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Simi Peters: Building New Faith Foundations

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Simi Peters – author and teacher – about Jewish faith and postmodernism.

Simi is a scholar who is well-versed in both postmodern and Jewish thought. She has attempted to synthesize the two, grounding Jewish faith in postmodernism. While postmodernism calls into question the very ideas of truth and proof, she still believes that Judaism can be given a postmodern, rational grounding.

  • What is postmodernism, and what implications does it have for rationality?
  • How can one ground their faith in a postmodern world view?
  • Where does the education system go right, and where does it go wrong, in attempting to ground its students’ faith?

Tune in to hear a conversation about Judaism and postmodernism.

References:
David Foster Wallace – The Problem with Irony by Will Schoder
The Most Human Human by Brian Christian
The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs
Learning to Read Midrash by Simi Peters
The Road Back by Mayer Schiller

Simi Peters is the author of Learning to Read Midrash (2004) and has been a teacher at Nishmat for over 25 years. Simi has dedicated her life to adult Jewish education and teacher education, specializing in Tanach, Midrash, and Biblical commentary. Simi holds a master’s degree in linguistics from the Graduate Center of CUNY and currently teaches at Matan’s Bellows-Eshkolot Educator’s Program.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a 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-dot-org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

About a year ago, I got an email from a really dear friend of mine who I’ve never met, but we exchange emails. Exchange is a strong word. He sends a lot of emails. I probably have a 30% batting average of responding, but I really do love him. He knows that. His name is Jeff Bloom. And he sent me an invitation to participate in a series that I was unable to participate in.

I just didn’t have enough time, and the intro was so, so long, but it looked absolutely fascinating. And the entire volume was a consideration of Leo Strauss’s introduction to the works of Spinoza. And it was there that Leo Strauss, a great philosopher, you could look him up if you don’t know more about him, really, a fascinating figure. But he basically undermines Spinoza’s critique of Judaism by demonstrating that Spinoza’s arguments, like the foundations of Orthodox faith itself, rest upon assumptions which cannot be proven. So he battles it out to this like stalemate of sorts, where you can’t really prove that you’re right, and I don’t know necessarily that he proved that he was right, but we left with this stalemate, and that was his famous introduction to the works of Spinoza.

And what this volume, which is coming out, I think in a few months, and you should take a look out for it, invited scholars to reflect on this somewhat famous introduction by Leo Strauss, and whether or not this is how we ground our faith in this stalemate where you can’t really choose one way or the other, or is there some firmer, rational, some grounding in which we can couch our faith? And there was one contribution in this volume of a name that regrettably I had never heard of, but it was by Simi Peters, who I believe is a doctor. I think she has a PhD. She’s definitely written incredible books on Midrash. And her response added another strain of philosophy into the equation, and really reframed the entire question itself, and considered how we can ground any sort of faith, particularly in light of postmodernism.

Now, before we explain what postmodernism is, I think number one, this could have its own series, and one day we will. There are so many incredible thinkers who integrate postmodern thought with Judaism, probably most famously Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known as Rav Shagar, who’s done incredible work – so many of his students who have translated his works into English, many of which I consider friends, but we’re not really going to focus on that specifically. What I really want to focus is, A, meeting and speaking with Simi Peters was an absolute revelation, but I want to talk a little bit about what postmodernism has done in discussions of grounding faith in rationalism.

Postmodernism, which is a really tricky word to define, because the philosophy itself, in many ways, eschews – I don’t think I’ve pronounced that word correctly, but I always see it in print and I love writing it – but rejects, so to speak, a lot of definition. It rejects the grand narrative, so to speak, that if you look at old television shows, if you read old books and odysseys, there is this very classic progression from doubt towards truth. And the narrative in which our lives were founded upon was that there was this objective truth that could be obtained, and postmodernism, in all of these curious, somewhat cynical, with meta references, all these interesting ways, question the very notion of objective truth itself. I don’t know if this is a good example, but it’s the piece of dialogue that I always think of when I think of postmodernism, and that is the famous philosopher, Saul Goodman, as featured in Breaking Bad, when he explains what personal truth means to him.

Saul Goodman:

If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work. I once convinced a woman that I was Kevin Costner, and it worked, because I believed it.

David Bashevkin:

The notion of having my truth, whether it’s your truth and your relationship to your religion, whether it is your truth and your relationship to your own status, be it that you’re a great scholar or very brilliant, or Kevin Costner, but this idea that you have the right and authority to ground your experience in whatever your subjective and personal truth is, is definitely a wrench in the very question of whether or not there is a capital T truth with which we can even uncover. And personally, when I think of postmodernism, I actually think of a fabulous series by a video essayist, which is a real term. It’s a video essay. He’s actually the first person I reached out to when we were doing 18Forty videos. He wasn’t available, but his videos are some of the most profound things I have ever watched online. Genuinely profound, really deals with incredible questions.

His name is Will Schoder. W-I-L-L, Schoder is spelled S-C-H-O-D-E-R, and he has a series of videos. He also hasn’t put out that much in a while, but I find his stuff incredibly profound. And he has a video entitled David Foster Wallace – The Problem with Irony. David Foster Wallace, the great novelist, writer, he started his career as a mathematician, he was a tennis star. I’m really fascinated by his life. He’s had some negative accusations about him, which I’d prefer not to litigate right now. But his thought, particularly on this issue, I have found incredibly, incredibly profound. His life, unfortunately, ended quite tragically. Died at a very young age. But his thought in this regard, for me at least, has been quite profound. And I want to share with you the way Will Schoder in this video frames the thought of David Foster Wallace, particularly as it relates to postmodernism.

David Foster Wallace:

The problem is I think postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course.

Will Schoder:

David Foster Wallace is known for being one of the most influential writers in recent history. Before taking his own life in 2008, he decried the negative effects postmodernism had on his generation. Postmodernism is a very wide ranging term used to analyze our world that emerged in the 1950s and 60s. It rejected the grand narratives that exist in modernism. Things like, there is one true God, history is progress, and peace on earth. In postmodern thought, there is no scientific, philosophical, or religious truth, which will explain everything for everybody. It lacks that optimism. Instead, everything is understood on a micro level. Knowledge and truth are contextual and constructed. Reality only comes into existence through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Thus post-modernism is characterized by self-referentiality, such as a character who knows they’re a character in a novel or film, by moral relativism, and by cynicism and irony. With that in mind, here’s Wallace again.

David Foster Wallace:

The problem though now is that a lot of the shticks of postmodernism – irony, cynicism, irreverence – are now part of whatever it is that’s enervating to the culture itself.

Will Schoder:

Wallace’s biggest concern was with the dominant cultural force of television, which he believed had become too saturated with these postmodern characteristics. TV’s response to dumb and overly sentimental sitcoms was irony. TV shows began criticizing themselves for being dumb TV shows.

David Bashevkin:

I think there’s a similar bind, if you listen closely to this. And once again, I really want to recommend going online and checking out some of his videos, because he deals with so many of the issues that at least for me personally about consciousness, happiness, irony, postmodernism, philosophy, but in this really creative way that I find wonderful. So shout out to Will Schoder. Again, Will, and Schoder spelled S-C-H-O-D-E-R. I find his videos to be incredibly profound, and he’s really trying to uncover the basis of meaning itself. But I do think there is a similar bind that both rationalism and postmodernism leads you to, which is the ability to really choose and commit to a specific set of practices, commitments with which you can build sacredness. It’s what so much of the irony, the television shows that I love.

Don’t get me wrong, BoJack Horseman, Arrested Development, they’re all contending with these issues of that postmodernism. The show about a show, the life about a life where we are afraid to invest in our specific own lives. Maybe it’s because of our own cynicism, maybe it’s because we don’t have any rational basis to choose in the particularity of our own experience. And there is a universalism that everybody holds truth and committing yourself to one specific practice, one specific set of ideas, seems to undermine not just rationality, but I think in many ways this very notion of postmodernism. You don’t have access to a capital T-truth. You are not part of some grand narrative that has this sincere meaning. You are part of a show of many other shows. And this notion of referencing back on your own experience and undermining the sincerity of your own lived experience, I think, is something that postmodernism, and very often, rationalism, can be guilty of.

I love the quote from David Foster Wallace, where he warns of the corrosive effects, that culture, that cynical culture, particularly, and that cynical culture, both in television and movies, but also in contemporary writings and the way people speak. Our ability to connect and commit to truth has become more and more difficult. This is what he says: “Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working towards redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

In many ways, we’re afraid to actually commit, and I love this, to redeeming what’s wrong. And we spend all of our time and our lives pointing out with different methodologies of this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong, but without any coherent approach that allows us to invest with sincerity and redeem what we find wrong. What he writes elsewhere, “Hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human.” I want to say it again, because in some ways, I think these struggles between balancing rationality, postmodernism, integrating our philosophies with our actual lived experience, finding a methodology to choose and live a meaningful life, these are the very battles of what it means to be a human being.

And battles, I don’t mean vanquishing one methodology over the other. I don’t mean balancing the right from the wrong. I mean integrating this into a real lived experience that is couched ultimately in something that is more than yourself. That we shouldn’t all descend into this solipsistic view that it’s only my truth, but that we can be connected to something greater. I just want to read it again because I find it to be so powerful. “Hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human.” And I think this fear of really being human, this fear of embracing our humanity with all of its irrationality and rationality, with all of its fragility and vulnerability, and all of its analytic power and prowess, is for many people the great fear of the 21st century.

It is for many people the uncertainty and anxiety that we find now where we are in competition with computer science, where we spend so much of our time trying to outpace the perfection that we are able to simulate in the world of computers, artificial intelligence, wherever you want to put it, that we are almost afraid to embrace what really makes us unique, which in many ways is our fragility and our ability to reflect on our very own fragility. Like that great quote that I’ve shared with you before, where Brian Christian, who wrote the book, The Most Human Human, which I’ve recommended 1,001 times, if you haven’t read it already, it’s just a whopper of a book. It’s about somebody who competes in a Turing test. The Turing test was created by Alan Turing, where somebody speaks to a group of computers. He’s speaking to computers and a human being. And you try to figure out which are the computers and which are the human beings. Turing posited that one way of simulating artificial intelligence is if a computer is able to convince a panel of judges that they are in fact the human being and not the computer. And this book, The Most Human Human by Brian Christian, is about somebody who competed not as a computer, but he competed as one of the human beings, as the Confederates. And he had to convince a panel of judges, communicating solely through text, there’s no voice modulation that you can hear and decide what’s what, but solely through text, and to to prove his humanity. And it’s a great thought experiment. What would you do if you had to prove your humanity to a group of judges solely through text? What would you write? What would you speak about?

And after writing this book, he had an interview with the Paris Review where he reflected on his own experience. And he was asked, so what, in fact, makes human beings unique? And I loved his answer. He said, human beings appear to be the only things anxious about what makes them unique. It’s that anxiety, that vulnerability that we have about establishing lives that do have some sacredness, some specialness to them, that I think makes us uniquely human, and I think in many ways, especially now, contending with the uniqueness of human experience is sometimes really contrasted with what computer science and singularity and all of these things that you may or may not know about, what prizes them? Like that famous interview at the World AI Conference in Shanghai. Elon Musk said that there is a smaller and smaller corner where humans are better than computers in intellectual pursuit, and every year, it gets smaller and smaller. Humans, he said, are hopelessly inadequate. And rather than looking at that, in these discussions about finding that capital T-truth, and looking at that hopelessly inadequate, our hopeless inadequacy is not, I think, a bug of our system. It is a feature. It is part of the distinctive human experience. And learning how to embrace that and integrate that with all of the intellectual prowess of what makes human beings unique I think is a really beautiful part of life. And I think what makes being alive today in the 21st century, when we see these developments in technology, in modernity, happening so rapidly, is really learning how to be proud and embrace the very nature of our human condition. And I think that’s so much about what we’ve been discussing over here, to learning how to appreciate what makes humans human.

And whether it’s with postmodernism and whether it’s with rationality, I think these questions have become more and more difficult, especially as of late. There’s one thought that I really like as it relates to the value add of religion, particularly as a response to rationality and postmodernism. And you may not like this, it’s not a response. It is something that I believe religious life offers that otherwise is very hard to cultivate in your own life. And it’s something that A.J. Jacobs, who’s a really fun author, who wrote this fabulous book called The Year of Living Biblically, where he spent a year literally following the Old Testament. You could read it on your own. I definitely got a chuckle. I wouldn’t give him high marks for his fidelity to Old Testament Judaism. You can read it yourself. It’s got some great cameos of shatnez and all this other fun stuff.

It’s a great read if you haven’t read it already. And I love A.J. Jacobs. I know he’s a friend to a lot of people. I know he does really some wonderful work. But in a talk, I believe a TED Talk following the publication of his book, he spoke a little bit about what he learned from this experience of following the tenets of the Old Testament, at least to the best of his understanding, for a full year. And there’s one thing that always stuck out at me, and it was the word “sacredness”.

A.J. Jacobs:

Thou shall have reverence. This one was unexpected because I started the year as an agnostic. And by the end of the year, I became what a friend of mine calls a reverent agnostic, which I love. And I’m trying to start it as a movement. So if anyone wants to join. The basic idea is whether or not there’s a God, there’s something important and beautiful about the idea of sacredness, and that our rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred. This was one of the great things about my year was doing the Sabbath, because I am a workaholic. So having this one day where you cannot work, that changed my life. So this idea of sacredness, whether or not there’s a God.

David Bashevkin:

I think our ability to find sacredness and find the sacredness in our lives can be much more difficult and much harder to discover if we get lost in a world of postmodernism where you can get lost in attaching your own story to any larger story and any grander narrative of truth. And it can be even harder when you become mired in the propositions and the cold reason of rationality. And finding that sacredness in your own experience, in your own story, and attaching yourself to some larger feeling of sacredness, I think in many ways is something that is overlooked and ignored in our personal lives. And sacredness is not something that can ever be manufactured. Sacredness is something that arises organically, I think, particularly when you connect not only to your own present experience, but to the larger experience of the past and the future linking them together.

And I believe that there is no greater way to develop that sense of sacredness for life and of life than with a relationship with Torah and mitzvos, Halacha and Yiddishkeit, I think, really allows people to transform the ordinariness, the mundaneness, the almost meaninglessness of a superficial look of life into something quite sacred. It also happens to be the approach of our guest, Simi Peters, whose essay in the yet unpublished volume is entitled, Why Should A Jew Choose Belief. And I had never heard of her before, but I found her so incredibly profound, thoughtful. I went out immediately and bought her book on Midrash, which of course we will try and link to. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce our guest, Simi Peters.

So I am so excited to introduce somebody who I am only familiar with from one fabulous unpublished essay that she wrote that was sent to me by a dear friend of mine. Simi Peters, is it okay if I call you Simi?

Simi Peters:

Nobody calls me anything else, so that’s perfect.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. I am so excited to talk with you today about the struggle of grounding Jewish faith, whether that grounding is grounded in something rational, if it’s something supernatural. I want to talk about that with you today, but before we get to it, I had never heard of you before I read this, you have this like 20 page, we’ll see how long it comes in, this contribution to an unpublished book collection that’s coming out about the contemporary philosophical basis of Judaism. So before we get into your actual essay, maybe you can tell me, us, our audience a little bit about where you were raised, where you’re from, and why are you writing about this? And then we’ll get into why now and what exactly you’re arguing.

Simi Peters:

Okay, well, I asked Jeff Bloom why he wanted me to write for his book, because my field is Tanakh, Midrash, and Parshanut, which is Bible and Midrash and biblical commentators. That’s my thing. I’ve written a book on Midrash called Learning to Read Midrash. It could be that if you taught Tanakh, you’d be a little more familiar with my work, because teachers do use the book or have studied the book. I know that from feedback I’ve received. My background is, my parents were Holocaust survivors. I grew up in New York, Far Rockaway, New York, from a Haredi background. Yeah, I know you’re from –

David Bashevkin:

I grew up in Lawrence.

Simi Peters:

You grew up in Lawrence, but –

David Bashevkin:

Right across the highway.

Simi Peters:

You’re younger than me.

David Bashevkin:

We missed each other.

Simi Peters:

We missed each other. I’ve been in Israel since I finished graduate school. I have a degree in linguistics, a BA and an MA in linguistics. And I made Aliyah as soon as I finished graduate school. I’ve been in Israel 42 years now, something like that. I’m a mother, grandmother, teacher, a passionate missionary for reform in Jewish education, especially when it comes to the way that Midrash is taught. Does that give you enough background?

David Bashevkin:

That is more than enough. And I’d love to do a deep dive and play some more Far Rockaway Jewish geography, but that of course can wait for a different time. What I wanted to talk about is you have, again, this is unpublished now, but you have an article that’s entitled, Why Should a Jew Choose Belief? And I think the question I wanted to start with is the question itself that you are addressing. You note from the outset of your article, the question, why believe? Why have faith? Why be committed? Why be involved in Yiddishkeit, in religion, in any way? But it’s not a question that is asked a lot in Orthodox circles. It’s not asked a lot in a lot of religious communities. It’s almost presupposed. It’s taken for granted. My question that I want to ask is, has something changed that we need to address this question now? And if so, what has changed that all of a sudden, this question that for much of Jewish history, when I was growing up, a lot of this was taken for granted. It wasn’t fully articulated. So why is this a question that in your opinion needs addressing now?

Simi Peters:

I think it always needed addressing. That’s the truth. I believe it always needed addressing and it didn’t get addressed. But I think that the influence of postmodernism has, even on the most insular religious Jewish communities, has made this question a necessary question, or addressing this question necessary, because –

David Bashevkin:

Could you just explain, what exactly do you mean by postmodernism? Before you explain how that’s necessitated, addressing the question?

Simi Peters:

Okay, broadly speaking, postmodernism is a movement. When did it exactly start? That’s an interesting question. Certainly it took off big time in the eighties, 1980s. It was a movement that sought to undermine the foundations of accepted wisdom or accepted belief in Western society. So to give a sort of a potted history here, the Greeks believed that people could be objective and they could prove things. They could prove in the mathematical sense. There’s empirical proof. You can prove everything empirically. Postmodernism challenged that, and it evolved into a radical subjectivity, where basically, all truths have equivalent, or all narratives have equivalent weight. No assumptions can be proven at all whatsoever. Which by the way, I think is true, but that’s a separate issue. And what postmodernism did was it kicked the guts out of the certainties of just about every institution of religion, education, philosophy, pick your, if you will, sacred cow. It kicked the guts out of all of that by simply saying, you can’t prove it, and therefore it has no foundation.

David Bashevkin:

You use the term “the indeterminacy of knowledge,” that so much is couched in our lived experience and what you’ve been through and how you’ve raised and all of the subjective forms of your narrative. So uncovering and discovering some objective truth for all through the lens of this theory is nearly impossible.

Simi Peters:

Absolutely, because let me say this, I actually think that a belief in determinacy of knowledge in the sense that we are all subjective, right? We’re all a filter, our understanding through subjective experiences, through our minds, our bodies, are the ways in which we experience the world. I don’t think this idea was radical to Chazal. I think they assumed it. I think they assumed, as opposed to the Greeks, who assumed that you could really, really be objective in some pure sense. Which if you think about is kind of a crazy idea. Where did they get that certainty from? But for Chazal, I don’t think that that’s an issue. I think for Chazal though, for the sages of the Talmud of traditional Jewish thought, of course were subjective. We’re not people. We can’t claim some pure Olympic objectivity. I don’t think that’s the radical idea. I think the radical idea, and where postmodernism did a tremendous amount of damage to society, was in saying, if you cannot prove, or you cannot assign a truth value to a statement, then it has no validity at all. Does that make sense? Should I clarify that a little bit?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, add on two sentences. You’re not just speaking to me, we’re speaking to our audience, but I think these are questions that a lot of people are grappling with in their religious faith. And younger listeners are growing up in this postmodern world. So even if they don’t put a label on it to understand how that universe is shaping their own commitment and the lens through which they see Yiddishkeit, I think is really important. So say another few words on how exactly this is influencing the way we look at our religious commitment and religious thought.

Simi Peters:

Okay. So you, first of all, you keep using the word “commitment,” which is what is necessary to belief. Basically commitment. What makes us believe is that we’ve committed to a system of belief and therefore we invest in it and we use it in our lives. Let me see if I can give an illustration from working as a teacher. As a teacher, I’ve been teaching for 40 years.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Simi Peters:

Students who have studied under me in the past took it for granted that you could prove, and I’ll say that in air quotes, “you could prove things, and you could argue your case, and you could interpret texts, that some interpretations were better than other, that some ideas are better than others, that some ideas have more validity.” Today, that has just, as part of the zeitgeist, as part of the spirit of the ages, that’s just not true. Why? Because since no single belief system can be proven mathematically or philosophically to be absolutely true, true with the capital T, then all are equivalent, right? Since you can’t, it’s almost like saying, if we take the anti-vaxxers as, maybe this is a sensitive example.

David Bashevkin:

No, let’s jump right in there.

Simi Peters:

Conventional wisdom when I was growing up and when I started my teaching career was, the doctors knew what they were talking about. Or certainly they knew more than your bubby. If you had a… Medicine is not an exact science. Nobody would say that even today. But if you had an infection, you took penicillin, because the use of medicine, surgery, whatever medical means were used, was based on study, empirical proof, attempts to get at… to pare down treatment to something that really worked, not something that was, okay, let’s throw this, let’s give this person arsenic. Maybe it’ll kill the infection. But there was a solid basis for that. Today, you have people who say things like, look, I read the internet. I’ve read books about vaccination. And I make up my own mind. It’s very hard to be a doctor today because of the internet. The first thing a person does when they find out that they’ve been diagnosed with something is they Google it.

David Bashevkin:

WebMD. Yeah.

Simi Peters:

They Google it, and then they think they know, or they don’t even know which website they’re using. They don’t know what the website is basing the information on. But the assumption is, well, my doctor says this, but the internet says the following 10 things. And I can just, I don’t have to… They’re all equivalent. Every narrative is equally kosher.

David Bashevkin:

And to shift to the analog of our conversation, meaning, it would be that when you would listen to a parent, a teacher, a rabbi, there was maybe more of an implicit understanding or –

Simi Peters:

Consensus.

David Bashevkin:

Or consensus that this is capital T-true. And now when it does not cohere with your lived experience, it’s much easier to feel a sense of alienation and saying, look, I want something that resonates more with my personal lowercase t-truth. And that has made the question of why affiliate with Orthodox Judaism, is there still a capital T-truth that this can be grounded on, much more, it’s muddied the waters, it’s made it a little bit more difficult.

Simi Peters:

Absolutely. Absolutely. So I would say if I were to just take a little bit issue with what you’re saying here, there is, a Jew believes, there is an absolute capital T-truth, but it does not reside in the human mind. It’s in God. But lo bashamayim hi, it’s not in the heavens. This is implicit in the methodology of Chazal, the sages of the Talmud and Jewish thought, from their time to our time. Implicit is, of course we’re all sitting here trying to figure out what the truth is, based on the texts, that we accept as the word of God, that will tell us what the truth is. But guess what? Rabbi X says this and Rabbi Y says that and Rabbi Z says the other. And then there are rules by which we decide what the Halakhic, what the legal implications are. But capital T-truth resides in God’s mind. In God, in the reality of God. And as human beings, we try to approximate that to the best of our ability using revealed truth of God as far as we can apprehend it.

David Bashevkin:

So let me jump in, and this has definitely shaped the way people believe. And let me try to present a question that my partner in this entire project, Mitch, he uses the following analogy. And his frustration is that he’s looking to apprehend with his own mind the capital T-truth. And his frustration is that he looks at history and the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism and how it flourished more or less around the same time of Christianity and other religions. And what his question is, look, I can’t really apprehend what we’re doing is any better than what other people are doing. So what am I left with? Am I just a part of some, I think he uses the Great Wolf Lodge, or this fraternity of bros coming together, and we have cholent, we make kiddush. And we’re part of this community that has these communal norms. So here’s my golf club, here’s my country club. There are other places where I can find this affinity and these social norms or whatever it is. So how do I extract and find some measure of capital T-truth to ground my faith in, so it doesn’t feel like my affiliation with Judaism, as satisfying as it may be, as enjoyable as it may be, is more than just being an affiliate of a country club? Can that still be found and where do you look to find it?

Simi Peters:

Well, I can give you my answer to that question. My personal answer. And I think my personal answer has wider implications. I hope it does. First of all, one of the things I say in the article is the experiential, I like being frum vibe. I’m comfortable in the frum world is not enough to ground somebody who doesn’t like being frum. For one thing, the Jewish community is great, and there’s a tremendous cultural richness and a love and warmth and terrific things. There’s also a lot of dysfunction. A community could be dysfunctional just like a family can be dysfunctional.

Talmud Torah is very intellectually satisfying, but for some people it’s frustrating, it’s hard. Keeping Mitzvot is not always fun. Sometimes even if you’re deeply committed. I remember, my first son’s brit, I suddenly thought, and I’m from a Chassidish family, Holocaust survivors, I’ve been a frum girl my whole life, Bais Yaakov girl, the whole thing. I thought, they’re going to cut my baby! And I was not a happy bunny. And yet I didn’t grab my child and run home.

There’s something there that has to hold you through the tough moments. Maybe a good analogy is marriage, and this isn’t my answer, but a good analogy might be marriage. You get married, you make a commitment, and then you make it work, because, unless it’s really a terrible marriage, obviously abusive or whatever. I think the problem is that people couch these issues in terms of, is it true with the capital T, or even true with the small t? Or why is my truth more important or better than someone else’s truth? And I think it would be better if we used the terms “evidence” and “judgment” instead of “proof” and “truth”. In other words, the question that we, I think what a Jew, what Judaism demands of the Jew, is to exercise judgment all the time.

We have a body of texts. We have a tradition. We have oral texts and written texts. We have a tradition, we have a history, and a heritage. And the question that we have to ask ourselves all along is, how do I exercise my judgment about right and wrong here? Not, is this truth with the capital T, but perhaps, is this right or wrong? Is this meaningful or not meaningful? Is this what I should be doing? And the way that I frame it, and if you read the article, I think you saw this, is for me, the evidence, if you will, that makes Judaism reasonable is a sense of Jewish history. And that has been beaten to death also. Forgive me for a minute while I just clarify what I mean here.

The use of the Shoah to create commitment in Jews is I think a perversion of what we’re supposed to get out of Jewish history. It’s a big problem. Be a Jew because Hitler would’ve killed you. So you should be a Jew. That’s not what’s interesting to me in Jewish history. What’s interesting to me in Jewish history is why we haven’t disappeared. And I’m not talking about antisemitism here. I’m talking about, why have the Jewish people persisted in or insisting on remaining Jewish, even though it really doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t pay in worldly terms?

Why haven’t we disappeared? Now, I remember my father who was a Holocaust survivor said, somebody had quoted some professor in Harvard saying something very damning about religious belief. And he said, when Harvard is a pile of rocks, there still will be little Jewish boys with peyos. So we should… And I think that’s a true statement. Now, the Rambam, in his Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Maimonides, in his Magnum Opus, talks about the foundations of Jewish belief. And he says that our belief in God is based on the experience at Sinai. That the whole people witnessed God giving the Torah. And when God gave the Torah, that created a tremendous impression upon the Jewish people, and they passed that down to their children.

And it’s quite a good argument. And the Kuzari has a similar argument. It talks about the fact that it was a mass revelation, and why that is proof of God’s existence and the truth of Torah. Now for a postmodern person, and maybe not even just a postmodern person, where basically history is written, how many people have said something like history is written by the victors, or in our case, history is written by the survivors, if you will, that is still not a knockdown proof.

David Bashevkin:

Meaning somebody could say, of course you are able to couch it in Sinai or in this mass revelation, because it’s like this Abraham Wald, when he was looking at the airplanes coming back, we’re only looking at who survived. And the only people who are going to survive are the ones who lay truth to these big, massive truth claims. But that doesn’t necessarily give it any real credence.

Simi Peters:

Exactly. Exactly. And, while I personally find Maimonides’ argument persuasive, some could say to me, sure, you’ve been indoctrinated from a young age to believe that the Torah was given at Sinai. It was transmitted through generation.

David Bashevkin:

You’re invested in this.

Simi Peters:

You’re invested in this. It’s your thing. It’s your identity. But there is one thing that I think can’t be so easily explained. And again, it’s not the fact that we as a people have survived antisemitism, wars, plagues. Jewish history is a nightmare. It’s not just that we have survived Jewish history, but that we chose. There are still Jews today. And there have always been Jews. And the number waxes and wanes, and individual Jews have often dropped out of Jewish history. That’s not a surprise either. But between those twin poles of emancipation on the one hand, the siren song of assimilation on the one hand, and antisemitism on the other, why are there still Jews doing this?

Why are we still invested? Why haven’t we disappeared? And to me, that’s the evidence of Sinai. In other words, for me, the fact is that this Jewish stubbornness, again, as a people, I’m not talking about individuals, but as a people, that God intoxication, that willingness to seek God in history, that we continue and repeatedly we keep dying and we never die. What did Toynbee call us? A fossil? We’re more like the Phoenix, right? We don’t give up on God. And that to me feels supernatural. That’s the real miracle of Jewish history as far as I’m concerned. That the Jewish people are the miracle of Jewish history, their belief and their faith in God and their willingness to maintain this. And I think you can’t ignore that.

You can’t ignore that. That is the, if you will, echo of the big bang that was Sinai. That for me is the basis of belief. That’s enough for me to commit. Because I remember saying this once to a student, she was horribly shocked. I said, look, if I didn’t think God really gave us the Torah at Sinai, I’d party. No Shabbos, no kashrus, none of that stuff. There’s other things to do out there. That’s my answer.

David Bashevkin:

Why is that argument from history not equally applicable to Islam or Christianity?

Simi Peters:

Go for it, Muslim or Christian, you don’t have to be a Jew. And my revelation is not directed at you. In other words, if you have a coherent approach to your tradition and a sense of grounding in it, and you have invested time to understand it, go for it. That’s one of the interesting things, I don’t think the truth of Torah was intended for the world, except in a broader sense. The fact that a Muslim eats halal rather than kosher is legit.

David Bashevkin:

That is fascinating. The question that I’m concerned now, I can see you, our listeners cannot. You told me you were raised in Far Rockaway by Holocaust survivors. You mentioned you have Hasidic heritage. What is a good frum Bais Yaakov girl doing trying to figure out and justify faith, quoting Spinoza and Leo Straus and postmodernism? What led you to explore these questions? If I were to pass by you in Israel, and you told me you teach Midrash or Tanakh –

Simi Peters:

I look like a rebbetzin.

David Bashevkin:

I would believe you right away. If you told me you wrote a 20 page article trying to ground Jewish faith in something philosophical and rational, I would say, are you sure you have the right Simi Peters? I met the rebbetzin. She was going around. Maybe that’s my own gendered bias. And I have no doubt that specifically on these questions, gender plays a very real role. But I don’t know you well enough. And I was hoping that the answer to this question would come out from that brief history you gave before, but it’s only made my question more pronounced. What am I missing that you were drawn to these massively large questions couched in a very sophisticated, philosophical grounding? And I apologize if the very question that I am asking is very likely grounded on my own lived experience, and what a rebbetzin is supposed to look like and be interested in. I will admit to that upright. And I apologize for asking the question, but I couldn’t help myself from surfacing it.

Simi Peters:

I’ve been asked it before. Somebody sent me a letter after I wrote my book, asking a little bit about my background, where had I come up with my approach to Midrash. And I said, well, I’m a former Bais Yaakov girl, and I did this and this, I studied with this one and that one and whatever. And he said, you don’t write like a Bais Yaakov girl. So, okay. So fair enough.

David Bashevkin:

So maybe I, and I have high esteem for Bais Yaakov.

Simi Peters:

So do I. So do I. I learned all of my Torah in Bais Yaakov.

David Bashevkin:

So it’s not a knock on that, but I feel like there’s a part of your story and what’s drawing you to these questions that I am still missing.

Simi Peters:

Okay. So if I’m very frank, I will say that someone said to me, I was in my late teens, and a friend of mine, and she said, what’s your big yetzer hara? What’s the thing that really tempts you? I said, Western culture. From a very young age, I was fascinated by Western culture. I love literature. I’m a big reader. I was fascinated by the way that Western culture, the best of Western culture. I read junk too. But Western culture is extremely seductive, especially for a nerdy kid, and I was very drawn to Western culture, Western literature, Western thought. Let’s face it. Growing up in America, if you’re not hermetically sealed, it’s not Meah Shearim, you’re exposed to Western culture. That’s where you come from.

And at the same time, I have, Baruch Hashem, a very strong grounding in learning. And I love Torah. I love learning. By the way, the gender thing, just to point out, the reason I was asked to write for this book is because it’s hard to find women who will do this kind of thing. A lot of the younger women scholars are younger and have little kids and stuff. I have this, I’m fortunate in being an older product, a self-made product of a certain kind of learning. And for that reason, if I were a man, I don’t know if I would’ve been asked to write for this book. But what I was passionate about was trying to understand what my relationship to Western culture should be. And as a teacher who taught chozarei b’teshuva, not only chozarei b’teshuva, I’ve taught in a variety of places –

David Bashevkin:

People who come back, like a baal teshuva.

Simi Peters:

People who come back to, well, or never really knew Judaism, but are exploring Judaism. The kinds of questions that my students ask me, especially in the early years of my teaching before the internet took over and people actually read books and had a thirst for reconciling these difficulties, meant that I had to think about a lot of things. I had to think about a lot of things. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but that was something that really, really drew me, the intellectual challenge of trying to reconcile that by cultural reality, two strong pulls in my personal experience.

David Bashevkin:

Just to stay on that personal component for a moment, to me, a lot of people who are drawn to the nuance and sophistication that is more readily apparent in the great cannon of Western literature can look back at a more sheltered, for a host of reasons, I’m not saying that critically, upbringing with a sense of cynicism and frustration. Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? Why didn’t you expose me to these ideas earlier? So my follow up question to you, because you don’t seem this way, and maybe, again, you have just such a gracious cadence to your voice that maybe I’m missing it. Why are you not more cynical? Meaning, you were raised in a –

Simi Peters:

I’m very cynical. I’m very cynical. No, I’ll tell you. It’s funny. A friend of mine who is chozeret b’teshuva, she’s a wonderful educator here in Yerushalayim, she came to Judaism in her late teens through NCSY davka.

David Bashevkin:

Specifically. Yeah.

Simi Peters:

Very knowledgeable woman. She’s great. She’s wonderful. After one of the horrible scandals with the rabbi who was taking advantage of young women came to light, I met her in the supermarket and she said to me, doesn’t this shake your faith? Doesn’t this just really kill you? And I said, no, I’m an FFB. I grew up frum. I know that frum people can be disgusting. Like, hello. No, it doesn’t shake my faith. Or, let me put it this way. First of all, I had wonderful parents, Baruch Hashem, and I had teachers who gave me a real intellectual challenge. And when you said the nuance in the Western cannon, you have to understand, I am a teacher of Tanach, Midrash, and Parshanut.

When you have analyzed Rashi on Torah carefully, when you have peeled apart a Midrash and seen how profound and complex and brilliant it is, I didn’t feel like Judaism or my Jewish studies didn’t hold a candle. Talmud Torah was always at a high level, very challenging. And I didn’t have an inferiority complex about Judaism. But I still found the Western cannon fascinating.

David Bashevkin:

Let me ask you this. And maybe this will be my final question, because your article, God willing, will be coming out soon. And it does make a very articulate defense couched in this historical uniqueness of the Jewish people. But I wanted to ask you as a teacher, not as the writer of an article coming out in some relatively obscure volume, everybody should buy it.

Simi Peters:

Yeah, it’s going to be obscure.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. But this is not going to be on the New York Times bestseller list. Let me ask you as a teacher, I’ve been asking all of our guests this: do you think, I don’t know whether high schools or whether or not you’re still teaching Americans or how much is on the scene, but when you think about the way our pedagogical system is set up, and we have, thank God, an unbelievable educational system in the United States of America, we have really, my grandfather, he was involved in Torah Umesorah in those early days with Dr. Joe Kaminetsky in the boondocks in Portland, Maine. And starting these little communities. But now we’re really thriving, but it seems like we still have holes in the boat. We still have leaks in the roof. What do you see are issues specifically related to the grounding of faith that our, whether elementary schools or high schools, should be paying closer attention to, or perhaps doing differently, or do you see, look, it’s exactly right for what we need as a product in America. And then they’ll come to Israel and a gap year, whatever, they’ll fill in those blanks and then they’ll do the rest.

Simi Peters:

All right. So first of all, I would say that while the investments of the American Jewish community in day school education for students is extremely admirable, parents are definitely sacrificing financially and in other ways to make sure their children get a good Jewish education, I do not think that the Jewish educational system in the States or in Israel is thriving. I can’t agree with your assessment. I think that a lot of what the educational system in America now does is kiruv. Kiruv within the religious community. There is very little rigor –

David Bashevkin:

Meaning outreach.

Simi Peters:

Outreach to the students. The kumzits, or the discussion, or the touchy feely. And those things have their place. Absolutely. They absolutely have their place. But if you’re not showing your students the rigor of the texts, then you have a problem. Or let me put it this way. I’m seeing students in 18 year old programs and I’m teaching these girls. I’m seeing students who really don’t dive in from a siddur. They dive in from an Artscroll. They can’t read the texts in Hebrew. They have trouble translating them.

It’s Judaism in a remove. And if you’re not giving students good textual skills, then why should they be impressed with their heritage? If you’re teaching students, and this I see very much in the modern Orthodox world, more than in the centrist or right wing Orthodox world. If you’re telling students things like, it’s just a Midrash, and you’re not teaching them to respect Chazal, you don’t give them a real grounding, you don’t have teachers who can answer the questions they’re raising because the teachers haven’t studied the texts, then you’re in trouble. You’re in trouble.

David Bashevkin:

Tell me, what do you think the trouble and the problem that you are seeing? Because it sounds to me that you’re not talking about more education in doctrine or theology necessarily. You’re talking, you would like to see more independent, text based skills learning, because why? The average educator, let’s just frame the problem a little bit differently, would respond to you and say, it doesn’t work. It’s too boring. They’re going to go bananas. They’re not interested. They’re competing with Netflix and Hulu, and HBO Max and Disney plus, I’m just listing all the things that I compete with for my attention. And what really works is schmoozing, talking, kumzits. It doesn’t work what you are suggesting. What are we losing by not listening to you? Why does that have an impact?

Simi Peters:

First of all, when you teach Jewish texts, including things like the siddur, which you daven from every day, in translation, you are teaching Torah out of remove from the power of the authentic text itself. And look, I’ve read War and Peace in translation. I actually read War and Peace in two separate translations. And it might be worth learning Russian just to read Anna Karenina in the original. I’m kidding. I don’t have time. But it’s clear to me that I’m reading it in translation and that the Russian reader is getting something far more profound than what I’m getting. And that’s just the nature of translation. When you’re learning Torah in translation, when you’re davening essentially in translation, you are not doing the real thing. That’s A. B, you could give students, if they have good language skills, and if they have good reading skills, you can give them texts that will answer their questions.

Instead of walking in and telling the student what the Michtav me-Eliyahu said, or what the Shem mi-Shmuel said, or what the Rambam said on faith, or on the bechirat chafshi, free will, or whatever it is, they could actually read that stuff themselves and ask questions about it and be confident of getting an answer. And I think the tragedy is that the American Jewish community has invested so much money, so much time, so much energy in the Jewish educational system, but they haven’t professionalized it. They will take anybody as a teacher. They don’t give their teachers skills. You got me on my hobby horse here, but this is absolutely something I feel very passionately about, because if you are reading or learning a filtered tradition, it’s automatically going to have less power for you.

David Bashevkin:

It really resonates to me. Listening to you, my only regret is that I’ve only discovered you so late in my life, because aside from our Far Rockaway connection, which I am not dismissing, we’re landsmen, I think the profundity and sophistication with which you share ideas is something that is so desperately needed. And specifically the, and again, I don’t want to come back to this, maybe you’ll say a word about it, the gendered component in that as a female teacher, sharing Torah at this level with this style and cadence and the rhythm with which you share these ideas of great sophistication is something that I’m always looking for more entry ways for that.

Simi Peters:

It’s an advantage. People walk past me in the street, they see the snood and they say, yerushalmi rebbetzin. But there it is. Then I surprise them.

David Bashevkin:

I always end my interviews with more rapid fire questions, and I was wondering if you would indulge me in three of those. My first question is, if you were looking for a book to introduce somebody to faith, somebody who is in doubt, somebody who is searching to ground their faith on something they will find meaningful in this very indeterminate postmodern world that we all live in, what is the book or books that you would give them?

Simi Peters:

Okay. Mayer Schiller wrote a book. I don’t remember the title. Do you know what I’m talking about?

David Bashevkin:

I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s out of print and a little bit hard to find, but I will look to find that and we could post that link. Absolutely. It’s the road. I think it has some road…

Simi Peters:

The Road not to, I don’t remember what it’s called. It’s a good book. Mayer Schiller’s book.

David Bashevkin:

The Road Back: A Discovery of Judaism.

Simi Peters:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So that’s one book I would recommend. And for somebody who wants a less intense overview, I still think Herman Wouk wrote a good book. It’s a little apologetic, but this is a person who is speaking with great love of his faith, and a willingness to maintain his faith in the face of an America that was even more assimilation oriented than our own. So I would say those two books.

David Bashevkin:

I love that we gave Herman Wouk a shout out, he’s kind of lost to the contemporary generation. They don’t remember the movies. They don’t remember the books and his fame. So it resonates less, but imagine a major author –

Simi Peters:

Steven Spielberg.

David Bashevkin:

Steven Spielberg, writing about faith in a really eloquent and sophisticated way. My next question I always ask. If somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical for as long as you needed to go back to school and get a PhD, what do you think the topic and title of your dissertation would be?

Simi Peters:

That’s a good question. Probably something on the Ramban, or maybe mefarshei Rashi. Or you know what would be really cool? Probably there aren’t too many doctorates out on that, the Netziv.

David Bashevkin:

Well, Gil Perl wrote on the Netziv. But there’s more to do. There’s more to do on the Netziv.

Simi Peters:

I’m like, duh, of course he’s perfect.

David Bashevkin:

My wishlist, and if there’s anybody to do it, and if anybody gives the sum of money, I’m still waiting for a PhD on Reb Menachem Kasher, for people who are interested in –

Simi Peters:

Oh, Torah Shleima. Yeah. Unbelievable.

David Bashevkin:

Do a full PhD on that. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s schedules. What time do you go to sleep at night? And what time do you wake up in the morning?

Simi Peters:

Pre-Corona or post Corona?

David Bashevkin:

Let’s do post Corona. Why not?

Simi Peters:

Okay. So I’m doing a lot of Zoom teaching at the moment at relatively late night hours to chutz la’aretz, so…

David Bashevkin:

America.

Simi Peters:

Yeah. So I’m in England.

David Bashevkin:

England, yeah.

Simi Peters:

And other places. I have students from as far away as Prague. So, my schedule’s messed up because I’ve been going to bed very late. I would say pre-Corona, I’d say about midnight. And about between 6:30 and 7:00 in the morning.

David Bashevkin:

You wake up?

Simi Peters:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Simi Peters, I’m just so excited for your writings and thoughts specifically shared in this volume to come out. We will definitely amplify it because I think it’s that important. And for your time, effort, and ideas, I am so appreciative to you. Thank you so much for your time.

Simi Peters:

You’re very welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

David Bashevkin:

There are some people who are going to find Simi Peters’ approach, and again, you could check out in the volume, hopefully she’s going to publish it in a shorter version, incredibly unsatisfying. In many ways it repeats what others have said quite eloquently, whether it is Rabbi Yaakov Emden in the introduction to a siddur, I believe, makes an argument from Jewish peoplehood itself, whether it is the beautiful essay published in 1899 by Mark Twain concerning the Jews, which I think is one of the most moving essays ever, where he really talks about the secret, the immortality of the Jewish people. I’ll read a snippet for you now because I do find it so moving.

“If the statistics are right,” and this is Mark Twain, concerning the Jews, published in Harpers in 1899, “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but 1% of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contribution to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abtruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all the ages and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream stuff and passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and now, what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energy, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

And when I read that I never cease to be moved. I always find these words to be incredibly moving. And for some, maybe they’ve heard it so many times already that they dismiss it. And maybe for some, they’ll find some ideas and reasons of why this doesn’t count as some form of evidence to couch your very faith into. And I have no doubt that there are mounds of responses why this is an absurd reason to couch your faith into. But on a very personal level for myself, I do believe that my connection to the Jewish people is a form of revelation of sorts.

I’ve never heard God speak to me as an individual, but I do connect to godliness as he is revealed through the entirety of the Jewish people, and the story of the Jewish people. And being able to connect to that grand narrative, and that grand story, and ensuring that I’m able to continue that story with those who continue after me, for me personally, is a very powerful reason to justify my own faith and continue to hear the whispers of God and revelation through the history and future of the Jewish people.

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