Symposium on Samuel Lebens’s The Principles of Judaism 

The APJ will be holding a symposium on The Principles of Judaism (OUP, 2020) by Samuel Lebens on 23–27 October 2022. The symposium will be held on this page.

  • For comments on Chapter 1 by Filippo Casati (Lehigh University), please click here.
  • For comments on Chapter 3 by Ryan Mullins (Palm Beach Atlantic University), please click here.
  • For comments on Chapter 3 by Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University), please click here.
  • For Sam’s replies, please click here.

Though the commentators focus on chapters 1 and 3, comments on any part of the book are welcome.

Click here to access the whole book on the OUP’s website (login is required).

Here is the book’s table of content:

1. Introduction Avoiding a Paradoxical Preface
Part I – Creation
2. Creatio Ex Nihilo
3. Idealism Ex Nihilo
4. Hassidic Idealism Responding to Problems
5. Hassidic Idealism Some Hidden Benefits
Part II – Revelation
6. What is the Torah? The Internal Problem with Revelation
7. Ongoing Revelation and the External Problems with Revelation
Part III – Redemption
8. Redeeming the Past
9. Conclusions: Frumkeit, Faith, and Make-Belief


Please join in the conversion by posting comments, questions, and thoughts below.


Event Details
  • Start Date
    October 23, 2022 8:00 am
  • End Date
    October 27, 2022 11:59 pm
  • Status
  • Organizer
  • Category
  1. D Black

    Hi Sam!

    I enjoyed reading your book. Thank you for writing it. You are an entertaining writer and effective communicator.

    I wanted to leave three comments for you.

    1. On religiosity: A “food for thought” comment. I want to argue that either 1) recognition of absurdity is compatible with religiosity or 2) it’s not always appropriate to strive for religiosity. I’ll argue for 1, but I think it will become clear how that also supports 2.

    I think religiosity as you’ve explained it is so self- and other-serious as to be priggish. A good human life has frivolity, and moments where awe isn’t immediately possible. It also has moments where we humble ourselves and recognize the absurdity of our own or others’ pursuits.

    Moreover, I think that there is a valuable awe-adjacent experience that comes from recognizing absurdity. I am most likely to feel this way when I encounter when a large group of people doggedly pursuing a morally neutral goal (eg hobbyists).

    First, I step back and realize how trivial the matter is. But then, if I’m in the right mindset, I am struck by the thought that these people have made something meaningful for themselves. Part of the human experience is to pursue these projects, that are otherwise meaningless, and incorporate them into our lives. These idiosyncrasies, which matter so little to most others, give a person’s life the unique “flavor” it has.

    And there’s something really beautiful to me about making something from nothing that way. Even though the universe can seem (I would say “is”) uncaring, humans find things to care about. That makes them matter, at least to the individual. This facet of human life, to create even a little bit of meaning in the face of such vast absurdity, is beautiful, awe-inspiring, or something. I hope that a person who embodies religiosity can also have that experience.

    2. On sects: A critical comment. You say that the tradition of Sinai descends through those most dedicated to the halakhot, and so Orthodox Judaism is distinguished from other Judaisms, p. 186.

    But why should it go by way of halakhah? Why not those most committed to a distinctly Jewish way of life, where that can include national but non-religious characteristics? If so, then (assuming a sufficient buy-in from Jews) less halakhically observant forms of Judaism can get the warrant of the inheritance of Sinai.

    Because you accept that Judaism is an interpretive community where the truth only comes out looking back, it’s possible for you to accept this line. You could be read as optimistically predicting that Orthodoxy is the form of Judaism most likely to remain distinctively Jewish. But I don’t think you mean to say that the issue is still unsettled, and that retrospectively it will become clear that Orthodoxy won the day. I think you mean to say that, even in their time, a wise person could see clearly that other sects of Judaism went off-track.

    3. On path-dependency: A “help me understand” comment. Like halakhah, I think the legitimacy of secular law will have to go by way of interpretation and path-dependency. (Here, I primarily have in mind interpretive, judge-made law. I think democratic-legislative laws will need a different source of warrant even on a secularized version of your account.) I am confronted by a law, and I recognize that two alternative interpretations are both consistent with morality, reason, existing law, and a well-ordered society.

    In such a situation, I have a hard time asking another (or myself!) to abide by one specific interpretation. You want to do this thing, and you present a good argument as to why you should be allowed to do it. The only reason I can offer that prohibits you is path-dependent: Through a series of decisions, each building on the last, the relevant people decided to forbid it. But if things had been just a little bit different among the initial decision-makers, you’d be permitted. Things weren’t different, though, so you’re forbidden.

    I know how to give this argument; that’s basically practicing the common law. But it always leaves me cold. There is a part of me that says “That’s not a reason! That’s a complicated excuse for kowtowing to others.”

    Can you say some things to assuage this feeling? How can I internalize, and not just intellectually recognize, the legitimacy of path-dependent law?

    1. Samuel Lebens

      Thank you so much for these thoughts, D.
      As an aside, I fondly remember great discussions with you about idealism and all sorts of other issues that I was trying to get straight in my head so that I could put this book together. You were always tremendously encouraging and insightful.
      The first point you raise, on religiosity, is really powerful. It’s the sort of thing that, once pointed out, you can’t unsee. Yes. I have to confess. My characterisation of religiosity in the final chapter of the book does seem to give rise to a dislikable priggishness. I hope it hasn’t rubbed off on me.
      This is something I’d really like to address one day. I don’t think that the right response would be to retreat from any of the substantive commitments I made, in my characterisation of religiosity. But I have to respond somehow.
      You present the problem as a dilemma. On the first horn, it seems as if I would have to admit that religiosity is compatible with absurdity. Embracing that horn does sounds like I would have to retract something that I’ve said in chapter 9; which I’ve said, I’m not minded to do. On the second horn, I’d have to concede that it isn’t always appropriate to strive for religiosity.
      But thankfully, there’s actually a sense in which it seems that I should, and already do, embrace that second horn. That is to say, I think that my definition of religiosity is correct, but that it just isn’t always the right thing to strive for; at least, not in every situation.
      And actually, that could sit pretty comfortably with what I’ve already committed myself to in the book. After all, I make it clear that it isn’t even possible to achieve religiosity in every moment – that it’s a fleeting state that we can achieve at most sometimes. Perhaps it’s only a small jump from there to the suggestion that it really wouldn’t be appropriate, even if it were possible, to achieve the state of religiosity at all times. And part of true wisdom would be to know when to strive for it and when not to. Indeed, this might be what we’re told to do in Ecclesiastes (7:16), when we’re told not to be “excessively righteous”; we’re also told not to be “overly wise”; the proper way of life is to find a fitting balance between all sorts of different, and often conflicting virtues; some are more appropriate in some situations; and some in others. Religiosity is just one of those virtues. A very important one. Perhaps it should be central to every well lived life (whether or not, as you say, the world is really a caring and meaningful place); but not at all times, and not in all situations.
      That’s a suggestion I think I could get behind. I say, “I think,” because I need to sit with it for a while. This is just a first shot at a response.
      And yet, there’s something about the first horn of the dilemma that attracts me. Perhaps it’s only certain forms of absurdity that are toxic to religiosity. It seems to be that there’s a certain type of humour, a joie de vivre, and a frivolity, in the good times, and a different type of humour, for the darker times, that is strikingly characteristic of a form of Jewish religiosity. If that’s right, I just need to clarify better what I mean when I posit an incompatibility between religiosity and absurdity.
      Perhaps it’s not a dilemma at all. Perhaps I can embrace elements of both horns. Either way, as you rightly say, your first point is certainly food for thought. I’ll get to the others in a moment.

    2. Samuel Lebens

      In response to your second comment – I don’t really see this as a criticism. I admit that other streams of Judaism will have to appeal to different axioms; perhaps tweaking the Orthodox axioms that I endorse. Accordingly, I take your second point to be an illustration of that fact. For example, a non-halakhic but religiously Jewish movement could regard the revelation of Sinai as God giving a seal of approval to that form of life, at any given time, manifested by those Jews most characterised by some national characteristic, or by most animated by certain values, or something else entirely. That’s fine. What I was trying to do was to articulate how one might have to look at the Sinai event, and its function, if one wanted to take seriously the Orthodox claim that Orthodoxy is, in some sense or other privileged. But if you want me, as an Orthodox Jew, to answer why it is that I accept this Orthodox axiom; why it is that I take halakhic commitment to be a sign of the community receiving most warrant from Sinai, my answer would be that in all of our central accounts of that event, it was an event in which some sort of legislation was received. That fact gives the event a sort of legal flavour. Could there be other plausible ways to understand Sinai? I think so. But my aim was to articulate an axiomitzation of contemporary Orthodox Judaism and, despite all of the crazy metaphysical commitments I read into them, to render the bare bones of those axioms as plausible as possible.
      But just to be clear, while I’m on the topic, there is a sense in which my “Orthodox” axiomatization is deliberately subversive. First of all, I try to develop a theory of revelation from impeccable Orthodox sources according to which we can’t really deny that less halakhically observant forms of Judaism can be recipients of some warrant from Sinai (even if not the most warrant); that they can be viewed as part of the ongoing mechanism of revelation. Secondly, I try to make it clear that by its own lights, what we currently relate to as Orthodoxy is almost bound to be superseded; that its warrant is, in a sense, provisional.
      Finally, and as someone deeply (and perhaps priggishly!) disappointed with many sectors of the Orthodox community, and its practices, I have to admit that certain elements of this axiom cause me to be conflicted. Which community really does constitute the most faithful striving to live in accordance with the Sinai revelation? It’s not clear to me at all exactly how to answer that question. In this respect, and if my axioms really are true, I guess that only the future will answer the question, in the way the question was answered about the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

    3. Samuel Lebens

      A brief comment now on your third point:

      Yes, some things are fobidden for no other reason than that “through a series of decisions, each building on the last, the relevant people decided to forbid it.” And yes, had things been “just a little bit different among the initial decision-makers, you’d be permitted.” Nevertheless, those people, and those instutitions, were part of creating a civil society (in the case of common law), or a religious community (in the case of halakha), membership of which gives tremendous value to our lives. These people, and the story that they were part of, and the decisions that by chance they happened to make, contributed towards creating a collective, with a sense of identity, that gives us cultural and political moorings, without which it would be hard to function as a citizen of the world, or as a moral or reflective agent. I’m probably not doing a great job here, but I’m trying to romanticise it all a little bit. Perhaps it can help.
      I often think about the fact that the words that we use, as speakers of English (or Hebrew, or French, or what have you), have been spoken by generations of speakers before us, and that the meanings they have, and even the nuances that they carry, have been shaped by all of the things that have been said, in our linguistic community, before us. Much of it is totally arbitrary, one phoneme could have been replaced by another, and it would have meant the same thing. But above and beyond the utility of having a standard language that we can all understand (and sometimes, the utility of standard practices is relevant to our question about common law, and halakha, too), there’s also something kind of majestic about taking one’s place in a linguistic community, and contuing to shape it and contribute to its evolution (without stultifying deference, but certainly with gratitude).

      Maybe I’ve misfired here, but I tried!

  2. Filippo

    Hi all!

    I just wanted to thank Dar Triffon-Reshef and Itamar Weinshtock for organizing this Symposium. Working on Sam’s book has been great. I would like to thank Sam for correcting my understanding of the ‘first move’. Also, I have two sets of questions for Sam.

    [1] Could you, please, say something more about what you can (truthfully) say about God, and what you cannot? Do you have something like a set of criteria to demarcate what can (truthfully) be said about God from what cannot? If not, I assume you believe you do not need such a set of criteria. Then, could you say something about why you do not need it?

    [2] In your monograph and in your ‘Why so negative about negative theology’, you draw a comparison between apophaticism and Putnam’s brain in the vat. Have you ever thought that there might be some disanalogy between these two cases? If so, have you even thought that such disanalogies might constitute a problem for your overall comparison?

    Thanks again!


    1. Samuel Lebens

      Filippo – the misunderstanding was minor. The understanding was amazing, since I think you’ve understood elements of my position better than I have! 🙂
      Regarding your two questions:
      1. I don’t think that I do have criteria. In fact, I think that lacking criteria, and yet knowing that there’s a high chance of slipping into falsehood or nonsense when fleshing out a systematic theology – and knowing that the chances converge on certainty as the theology gets closer to the claim that it’s exhaustive – is part of the humility inducing nature of the whole picture here. Having said that, I always like criteria. So perhaps I should think harder to find some! What’s interesting in the case of Maimonides, Saadya, and Albo (three examples I bring in the first chapter of the book) is that they knew that their general outlook was giving rise to a contradiction (the central contradiction of apophaticism), but they were willing neither to adopt a paraconsistent logic, nor to abandon any of the premises that gave rise to the conclusion. Given those commitments, I think replacing truth with verisimilitude as a goal for the system makes sense. In my own system, I haven’t really found any analogous contradictions. But it seems to me, as I said, that the more exhaustive a theology claims to be, the closer to certain it is to collapse in places, into falsehood or nonsense. My own theology, however, is very far from claiming to be exhaustive of God’s nature. In fact, not too much of the book hangs on any one particular description of God’s nature.
      2. I think the central disanalogy between the brain in the vat case and our apophatic situation may well pose a problem for the overall comparison – but at least I’m honest about that!! The disanalogy is that God’s communicating us would be analgous to the scientists communicating with the brain, and in Putnam’s thought-experiments, its crucial that the scientists don’t communicated with the brain. And though I admit that this might create problems for my overall comparison, it remains an open question in my mind as to how much of a problem it creates, if it creates one at all. Afterall, for the Hassidic idealist, God only speaks to us qua character in His own story. He doesn’t speak to us from His transcendence. Is that equivalent to the scientist communicating with the brain, or some vat-avatar of the scientist communicating with the brain. If the latter, is the scientist speaking English to the brain, via the avatar, or vat-English? I don’t know. Do you think that there are important disanalogies? If so, what do you think they are, and what problems do you think they raise for my comparison?
      And once again, thank you so much Filippo, for your searching comments, and for your generosity of spirit, in engaging with my work.

  3. Dar Triffon-Reshef

    Hello everyone,
    I wish to thank Sam, first for his wonderful book, and second for his willing consent to and thoughtful engagement in this symposium. I also deeply thank our three brilliant commentators for their enthusiastic, warm, in-depth, and thought-provoking contributions. This has been a fascinating discussion!

    I’m curious regarding the kind and source of ineffability at the ground of your apophaticism, especially in light of your response to Casati. In your response, you say: “I don’t deny that there is an exhaustive truth about God. I just argue that we will never be in a position to truly assert a claim that expresses that exhaustive truth.” This suggests that the Jewish apophatic approach, as you take it, is a result of some human or linguistic limitation. God is not, in God-self, an ineffable entity, if I may put it this way; God’s nature is such that some things are true of it, others false. But for some reason – God’s nature is utterly alien, God’s nature is principally and utterly out of the reach for any linguistic thought, or something else – we can never hope to affirm anything true about God. However, it seems to me that the arguments you bring from Saadya Gaon and Maimonides, and what you make of them, have it such that God is an ineffable entity. Namely, that it is a metaphysical matter that no object or attribute (other than ‘being God’?*) constitute God’s nature. (If God is the creator, any object and attribute are distinct from God; if God is simple, then no further object or attribute belong in God’s nature). There is no fact of the matter about God (at least not one that involves any created attributes and objects). Do you see a meaningful difference between the two kinds of ineffability? The ‘epistemic’ and the ‘metaphysical’, we may say? If yes, to which of them do you adhere?

    If the epistemic kind, what’s the limitation? Is it principled? Why is it that language or thought can never hope to grasp the truth of the matter about God?

    *As for the parentheses, a question about the absolute generality of Saadya’s argument (or its reconstruction). The premise is that God is the creator of ‘everything’. Then, given that anything created is distinct from God, the result is that nothing constitutes God’s nature (because God created everything). However, it is obvious that God is not supposed to be the creator of God (this indeed is impossible if creation is necessarily distinct from creator). So, it is a mistake to say that God is the creator of everything; we should say instead that God is the creator of everything-other-than-God. In which case, there is at least one object\attribute that does constitute God’s nature: being God. How do you think this effects the motivations for ineffability, the arguments, and the apophatic approach, if at all? (I think it makes a huge difference, and I’m working on arguing for and illustrating this. But I’m curious for your thoughts.)

    Thank you very much!

Leave a Comment

Event Details
  • Start Date
    October 23, 2022 8:00 am
  • End Date
    October 27, 2022 11:59 pm
  • Status
  • Organizer
  • Category