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The epistemology of religiosity: an Orthodox Jewish perspective


This paper focusses on the Rabbinic suggestion that the attitude of awe, rather than any particular belief, lies at the heart of religiosity. On the basis of these Rabbinic sources, and others, the paper puts forward three theses: (1) that belief is not a sufficiently absorbing epistemic attitude to bear towards the truths of religion; (2) that much of our religious knowledge isn’t mediated via belief; and (3) that make-believe is sometimes more important, in the cultivation of religiosity than is mere belief.

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  1. I recognise that I use the term ‘epistemology’ slightly eccentrically—normally, we think of epistemology as the study of belief and knowledge in terms of evidence, warrant and justification. I relate to epistemology, in this paper, to include that study, but also to include an investigation of the nature of the relations that stand between us and the content of our belief/knowledge—what might be called the metaphysics of epistemology. Thanks to Howard Wettstein for helping me to see the need to make this clarification.

  2. For the sake of brevity, I will talk about religious Orthodox Jews, in the remainder of this paper, simply as ‘religious Jews’—I recognize, and do not seek to deny, that there are many religious Jews who are not Orthodox, but belong to the Conservative, or Reform (or to other Jewish) movements. This paper, however, only focuses explicitly on life as a religious Orthodox Jew; though my conclusions will, I hope have ramifications for our understanding of religiosity in general.

  3. At least, this is the classical Jewish understanding of the verse.

  4. As he puts it: “Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew.”

  5. Now, a teenager might think that a sports-star, or a film-star, is awesome without thinking them to be holy. I would want to argue that here, we’ve slipped into a derivative sense of the word ‘awesome’; one not so linked to the attitude of wonder; but one would need to take care here to avoid circularity: we don’t mean to define a new sense of ‘awe’ in terms of holiness, and then point out a trivial correlation. Instead, I mean to point to a pre-existing correlation between awe and holiness.

  6. All translations of classical Hebrew sources, in this paper, are mine alone.

  7. Genesis 2:3.

  8. Albert Einstein (2007, p. 90) adds another few details to the list when he says that, “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence—these are features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it.”

  9. This is inferred from a play on words that doesn’t easily translate. The verb used in the verse for pushing away is lehodfa, and the Midrash reads into this the words, hod she-be-yofiyah, which means, ‘the majesty of her beauty’.

  10. As Howard Wettstein put the point to me in conversation: awe gives rise to imperatives.

  11. Cf., Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitvot Aseh, 1.

  12. Some have suggested to me calling it ‘active-belief’ instead. But, that would imply that you always have to believe the content. But, as we shall see when we discuss the third of my theses, this isn’t always the case, even though it often it. ‘Seeing-as’ has also been suggested to me, by Brent Kyle. Just as in the famous optical illusion you can see one picture either ‘as’ an old woman, or, ‘as’ a young woman, perhaps my attitude of make-believe is just inviting you to see the world ‘as’ being a certain way. But, ‘make-believe’ still seems a more appropriate description. It’s not just seeing the world in a certain way, but it’s also about experiencing your place in that world in a certain way.

  13. For an example of philosophers who still think that all knowledge is propositional, see Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson (2001).

  14. This thought experiment wasn’t explicitly designed to bring about this conclusion in the realm of epistemology. Jackson’s real aim was to raise a question mark over the theory of physical reductionism in the philosophy of Mind, though the thought experiment is often deployed by others for the purposes that I have used it for here. For a current survey of the philosophical discussion over this thought experiment, cf. Peter Ludlow (2004).

  15. Stump (2010, pp. 69–71) points out a number of relatively crude philosophical errors made by scientists who are trying to describe these findings.

  16. Ramachandran and Oberman (2006).

  17. Shir Hashirm Raba (1:8).

  18. This word is used with this meaning in Mishna Avot 1:15.

  19. This word is used with this meaning in Tractate Sofrim 16:7.

  20. This word is used with this meaning in Bereshit Rabba 91:1.

  21. I first heard of this distinction between hope and optimism from Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the UK.

  22. See, especially, the classical Hebrew commentaries on the Laws of Repentence 3:2.

  23. For more on Ramachandran’s work on phantom limbs, see Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1999).

  24. The book that contains the text and the liturgy for the Seder Night, the first night of Passover.

  25. This sentence was first written while Mohamed Morsi was still in power, and he didn’t last long!

  26. A move perhaps most famously associated with Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1995).


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This paper was born of a talk that I was invited to give at the David Cardozo Academy. I am grateful to Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo, to Yael Unterman, and to the members of the public who were in attendance. Many of these ideas grew to maturity through discussion with members of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism ( I am ever so grateful to my dear friends, and partners in creating and running that association, Dani Rabinowitz and Aaron Segal. I must also express my thanks to Eleonore Stump and Howard Wettstein for their mentorship and inspiration; to my other mentors Dean Zimmerman and Mike Rota for helping me to realise, at their summer seminar at the University of St. Thomas, that I could write on the philosophy of religion; to my many Rabbis, and finally, to my students in Midrash at Har Etzion Rabbinical Seminary (2012–2013).

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Correspondence to Samuel Lebens.

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Lebens, S. The epistemology of religiosity: an Orthodox Jewish perspective. Int J Philos Relig 74, 315–332 (2013).

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  • Judaism
  • Religiosity
  • Make-belief
  • Midrash
  • Epistemology