David Wolpe: Judaism | Lex Fridman Podcast #270 | Summary and Q&A

March 16, 2022
Lex Fridman Podcast
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David Wolpe: Judaism | Lex Fridman Podcast #270


Rabbi David Walpe shares his thoughts on religion, the importance of conversation, and his experiences with controversial topics, including the war in Ukraine and same-sex marriage.

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Key Insights

  • ❓ Judaism offers different interpretations of God, emphasizing both transcendence and imminence.
  • 🛀 Important religious figures, including Christopher Hitchens, showed complexities and varied perspectives beyond their public personas.
  • 🥺 Conversation and dialogue can lead to a deeper understanding of human nature and the complex choices people make between good and evil.
  • ✡️ Rabbi David Walpe believes in the importance of commitment, both in relationships and societal values, for maintaining a sense of purpose and morality.
  • 😮 The dissolution of religious faith can lead to a rise in nihilism and a lack of universal ethics.
  • ✊ The Torah, as a sacred text, invites ongoing interpretation and discussion, highlighting its relevance and power throughout generations.
  • 🤕 Controversial decisions, such as supporting same-sex marriage, can lead to hurt and backlash, but the ability to learn, reflect, and apologize is crucial.
  • 💄 Social media amplifies instant reactions, making it challenging to backtrack or apologize for hasty statements.
  • 🖐️ Commitment plays a vital role in relationships, societal values, and the preservation of traditions.
  • 🔉 The internet and social media shape and intensify public debates, creating a momentum that can be difficult to escape.


the following is a conversation with rabbi david walpy someone who i have been a fan of for many years for the kindness and his heart the strength of his character and the kind of friends he keeps and talks with many of whom disagree with him but love him nevertheless including the late christopher hitchens i will have many conversations like these... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What does Judaism teach about the concept of God?

Judaism offers various interpretations of God, ranging from the idea of an omnipotent and intangible being to a god of deep feeling. The tradition emphasizes the tension between transcendence and imminence, teaching that God is both unfathomably distant and intimately close.

Q: Can humans truly understand or know God?

According to Jewish tradition and the belief of Rabbi David Walpe, humans cannot fully comprehend or know God. Instead, they can have a relationship with God and address God through prayer and conversation.

Q: How do faith and humor intersect in Rabbi David Walpe's life?

Rabbi David Walpe appreciates both the seriousness and humor in life. He believes that humor, including dark humor, can provide a way to escape tension, conflict, and hatred in the world. Furthermore, he uses humor as a means to celebrate the absurdity and beauty of life.

Q: What insights did Rabbi Walpe gain from his conversations with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris?

Rabbi Walpe admires Christopher Hitchens' wit and the ability to engage in spirited debates. From Hitchens, he learned that it is impossible to win a debate against him due to his eloquence and comedic style. With Sam Harris, Rabbi Walpe recognized that although they have fundamental disagreements on religion, there is a common quest for understanding and a desire to challenge ideas without closing their minds.


In this conversation, Rabbi David Wolpe discusses various topics related to religion, including God, faith, atheism, and the impact of religious beliefs on society. He shares insights from his conversations with intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, highlighting their different perspectives and the importance of humor in discussions. Rabbi Wolpe also explores the significance of religion in the world, the role of tribalism and otherness, the atrocities of the 20th century, and the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Questions & Answers

Q: According to Judaism, who is God?

Judaism encompasses diverse views on God, with different interpretations offered by different thinkers throughout history. Maimonides, a medieval philosopher, described God as an omnipotent, benevolent, intangible being that is unimaginable. He emphasized the unknowability of God, focusing on what God is not rather than what God is. On the other hand, modern philosopher Heschel sees God as a deity of deep feeling, which contrasts with Maimonides' concept. The Bible also portrays God with human emotions and regrets, adding another dimension to the concept of God. This tension between transcendence and imminence is evident in Jewish traditions, where God is both unfathomably distant and intimately close.

Q: Can God be known or felt by humans?

According to Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian, God cannot be fully expressed but can only be addressed. This means that one can speak to God and feel a sense of God's presence but cannot fully comprehend or know God. Josef Cosby, another Jewish philosopher, states that to know God, one would have to be God. While humans cannot fully know God, it is still possible to develop a relationship with God. This relationship is not based on complete understanding but on acknowledging our limitations and recognizing the divine presence.

Q: How do visualizations and gender concepts relate to the understanding of God in Judaism?

Visualizations and gender concepts are often used to comprehend or represent God, but it is important to transcend them in the Jewish tradition. The biblical story of the golden calf illustrates the human need for visualizations when it comes to worshiping God. However, Judaism emphasizes the impossibility of fully visualizing God and the importance of acknowledging our limited comprehension. Judaism aims to move beyond visual representations and emphasizes the transcendence of God rather than focusing on specific gender or visual attributes.

Q: Can humans have a relationship with God without fully knowing or understanding God?

Yes, the essence of the Jewish tradition is to have a relationship with God rather than attaining complete knowledge or understanding. As humans, we have relationships with others who remain mysterious to us, even after years of knowing them. Similarly, our relationship with God is characterized by a sense of being known and having a connection to God. While the limitations of human understanding prevent us from fully knowing God, we can still develop a meaningful relationship built on trust, faith, and the recognition of our own limitations.

Q: What have you learned from conversations and friendships with intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris?

Conversations with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have provided Rabbi Wolpe with valuable insights, even though they held different views on religion. Christopher Hitchens was a remarkable individual, known for his eloquence and wit. While Rabbi Wolpe did not agree with many of his beliefs, he respected Hitchens and admired his passion for intellectual debates. Hitchens challenged the idea that religion inherently makes people better and emphasized the importance of critical examination. Sam Harris, on the other hand, believed that religion was intellectually indefensible. Despite their disagreements, Rabbi Wolpe appreciates their perspectives and acknowledges the presence of spiritual elements to their personas.

Q: How do you explain the combination of atheism and beautiful minds like Christopher Hitchens?

Although both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris can be classified as atheists, there are nuanced differences in their beliefs and attitudes toward religion. Sam Harris approaches spirituality from a materialistic point of view but still possesses a spiritual inclination. Meanwhile, Christopher Hitchens, while not a believer, displayed characteristics that can be considered "religious" in a non-traditional sense. He had a passion for pursuing truth, engaging in stimulating conversations, and appreciating life's beauty. Despite their atheism, both individuals had unique ways of expressing their spirituality, albeit in unconventional ways.

Q: Can one have the depth of a religious life without believing in God?

It is a complex question, but it is possible to have the depth of a religious life without a belief in God. Eric Weinstein and Jordan Peterson, for example, are known for their discussions on faith without providing a clear answer about their individual beliefs. They are drawn to religious traditions and find value in living a religious life without adherence to specific theological doctrines. It can be a challenging path to navigate, but by embracing the humility and sense of wonder that religious traditions offer, one can still find purpose and meaning in life.

Q: How does the decline of religious beliefs impact society?

The statement by Nietzsche, "God is dead," reflects the diminishing influence of religion in society. When religious beliefs lose their prominence, nihilism and a sense of purposelessness can arise. Historically, religion has played a significant role in shaping morality and providing a sense of meaning and purpose. Without a belief in something greater than oneself, there is a risk of losing a collective direction. Rabbi Wolpe notes that the optimism for the future of humanity often stems from religious teachings, as they offer a framework for growth, goodness, and a purposeful existence.

Q: What role did religion play in the atrocities of the 20th century?

The atrocities of the 20th century, such as the Holocaust, cannot be solely blamed on religion. However, religion's absence or the presence of religions that do not emphasize ethical demands on human behavior can contribute to such atrocities. Stalin and Hitler, for example, adopted ideologies that did not prioritize ethical values towards others. Judaism, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of treating strangers with kindness and understanding. By distinguishing between communal and universal ethics, religions can either prevent or fail to prevent acts of cruelty.

Q: Is it part of human nature to have the capacity for evil?

Rabbi Wolpe believes that every human being has the capacity for good and evil. He notes that even religious leaders, who may be esteemed by others, are not exempt from committing terrible acts. Humans are complex, and their actions are influenced by various factors, including societal pressures and personal motivations. Understanding the imperfections of individuals allows for deeper reflections on one's own actions and intentions. The atrocities committed throughout history should serve as a reminder to question oneself and strive toward making the world a better place.

Q: What is the difference between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a belief in the concept that every human being is made in the image of God. While there are differences in religious practices, doctrines, and historical development, the core idea of recognizing the divine presence within humans and the importance of loving one's neighbor is common across these religions. Judaism and Islam, in particular, are influenced by the need to establish laws due to the lack of pre-existing legal systems in their historical contexts. Christianity, on the other hand, arose in a society with well-established legal systems, resulting in a different emphasis within the religion.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Rabbi David Walpe reflects on the importance of understanding and celebrating different religions and cultures while not shying away from difficult topics such as hate, war, and love.

  • He discusses his personal connections to the war in Ukraine and Russia, emphasizing his desire to promote the beauty and humanity of the people in this region.

  • Walpe condemns actions by leaders that result in human suffering, including the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and military interventions by superpowers like the United States.

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