This is the thirteenth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Samuel Lebens, a post-doctoral research fellow in the philosophy department at Rutgers, as part of their Center for Philosophy of Religion, directed by Dean Zimmerman. Before that, he was a post-doctoral fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame. His PhD was in early analytic philosophy and the intersection between metaphysics and philosophy of language.
Can you say something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation?
I am an Orthodox Jew. I grew up in a traditional Jewish household in England.
As is the case with many British Jews, we affiliated with Orthodoxy but weren’t all that devout in our observance. For instance, Orthodox Judaism forbids driving on the Sabbath, but, like many British Jews, we would drive almost every week to the Orthodox synagogue, and a hide our car nearby, and we wouldn’t drive to the Reform synagogue, even though they allowed driving on the Sabbath!
I remember having to duck our heads down in the car, if we drove past the Rabbi as he was walking to synagogue, because we didn’t want him to see us in the car – even though we knew that he knew that we drove (because almost everybody in our community drove and hid the car)! My parents were quite honest and open with me, ‘We believe that you shouldn’t really drive on the Sabbath, but none of us are perfect…’ or something like that.
As I grew older I became more observant, especially around the time of my Bar Mitzvah, at the age of 13, but it continued to develop, in terms of my adopting more and more observances, gradually rather than all at once. My parents also have become much more observant – for the record!
I should also note that despite our various inconsistencies, religious practices were a massive part of my upbringing; not only in terms of synagogue attendance, but also in terms of our Friday night Sabbath meal, with singing, and candles, and the sacramental wine, etc.
By the time I was 18, it made sense for me to spend some time in a Rabbinical Seminary before going to university. I did this because (a) it’s what a lot of young Orthodox men and women do before going to university, just to beef up their Jewish literacy (in Bible, Talmud, and Rabbinics), but also (b) because I hadn’t gone to Jewish schools (other than a very rudimentary Sunday-school) and felt a particular lacuna in my education.
After two years at a Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, I came back to the UK to study philosophy at UCL. I had loved philosophy A-Level in the last two years of my high-school, and had been avidly reading some of the classics before I arrived at university.
I fell in love and got married while I was an undergraduate, and we stayed in London as I pursued graduate philosophy at Birkbeck College. I worked on Bertrand Russell’s Multiple Relation theory of Judgement, under the supervision of Fraser MacBride and Dorothy Edgington.
As soon as I had finished by dissertation, my wife and I were eager to go back to Israel, and were eager for me to spend more time in Rabbinical school; not because I had aspirations to become a Rabbi, but because we felt that there was a large disparity between my knowledge of secular wisdom and my knowledge of the classical Jewish texts. So, after completing my PhD, and having already spent 2 years in a Rabbinical School, I spent the next four years studying in Israeli seminaries, where I was, eventually, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi.
In many ways, those four years really shaped my identity, because there, more than ever, I became really comfortable thinking about my religion in overtly theological terms, as being about building up a relationship with a personal God – before then, my religiosity had felt more focused upon being an active, fully-engaged, and consistent, member of a particular intellectual community and culture. I didn’t want to drive anywhere and to hide my car. I was either going to be fully in, or fully out, and the community meant too much to me, and the intellectual heritage was too intriguing to me, to be out. I did obviously believe in God back then, but it wasn’t a conscious attempt to be living a life in a relationship with a personal God until my second stint in Rabbinical School.
At about the time that my ordination was coming to fruition, with some friends, I established the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism, and since then I’ve been trying to throw myself back into academic philosophy – establishing a new balance between continued work in early analytical philosophy, and contemporary philosophy of language, and metaphysics, but also, trying to engage with analytic philosophy of religion – which didn’t really happen for me in the UK. It wasn’t really a part of the syllabus, in any serious way at UCL or Birkbeck. Through my two post-docs, and a summer school at the University of St. Thomas, I’ve come quite heavily under the influence of some really amazing analytical philosophers of religion who’ve been tremendous mentors to me, personally and intellectually.
Can you tell me something about what being an Orthodox Rabbi involves?
Being ordained as a Rabbi, in the Orthodox Jewish world, doesn’t carry quite the significance that ordination does in some of the other streams of Judaism, nor does it have the significance that ordination has in many denominations in the Christian world.
Standardly, the Orthodox ordination examination is nothing more than a legal exam, in which your knowledge of Jewish law is tested. This is because, traditionally, the Rabbi of a community was the ultimate legal authority for that community. ‘Is this chicken kosher?’, ‘Is this activity permitted on the Sabbath?’, etc.
My ordination came along with no training in pastoral care, marriage counselling, or the like. This is probably a hang-up from the traditional role that the Rabbi played in Eastern Europe (and for that matter in the Sefardi lands of North Africa and the Middle East). Those communities would have had people who took care of the sick, and offered counsel, and advice, and I’m sure that the Rabbi would likely have been one of those people, but the thing that made the Rabbi, ‘the Rabbi’, would have been his legal expertise.
In many Ultra-Orthodox communities, almost every male past a certain age is a Rabbi, because they’ve all studied for long enough to have past the relevant tests in Jewish law. But that won’t make them the Rabbi of the community, or a pulpit Rabbi.
I didn’t go to Rabbinical School to become a pulpit Rabbi. I wanted to be an academic. So, training in pastoral care wasn’t really on my radar. I just wanted to be more learned in Jewish sources. Having spent six years, all in all, in full-time Jewish learning, I was ready by the end, to take a test. So I’m a Rabbi!
But, I suppose that ‘being a Rabbi’ does buy me a certain social status that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. For example, I have a number of young students, who I taught while I was at Rabbinical school. To them, though I’m not ‘their Rabbi’, I imagine that I’m not merely an academic. For instance, they might consult me when they’re going through a crisis of faith, or ask my opinion on a matter of a Jewish law that’s relevant to their own life.
Having the ordination is also something of a ticket into the wider Jewish community. It means that I am more often invited to serve as a scholar in residence in an Orthodox synagogue for a weekend, or to teach a course in an Orthodox Jewish educational center, or a summer seminar for an Orthodox seminary, or institute, or, for that matter, in a cross-communal setting, like a Jewish Community Center, for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and more. I imagine that I might have had some of those opportunities had I not been ordained as a Rabbi, but I imagine that it does buy me a certain credibility in some circles. I mentioned that in the Ultra-Orthodox world, many men are Rabbis, but in the Modern-Orthodox world, to which I belong, it’s a bit more rare.
(Modern Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah and that Jewish law have the same authority that Ultra-Orthodoxy believe them to have. They differ in that the Ultra-Orthodox often take a stricter interpretation of Jewish law, and have less interaction with the non-Jewish world, and value secular learning much less; by contrast, Modern Orthodoxy is often a little more lenient in its interpretation of Jewish law, and have plenty of interaction with the non-Jewish world, generally thinking that it’s a good thing to be a member of gentile society as well as to be a committed Jew, and they value secular learning and wisdom. We also differ in our attitudes towards women. For generations, there have only been male Rabbis in the Orthodox world. The left of Modern-Orthodoxy is beginning to challenge this gendered monopoly over the Rabbinate. Nonetheless, the two wings of Orthodoxy are still, generally, to be thought of as one broad church – so to speak! Often a single community will have members along the spectrum from Ultra to Modern Orthodox.).
In short, my being a Rabbi means little more to me than this: If I write Jewish theology in the ivory tower, my being a Rabbi might help that work to percolate into the wider Jewish community; and, if the academic market makes it far too hard for me to find an academic job in Israel, which is where my family would ultimately like to live, I might, at least, be able to find work teaching in a Rabbinical School.
Far more important to me is trying to be a good Jew (which includes, being a good husband and father, and, of course, it includes being a good person), and to be a decent philosopher!
Could you tell me something about the religious practices you engage in?
Orthodox Jewish life is characterised by commitment to live according to Jewish law, and Jewish law can be quite demanding!
The day is punctuated by benedictions – benedictions upon waking, after going to the bathroom, upon washing one’s hands, before and after eating, etc. As a Jewish man, I am, ideally, supposed to pray three times a day with a quorum of nine other Jewish men (Jewish women have to pray too, but according to Orthodox understanding, they can do this alone).
During term time, I tend to go to the Jewish Student Center in the morning, where we all pray together, and have a quick breakfast, before going to work. I put on my phylacteries each morning (little leather boxes containing passages of the Pentateuch that get bound to my left arm, and my forehead) during the prayer service. The prayer service follows a very set and formal centuries old liturgy.
This past year my schedule made it hard for me to find a good quorum to join in the afternoons and evenings (which often get truncated into one service, with two prayers, as the afternoon becomes evening!). I ended up praying alone in my office. But I’m hoping that this academic year I’ll be able to organise things better in that regard. There are, after all, plenty of synagogues where I live.
Jewish prayers are very formal and liturgical. I enjoy them, and find that, at best, they can be a really meditative experience, and often very moving too. But, some corners of the tradition also encourage spontaneous prayer, which is something that hasn’t really been a part of my life, until recently. But it’s something I’m trying to work on, and to make a more central part of my life.
I’m bound by very strict dietary requirements. To eat kosher food isn’t merely to watch what ingredients go into your food (land animals have to chew the cud and have split hooves, in order to be kosher, water-dwelling animals have to have fins and scales in order to be kosher, and only a limited number of birds are kosher). To eat kosher is also to separate meat and dairy products, and to eat food only if it was prepared in a kosher kitchen. Utensils that were used to prepare unkosher food, can, in many situations, become unkosher themselves, and, so to speak, transfer their unkosher status to the food it touches. This can make it awkward when colleagues want to invite me over for dinner, or when looking for places that we can go out and eat together! I’m much more trouble than hosting a vegan!
We also observe the Jewish Sabbath. There are 39 categories of activity that are forbidden on the Sabbath. It’s often mistranslated as ‘work’. But that gets things entirely wrong. Flipping on a light switch is forbidden on the Sabbath, but running up and down the stairs a hundred times, is completely permitted, even though the latter is much harder work than the former! The technical term in Jewish law is melechet machshevet and it means something like ‘purposive activity’, and, I think it’s best understood as ‘distinctively human manipulation of the environment’. We refrain from that on the Sabbath, in order to demonstrate, in the language of ritual, that our ability to manipulate the environment is a gift to us from God, on loan to us, so to speak; and to demonstrate our belief that the environment really belongs to God, its creator; and to remember the exodus from Egypt, by refusing to subjugate the world around us, or to be subjugated ourselves into labour (of a certain kind).
The 39 categories of work are derived from the Biblical building of the Tabernacle. It’s building is juxtaposed, in the Bible, with the laws of the Sabbath. Just as God built a world for us to dwell in, we built a Tabernacle for Him to dwell in. Just as God rested from the work that created the world, on the Sabbath; we rest from the work that created the Tabernacle, on the Sabbath.
The most noteworthy of the 39 types of activity forbidden to us, are that we cannot write, we cannot cook, and we cannot use electricity (it’s not easy to demonstrate which of the 39 categories electricity use belongs to, but it’s easy to see how it’s almost an archetype of distinctively human purposive manipulation of the environment). We can benefit from electricity on the Sabbath, but we can’t manipulate it. We can leave lights on. We can even leave them on a timer switch. But we can’t manipulate them on the day. We can leave food on a hot-plate before the Sabbath. But we can’t manipulate it on the day. No phones. No computers. No screen time. No driving a car. It’s actually become something of a wonderful oasis in time, where there are no this-worldly distractions to stop you from spending time with your family.
The Sabbath begins on a Friday night. We go to synagogue, and return for a large meal, with candles lit before the onset of the Sabbath. The meal often has guests, and singing. We bless our children round the table, and discuss the weekly reading of the Pentateuch. The Sabbath continues until nightfall on Saturday. Saturday is spent doing more of the same. More time in synagogue, and then lots of family time together, eating, playing, reading, teaching, singing, and the like.
As an academic, this can sometimes pose difficulties. Conferences are very often over a Saturday and I almost always miss them. On a handful of occasions, my wife and kids have come with me and we’ve made the Sabbath together in a hotel, so that I could attend a conference as well as observe the Sabbath – but that never feels great. On one occasion, because it was a conference about philosophy of religion, it felt somehow more in the spirit of things, and I went alone, and made the Sabbath in my hotel room, and went along to the conference. But it’s not easy, and it doesn’t generally feel right.
Resting from work isn’t an easy thing to do. There’s that article that needs to be completed, because you’re under pressure to publish. There’s that mountain of e-mails to respond to, etc. But having God command you to rest means that you can’t really feel guilty about doing it! So the Sabbath is a tremendous liberation. I often feel the weight of the world removed from my shoulders as I arrive in synagogue on a Friday evening.
There are also laws about modesty that can be difficult to explain. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to touch people of the opposite gender, who aren’t family, or spouses. It’s more important not to embarrass people than to keep those laws of modesty (in other words, to embarrass a person is a worse violation of the law than to shake their hand), so if a hand is proffered for a handshake, I’ll take it; or if, at the end of a conference somebody leans in for a hug, I’ll reciprocate, but for me it’s always a little uncomfortable. Ideally, I should explain to people the religious code that I live by, but when someone’s leaning in, it’s only going to embarrass them, or hurt their feelings, which is the last thing that I would want!
Finally, learning Jewish texts is considered to be something of a ritual and an act of serving God; one is supposed to make time to learn Jewish texts each day. So this also plays a major role in my life, both professionally and religiously.
How do your religious practices influence/interact with your being a philosopher (you’ve already touched upon this in the previous answer about conferences and Sabbath, any additional things you can think about, e.g., whether the practices influence your philosophical work).
So, of course, there are the negative ways in which the ritual observances seem to get in the way. This semester I’m going to miss three or four sessions of a fabulous seminar by Jeff King, because there are going to be a host of Jewish festivals falling out on a Tuesday over the next month or so – and the laws of the festivals are pretty similar to those I outlined regarding the Sabbath, and there are conferences that I’ll miss, as I said.
But, in a sense, I’m grateful for being forced to stop working some times. If I didn’t have this idea that God was commanding me to refrain from certain sorts of activities, I think that the pressure to keep working – publish or perish – would make it really hard for me to find the time to just relax with my family without feeling an attendant sense of guilt. But, as I said above, you can’t as easily feel guilty fulfilling a Divine command!
Also, having periods of time when you’re simply not allowed to write, gives your mind time to breathe, so to speak. I often come back to my work, after the Sabbath, with a certain intellectual freshness.
Finally, I still see myself as someone who does metaphysics, and early analytic philosophy. But, I’ve had much better luck publishing in philosophy of religion – an area that I had no formal training in as a graduate student, and kind of fell into during my Rabbinic studies.
I think the reason that I’ve been more successful in philosophy of religion (so far) is because I live and breathe the material I’m working on. Intellectual detachment has its place, of course. But, perhaps when a thinker is trying to make sense of his or her own life, and that’s what I’m doing when I try to make sense of Jewish traditions, Jewish laws, Jewish ideas, and Jewish practice, then it makes for a more compelling read!