts of the Orthodox education shies away from difficult questions. Teachers in yeshiva high schools, whatever it is. And even the yeshiva gedola, they don’t like to talk about, whether it’s the Bible criticism, or morality in the Torah, or very often just general difficult points of Jewish philosophy and theology. And for students who go through the system, they can be keeping Torah and mitzvot perfectly, they can be sitting there learning many hours a day, but when they actually stop to try and work out what they’re doing, they’ve never really integrated these parts of their Judaism together, they’ve never really put it together into a system. I don’t want to offend anyone here. I’ve labeled the phenomenon Sonic the Hedgehog Judaism, almost, the –

David Bashevkin:

Sonic the Hedgehog Judaism. Tell me about Sonic the Hedgehog Judaism.

Shmuel Phillips:

Sonic the Hedgehog Judaism. For listeners who’ve played or seen the video game –

David Bashevkin:

Sega.

Shmuel Phillips:

You have this cartoon figure that’s hurtling at breakneck speeds through the screen, never stopping to think, or what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it. They’re jumping up to grab the golden rings, the segulot they think, will somehow benefit them, jumping over the fires or the pits, which will try and catch them. And that, for many people, unfortunately, is what Judaism is. They’re running through life. They’ve got various magical segulot or various things they try to do to gain points and to –

David Bashevkin:

And segulot, you mean these magic charms, like if you do a mitzvah, you do a ritual commandment, you get some sort of reward, or points, or, you know –

Shmuel Phillips:

Right.

David Bashevkin:

Gold coins in this analogy.

Shmuel Phillips:

It’s a matter of points. They get credit. So they get de-credits or whatever you want to call them, but there’s no deeper meaning. There’s no relationship with God. It’s just a matter of grabbing points and jumping over pits, avoiding ayin hara or even regular mitzvot and aveirot, it’s a matter of jumping over, or avoiding, or grabbing. And they never stop. They’re never encouraged to stop and think about, “Well, what am I doing? And what am I trying to achieve?” And obviously there are individuals, there are some very good teachers in Orthodox Jewish schools who will point children towards this. But too often people have realized, they’ve gone through the 20 years, whatever it is of Jewish elementary, and then yeshiva education, and they’re not sure exactly what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

David Bashevkin:

Do you remember the first email? Or not necessarily the first, but you don’t have to tell me a name, obviously, though, you’re always welcome to, I love some good gossip. But do you remember what was the image of the first person who reached out to you? What was the itch, or the frustration, or concern, or the area that compelled them or motivated them to reach out to you?

Shmuel Phillips:

I’m trying to remember now. It’s been many years. I think part of it, one of the first people that reached out to me, it was really a matter of trying to find meaning within their Judaism. They’re spending so long on trying to keep things correctly. And, “What am I doing this for? What am I getting for this?” But there’s been many things. There’ve been many people who’ve spent years in kollel studying the Gemara and everything like that, and turning around and saying, “These issues that you are raising in your book are things which have always troubled me. I just didn’t know it was legitimate. I didn’t know one could ask it. I didn’t know there were answers out there within the Orthodox framework.” So certainly for someone who’s, I’ve spent years reading Rambam, his various introductions, his Moreh Nevuchim, the writings of Rav Hirsch, where he grapples with Orthodox Judaism and its responses to Reform. So many of the issues which they deal with, which they struggle with are things which have come up again and again, and really in a different form, the same issues that people are facing today.

David Bashevkin:

I want to ask you, because you’re not drawn to this area of Jewish thought. The average person who goes through an Orthodox education, a Jewish education, for that matter, is usually not drawn to these particular areas. So I guess my question for you is a little bit more personal, but to understand what drew you to these major theological areas of grounding Judaism in a system of responding to questions of biblical criticism, major questions of morality, whether or not the answers and the substance that your book presents are satisfying, and hopefully we’ll get to some of them, my question is, what about your particular upbringing and experience drew you to explore these questions?

Shmuel Phillips:

I guess you really hit the nail on my head to an extent, because I did have quite a less usual upbringing in terms of the Orthodox world. My parents were starting to become religious around the time I was born and my grandparents were quite opposed to that. So we always had this friction, these arguments going on in our house about different aspects of Orthodox Judaism. Could they be justified how to explain them to people who weren’t religious? And I have had my grandparents confronting me about, “Well, you’re doing X, Y, Z. You are going off and keeping Shabbat, and you’re leaving me here by myself. So how do you justify that? Is that a morally correct thing to do?” So really right the way through my growing up, my formative years, everything I did within Judaism, I always had this little voice in the back of my mind thinking, “Well, how do I explain that to my grandparents? How do I justify it?”

So, as I continued, then I went to yeshiva. So I always had this idea that I was going to look for some sort of system to integrate and explain everything. My parents came also from quite an academic background. So we had the students over sometimes, so we were used to a more rigorous debate. And I was always very fixated by trying to find a system to explain Judaism. Up until that point, I’d read, I’d listen to many shiurim, I’d read many books. And to be honest, Judaism was this collection of weird and wonderful teachings, which I was never quite sure how to put together with each other. There seemed to be a lot of random, chaotic teachings. And it was only really once I started reading really Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, where I realized, “Wow, there’s a way of actually, all of Judaism is really part of the greater picture of building a relationship with God. And that’s all that’s about. And everything else can be integrated within that.”

And that gives context to all these strange aggadic teachings, which seemed to contradict each other. Really, that was something which inspired me very much. And Rav Hirsch as well, his idea of seeing, because you can get into this more a little bit later, Torah im derech eretz, his idea of infusing all aspects of your life with the Torah, not segregating or splitting up your day. You go to shul in the morning, you daven, that’s the God part of your day, and you learn a little bit, that’s the God part of your day. And then you move off and you are effectively not particularly Jewish the rest of your day. He rejected that very strongly.

For him, you’re just as much serving God when you close the door of the shul, and you go out into the street, you go back home and be with your family. How you behave, what you look at, how you walk, what you’re thinking all this time is just as much part of Judaism and your relationship with Hashem as when you’re sitting there in the shul. So really, putting all these things together, the Rambam and Rav Hirsch, or developing these ideas, I was able to come up with some kind of system which I really found satisfactory, and thank God I’ve been able to help other people find it satisfactory, also.

David Bashevkin:

One of the issues that I’m curious about, because I also like to read a lot, and I continue to have a great measure of confidence in my own judgment. And I’ll read anything. My mother would always tell me, she let me read just about anything, because she would always say, “It’s not any worse than what you’re going to find in the Talmud.” But I’ll be honest with you, when I was around, I don’t know, probably 14 years old, I read a book that started talking about biblical criticism. It was because I started reading one year, like we do, we just did recently, began the Torah with shnayim mikrah, we read through the Torah every week with the Chumash and Rashi and the commentaries. And I started to have my own questions, just a plain reading of the text of the Bible.

And I had this sinking feeling in me like, “I am not equipped to answer this.” And a very dark cloud of doubt descended on me. And when I look back at my life, although I remain an extraordinarily committed Jew, I do think that my exposure to these types of questions and this line of thinking has affected me in some ways, if I’m being totally honest and correct. And I’m curious how your exposure, particularly your positioning on social media as being this defender of the faith for all the masses, open for anybody to ask questions and dialogue with you, how has that affected your personal religious positioning and stability? Is it like, for me sometimes, I sometimes want to throw my hands up in the air and say, “I don’t have the answers. I just don’t know. I don’t have a system.” And I’m curious for you if you ever experience that and where you are now, and how you deal with presenting yourself in some ways through this book, as having a system, so to speak, that can answer or address so many of these deeply serious questions about the foundations of faith.

Shmuel Phillips:

Right? It’s a serious question, a weighty question. And I have to admit straight up, I’d never call myself an expert on biblical criticism. I drew very strongly on the writings of Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman. I was appointed to him by Rabbi Sacks.

David Bashevkin:

A former guest on this show. Sure.

Shmuel Phillips:

Right. So what I was really trying to do was just point out that what many people take, or very often people will receive, will read questions here, questions thrown up by the various academic claims against the Torah, and they’re presented by well lettered professors or whatever it is. And they’ll panic. And they won’t have the basic tools to deal with it. So rather than going into detailed answers to respond to all the different claims of biblical criticism, what I try to do is just to provide some kind of technique. Rabbi Berman, for example, he had a series of essays, which I think maybe some of it is integrated into one of his recent books, now, the Ani Maamin, but they just to show the methodological weaknesses and flaws of biblical criticism, many of the things which are taken as a given by, in certain essays, which attempt to attack the credibility of the Torah actually are not as strong as they would appear at first glance.

So it appears to many that I book myself as the defender of the faith in this regard, I write at the beginning of the book that I’m not giving definitive answers. I don’t claim to have all the answers to everything. What I’m trying to do is just to give people the tools to see that there are answers out there and there are techniques out there to try to address these questions. For example, we can see that one of the things that biblical criticism throws up, this is something that we discussed on the Facebook group recently, are the two stories of Noach, and the various narratives that appear to be repeated. We can look and we can find, let’s say the Malbim, has some kind of response to this based on the idea that the names of God apply different providential dynamics. The yud-key-vav-key, the four letter name of God, is a more personal experience, providential God, or aspect, or a relationship between humanity and God.

Whereas Elokim is the more, the harsh, God appearing to human through nature. And these two stories, what appear to be two different stories going on within Parshas Noach, which Bible critics take to indicate that there are two initial sources, two initial authors were put together, well, we have someone like the Malbim who grapples, or he doesn’t openly say that he’s dealing with biblical criticism, but he’s giving you the tools to show that, really, it’s one story constructed of two different dimensions of the relationship between God and humanity.

And Rav Hirsch also, in his commentary on the Torah, will often weave in many ideas, which, what he’s really doing when you’re aware of the criticism is responding to some of the claims which are out there. So really, what I try to do is I try to pull together all of these ideas. I try to show how Rabbi Berman, for example, has weakened the foundations and many of the assumptions and the claims made by the critics, they are not as strong as they first appear. And then I try to show some of the basic approaches taken by people like the Malbim and Rav Hirsch to actually addressing these questions.

David Bashevkin:

Let me surface one question, which is going to sound very specific, but it relates to something, a much more universal question that I’m trying to ask as it relates to you and your work. The specific question, and I’m not asking you to respond on behalf of Rabbi Berman, but an issue that I have had, not just with Rabbi Berman’s writings, but also in a confusion that I’ve always had relating to the writings of the Rambam, is the tendency to temporalize. Meaning to say that this issue in the Torah was written specifically for the struggles of ancient Israel. For instance, when the Rambam discusses a lot of the need for sacrifices, he said, “This was in order to respond to a tendency for idolatry in that specific time.” And Rabbi Berman has a similar methodology where he’ll say, “The structure of the biblical narrative is specifically using the literary methodology that was very popular in that specific time.”

And I’ve always struggled with that because, maybe it’s my more mystical soul. Maybe it’s a religious intuition. When we temporalize the Torah, a lot of the magic, the enduring transcendent nature of revelation, where this is a document that was supposed to address all generations, it feels like a lot of the luster and the shine of religious affiliation is lost when we say, “Oh, that was just responding to what the needs are in the ancient times.” And I begin to wonder, so why do they include it in there for all generations? Isn’t there supposed to be some eternal quality that emerges from this text? And when we temporalize and contextualize it to a specific era? Again, it’s not a contradiction, but it feels like that transcendent quality of revelation, for me on a very personal level, feels a little bit compromised. And that’s the more specific question. The larger question is, how do you negotiate building a more rational foundation for theological thought and be able to still sustain and nourish what I believe is an essential part of religious affiliation, that mystical transcendent quality?

Shmuel Phillips:

That is really a very big part of my project, and one of the parts of my book that people have really reacted well to is that people very often associate rationalism with the cold philosopher types, which, to be honest, as you said, most of us don’t really relate to. Right at the start of my book, in the introduction, I bring, it’s a Midrash Rabbah, which talks about how the Jewish people are compared to a dove. How so? The other birds, according to the midrash, when they get tired, they rest on a rock. The dove, when it gets tired, it uses its other wing to push itself up. So it flies with one wing and it supports the second wing. So obviously, this is midrashic presentation, which is trying to get over a deeper message.

So Rav Mordechai Schwadron, the Maharsham, goes into this idea and he says, “The two wings of the dove in this mashal represent the two different dimensions through which we must relate to God. We have the rational, intellectual dimension, and we have the spiritual, experiential dimension.” And these are both required avenues within all human beings. God has given us the intellect. He’s also given us emotions and imagination. And we’re supposed to serve him with a combination of both. And I do tend more towards the what’s called the rationalist school of thought, that approaches things first through trying to systemize things through reason. But one mustn’t negate the experiential side of us, we must never try to squash the need for this, the spiritual, whether it’s singing or just going out there and feeling that you are part of some, God is above you in some sort of way. There’s some sort of greater presence out there.

So right at the start of the book, I made that point that we must combine both parts of it. And this is a mistake that I feel that some people who go into rationalism, they go into exclusively looking to turn Rambam into an Aristotle, to turn Jews into some sort of cold, philosophical religion, where really there is a lot more to it than that. It’s true. The Rambam will tell you that when you approach God, in particular, first, you must use your reason, your tzelem Elokim, your intellect, to try to understand, and to systemize, and to realize that we cannot conceptualize God in any positive way. And to use our imagination and our emotions to try and do that instead of the intellect can lead you to something bordering on idolatry, that leads you somewhere incorrect.

But once you’ve related to a concept, once you’ve related to God through your intellect, and you’ve realized that God is something which is something or someone which is metaphysical, something which is beyond anything that we can really conceptualize, then we can bring in the spiritual and the emotional aspects to relate to him as a human being. So I really feel that we have to have both parts of that in our worship of God. Yes.

David Bashevkin:

So let me ask you this. Aside from your book, and your book has brought you in contact with so many, anybody who publishes a book, you have so many readers. And layered on top of that is the fact that you also run a very active Facebook group where people participate and they’re involved. And what I want to almost explore more now is the contemporary state of Jewish education, where it is and where you think it should be. And the first question I wanted to begin with is you’re very into systematizing. So help me systematize the types of questions that you think people are most frequently troubled by and most in need of addressing, that you have found either from your readers or from the book. Do you find that there are themes and almost clusters of questions that most people are really struggling to find a satisfactory answer to?

Shmuel Phillips:

There are several questions which do seem to keep recurring in terms of what I’ve been asked. One of them we always seem to come back to is science and the Torah. And people are very bothered. You have such a, even within orthodoxy, you seem to have this wide range of people who will embrace all the scientific theories and try and fit all the Torah into it, as much as possible, even suggest that early parts of the Torah are not to be taken literally, that they’re there to be some sort of metaphor or mashal, whatever the correct term is. And then there are those who, the other extreme, will tell you that everything that’s written to the Torah must be taken completely literally. And the world is 6,000 years old, and everything is created from one day to the next.

So there seems a lot of confusion out there, because our kids go to Jewish day schools and they learn what’s written in the Torah, and then they go out there and they’re exposed to other ideas. And they live in a society where it’s really a given that science tells us that the world is millions, billions of years old, and that its creatures evolved in a certain way. So there is a lot of confusion out there from kids. And even the ones who don’t verbalize it, don’t tell us that they’re confused about it, it’s something which really bothers children a lot. So that’s one thing which comes up. And again, I try within the book not solely to give answers, to force answers down people’s throats. I just tried to show how Rambam, in his era, was also struggling with the very different science of Aristotle, which didn’t fit the Torah at all. The world didn’t have a creation. It was a constant universe.

And I tried to show how Rambam set certain criteria, a very high bar, when it came to reinterpreting aspects of the Torah, aspects of creation, to fit to what was science in his day, which we now know not to be correct. So what I look at more is, I try to show that yes, there are – What are these called? – valid or persuasive ways of reinterpreting parts of the Torah to meet modern science. Is this something we have to accept as the definitive meaning of the Torah? I’m not always so keen on doing that because in another 100, 200 years, science may have developed further and have new ideas. In the last 100, 200 years science has change its whole way of looking at the universe. We look at humans, we look at atoms and genes. Our whole way of approaching everything is different.

So what I try to show is there are ways of reconciling the Torah with modern science, but is it something which we should just see as definitive and say that’s what Torah means or not? I leave that up to the individual. And that’s something, in terms of educating youngsters nowadays, they very much appreciate that. Kids don’t like having answers, being forced to accept certain things. They like being shown different possibilities. This is a way we could read it. You could read the Torah literally. You could read it like Rabbi Slifkin’s book, or Rabbi Sacks’ book, who reinterpret the Torah a certain way. And these are the possibilities that are out there. So that’s one set of, one area that people get bothered by. Another is the Torah and morality as people. That’s a question which I’m not sure I receive it as much as other community rabbis, but I know it’s something which is out there, which challenges.

David Bashevkin:

And what’s at the center of the moral question, when the Torah discusses about killing certain nations, wiping out Amalek?

Shmuel Phillips:

Wiping out nations, the death penalty, homosexuality. These are questions which come up time and time again. And even people who don’t verbalize them. These are, where we find that our Western culture clashes with the Torah, inevitably children who are growing up between these two worlds or part of both worlds are going to have these questions. So if teachers are able to deal with them, even in some basic way, just acknowledge the question, that’s already, part of the battle is partly won.

You’re showing you’re not scared of the question. Something Rabbi Berman mentioned, that there was a kid who came from a high school who, at the mention of biblical criticism said, “Yeah, my rebbe talked about that. I don’t have any questions on it.” And it’s unlikely that the rebbe went into the deep claims made by the various schools of biblical criticism. But this child was reassured by the fact that his rebbe, in wherever it was, had acknowledged questions and given some kind of answer. So you have some kind of answer, show you’re confident with it, and you have basic tools to deal with it. Even if the child isn’t 100% happy with the answer and satisfied, you’ve given them something they can go away and continue with.

David Bashevkin:

I don’t want to put you on the spot. I’m curious if you have a basic framework to explain the way morality appears in the Torah. It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot, particularly the existence of slavery. There are many ways to articulate the question. I never like playing games of whack-a-mole, which sometimes this approach can fall into. You’re just like, “What about this question? What about this? What about that?” But I’m curious if you have a general approach for how morally uncomfortable either commandment stories, ideas that are found in the Torah can either be reconciled or find a way to be integrated into modern life. Do you have a general approach to that?

Shmuel Phillips:

I’m not sure I have a general approach because I do find some of the issues that you’ve brought up this evening, they have, I’d approach each of them differently. For example, slavery, it’s not clear. We’re never commanded really to take slaves. We’re given laws concerning how we must deal with slaves. So for something like that, I’m very happy saying that, something that you don’t like this temporal idea of putting Torah into a certain timeframe. But I do feel that the Torah was given at a time where slavery wasn’t just accepted, that was how nations ran. You built a civilization through slavery. It was so accepted that it’s something which you almost couldn’t tell people to do without. So what we find is the laws of slavery that the Jews have are completely different, and they push people away from the excessive cruelty.

For example, the ancient world, a punishment for a slavery would be to blind a slave or to knock out a leg. The Torah tells us specifically, if that happens to a Canaanite slave, they go free. And the other parts, that they’re brought into the household, as opposed to the slaves, who are not part of anything, they’re a different cast, completely. The slave rests on Shabbat. They eat the korban Pesach together with the family. The difference between the sort of slavery that the Torah permits and the sort of slavery, the cruelty that we find among the other nations is very clear, and how that’s supposed to continue, and whether we say now we’ve achieved a stage where slavery has now been abolished, and it wouldn’t be brought back, I’m comfortable saying that.

Whereas the certain other things like sacrifices, sacrifices are something which are so core and so key to the Torah, it’s something that the Torah actually commands us to bring, we must bring sacrifices every day. To say that that was only given specifically for a certain time is much harder. So we do find the Rambam saying that it was commanded in order to move us away from our pagan nature. The pagans used to sacrifice to their gods and their idolatrous temples. So therefore we were given korbanot to help us draw away from that sort of mindset. So in that, for something like that, I prefer saying that, “Yes, we don’t have the pagans in the next village offering up animals or humans to their gods. But I’m not sure the human mindset is really so purified and so distant from any sort of pagan celebration, that sacrifices wouldn’t be helpful.”

David Bashevkin:

So I origin really began this interview with, I said, my only criticism is in the structure. That may have been a little overly generous. Here’s my biggest question. And I’m curious if you’ve gotten this feedback from others. You shared a little bit about what were the primary questions that come to you, that you find that you need to respond to most. I’m curious if you got any pushback from the very notion that these questions should even be addressed and surfaced. You spoke very elegantly quoting from Dr. Berman’s book, which is excellent, on Ani Maamin, even with the reservations that I raised earlier. But when we began the 18Forty project, my partner and the sponsor of really this whole program, he wanted to introduce curriculum inside of Orthodox schools, inside of Jewish schools that really expose teenage kids to these major problems.

And what I’ve noticed is that schools, by and large in the US, I don’t know what’s happening outside of the US, have totally shied away from these theological discussions. And frankly, I think they’re right. I think that if you take a 100 kids, how many of them really have these issues? Maybe 10. And of those 10 kids, how many of them are going to even be convinced with the answers that you give them? While, when you will present these types of issues to a broad audience, surfacing biblical criticism, surfacing morality issues, you could more than likely, again, using this anecdotal made up data that has no basis in reality, but you could end up exposing 30 kids who never had any questions and say, “Hey, wait a minute. This makes no sense. This is built on just a house of cards.”

So do you think that the risk justifies the reward inside of schools? Or do you think that these questions should only be on a bookshelf for when somebody has the questions, they emerge more organically? And if you could also address, did you get any kind of pushback from people, either from the publisher, I’m curious about, or from readers, or even from just people who know of your work, who said, “Hey, what are you doing, here? You’re surfacing all of our pressure points and you’re collecting them into a book, all the big questions. Your answers and approaches might be admirable and thoughtful, but you may be exposing people to more risk than we can possibly address.”

Shmuel Phillips:

Right. Yeah. It’s a very difficult question and it’s a very difficult balance. I was actually surprised at how little pushback I got. I was expecting when I was writing and putting the book together –

David Bashevkin:

You didn’t get my letters? I was sending you at least three or four a week.

Shmuel Phillips:

So yeah, I set myself up, I was preparing myself for these letters and I was actually very surprised. It could be once people saw Rabbi Slifkin was criticizing my book for being too mainstream and too Haredi –

David Bashevkin:

Too apologetic.

Shmuel Phillips:

So people weren’t going to criticize it the other way. But yeah, it is a very difficult question, a very difficult balance. In terms of schools, high schools, at the very least, I think teachers have to be trained, have to be confident and comfortable dealing with these issues so that if they’re asked questions, they can deal with it. And they keep coming back to it in a confident way, in a competent way. How much the children are taught, I wouldn’t necessarily go into all the details, but some kind of basic, whether it’s a weekly or they have a lesson on challenges and responses, which they can have. Because again, even if it’s true that only 10 out of 100 in a class are going to have these problems, I’d say these are the ones which will actually verbalize their problems.

But having spoken to people who’ve read my book, they’ll say, “I always had these questions. They always troubled me.” So there are many people out there. And I think it’s impossible growing up in a Western society with an ancient Torah code which appears to be telling you things which don’t fit with the society you’re growing up with, it’s going to create a tension and a friction, which I think the majority of children are going to be struggling with. So the question is really how you deal with it. Because it’s another thing which I look at very early on in my book. Traditionally, Judaism has two different ways of dealing with difficult questions.

There’s the example I bring is from Hilchos Teshuva discussing the nature of God’s knowledge. How do we reconcile free will in God’s knowledge? Which is always one of the classic religious questions. If God knows everything, how do I have free will? What does it mean that God knows everything? Am I able to decide what I’m about to do right now? Or has God already determined it? So the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva goes on a long discourse about it, trying to work out exactly what does God know? What does he not know? And he goes back and forth. And eventually he concludes that, you know what? We have to accept that the nature of God’s knowledge is something that we can’t discern. We can’t really understand it. It’s not similar to our knowledge. And we just have to accept that he does know things, yet it doesn’t interfere with my free will.

And the Rabad comes along, his major critic, and just like you, he has a go at the Rambam. He says, “What are you doing raising these difficult questions? This is not the way of the sages. Unless we’re confident that we have a good answer for these questions and explaining how free will and God’s knowledge work, we shouldn’t raise them. We should just have simple faith and move along.” Yeah. The Rambam doesn’t see that. The Rambam understands that not only should we put answers out there for people, but even when we don’t have answers, there’s a religious value to probing these questions, because we are enriched by it. The process of going through and exploring will enrich us. But that was the time of the Rambam and the Rabad, where it may have been possible to block out and ignore these difficult questions.

But nowadays, I think we need to reassess this again. We don’t live in any kind of ghetto. The Rambam certainly didn’t. But we cannot block out external influence in thinking. Rav Shimon Schwab, who lived with, I think he said this well over 50 years ago, he concluded, this was in post-war America, it was no longer possible to avoid questions in the modern era. Rather the correct approach, is we must arm the youngsters with the intellectual tools, with the confidence to confront and overcome challenges, to teach them to have the maturity and the faith to be patient when the answers aren’t immediately identifiable or satisfactory.

And again, Rav Shimon Schwab is talking before the internet era. Now, every child on social media who’s linked into some dvar Torah from people who may not be coming from the Orthodox point of view, just for example, it’s very hard to avoid these questions. So I would say that while Jewish tradition has contained both approaches, the sealing ourselves off from difficult questions and the Rambam’s approach of grappling with them and trying to constantly understand more as we go through life, nowadays, I don’t see it even as a question. I think that whether they’re verbalizing it or not, a large proportion of children, teenagers, young adults, as they go through life will be challenged and will be facing these questions. And we have to put the answers out there and make them accessible.

David Bashevkin:

Shmuelly, I cannot thank you enough. I really think you’re doing some incredibly admirable work on this. I wanted to conclude with a return back to the analogy that you began with –

Shmuel Phillips:

Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog.

David Bashevkin:

About the wings of the two doves. No. And I love Sonic the Hedgehog, even though I never liked video games. And he was voiced in the movie by a Jewish voice actor, a really charming movie with, I think Ben Schwartz and Jim Carrey. My final question is, when people reach out to you in your book, do you think that there is a limit, or there is a stopping point to what you can fully address? And there’s a point where you need to, I don’t know what terminology you would use, submit, that leap of faith. Do you think that there limits to the philosophical and rational inquiry that you propose in your book? Where do you think that point is? And when you arrive at that point, assuming it exists, what do you suggest people do?

Shmuel Phillips:

That is precisely where the dove analogy comes in, because where one wing fails, the other one picks up. So we have to have that experiential, that spiritual side, where we relate in almost an intuitive way, an experiential way to Hashem. We daven, we sing. We have that dimension to us because there will be points where the rational stage, it will require some sort of leap of faith, not necessarily to think that Judaism is being disproven and you’re going to dance your way out of it, but everyone is going to reach a stage where the answers that they’re finding are not completely satisfactory. And if their whole Judaism is based on the cold, rationalist, philosophical side alone, that will be far harder to overcome. So God’s built human beings with all these different faculties, with the rational faculty, the emotive faculty, imaginative one.

And we serve Him with all of them. Rambam himself tells us that while Rambam champions trying to understand God and the process of Judaism through understanding in the intellectual route, he says that if that’s all we have, then the only people who will really conclude that there’s a God, who really understand and get from A to Z within religion and conclude that there’s a God and the Torah and everything is correct, those people are Avraham Avinu. They’re very rare individuals. Rather he says we have to start off, this is in the first section of Moreh Nevuchim, our initial connection to God is through tradition, through the experiential side, we’re brought up with it. And then once we have this proper basis, this goes back to what you’re talking about in terms of education and how we balance these things, but we start off with the tradition of the Torah and teaching things over, and the experience, and then we gradually bring in the intellectual, the rational side to fortify, and to develop, and to improve the way that we relate to Hashem.

David Bashevkin:

I have one short, final question before our wrap-ups. Your book is entitled Judaism Reclaimed, and I meant to ask this at the outset. What exactly are you reclaiming Judaism from?

Shmuel Phillips:

There are two aspects to it. We’ve touched upon both of them. One is it’s reclaiming Judaism from this almost dominant force in today’s orthodoxy, which sees Judaism as something very mystical. Let’s go back to the, Sonic the Hedgehog, running through life, trying to jump up at segulot, looking at mitzvot and aveirot as magic points to force, “I’ll do this Mitzvah, because I’m going to force a certain result in the world. And I want to avoid an error because I’m just going to be zapped by a – ”

David Bashevkin:

Hell, Satan. A lot of options for zaps.

Shmuel Phillips:

So people who go through life without really thinking about their Judaism. And that’s something which is very sad for me, because I’ve gained so much, I’ve been enriched so much by reading the Rambam and Rav Hirsch’s approaches. Their whole life, not just their religious life, every aspect of their life, their work, their family. Everything about it is infused by this moral and spiritual guidance of the Torah. So to me, it was very sad to see people living Judaism almost mechanically, looking for spiritual credits and avoiding various other things. So that’s one aspect of the reclaiming Judaism and fusing it with greater meaning.

And the other one is the points that you mentioned about the critiques and the claims that are made against Judaism from certain parts of academia, whether it’s questions from the historical or archeological side or the biblical criticism. And just responding. I don’t go into saying I’ve disproved anything. What I do is I try to show that there are answers out there. And very often there are people, again like Rav Hirsch, who in previous generations have dealt adequately with these questions, whether they’ve disproven them or not I leave to the readers to decide, but these questions have been addressed. And I try to show that we could reclaim Judaism from this almost arrogant line that certain academics will put out that they’ve disproven Judaism. Judaism is some kind of inadequate primitive faith system, which, once it’s scrutinized in any sort of proper, systematic way, it falls away. So I try to address and show with a certain methodology in a system that Judaism does and has given response to these claims.

David Bashevkin:

I cannot thank you enough for your time. I always close my interviews with a little bit more of rapid fire questions. My first question is, you’ve mentioned so many books aside from your own, the books, the works of the Rambam, the works of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. There have been many attempts to systematize Judaism. Aside from your own, what would you recommend to somebody looking for that kind of bird’s eye view, some systemic approach? “What am I doing every day? Get me out of this Sonic the Hedgehog Judaism.” What other book or books would you recommend?

Shmuel Phillips:

The two that have really done it for me, I keep coming back to the same ones are, Rav Hirsch’s, really his pirush on the Torah, his commentary on the Torah where he goes through the Torah and connects it so much to everyday life and takes mitzvot, sacrifices, all those long details of building the Mishkan, the parts of the Torah that people really struggle to relate to and find almost dull.

David Bashevkin:

Or just skip.

Shmuel Phillips:

And he find deep symbolic messages, moral teachings, spiritual teachings, which really show you how to live your life, your whole life as a religious Jew. And then you have a few people who are willing to delve into the Moreh Nevuchim. Again, that gives you, that takes all the different aspects of Judaism, all the different mitzvot, and integrates them into one system, which is how I relate to God and how I connect to God. Whether it’s governing or whether it’s a different part of the mitzvot, it’s all there to develop me and to develop my relationship, to think of God in a more sophisticated way, and more often, and to develop my providential relationship, and all aspects, and really to elevate and refine my humanity. So those are the two books which I really would say have the ability to change a person. They changed me, and they inspired me, and I recommend anyone else who’s able to be inspired by them.

David Bashevkin:

Those are two great recommendations. I’ll be honest. I tried reading Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed when I was in 11th grade, in my summer at Camp Mesorah. It was not the subversive page turner that I thought it would be. Maybe a little bit of fault to… Great title, Guide for the Perplexed, but it was not the page turner my 11th grade self was hoping for. My second rapid fire question. If somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical, no responsibilities, no nothing, go back to school, get a PhD, write a book. What do you think the subject and title of that work would be?

Shmuel Phillips:

I was fascinated by different parts of human psychology, how the human brain works, and try to reconcile or fit together the ideas of the human soul, and psychology, and different aspects of how we relate to God. So looking into that sort of a dimension of religion and science is something which would fascinate me. But I’m very far from those sort of skills and qualifications.

David Bashevkin:

No, absolutely fascinating. I happen to be very fascinated by neuroscience. Consciousness is one of my favorite frontiers in religious thought. My final question, always curious about people’s daily schedules. What time do you go to sleep at night? And what time do you wake up in the morning?

Shmuel Phillips:

Typically I go to sleep in the morning and I wake up later in the morning. I’m ADD, ADHD. I’m pretty hyperactive. By the time –

David Bashevkin:

I never would’ve guessed, honestly.

Shmuel Phillips:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

I mean that seriously.

Shmuel Phillips:

You can’t see it? The book, it’s all over the place. Chaotic stuff. It’s all interrelated chapters. But I don’t really start writing properly until late in the evening. So 10:00, 11:00 o’clock, I get going when things are quiet. And I can write until 1:00, 2:00 in the morning sometimes. And I get up 6:30, 7:30, depending on the day, what needs to be done.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, wow. That’s not so much sleep.

Shmuel Phillips:

A nap in the middle of the day, sometimes.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, the midday nap.

Shmuel Phillips:

Right?

David Bashevkin:

Amen, brother. Amen. Where would we be without our midday naps? Shmuelly Phillips, I cannot thank you enough. Your book, your work that you do, both in your book and online, I know impacts so many, and I’m so appreciative for your time today, speaking with me.

Shmuel Phillips:

Thank you so much. It’s been an honor.

David Bashevkin:

I’ve read through most of Rabbi Phillips’ book, and for people who are looking for a strong substantive basis for their faith, I cannot recommend it enough. Again, it is called Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah. And what I found so moving, and what I wrote about in the introductory essay to this topic, is this notion of rationality and logic, and experience and emotion on the other hand, respectively forming two wings that allow us to flap and soar forward. With one wing, you’re going to stay dormant on the ground, and learning how to wed deep, substantive, methodological rationality and logic with a rich interiority, emotional, and experiential life, in my opinion is what being human is all about.

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