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Steven Gotlib: Some Rabbi Grapples with His Faith

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Steven Gotlib, a fellow at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov and Rabbinic Educator at the Village Shul, about the relationship between first principles and how we are to live.

Rabbi Gotlib is some rabbi who is a lot more than just some rabbi. Steven has thought long and hard about the truth claims of Judaism and the claim Judaism makes on individuals’ lives.

  • How does a Conservative Jewish teenager turn into an Orthodox rabbi and outreach professional?
  • Should the pursuit of truth override pragmatism?
  • What factors should go into someone’s decision to be Orthodox?
  • Should experiential knowledge take precedence over rational arguments?

Tune in to hear a conversation about the path and process of a rabbi’s struggle with faith and philosophy.

Interview begins at 15:37.

Rabbi Steven Gotlib is a fellow at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov in Toronto and Rabbinic Educator at the Village Shul. Steven received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, certificates in Mental Health Counseling and Spiritual Entrepreneurship, and a BA in Communication and Jewish Studies from Rutgers University. Steven joins us to talk about the path and process of a rabbi’s struggle with faith and philosophy.

Read his review on Lehrhaus of Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, titled “(How) Can we Know Orthodox Judaism is True?

References:

Torah Umadda by Rabbi Norman Lamm

Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate by Meir Persoff

Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry by Jerome Gellman

The Principles of Judaism by Samuel Lebens

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel

And from There You Shall Seek by Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Halakhic Man by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Nefesh HaChayim by Chaim of Volozhin

Tanya by Shneur Zalman of Liadi

David Bashevkin:
Hello and welcome to 18Forty, 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 once again the topic of rationality. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and emails.

One of the great privileges of this platform has been not really in the numbers, though thank God there are so many people who are listening to this, and I hope that the material resonates. But I think more than anything else are the individuals who reach out and connect particularly with what 18Forty is doing, share with us how this has touched their lives, and the connections that we have been able to build through this process.

Steven Gotlib:
I think that there’s no other topic, as I mentioned before, that got as much feedback and support and people reaching out and trying to find their way than rationalism. When we did it the first time so many months ago so many people reached out, and I was honestly quite surprised. I didn’t think that this topic would really garner all that much attention. It’s not the most exciting topic, there are a lot more topics that we could have had, bigger names, bigger celebrities. But that’s not really what we’re about, and I felt that this was an honest approach to really grappling with some of the most important religious issues.

David Bashevkin:
I want to read two emails that I got, which has really spurred me and motivated me to say, “You know what? We should return to this topic.” All the topics that we cover, I hope to return to them many, many times over the years, but the reason why I wanted to return to this so soon, to cap off the year as we go into the summer… It’s not really a summer topic. We have some great summer topics planned. This is not one of them. It’s not exactly what you expect to be listening to on a long drive to the mountains with the air kind of breezing and you wearing some sunglasses, looking out the window, and then hearing long discussions on epistemic rationality. If that is your idea of an amazing summer drive and summer experience, then definitely 18Forty’s the podcast for you. But I assume for most it’s not, but we did want to return to this anyways because of the connections that we formed over the months through this topic.

One of the emails we received, and really there are few things that are a greater privilege and more nourishing for me, and I need to acknowledge the fact that I need a nourishing. I find 18Forty at times to be extraordinarily depleting, not because it’s not joyful, but you want to be there for the people who reach out to you, and things go wrong. Right now I’ll be totally honest with you, I’m recording this for the second time. I did an entire intro the first time, and there was a technical snafu in the way that we recorded it, and it absolutely knocked me out, to have to rerecord the same thing again is depleting. And there are a lot of things that we do in our lives that can be depleting, but few things are as nourishing and feel like you are part of a mission driven project and to hear from the people who you’re really connecting with and who the mission is really resonating with.

So let me read one email to you. “Dear David, Can I call you David?” You definitely can call me David. And this is what the email said, “I appreciate the 18Forty Podcast and the impact it’s had on my life recently. I grew up in a very happy, healthy religious home, great parents, wonderful siblings, and a feeling of great contentment. Recently, one of my brothers shared with us that he no longer believes in God due to his rationalistic deductions. That there is no such thing as God and openly calls himself an apikores. This threw us all for a loop, to say the least. It’s painful, scary, confusing to try to wrap my head around this new reality and try to gain an understanding of where my brother’s head and heart are at. What’s at the root of this? What’s this new idea that I had never come across before. Rationalism? I had so many questions, as did my parents, two wonderful, special people. How do I rebuild a relationship with a person I know seemingly so little about with a topic the size of an elephant between us? How can I approach him?

Exactly during this time, your series about God and rationalism came out. My parents and I were hooked. I keep sending episodes to my parents and they send quotes back. We send reading materials from the recommended reading list back and forth. Your podcast has given context, vocabulary, community, support to a previously very taboo subject. It has normalized this devastating experience and has put us into a perspective that is manageable. It has given me answers and strengthened my own emunah, conviction, and religious experience. So thank you for all that you do, for the topics you raise, and for the way you raise them.”

And I can’t say enough how gratifying, how nourishing, it is to receive an email like this. But I think the way that this person expresses this email is really profound, and that is giving context, vocabulary, community, and support. It doesn’t say answers, and I almost appreciate the fact that it doesn’t say answers, because I don’t know, especially with an issue as large as, if there is an capital A answer. But even if we can’t give an answer, I think part of what 18Forty is trying to do, particularly on these religious journeys, is context, vocabulary, community, and support. And I want to build much more in the community column, as my partner, Mitch Eichen, always reminds me. But even to give context, vocabulary, and support, people who reach out, the conversations that we have that we go back and forth on really, really mean a great deal. It is the privilege of my life that will never be lost on me.

Let me read you one more email. You know what? I might read you two. You’ll forgive me. It’s the second time I’m recording this, so I’m feeling a little frisky with my intro. Second time around’s always going to be a little bit longer, so I’m going to do a second one as well.

“I am not one of your regular followers. (My husband is, though). The podcast that you described today on anxiety and rationalism is almost exactly to the T what sounds like my son is experiencing. He is 18, highly motivated, smart, and science-based. Up until around nine months ago, he was a deep thinking, very serious, motivated, Torah observant teen, social, musical, smart, fun. He started to read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s blog by reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.” That’s the blog that we’ve mentioned. Eliezer Yudkowsky, I have more than one connection to, I knew his brother, alav hashalom, and I am still in touch.

“I spoke this week to his sister, and he was reading the Harry Potter and Methods of Rationality and he’s a totally different person. Throwing around words like bayesianism, rationalism, AI theories. He’s no longer in yeshiva and thanks to his rationalism, he no longer believes in God. He’s now looking to go to a science based program and hoping to find like-minded science, rational people to have conversations with. After listening to your podcast, I’m wondering if you or your anonymous guests would be available to talk to my son?”

And this is part of a journey that I think is still unfolding. And I’ll read to you one last email again. What that first email said, really, really summed it up, the context, vocabulary, community and support is everything that we’re trying to build. One last email, I really enjoyed this one, particularly the ending, which I have no doubt I’m going to get in trouble for, but we’re going to read it anyways.

“After leaving yeshiva, I attended Harvard Law School, an environment that was saturated with an ethos of questioning every premise and prior. And one that taught me how to view systems, legal, social, et cetera, as a removed outsider, objectively evaluating practices and norms. This newfound methodology led me on a never ending journey of evaluating my own frum community and culture, and also my own life and choices. I started reading writings from the Haskalah movement and found myself agreeing with much of its contents. I was unsure what this meant in terms of my own life and what my place in the frum community should be.

“On the other hand, I did and still do love my family and my religious practice, and truly believe that religious life, community, and ritual, when done right, can be one of the clearest and tested paths to happiness. I’ve discussed these topics at length in therapy, and for me, this is an ongoing struggle. I’ve reached a place emotionally where I’m able to feel okay in this struggle, though. A place where doubts, contentment, and then doubts again, together with my own reinterpretation of certain principles and a little Chassidus and Buddhism sprinkled in, are accessible and welcome.”

I happen to think that’s a beautiful sentence, I may even read that again. “A place where doubts, contentment, and then doubts again, together with my own reinterpretation of certain principles and a little Chassidus and Buddhism sprinkled in.” “A little Chassidus and Buddhism sprinkled in” should be a t-shirt line. What a wonderful phrase.

“However,” he continues, “This is a very lonely place. Your coverage of this topic has made this place feel a little less lonely, and for that I am incredibly grateful. By the way, I cannot tell you how much I related to the inner dialogue you described having at a kumzits. I literally have that conversation in my head, every single Shabbos morning Kedushah. I love a good kumzits, but I’m unconvinced that smoking a joint doesn’t take me to the same God (smoking a joint at a kumzits may be the best approach).”

Now, obviously we’re not going to take an official stance right now on smoking a joint, either at a kumzits or not. That’s a playful little ending that he had to that email that I definitely enjoyed. He has two smiley face emojis following that. But what I did find very powerful in this final email, which I think they’re all in dialogue and all describing a similar experience, is the loneliness. As our community has admirably and incredibly built this immersive experiential world, it can become harder and harder to really dig down and figure out, “Well, where’s the truth in all this?”

What he describes and what I spoke about in the first time we did the series from the kumzits, is sometimes you close your eyes at a kumzits and you see everybody swaying back and forth and you can’t help but grapple with. Is this just the neurons of emotionality? The same as one would find in any campfire or any singing, no matter the religion? Is there a way that they’re tapping in to some capital T truth? How do we extricate the truth from our own humanity? Which is part of what I think rationalism is trying to do, though personally, I’m not sure that it is a journey or a goal that is even possible, and I’m not even sure that it’s commendable and worth doing. I think part of what makes us human and part of what makes this journey so messy and so exciting is the very fact that extricating the emotional part of this journey from the ideologies, convictions, and context, from which they arrive are almost inextricable.

And perhaps all we can do is provide context, vocabulary, community, and support to help people find that capital T truth in their own lives. Because the one that’s hovering in the sky that we could polish off, that if we were exposed to it, everybody would drop what they’re doing and start doing it, maybe that doesn’t even exist. Maybe that’s not how life works. You need to be able to wed together your own personal experience with the convictions and ideology of your own life. And that’s why I am so excited for this next interview.

This next interview is part of this re-engagement with this series on rationality and we have kicked off this series with some guy, and this is now some rabbi. He’s not somebody who’s all that famous. He’s somebody who I assume most of you, if you’ve never interacted with him at all, probably have never heard of. But my relationship with Steven Rohde Gotlib goes to the very founding of 18Forty. He works in Jewish outreach, he has written and edited for Lehrhaus and is one of the most profound thinkers that I’ve really interacted with.

He’s a young rabbi. He’s not famous. He doesn’t have his own podcast or a major pulpit, but he’s incredibly thoughtful. And the reason why I invited him on is that since the beginning of 18Forty, he has been reaching out with questions, with comments, with feedback. Very often praise, saying how important it is what we’re doing, which I always appreciate, but that is not why we are having him on now. We are having him on for a very different reason. And that is, when the rationality series first dropped, there was no person who I think was part of this conversation who was more vocal in critiquing the way we approached this. He critiqued it quite loudly in a Facebook group known as Respectfully Debating Judaism, I believe. It’s a closed group, but where real people, both frum and not-frum people engaged in the Orthodox community. And those outside of it really debate respectfully with one another.

And I remember he posted a few times saying how disappointed he was with the way that we kind of treated this issue. He felt that we kind of had our thumb on the scale on experientialism and did it really make the case, starting on First Principles with a blank canvas. How do you get from point A, the belief in God, to point Z, contemporary Orthodox life?

And he critiqued us quite powerfully and quite profoundly. And I think much of his critique was correct. I probably did have my thumb on the scale. Everybody has their thumb on the scale when they’re presenting an argument from their own views, but I wanted him to come on, because I really did appreciate the pushback. I really did appreciate the conversation. And I was so fascinated by number one, he’s not just some guy, he’s some rabbi. He’s in outreach and it is not easy for somebody who is involved in Jewish outreach to grapple with these issues. You kind of have to begin with the conclusion in mind. It’s hard to take you from point A to point Z. And what if you fail? What if you can’t get all the way there?

So it’s much harder for people like Steven and honestly, for people like myself to grapple with these issues, because I’m not some guy who can return to a job and just say, “Okay, great conversation. Let’s get back to work.” This is the work. This is the job. And if you fail, in a way, you could A, feel like a failure in your own work and in your own job. Or more commonly, what has happened to me, and I’m sure concerns that Steven himself reflected on the conversations after, people could not like the way you got from point A to point Z. Maybe didn’t get all the way there. They don’t like the road that you took. So they can come after your job. So it takes a ounce of courage, more than an ounce of courage to be willing to have these conversations recorded. So while he is not a celebrity, I really do think he is quite courageous for having a conversation about this journey of couching faith. And that is why I am so excited to introduce our guests Steven Rohde Gotlib to 18Forty.

So I am so excited to have a conversation with, and I’m saying this respectfully because it’s kind of the theme of us returning to this topic. Our conversation with Jeff Bloom, we marked as “some guy.” Meaning it’s not a well known author necessarily. It’s not a world renowned scholar. It’s somebody who I have had a relationship with, but I actually believe in the significance and the importance of “some guy.” Meaning someone who plays a role in the community, is very thoughtful and is contending with these issues. And our conversation today is with not just “some guy”, but “some rabbi.” Somebody who is in the field of education, who is in the field of outreach. Who contends with these issues very deeply and very thoughtfully. Who has been a listener to 18Forty, dare I say from the very beginning. And some of our most constructive feedback, conversations, discussions, have been with him, which is why I am so excited to introduce our guest today, Steven Rohde Gotlib.

Steven Gotlib:
Pleasure to be here.

David Bashevkin:
So Steven, I hope you don’t take any offense and I hope it’s okay that I call you Steven. We know each other for a very long time.

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah. By all means.

David Bashevkin:
You do serve as a rabbi in Toronto, and you are a contributor and editor for Lehrhaus. You’ve written so many thoughtful articles, many of which I have used for my shiurim and classes. But today what I want to talk about is to continue and follow up from a conversation we began many months ago, which is about the rational foundations of religion.

You and I both belong to a Facebook group called Respectfully Debating Judaism. It’s a closed group. We don’t allow just anybody to come in. But we really hash out ideas that relate to Judaism in a very serious way. One of the moderators is a former 18Forty guest, who used to post under the name, Philo Judaeus. One of our more controversial interviews. And you presented many thoughtful critiques on rationalism. And before we get to any of them, this is a long winded way to say it, I want you to share a little bit with your story because so much of our conversation online and over the phone revolved around how personal journey, personal pragmatic satisfaction that you have with your own Jewish life. What role should that play in your search for truth? So before we get to the capital T truth, maybe you can share with us your journey of how you got to this point of where you are now, because I think it’s so important to your own pushback perspective on this issue.

Steven Gotlib:
Of course, I’m happy to share it and I’ll try to present the al regel achat version, the shortest version that will still get it across. I grew up in a pretty, I would say average Conservative, capital C, Jewish family in Bergen County, New Jersey. In a very, very large Jewish community.

When I was growing up, there was no shortage of different congregations around various denominations. There was a Sephardi shul, there were many branches of Orthodox shuls and there were actually multiple different Conservative shuls, some of which were egalitarian, some of which were not. I always saw a very broad range of Judaism growing up. And the family that I grew up in took Judaism, took Jewish tradition, very, very seriously. My siblings and I were in Hebrew school through 12th grade. My parents made sure that we could read Hebrew, they made sure we understood the Siddur. We went to Camp Ramah every single summer. We were very, very engaged in the Jewish orbit. Though not so much within the Orthodox community. And we weren’t particularly observant either. But again, Jewish education, prayer, spending Shabbat as a day of rest were all things that were very, very important in my upbringing.

David Bashevkin:
If I could just jump in, because it’s such an important demographic that I think we hear so much from, but it’s a demographic that might in some ways be shrinking, but the deeply engaged Conservative Jew who has some relationship to Shabbos, familiar with the Siddur. If I would’ve asked 15 year old or 16 year old Steven Rohde Gotlib, you probably had a reasonable grasp of just the basics of Jewish history and text, like a Mishnah, you were familiar with?

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah.

David Bashevkin:
For sure. Yes. So that’s the world you grew up in. And I just want to emphasize to our listeners, because as the Orthodox world becomes more solidified and in some ways becomes more confident, we very often forget about this very important demographic. Which, I think really was a major part of the outreach movement in the 1960s and 70s, but please continue with your story.

Steven Gotlib:
For sure. So it’s funny that you mentioned how that demographic really was. Even when I was a kid, there was a really strong sense that the people who grew up as engaged as myself and my siblings would either kind of drop off after a Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, or somehow end up in Orthodoxy.

If you would ask me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve said I wanted to be a rabbi. And in my mind, I would’ve imagined going to JTS and find a Conservative pulpit soon afterwards. But I was very deeply connected to it. I was no stranger to davening, I had most of tefillah memorized by the time that I was 14, 15. I was davening at the amud regularly and really very engaged. Which is why when I ended up becoming Orthodox, it was very natural transition for me.

What happened was very simple. I started going to the public high school in town, and my mother, actually of all people, suggested, “You should go to an NCSY Oneg. You should go on Friday night to…” One of the local Orthodox shuls had a robust chapter. I already knew a bunch of the people there because I was in a preschool that a lot of the Modern Orthodox kids in town were also in. And so I said, you know what? Why not? So I went to an NCSY Oneg.

David Bashevkin:
Shout out to NCSY. I have to jump in there. I mean, I love that that’s part of the story. And let me just ask you, did going into an NCSY space feel like you were going into an Orthodox space? Was the denominational difference, did that play a real role in that? Like, “I’m entering a non-Conservative space.” Like the way an Orthodox Jew would feel going to Camp Ramah or a Conservative shul. It’s a different space.

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah, it definitely felt that way. Especially in the town I grew up in where public schoolers in NCSY was already a little bit of a rare breed. There were plenty of people who went to co-ed, Modern Orthodox day schools and who socially, I was probably on roughly the same page as. But I was certainly in a space of people who I knew were going to different schools, were coming from different backgrounds. Men were wearing kippahs and tzitzit out all the time. I was not yet at that point. The women were wearing skirts and long sleeves. And of course, when we davened, we davened with a mechitza. The davening was also the same liturgically, I could follow along, I could daven all the same, but it definitely felt like it was a new space for me.

At the same time, because I had that liturgical familiarity and because, I ended up being born a man and not a woman, so it felt like it was a very minor change for me. I was doing everything exactly the same as I was doing before. A few of the berakhos changed words here and there. But for the most part, it was a very seamless transition when it came to the aspect of what to do in shul. Who I was speaking to. All of that.

David Bashevkin:
The text.

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah. The texts were very, very similar.

David Bashevkin:
And socially, again you mentioned it briefly socially going into an Orthodox space at this point. That’s the transition that always worries me the most. I think it’s the hardest transition, particularly in the tri-state area. Because we’re so culturally dense. You go to the wrong camp, you go to… Morasha is different than Mesorah. These camps are their own worlds and you go to TABC versus DRS. So coming in from the outside, it compounds your outsiderness. Did you feel, socially, it was a leap? Or because it was NCSY, and it attracts a certain kind of person, it wasn’t really such a foreboding presence, the social distinction?

Steven Gotlib:
So there definitely was a leap to an extent. As I said, I could tell that I was in a space that was not my normal space. But even outside of that, there was a tremendous, tremendous amount of inside baseball. You know, I very soon learned what the difference was between going to MTA or Frisch or TABC or DRS.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. Just to our listeners. These are all names of modern Orthodox schools in the tri-state area. That your knowledge of them is not a litmus test to your quality as a Jew. Certainly not in the rest of… Maybe the tri-state area this is the litmus test. But not in actual Yiddishkeit, the historic situation within the Jewish people. But please continue Steven.

Steven Gotlib:
For sure. But no, so I did find out very quickly what the differences were between all of these places. I had to pick up on the Hebrew words inserted, conversationally more. It felt very out of place when we were listening to divrei Torah, for example, and people were talking about things that happened in parts of the Talmud that I just was completely unfamiliar with. Or people were referencing mitzvot that I just had no idea were things at that point. There were things that I was doing on Shabbos. I just had no idea was asur because it never came up in the settings I’d grown up in.

David Bashevkin:
You have an example of that, because a lot of Modern Orthodox kids don’t know half the things that go on. I’m just curious if you have a memory of something being like what? Like that’s a thing?

Steven Gotlib:
So there was a Shabbos Oneg that I was at at an NCSY advisory’s home. And I decided I’d help wash the dishes. And I was washing the dish with a sponge. That was a big no-no.

David Bashevkin:
Okay.

Steven Gotlib:
That’s that’s one of them. There were others that happened here and there.

David Bashevkin:
That’s very advanced. That’s really something. Okay. Keep going. So you go to NCSY. You’re now in this Orthodox space. What happens next?

Steven Gotlib:
Right. So I was in this Orthodox space and the experience of spending Shabbos with people, it was always something I connected to. I went on a USY on Wheels summer program the summer before. That was my first time really trying to keep Shabbos to the extent that I knew it. And I loved it and wanted to keep doing it. But between shabbatons and the Yarchei Kallah and everything, I soon had this experience of this is the way that I want to live my life. These are the people that I want to be able to live with. This is the community that I want to call my own moving forward. I had no sense of the bigger picture of Orthodox Judaism, but within my peer group, if I can call them peers who were all part of the, what we call Modern Orthodox day schools, I decided that was where I wanted to be. I had started actually at the time, dating a girl who was in one of the single gender schools. Not the woman I ended up marrying.

David Bashevkin:
Good for you. Public school kid getting, what I can only assume was a Ma’ayanot girl. That’s pretty impressive.

Steven Gotlib:
No, no, SKA

David Bashevkin:
Wow! That’s even more. Okay. Any SKA listeners here? We got to track this girl down and punish her, retroactively, but okay.

Steven Gotlib:
No, no, no.

David Bashevkin:
I’m joking. I’m joking.

Steven Gotlib:
It was all the right things for me at the time. It was everything that I needed to kind of keep going and because all of my friends were doing it. And I started hanging out with this crowd more. And baruch Hashem going to a public school in Bergen county. We had off on most of the holidays. The ones we didn’t have off, we could take off very, very easily. So it was really a fairly easy transition.

There was a little bit of stress with my family, but by the time I was a senior in high school, I was pretty much fully shomer Shabbos. I was fully keeping kosher, and I was getting ready to go on a gap year with my friends. I was planning on going, at the time to Yeshivat Orayta. And I was going to be doing that and then going into YU. What actually ended up happening was a little bit of a wrench being thrown into those plans. Which was that there were particular advisors within NCSY who… And this is, this is nothing against NCSY as an organization. But there were two advisors who were very pushy in my religious growth. At a pace that was not right for where I was, for where my family was. And they were very, very firm about it.

There was a lot of talk about how, if I wasn’t going to go to Israel, then I would end up completely not frum. But there was no… I had to go. I had to do this. There was a lot of pressure. There was much, much more pressure to actually have me not go to Orayta, to where I wanted to go, but to go to Derech Ohr Somayach, instead. Where they thought would be a better fit since I was coming from a public school background. Which I did not want to go to.

And there was a lot of stress. And ultimately I saw how much my parents didn’t want me to leave the country. I was very torn about it. And I talked with one particular advisor, who I was closer with, about it. And they said, “Steve, you need to go. There’s no question about it. You won’t stay frum if you don’t get your year in Israel. I’ll pay for your ticket. I’ll help with tuition. Get on the plane. Tell your parents you’re sorry later.” And that moment… I can see the look of horror on your face right now.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah, it is. It it’s a look of horror. Again, it’s not an indictment on NCSY. I think this is a very real concern of the people who facilitate people’s religious growth to make sure that their growth and direction is in line with their family life and incorporating that. It’s something that I emphasize constantly. That I see a renewed emphasis on in the organization. But I think in general, we can lose sight of the totality of the person and think more about, “it has to be this yeshiva.” And we make the stakes in a way that… And if it’s not there, then everything is for not. And it’s genuinely, I think it’s both important and painful for you to surface this very subtle form of pressure that you were subject to. It’s inappropriate, but it’s really important. And unfortunately, I think it’s far too common. So keep going. Right. What happened?

Steven Gotlib:
So that was a big watershed moment, actually in my religious life. People who were listening might think, “Oh, he was going the normal NTSY route. Shkoyach, now he’s a rabbi.” When that moment hit, I suddenly had a realization that at least in this paradigm that I was being set up for, I had to choose between my relationship with my family or my religious growth. And perhaps like any, at the time, whatever I was 16, 17 years old…

David Bashevkin:
Impressionable teenager.

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah, right.

David Bashevkin:
What’d you choose?

Steven Gotlib:
And I chose my family. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say I was going to turn away everyone…

David Bashevkin:
I think you made the right choice.

Steven Gotlib:
For me to go to Israel for a year and just deal with all of that. And because that everything was ingrained with me, “Oh, if I don’t do this, I’m not going to be frum anyway.” So I decided to go to Rutgers instead of going to Yeshiva University, I didn’t take a gap year at all.

David Bashevkin:
Meaning because of this overreach, it…

Steven Gotlib:
Yes.

David Bashevkin:
For some reason, I think this is so important. Because of this overreach and this extended pressure that you didn’t, you weren’t aligned for, didn’t have the capacity for you. Didn’t go to any yeshiva. And there’s probably an alternative reality where you were enthusiastic and excited to go to Orayta and then go to Yeshiva University and integrate into the Modern Orthodox community. And because you felt that misalignment, you ended up going straight to Rutgers. And it also probably, with a little bit of a call it a bitterness, a concern, you saw something concerning in your own decision making at that point. And now you enter Rutgers. What happens in Rutgers?

Steven Gotlib:
Right. So I would say a lot of bitterness. I entered Rutgers as a freshman. And I’d say I identified at that point very much as a cultural Jew, but religiously, I didn’t have all that much going for me anymore.

David Bashevkin:
You regressed?

Steven Gotlib:
Yes. I was living in the Chabad House dorms. I was on the kosher meal plan. I was a member of AEPi. But ultimately I was not going to minyan anymore. I was not having many religious experiences. I was part of the marching band. I was in the drumline.

David Bashevkin:
Was Shabbos still a part of your life in Rutgers?

Steven Gotlib:
I would go to the Friday night dinners at Chabad, whatnot. I was living in the Chabad house anyway, so it was very easy. But I didn’t go to minyan much at all. To the point where the first time I actually went to a minyan on Shabbos, Orthodox or not, some people thought I was a new face.

David Bashevkin:
Gotcha. That’s actually a common experience. I kind of identify with that. “You new around here?” “No, I’ve lived here for many, many years.”

Steven Gotlib:
Though, I would say culturally, I was still kind of part of the Modern Orthodox world. Many of the students who went to these Modern Orthodox day schools would live in the Chabad house as well. My roommate was someone who went to a Modern Orthodox day school, who at the time was a little bit more observant than me. He was keeping Shabbos et cetera, et cetera.

David Bashevkin:
Explain to me… I’m trying to bridge the story. You’re now a rabbi working in outreach. There must have been another disruption. What happened?

Steven Gotlib:
Right, so there were really two disruptions. One was my decision to study Jewish studies academically. I was a Jewish studies major. I was also studying other things, but I wanted to have more of a historical grounding in my Judaism. And that reminded me how much I just loved learning about it in general and how connected I really felt to it in my kishkes.

But a second thing that happened, actually bringing NCSY back into the story, is that one of my old NCSY advisors, not the same one, sent me a text message saying, “We know this organization on campus called the RJX, Rutgers Jewish Experience. Through a subsidiary of one of these large kiruv organizations. And they’ll pay you a couple hundred dollars if you go to their classes and just sit there for a semester, and learn some to with them. So like any college freshman, I said, “Sure, I can use a couple hundred dollars.” And so I signed up. I met with one of the rabbis, checked off all the boxes. Grew up in a random town, went to public school, doesn’t have any formal Jewish education.

David Bashevkin:
All true.

Steven Gotlib:
All technically true.

David Bashevkin:
But you’re probably way on the high end of your actual Jewish knowledge.

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah. And they realized that very quickly. When I was there, I was very quickly asked, maybe you shouldn’t be answering every question before everyone else. And they fast tracked me in their programs. I got to spend summers doing what they called the Lakewood Fellowship, which at the time was based at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. I had spent a little bit of a winter break at, Ner Yisroel in Baltimore through them. Which I know you are a esteemed alum of.

David Bashevkin:
Sure. Well, esteemed is a debatable, that’s a subjective term. We’ll let them decide whether it’s esteemed.

Steven Gotlib:
Esteemed from my perspective. And so I got these experiences learning and lo and behold, I fell completely in love with Talmud Torah. Not necessarily in the way that it was being presented in those kiruv classes. When I was able to actually sit down and learn Gemara. When I was able to learn through a sefer, I felt completely in love with Mesillas Yeshorim, with the Nefesh HaChayim. Just, all of these worlds were suddenly opened up and I realized, I just love this. I connect with it and I want it to make sense. And I then decided to spend the rest of my summer breaks, every single summer, spending almost all of them in yeshivas of different kinds. Really running the gamut. So I spent some summers at Ohr Somayach in Monesy, where I really built up my knowledge of how to learn. And broke my teeth, staying up until, well past midnight, most nights in the beis medrash just trying to figure out how I can get everything to click. There was a summer that I’d spent at Drisha. There were summers that I had spent under Rabbi Aryeh Klapper in Massachusetts.

David Bashevkin:
So, you were like, the Jewish world was open to you. Like you’re going to…

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah. The Jewish world was my oyster. I wanted to explore everything and I wanted to find an approach that worked. Because I soon found through my experiences in what we can broadly call, the Haredi world, at least the parts of Haredi world that were open to recent baalei teshuvah at the time. I didn’t want the approach where I set myself aside and forgot about all the secular subjects I cared about as well. I wanted to be able to enjoy Jewish studies. I wanted to be able to enjoy philosophy. So when I discovered sitting in the bookshelf at Rutgers Hillel, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Umadda. I was hooked immediately.

David Bashevkin:
Gotcha.

Steven Gotlib:
That was the path I wanted to live for for my life. It spoke to me on a deep, deep level. From there I learned many of Rav Soloveitchik’s seforim, many of Rav Lichtenstein’s.

David Bashevkin:
Did you ever have a period where you were outwardly Haredi? Because I’m trying to understand this.

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah.

David Bashevkin:
My hunch is that, at your wedding, you looked a little, you didn’t look Modern Orthodox at your wedding. You were wearing a black hat. You looked much more right? If my memory serves me correctly.

Steven Gotlib:
Right though there was techeiles on my tallit, if you look close enough,.

David Bashevkin:
But where did that come from? Because was that just from your experiences in Lakewood and Beth Medrash Govoha?

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah. So I would say the founding experiences of me religiously, where I really connected, not just to the social life, but to the intellectual life came to me in settings where that was just what everyone around me was doing.

David Bashevkin:
Gotcha.

You know, I was learning in the beis medrash at Ner Yisroel for example, just because that’s most freshly in my mind. And suddenly it was time for Mincha and everyone put on their jackets and their hats. It felt like a beautiful experience to me. And those were the cultures where my rabbeim, who I’d connected with were all through that.

I just got crazy nostalgia of the wave of people going to the coat room in Ner Yisroel, pre-Mincha. To put on their hats and jackets. I haven’t thought about that. Sadly, I have not worn a hat for Minkah in… It’s been a minute. It’s been a minute, but that just gave me a very warm, nostalgic feeling.

Steven Gotlib:
Just some more inside baseball by the way Ner Yisroel is where I learned that you could wear a sweater over your white shirts and it’s okay.

David Bashevkin:
Oh, it’s very much okay. And that’s very Ner Yisroel. It’s okay in Ner Yisroel, let’s caveat to our listeners. Don’t try this anywhere. But let me ask you, so you don’t end up going back to Ohr Somayach. But in a way that path that you didn’t take after high school was kind of supplemented by these mini experiences you had through the world of outreach, you were a kind of a recipient of outreach, not a typical… You didn’t come in knowing nothing. You come in knowing a great deal, kind of almost more or less like a Modern Orthodox Jew. Maybe not in practice. And then finally you get married, you’re in love with learning and you decide, what do I want to do with my life? I want to be a rabbi in outreach and hopefully bring some of this breath that you have. Is that a fair estimation of your story?

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah, that’s a fair estimation. There was a point when I was trying to figure out very, very much where to go for semikha. I ended up choosing YU and, baruch Hashem, it was the right choice. And I knew throughout that, I wanted to give back to Jewish outreach and to do it in a way that would be, let’s say less treacherous than the path that I took.

David Bashevkin:
Sure. So I want to now reverse the stories and they’re both going to meet in the middle. We spent the first half of this really saying your own story towards, not just Jewish life, but your story towards a deep Jewish education and a professional career. And I want to rewind back a few months. I shared a series on religion and rationality. Which I was really shocked and very heartened by how widely it resonated. And one of the most persistent thoughtful voices we had on this series came from this, Steven Rohde Gotlib. And I think to our listeners, hearing your story, someone who is an editor at Lehrhaus, you articles are quite brilliant. You’re an outreach professional. I would’ve expected that you would not only be overjoyed, but you would… This is it. He’s wading into the territory. He’s building the foundation. But I felt I struck a nerve with you, a frustrating nerve. And my feeling, and maybe we’ll talk about, this was that the nerve in many ways recalled your own experience and your own journey.

And I also need to mention, you have a review coming out on The Lehrhaus. Hopefully that will be out just in time for when we publish this interview on this book, by Jeff , that we’re talking about, Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, which is all about, finding that rational grounding for Judaism. What was Steven Rohde Gotlib, this incredible soul who’s been through and has seen the Modern Orthodox world, Haredi the world, grew up in the Conservative world. What was his issue when we first dealt with religion and rationality?

Steven Gotlib:
So I think that there were really, there were two primary issues that I had, each relating to different episodes in the series. That very first episode with the anonymous guest struck a nerve in that it felt very much like this was someone who had real deep questions. And instead of seeking an answer to those questions said, “You know what? I’m going to live with this.” And while in some cases that’s beautiful, it felt to me like it was just saying, “These are real questions, but I’m going to ignore those questions and pretend they don’t exist because this is the community that I like. And my personal enjoyment of being in this community trumps any questions that are going to come up.”

David Bashevkin:
Or that your pragmatic enjoyment and your situation is not enough to overturn what may be compelling questions. But the questions do not need to erode the totality of your Jewish life and experience.

Steven Gotlib:
Right. And so that was the first kind of critique that I had. The second was actually, while listening to the interview with Rabbi Dr. Sam Lebens, who full disclosure was a professor of mine at Rutgers. He was doing his postdoc there when I was doing my undergrad.

David Bashevkin:
Oh, I didn’t know that, fascinating. Okay.

Steven Gotlib:
He’s incredible. Really, really incredible. And when he made this distinction between epistemic rationality and pragmatic rationality…

David Bashevkin:
And remind our listeners what that distinction is?

Steven Gotlib:
Epistemic rationality, Sam can do a much better job than me, but epistemic rationality is basically true-false statements. Is this something that is true on an objective or at least a rational level? And then pragmatic rationality is, given that there are only so many roots that my life is going to take, Sam used the example of an undecided Jew. He has a new book coming out on that.

David Bashevkin:
Or choosing a movie I think, or picking a what movie to watch tonight. Yeah.

Steven Gotlib:
Right. Given that leaving the community I’m already in will cause so much harm to me socially pragmatically, what are the actual live options that I can choose between? Christianity isn’t a live pragmatic option for someone who’s decided between different styles of Judaism to live. So it’s off the table as a rational option under pragmatic rationality. And I thought that the emphasis on the pragmatism over the epistemology really, really got to me.

Precisely because if you had taken me when I was 15 years old, the pragmatically rational thing for me to do, would’ve been to never look into Orthodox Judaism in the first place. Would’ve been to stay within the Conservative movement, go to JTS, maybe go to Hadar and be that conservative rabbi because it wouldn’t have impacted my standing with my family. It wouldn’t have impacted my social standing and it was already where my life was set up to go. There was no reason at the time for Orthodoxy to have been a pragmatic option for me. It was precisely the strength of the experience that I had. And later the intellectual discoveries that I made, that overrid all pragmatic options in my head and said, “This is the path that I’m going to commit to.”

David Bashevkin:
I absolutely love that. And it gets to the heart of so much of our further discussion and debate. And I just want to make it clear. I don’t want to speak on your behalf. I felt that at all times, while maybe I got frustrated, we have deep admiration for one another. Is that fair to say? At no point was there, like I can’t stand this guy. There was a deep appreciation from my side, at least, that you took this seriously.

Steven Gotlib:
100%.

David Bashevkin:
Let me add in one other thing that you mentioned, I felt that I heard what you were saying from a different way. Meaning you were frustrated that pragmatism was playing such a serious role because you wanted the rational founding of our Orthodox life to take you from First Principles to the life that you are living today. And I admitted to you over the phone that I am not sure that that exists or that we can do that. Meaning if you told me, make an argument for why I should not have taken that other path to become a Conservative Jew or an egalitarian-halachic Jew, and Hadar. You know, I could share with you some halachic arguments and the difference of the system. My strongest arguments, the strongest distinctions, I think distinctions that Rabbi Ethan Tucker, who is the head of Hadar would agree to are pragmatic,. Meaning the Orthodox community does a better job of preserving community. So a deep enriching Jewish life can be accessible for you wherever you are.

The question that I think I post to you, not when I argue, but when I kind of talk about the depth of Orthodoxy over other manifestations or other roads of Jewish life in practice, none of which I’ve ever disparaged, not publicly or privately. But why be an Orthodox Jew? That was your question that you wanted answered from First Principles to the end. And I said, we could talk about why believe in God. We could probably, you know, then talk about Torah and we could talk about the oral Torah. But why be an Orthodox Jew in 2022? I believe personally does rely on a great deal of pragmatism and a lot of the questions like where are you going to be able to find the Mincha on a Wednesday? What is the community that is going to nurture the type of experience when you don’t have the time or energy to clarify from First Principles? Did you find that satisfying or unsatisfying?

Steven Gotlib:
So at the time I found that a little bit unsatisfying, I felt very, very strongly, as you said, we need to be able to get from point A to point B and be able to justify that as we go forward. And I still believe that we should strive towards that. At the same time, I think I’ve come to think that there are really two and a half, I’ll call them, options to move. One option is to do that, is to say, we are playing within the epistemological realm. We are striving for answers. And that means that we are open to being able to prove our case rationally, but also open to rational dispute from it. And that this is why it was two and a half leads to two branches from there. Either admit that and go with that status quo…

David Bashevkin:
Again, the first option is going from First Principles. Start with belief in God and take me down to Orthodox Judaism in the year 2022. On a rational basis, step by step. How did we get to here? No, I like the cholent. No like, oh, it’s so warm and so beautiful. I need, why is this the truth and the way to live capital T?

Steven Gotlib:
Correct.

David Bashevkin:
Why is it? That’s option number one. Option number two is what in your mind?

Steven Gotlib:
Option number two is removing it from the realm of epistemology completely.

David Bashevkin:
Entirely.

Steven Gotlib:
Entirely. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had a letter that he wrote to Louis Jacobs, where they were arguing Torah min ha-Shamayim and what it means for the Torah to be from heaven. And he said in that article that we need to understand… Or he said in that letter, I should say. We need to understand that who wrote the Torah is not an empirical question and that how we look at the Torah, whether we look at it as history or revelation or mythology is also not an empirical question. It’s completely out of that realm and we need to move it then into a different realm. Which does render Orthodox Judaism unfalsifiable, but also helps it withstand the test of time.

David Bashevkin:
Let me jump in there. You just said some awesome stuff. Number one, where on Earth can I find the letter? And you wrote a brilliant article that I used in a class I gave on Rabbi Louis Jacobs. And the more I know you, the more I understand why you were drawn to writing that article. But where can I find that letter Rabbi Sacks to Rabbi Jacobs?

Steven Gotlib:
So I found it published in a volume called Another Way, Another Time, which was by Meir Persoff.

David Bashevkin:
I hope you could send that to me.

Steven Gotlib:
100%.

David Bashevkin:
And then we could feature that. So the second model is basically saying we’re not operating in the world of capital T truth. We’re operating in maybe the, what Yerushalmi might call memory, an experiential world of… How do we treat the Torah? We’re not trying to prove revelation or disprove revelation. We are saying, we treat the Torah experientially in our community as if it came from Sinai. You could throw all the proofs to the contrary at me from beginning to end. I’m not trying to formulate a historical truth. I am trying to say, how do we preserve our orientation towards revelation, toward Torah mitzvot and Jewish life? That’s the second path?

Steven Gotlib:
Correct.

David Bashevkin:
Okay.

Steven Gotlib:
Correct. And the big question with that path is, how do we do this while also being true to the implications of that position? And how do we make it something that we can actually live and experience without even necessarily losing, viewing it as capital T truth for ourselves? But also understanding that once we’re in the realm of the experiential, we can’t make the same claims onto the community as a whole anymore.

David Bashevkin:
Meaning, if you don’t think that you are in possession of a capital T truth, that can be proven from First Principles that may affect the way that we present to the outside world. It may affect the way that we do outreach. When somebody, you know, is choosing between different forms of community that may affect your own orientation. There’s certainly some troubling effects. It may have to your own sanctity and seriousness with which you treat your own observance struggles that people certainly have had. And, my inbox is filled with people who deal with that. You said two and a half approaches. I hear two so far, First Principles, rabbi Sacks and his letter to Rabbi Louis Jacobs. What’s this half principle? Something tells me it’s the one I’m going to love the most.

Steven Gotlib:
So, when we look at this approach, we look at that half approach. I think you’re right. And that half approach is kind of the gap in between these two models. And I think, just because I like bullet points so much, we can do that in two ways. Each stemming out a little bit from the approach we’ve looked at before. So the way of doing it within that first approach, trying to stay within the realm of epistemology, means that we need to put time and effort and resources into building the best arguments that we can.

What would it look like to have a kollel where the same amount of time spent in Lakewood on Nashim and Nezikin is spent on the Moreh Nevukhim, is spent on the Nefesh HaChayim, is spent on even the Tanya. It’s spent on the wellsprings of machshava to find new approaches. Sam Lebens, in his book Principles of Judaism, got off to a great start on that. Presenting rational cases, philosophically very plausible cases to believe in Rav Yosef Albo’s three major ikarim. And that’s, I think an excellent, excellent step. We should be supporting that and supporting that journey within the realm of striving towards that. At the same time, understanding that the vast majority of people aren’t going to be in a philosophical mindset.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. Interested. Yeah, correct.

Steven Gotlib:
Right. Understand. That’s only going to be a select few. How can we still make Judaism something that we can live as a community wholly, truthfully, and as our whole selves within. And I think the way to do that is to understand what the implications are in bringing Judaism into the experiential realm and in staking that ground away from epistemology, at least until we can develop epistemology, that’s sustainable enough to survive the critiques that hardcore rationalists are going to throw at you. And I think the way to do that, at least to start by understanding what it means to have an experiential religious experience, make a claim on you.

Yehuda Gellman has an excellent book that was very formative in me on this called, The Mystical Experience of God. And he makes the argument, al regel achat, he makes the argument that just as we take things like love for granted, things like hate for granted emotions that have no grounding whatsoever in the physical world. So too, our religious experiences, we can take as a real experience. As something that makes a claim on me, even on the rational level. Because I feel this, and I know me. I think, therefore, I am. I feel this, therefore I know it, and I’m compelled by it.

However, he makes sure to note, that is compelling for you, but your experience is not necessarily compelling to other people. The fact that I experience a call to Orthodox Judaism does not mean that my next door neighbor also will feel that call. And it certainly does not mean that my experience makes any claim on them. What it does mean is that as an outreach professional, I need to make sure that I’m trying to cultivate personal experiences in others. If they don’t experience it, so I guess it is what it is, but hopefully I can create a beautiful, beautiful experience that they’re able to connect to and feel drawn to and be inspired to continue on their ladder. Understanding that’s always in their hands and that no matter what I can say or do to try to cultivate that growth, I can never compel it in them.

David Bashevkin:
It sounds to me in many ways, number one, this sounds that you’ve moved much closer from your original critiques to what I was sharing with you originally. I don’t want to take any credit. But would you say that the gap between our approaches to this have narrowed?

Steven Gotlib:
So I think I’ll say it like this, what still particularly annoys me, and I’m going to just be frank about that, re-listening to the rationality podcasts, which I did just before our interview.

David Bashevkin:
Oh, that’s very kind of you.

Steven Gotlib:
Is that so many of the speakers, they were trying to have their cake and eat it too, essentially. They were arguing for removing Judaism from the epistemological realm, but also that that should still make a claim on others. That the religiously undecided Jew, the pragmatic reasons that work to bring me to Orthodoxy should also be able to work, to get other people in. Simi Peters, I think was most explicit with this in her interview. To be fair, she did admit that it’s not a neutral choice morally between Orthodoxy and other options. In her chapter in the Sinai, Spinoza volume, she does specifically say, “On a moral level, on a sociological level, and basically every level Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have a lot going for it over alternatives. Except the fact that there needs to be something pushing us into another view.” For her that was in the realm of history, seeing how many people have maintained their belief through the ages, no matter what. And that, she says should be a convincing argument for Jews.

The question is what happens when a Jew doesn’t buy that anymore? And you had questioned her on this a little bit when you had asked for a Muslim or a Christian and they’re in their perspective. But my question back is, well then what do you say when a Jew says, “I don’t buy this argument. I don’t see anything here that makes us objectively better than these others.” And if the response to that is you should stay Jewish anyway, which I think has to be the response for anyone coming from a position that has a stake in Orthodox Judaism. That’s a very weak argument in the end, because you’re trying to make your experiential claim relevant to someone who doesn’t necessarily experience it.

David Bashevkin:
My response is A, I don’t think you could argue on First Principles anymore. Maybe there was a time for Orthodox Jewish life in 2022? And if somebody came to me and was not compelled by any of these ideas, you could say, “God’s going to smite you and you’re making the wrong choice.” I think you would say you’re obviously free, as the first principle now is you are free to create the life of your choosing. And you should just make sure that you factor, in not just the moment in front of you or the freedom that you have in front of you, but factor in the totality of your life. And make sure that you are not making decisions now in your twenties, that will have you frustrated religiously, emotionally, sociologically in your fifties.

I do think there are people who exist who would not be best served living in Orthodox life. I do believe that. And that’s a scary thing to feel when you serve as a Jewish educator. But I can imagine such a person. But I want people to make sure, I think almost like an economist, that they’re able to get the most marginal utility which is a very pragmatic, from their life. I want your life to be satisfying. And I think part of living a dignified satisfied uplifting life is a relationship with a Creator who gives your life a purpose. And I think that your Jewish identity plays a very important role in that.

If you don’t see that connection at all, I don’t think it helps or there’s any marginal utility in me stuffing it down your throat. But I would almost keep it on the back end of your mind, that if you don’t feel this, when you are 26 years old and living, as a single person and think that this will never play a role in my life, I would say just don’t forget about 36 year old, you 46 year old you, 56 year old you. I think sometimes we have a experiential arrogance that insists upon path number one. Everything needs to be justified with First Principles. And when that insistence plays a role in all of your decision making, it can stunt, not just your spiritual life, it can stunt your romantic life. It can stunt your professional life. And you have to allow yourself, give yourself the freedom to make nourishing decisions for the totality of your life. That’s often what I respond. Which I know is not a First Principle’s argument,

Steven Gotlib:
Right, and what I would respond to that is, up until a point where we are able to make a compelling First Principles argument in this century, which I do believe can be possible if we put enough brain power into it. But up until that point, we need to make sure that the choice isn’t a choice of convenience. Meaning it shouldn’t be someone sits down at the table and says, “Oh, what’ll I have? I think I’ll go with Orthodox Judaism.” It might be a sincere choice, but it’s not a choice that is compelled by anything. It’s not a choice that has true commitment. It’s deciding what to have for breakfast. I don’t think that does justice either to the person in question, to the questions that they are having about what their life should look like, and about the concerns that need to go into it, or frankly, to Orthodox Judaism as a religious entity.

I think we need to make sure that there are ways to enter into an experiential, dare I say, covenantal relationship that is meaningful, that is passionate, and that someone feels through their very, being in a real true way, such that even if their choice might not be in the realm of epistemology, it’s not just a choice that they can just as easily go the other way about. It’s not a neutral choice.

David Bashevkin:
I think we are absolutely in agreement in this. I am concerned that we have drifted away from any substantive grounding. Even in the way we talk about teaching emunah is so often… It’s not even in the same universe as these discussions. And I believe these are discussions about emunah in the grandest sense. And we have in many ways… We are no longer leading in our institutions in cultivating these conversations. With that being said, I do think we disagree on how institutionally these should be cultivated. I think these are very private, very individual and very, very individualistic conversations that on an institutional level, to have them in a classroom or what you imagined in a kollel and to have them in curriculum, I am far more skeptical I imagine, than you are to do this in an authentic way, and in a way that would even be constructive for the vitality of Judaism.

I also happen to think the only way to transmit capital T truth is not through the vessel of rational inquiry. There are other vessels that are able to transmit capital T truth. And I think that the model of the way we find truth in relationships, the way that we find truth in our marriages, in our relationships with our children, in our community, I think need sometimes very often substantive grounding. But we know instinctively that the primary vessel is not necessarily rational inquiry. And I think those other vessels are important. Though I do think we’re at a point in the Orthodox world where they’re being overemphasized. I will say to you, and I have said to you that I think I was too dismissive. Even within the rational series that we did, you accused me of setting it up as a straw man. I wouldn’t say I set it up as a straw man, but I allowed my own personal conclusions to bear quite heavily and cast a shadow on how seriously I took rational inquiry as the driving marker of religious decision making. Is that fair?

Steven Gotlib:
I think so. And as I said, I think we should always be striving towards that. If we’re going to claim as a community Moshe Emet Ve’Torato Emet. If we’re going to claim that this is something that really is true with a capital T, if we are convinced that is the truth, we feel that, we experience that. We should search for grounding in it and be able to present it compellingly to others. If we’re not able to do that in a way that’s at least plausible, hopefully more than plausible, I think that’s a big problem.

David Bashevkin:
I think that is fair to say. I come into it that I don’t think that the systems and proofs that yield this rational truth that we have in other disciplines. I don’t think in our religious lives, we will ever yield the truth of that kind. And maybe that is the reason why I am less committed as you are to it. But I appreciate your commitment to it and all of the articles that you do, and particularly this review of the Strauss, Spinoza book. Again, which will be on Lehrhaus. You reacted in a similar way to the book as you did to my podcast. Which,, my only feedback on it is if you want to encourage people to go on these journeys, then when you respond and give feedback, it should be perhaps more encouraging like, “Keep at it. But not exactly… You didn’t reach the finish line, but keep at it.” That would be my feedback to your feedback. Also fair?

Steven Gotlib:
Also fair.

David Bashevkin:
Also fair. Let me ask you, before we go up to our rapid fire questions, we share something in common, which is that I think that we both, we have conversations that interact with people that are outside of the traditional framework of outreach that are outside of the traditional framework of what you would see necessarily in a classroom. Very deep, serious conversations about is this real? Is this true? And we are both… We don’t have the luxury of being some guy like Jeff Bloom. We are both “some rabbi” and I have shared, and I’m very honest about this, that it is very fatiguing to have these conversations as a rabbi, because A, what you think and how you navigate it has professional repercussions. There can be points in your life as with anyone else’s life, where there is a dissonance between the communities that you represent and what you are feeling internally. Which normally is something that is bearable.

If I’m a, some person who lives and goes to shul and I’m having doubt or concerns, I’m trying to navigate these massive questions, I could go to shul. I could not go to shul. It’s not going to affect my life in extraordinarily drastic ways. I might get like our anonymous interview. Maybe I have angst and anxiety about it, but I could still continue living my life. How does your professional situation, you are an outreach person, and you are having fairly high level conversations, and admitted both to me and in your review that we have not yet achieved the First Principles proof of Judaism? That you are now going out and sharing with the world. How does this affect you as an outreach professional?

Steven Gotlib:
This is an excellent, excellent question. I always try to emphasize with everyone I meet, in shul and beyond, when we have these conversations, even when someone just responds to an article of mine, I really try very hard to emphasize that at the end of the day, we need to not only think, but also live. These questions are going to be present. These questions, I dare say can haunt us. They can keep us up at night sometimes. And that’s okay, but that doesn’t stop us from living life, from engaging with each other in meaningful ways, and from exploring what the possibilities look like in our lives, to maybe challenge our assumptions and to move forward into the, as of yet unexplored. And to quote a teacher of mine, “If we do that in a way where we embrace the questions that we have and have the courage to walk towards an answer, towards the answer.” And I’ll say that I do think those answers are, findable. If we do that, there’s really no way to go wrong, but we need to be open about that.

David Bashevkin:
Our disagreement of whether or not they are findable, and we do disagree on this, is whether they’re findable in the fancy epistemic rationality sense. I think they’re findable in a pragmatic sense. I don’t know that they’re findable in that larger way. So let me give you an imagined scenario. Somebody who you went to Rutgers with, perhaps they went to a Modern Orthodox school and they’re searching and they no longer think that Jewish life is real. They think it is oppressive. They think that it is antiquated and divisive. And they come to you as now an educator and somebody involved in outreach. What would you tell them? Where’s your starting point for how you present the case for Jewish life?

Steven Gotlib:
I think there are many different approaches in Jewish life. As you said, not all approaches are going to work for every person that being said, to quote Nechama Leibowitz, “There are 70 faces of Torah, not 71.” But within those 70 faces, I think there’s quite a lot of room to create and to cultivate deeply halachic communities, even deeply Orthodox communities that also are committed 100% to moral progress, to the values that these people who are coming in share. And I think that those voices need to be part of constructing that. Sam has a great argument in his book, Principles of Judaism, about how we need to be part of that historical discourse. That in the end to get to that ideal point, that Hakadosh Baruch Hu, we need people on the right. We need people on the left. We need people struggling.

And ultimately it’s because of those voices interacting with each other that will eventually arrive at the truth. I know in my own life, if I didn’t go to both Drisha and Ner Yisroel, I wouldn’t be who I was. I needed both of those perspectives to be the person I am now. And I think Orthodox Judaism needs the voice of everyone willing to strive towards the emes, to be contributing to that. And I think if everyone does that in a way that’s open, in a way that’s honest, and in a way that’s passionate we’ll be able to create communities that are really able to be quite broad. There might be people who say, “I still want that 71st face of Torah instead,” but I think we’ll be able to create something bigger, more robust, and more sustainable than what we already have. The more voices that are present in the discourse, and that are well meaning and open about that.

David Bashevkin:
I don’t know if you’re going to take this as the biggest compliment or the biggest insult or somewhere in between, but I wholeheartedly agree with you. And when you speak, for some reason, it sounds a lot like the things that I say, and I really appreciate it. What I love the most, and I’m going to say that you can make any tinkering to it. What I really loved both is you had a post on Respectfully Debating Judaism, where you tried to outline your faith on First Principles and you had kind of five principles. The first principle is you take a leap of faith to believing in a personal God who created our universe with an intentional endpoint in mind. Number two, is that assuming there is a personal being that really exists, it makes sense that they would communicate their will to us in one way. And I believe that such communication took place between God and the Jewish people at Har Sinai.

I’m quoting your words directly, basing myself on scholars like Benjamin Sommer and James Kugel, which are a little bit outside of the Orthodox perspective, but you said who themselves believe in such a gathering and revelation as historical. Meaning you give a broad framework for people to seize onto the notion of revelation. Number three, whatever was revealed at Sinai, gave the people a sense of binding obligation that should be developed over time. Which is kind of the oral law that we have it. Number four, you write, it makes no sense to say that a national revelation, which gave an entire people a sense of obligation can be overridden by a single person’s prophecy. Meaning, that’s why you don’t have other religions. And number five is where you get into Orthodox Judaism as your particular mode of practice. I thought the way that you have these five principles is really bright, really sensible, and helped me realize what I was missing in this original series. So I want to thank you for that.

Steven Gotlib:
Thank you so much. All I’ll say, just as an addendum to that is, as you said, the thinkers that I have quoted in that are certainly out of the Orthodox orbit. And I think it’s incredibly important to hear their voices, to engage in conversation with them. I think it’s also important for people who think and grapple with them to be able to separate the ikar from the tafel.

David Bashevkin:
What do you mean? What do those words mean? Ikar and tafel. Those Hebrew insider terms. What do you mean by that?

Steven Gotlib:
We mean that we should be able to take the fruit from its peel, is how I’ve most often deemed it framed. There are real glimmers there that can unite everyone, that can say if even these people who we disagree about so much, who are scholars and leaders in their secular fields, are able to make this same claim, we can learn from that. And we can accept that. At the same time, understanding that there’s many other things that they write that might be problematic. That we shouldn’t necessarily learn from. But as I said before, we should have people in these conversations and we should be able to accept the truth from those who say it.

David Bashevkin:
This is where A, I agree with you and B, the murky waters of serving both as an educator and kind of working within a very specific communal and denominational framework, while at the same time, just trying to give whatever lifelines, doorways, buoys, or rowboats to whatever people are contending with and taking the full vastness of our tradition and all the voices who have contended with preserving our tradition, I do believe is a healthy thing. We may disagree on how much it should be institutionalized in our curriculum, but knowing that these voices are out there is an important part. And I think educators certainly should know. And really anybody struggling with foundational ideas of faith, it is good to know the full spectrum of Jewish opinion, and it could really help you chart a path forward.

This was long, but this was A, this was the most pleasant conversation we’ve ever had by a mile. We’re usually fighting much, much more than this. So this is lovely. I think we could only speak in conversation. Whenever we speak in print, it’s much more adversarial. We have to commit going forward only in conversation. I think the Zoom, the fact that we can see each other is really helping. Is that fair to say?

Steven Gotlib:
I think so.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. You think it’s helping? I really cannot thank you enough. I always end my interviews with more rapid fire questions. And I think my first question is, aside from the books that we’ve mentioned. Again, your review on Lehrhaus, which will be dropping, hopefully when this comes out, but the book review of Jeff Bloom’s Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, which is like the parallel to this whole series. Sam Leben’s book, Principles of Judaism. What other books do you recommend that have helped ground, or at least move towards, as we described grounding your faith? What books played a role in doing that you could recommend to our listeners?

Steven Gotlib:
One of the books that I would recommend? There are really three of them, besides the ones that we’ve already mentioned, which I whole, whole, wholeheartedly recommend. One is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, . That book was really my introduction to emotional, deep, passionate, poetic relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and with the Jewish people. I read it when I was bar mitzvah. I’ve kept it on my bookshelf ever since. Recently listened to an interview. It’s an older interview now, but I first listened to it recently, where Rabbi Sacks zatzal actually recommended it as well. It’s was deeply impactful on the emotional end.

David Bashevkin:
We featured Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel many times. We had an interview, of course, with her daughter during our Shabbos series, that I would urge readers, listeners to go back and listen to was really some moving things. So the first is again, Heschel, God In Search of Man?

Steven Gotlib:
Yeah. So Heschel’s, God In Search of Man. Rav Soloveitchik’s, U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham, And From There You Shall Seek, was also tremendously impactful to me. It actually has many, many similarities with Heschel. It’s really interesting to see, but it’s Rav Soloveitchik at his most emotional, at his deepest. I believe it was originally written as the companion to Ish ha-Halakhah, to Halakhic Man. And it really shows that striving for Hakadosh Baruch Hu. That sense of cultivating something and being able to really make it work in the truest possible way. And it’s really unbelievable. And finally, to go in a little bit of a more traditional direction, I say the Nefesh HaChayim, Rav Chaim of Volozhin. With an emphasis on the first three, in addition to just the fourth. Every yeshiva bochur in the world, I think learns the fourth perek on Torah Lishmah. No one ever learns what Rav Chaim says about tzelem Elokim about what it means to make a bracha, about what it means to have a connection with a Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

What it means to live in a world where Hakadosh Baruch Hu‘s presence is underlying it in every way. There’s an incredible, incredible amount there. And, while I’m at it, just like I had Heschel and Rav Soloveitchik, compare it to the Tanya. Look at how there’s so much more similarity than people assume. They’re not just butting heads with each other. There’s so much agreement. And there’s so much to learn about how to build and sustain a Jewish life, both when it comes to metaphysical principles and when it comes to living out those principles in a real way, in our observance and in our interactions.

David Bashevkin:
I love that. My next question, which maybe one day will become a reality. If somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical, or as long as you needed to go back to school and get a PhD, what do you think the subject and title of that dissertation would be?

Steven Gotlib:
So title would be Theologically Speaking.

David Bashevkin:
You have a title already.

Steven Gotlib:
I used this already for a book review that I wrote for Lehrhaus. If Rabbi Dr. Ariel Evan Mayse’s, a book on the Mezritcher Maggid.

David Bashevkin:
Okay.

Steven Gotlib:
But I think I could reuse the title. And you know, what I’d love to do is just sit down and look at contemporary theologians, contemporary and modern theologians. How do they view the process of revelation? How do they view the idea that Hashem can communicate ideas to humanity from the metaphysics, from the foundations? How does it work? What are the strengths? What are the weaknesses? Are there alternatives that are more traditional that we can say? And if there are how we can then bring them into educational frameworks, to be able to make sure that they’re taught truly and accurately and in a way that will sustain belief rather than lead to antinomianism.

David Bashevkin:
I love the title. It’s wonderful. And it’s definitely something that we need. My final question. I’m always curious about people’s sleep patterns. What time do you go to sleep at night? And what time do you wake up in the morning?

Steven Gotlib:
I go to sleep very early and I wake up very early. I go to sleep somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 at night. And I wake up somewhere between 5:00 and 5:30.

David Bashevkin:
For some reason that does not surprise me. I feel you have a regimented personality. The person who… I’m a pragmatist. So I go to sleep whenever I’m tired, and I wake up whenever I stop being tired. But you’re a First Principal’s person. I feel like you did the research. You’re like, “What time should I be going to sleep nine? 9:00 it is.” You made the decision that way. Steven Rohde Gotlib, thank you so much for joining us today for your friendship, for your insight, for your conversation. It means so much to me.

Steven Gotlib:
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciated being here.

David Bashevkin:
After we recorded the episode with Steven, we had a long conversation because it’s very easy to criticize a podcast and what is on a podcast. It is a whole different ball game to actually be on the podcast. It’s not easy. I’m not touting. I sound… I am touting what I do every day. It is kind of difficult. It could be really, really challenging at times, but he called me up in the most honest… And it’s a Testament to who he is as a person. And he listened to what he said. I sent it to him beforehand. I let him make sure that he was comfortable with it.

And we had a few different back and forths. But one of them, he said, “You know, I kind of think that you jujitsu me perhaps, into kind of taking a position that didn’t really emphasize the points that I wanted.” Which is not all that surprising. It very often happens. It’s hard to get it perfect in a spoken medium. You can get it perfect in an essay or close to perfect when you’re writing. But when you’re talking, it’s hard to get it perfect. So we spoke it out and I said, “You know what you should do? Why don’t you record a reflection on our very conversation, what you were grappling with, what you wanted to maybe emphasize and say differently.” So here is Steven’s reflection on our conversation that you just listened to.

Steven Gotlib:
What I most noticed in relistening to our conversation, was just how much of it focused on the experiential end of my journey. We talked a lot about the pragmatics, the experience, my transition from Conservative to Orthodoxy. And don’t get me wrong. That was really an important part of my journey, but it wasn’t all of it. And truth be told it’s neither what ultimately ended up building up my faith or what sustains it now. And I really don’t want listeners to take the wrong thing out of it. Now, I had mentioned in our conversation that when I was at Rutgers studying Jewish studies and learning in yeshivas, I kind of had this second baal-teshuva moment. And I really want to emphasize how different that second journey was for me than the first. If my journey in high school was all about finding Judaism’s pragmatic, rationality, figuring out how the experience affected me and the community I wanted to live, in my journey at Rutgers and Yeshiva was much more about the epistemology.

Could I find something true in this, bring it into my life and use it to support and sustain spiritual strivings, even if the community and representatives of it were ultimately to disappoint me? Could Judaism be something that was really true that I could get behind, or was it just a hobby like drumming? And I really went about that on three different fronts. At Rutgers, I took classes in Jewish history and Bible, professors like Gary Rendsburg and Nancy Sinkoff. I took classes in Jewish philosophy from professors like Sam Lebens, Elliot Ratzman, Azzan Yadin-Israel. And all of those were incredibly eye-opening in that they helped me to look at my religion from a new kind of detached light, but also interact with people who deeply cared about it from various different religious backgrounds and context, who were all trying to examine it a objectively from a bird’s eye view.

At the same time, along similar lens, I studied on my own time, Jewish philosophers, like Spinoza, Rav Soloveitchik, everyone in between those two and read as much biblical scholarship, analytic philosophy and general theology as I could. I read scholars like Benjamin Sommer, Richard Elliott Friedman, and James Kugel on the Bible front. Philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga, Yehuda Gellman. Theologians, like Judith Plaskow and Arthur Green. And I didn’t agree with everything that I read, far from it, but they each helped me respond in unique ways to the questions that they asked and helped me build a traditional faith in response to their questions. And I think a faith that was able to take them seriously and acknowledge that they ask good questions, but good answers could be found was so important for me at that point in my journey. Because I realized that these questions don’t have to completely derail things as long as there’s still a rational justification for responding to them and an intelligent way to do so.

The third front was really my time in yeshiva. In addition to learning Talmud, I also learned from various baalei machshava. The biggest influence for me at the time with the Moreh Nevukhim, in which in retrospect, I would probably add to my recommended reading list. You know, Tonya and Nefesh HaChayim are deeply, deeply experiential texts. But the Moreh Nevukhim really helped me gain confidence in having a philosophical backing, albeit the Aristotelian metaphysics that it was in conversation with aren’t necessarily so popular anymore. But in addition to that, thanks to Sam Lebens, Chassidus also came to play a really big role. Rabbi Shmuel Phillips, who I know you’ve had on the podcast, in his book, Judaism Reclaimed writes that “rationalism and mysticism are two wings of the same bird.” One wing failed. The other picks it up. And I took a different approach based on my learning with Sam, which is that there are also two sides of the same coin.

We shouldn’t draw a hard and fast line between rationalism and mysticism, per se, but between good philosophy and bad philosophy. And frankly, even though it sounds funny, Chassidus and Kabbalah have a lot of good philosophy in them. And you can really build a very plausible, very rationally justified worldview out of it. I actually have a good friend, who’s now a PhD candidate at Yale. And he wrote an essay in an Ivy League philosophy journal when we were both in undergrad, basically arguing that Sam’s articulations in his book, Principles of Judaism, should actually be seen as more rational from an atheist vantage point compared to more traditional alternatives. Which I thought was really neat.

So all that having been said, though, my traditional studies really did elevate me from seeing Judaism as something that was only plausible to really making a compelling claim on me. But if it weren’t for that initial sense of plausible justification that I had, if it wasn’t for something in the epistemology, really sticking out to me and showing me that you can draw a line from First Principles to the Orthodox Judaism that I was practicing, I would never have even bothered to restart my journey.

You know, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote something that I found to be very profound. He wrote that God is either real or symbolic. And if God is a symbol, then He’s fiction. But if God is real, then He’s able to express his will unambiguously. And the will of God is ultimately either real or a delusion. And when I first read that I was really, I was shook by it. I didn’t want to live a delusional life, even a delusional life that had plenty of pragmatic value and one that was experientially rich, but even then a delusion was a delusion. I wanted to make sure that I was rationally grounded in a firm worldview that would support what I did and make it something true and authentic, rather than not. And ultimately I came to the conclusion that lasting religion needs to be epistemically valid, not just pragmatically convenient.

You know, luckily I found myself convinced of that. I was really able to build up a worldview that was lasting, that was profound, that feels deeply authentic and truly compelling to me once we understand what our tradition says in response to, and in light of contemporary conversations in philosophy and history and in science and the like. I really do think that it can be an ideal for everyone. And I hope that others are able to be as convinced as I am over time. Cause as Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zatzal had wrote, Modern Orthodoxy really can be halachically legitimate, philosophically persuasive, religiously inspiring, and personally convincing. It’s up to us to prove that. I think we can. I think we will. But each and every person listening to this podcast has a role to play in figuring out what the best way forward on that is. Thank you again for the opportunity. This was really, really fun.

David Bashevkin:
Aside from the incredible privilege of being able to reach out to actual individuals, not celebs so to speak though. I don’t want to be the arbiter of who is and who is not a celebrity in my book. Something tells me the Jewish celebrities that come to my mind are not the same people that come to most other people’s minds when we think about Jewish celebrities. But I think by all measures, Steven Rohde Gotlib, as much as I love him is not a celebrity. But the privilege of being able to share a personal story and grappling with faith, the intimacy and courage it requires to kind of share how you’re grappling and thinking about this, is something that will never, ever be lost on me and I really find so, so moving.

What really stands out for me is the way people try to square their own personal journey. This is something that Jeff Bloom spoke about when we had him on as well. How to square their own personal journey, the context, which, with they grew up, their parents, their upbringing, their associations with different educators, teachers, rabbis, and the convictions that they have in their life now. And sometimes you could have this feeling that my life feels less rooted or less true because it just feels like a product of my surroundings and my specific upbringing. And you want to almost clear that all away and get to this pristine truth underneath the fabric and messiness of your own life. And I think that’s a mistake. I think that the messiness and the chaos and the personal components of our own lives is not a bug of the system, but is a feature of being human. And when we clear away the debris, so to speak, to get to that inner, pristine truth of our own lives, I don’t think it’s there.

I think the truth of our own lives is in fact, a reaction to this pristine idea, but it’s interwoven and inextricable from the context of our own lives. You can’t clear away the debris of your own upbringing, your own dispositions, your own personality, your own context, your own narrative, and get to some objective truth. The objective truth is interwoven with our own lives. And I think that’s something that emerged throughout this conversation. Something that I think about all the time. I think it’s in the very fabric of the way Torah, so to speak, our paradigm of truth is revealed that we have this notion of Torah shebichsav, the written Torah. And we have this notion of Torah sh’baal peh, the oral Torah. And I think the very paradigms of each of those, of having this written pristine, untouchable Torah that we preserved statically, exactly as is. And then we have this oral Torah that’s reacting, interpreting reconsidering, perhaps sprinkling a little Hasidism and Buddhism on top.

But through the generations that is grappling with this pristine idea of truth, this is how truth works and operates within the Jewish community. It’s not something that can be extricated. We don’t try to extricate the Torah shebichsav the written Torah from the oral Torah. It’s not something that can be extricated. They are interwoven with one another. And that is how we both preserve and transmit and grapple with, in our own lives, the notion of truth itself.

So thank you so much for listening. This podcast, like so many of our podcasts, was edited by our friend, Denah Emerson. And our friend Denah Emerson, in fact has told me that she rejects the notion of being called “our friend.” Why she says? Because “our friend” makes it seem like I am not a part of the “our.” But Denah reminds me, she’s very much a part of the “our.” She’s part of the essential 18Forty team.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that feedback. I gave her the option of being called “our, our Denah Emerson” or just “our Denah Emerson.” But you know what? I am going to note her objection and remind our listeners that of course, Denah is a part of the inextricable, essential 18Forty team. But at the same time, we can be friends with ourselves. Which is why I am so thankful for Denah Emerson, our friend who edited this podcast, like so many of our podcasts.

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