Milton Steinberg

This Jewish thinker and Reconstructionist leader asked: Does belief in God make sense?

Reprinted from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

Milton Steinberg was an American Conservative Rabbi and theologian (1903-50). Steinberg studied philosophy at City College in New York and took the Rabbinical course at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1928.

Rabbinic Career

Steinberg first served as a Rabbi in Indianopolis but in 1933 he became Rabbi of the prestigious Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, in which capacity he served until his death at the early age of 47. At the Park Avenue Synagogue Steinberg became renowned for his thought-provoking sermons, some of which have been published in the form of sermon notes (From the Sermons of Milton Steinberg, ed. Bernard Mandelbaum New York, 1954).

Steinberg’s preaching methods have become models for modern Rabbis in their apt quotations from world literature and in their application of philosophical ideas to the traditional Jewish texts without distorting either the philosophical ideas or the texts themselves.

Steinberg was greatly influenced by his teacher at the Seminary, Mordecai Kaplan, whom he joined in Kaplan’s Reconstructionist movement, contributing many articles to The Reconstructionist, the journal of the movement. Later, however, Steinberg took issue with the religious naturalism of the movement, seeing no reason why the admirable aim of reconstructing Jewish life should be tied to a reinterpretation of the God idea in naturalistic terms.

As a Driven Leaf

Steinberg’s novel As a Driven Leaf (Indianopolis, 1939, and frequently republished) has as its hero the tragic figure, Elisha ben Abuyah, the second-century Rabbi, colleague of Rabbi Akiba and teacher of Rabbi Meir, who became an apostate, torn as he was between his loyalty to Judaism and the allure of Roman life and civilization.

As a powerful novel of ideas, this work had a considerable influence on questing Jews obliged to grapple with problems similar to those faced by Elisha, albeit against a different cultural background.

Steinberg was also a leading Zionist; his positive attitude to Zionism can be observed in the posthumously published essays: A Believing Jew (ed. Maurice Samuel, New York, 1951).

Religion & Philosophy

Steinberg’s mature thoughts on religion are presented in the posthumously published Anatomy of Faith (ed. Arthur A. Cohen, New York, 1960). Steinberg here presents Judaism as a religion which, while, like any other religion, based on faith, is supported by reason. To be sure, the medieval thinkers who sought to prove the existence of God were swayed too much by logic and failed to appreciate that ‘reason can always argue against reason,’ yet an anti-intellectual approach to religion is similarly misguided.

Steinberg sets out to answer the question: ‘Does believing in God make

sense? Or is religious faith something for the ignorant, the muddleheaded, those too wishful, lazy, or cowardly to think the matter through?’

His reply is that belief in God should be seen as a hypothesis capable of being tested like any other hypothesis. The way of testing the religious hypothesis is to note the telling reasons for maintaining that Deity rather than Nullity moves behind and through the universe.

For Steinberg the traditional arguments for the existence of God should not be seen as proofs or knock-down arguments but as pointers to the Reality, making better sense of human experience than any rival theory. As Steinberg puts it in formal philosophical language:

‘Religious faith is a hypothesis interpreting reality and posited on the same grounds as any valid hypothesis, viz., superior congruity with the facts, greater practicality, and maximal conceptual economy.’

Bad Things, Good People

The problem of evil is, indeed, a severe obstacle to belief in a benevolent Creator but attempts have been made by religious thinkers to show how the existence of evil can be compatible with the existence of God. There is, indeed, no completely satisfying solution to the problem but, then, the atheist has more questions to answer than the theist.

How would the atheist account, asks Steinberg, for the existence of natural law, the instinctual cunning of the insect, the brain of the genius and the heart of the prophet?

Steinberg disagrees profoundly with Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ and his idea of the ‘paradox,’ believing the ideas of religious existentialism to be largely of Christian rather than Jewish interest, since, as Christians themselves proudly declare, the basic Christian dogma is beyond the power of reason to penetrate. Judaism is a religion that does not glorify the unintelligible.

At the same time, Steinberg does not believe Judaism to be a religion of reason after the fashion of a Maimonides or Hermann Cohen. Judaism has its mysteries and non-rationalities and it has even had its quota of anti-rationalists.

Oddly enough, in the light of his general discussion of traditional Jewish ideas regarding the nature of God, there is only a single and casual reference to the Kabbalistic doctrine of En Sof and the Sefirot and very little about the general mystical approach to religion.

Jewish belief in the Hereafter is hardly touched upon in Steinberg’s writings. There is also very little about the meaning of religious language and the challenge presented to religious faith by modern linguistic analysis.

© 2008 70 Faces Media

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