The Philosopher’s Bible

Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis
by Leon R. Kass
Free Press, 700 pages

Each of the innumerable commentaries and glosses and marginalia on the Bible—no text has pulled around itself so many concentric layers of reading—addresses itself in some way to the question: How is this book of books to be read, or (what amounts to the same thing) what is the biblical text?
Leon R. Kass, who heads the President’s Council on Bioethics and describes himself as a “man of medicine, raised in a strictly secular home without contact with Scripture,” is not the likeliest of biblical commentators. Indeed, his ambitious 700-page work, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, the product of a seminar he has taught for twenty years at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, owes its many surprising turns to the perspective of a brilliant outsider—or at least latecomer—who honed his impressive skills not on midrash, but on the Great Books. So it is only natural that Kass prefaces his own exegesis by clearing away the brush of existing orthodoxies and telling us how the Bible, first of all, ought not to be read.
To begin with, Kass has no patience for politicized academics who study the Bible “under the influence of, say, Marxist or feminist or environmentalist ideologies, [and] attack its apparent teachings as racist, sexist, and anthropocentric.” He laments the way modern Bible scholars have been “interested less in the meaning and more in the sources of the text,” and as a result “have seen the Hebrew Bible not as a unified whole but as an aggregate of separate documents derived from diverse sources.” Though Kass is not afraid to make reference to biblical scholarship when necessary, his lucid and jargon-free commentary rests on the premise, as he puts it, that “knowing the historical origins or sources of the text is no substitute for learning its meaning.”
At the same time, the newer movement of literary scholarship on the Bible, which does ostensibly thresh texts for meaning, fares not much better. Kass thinks these scholars too often busy themselves with cross-cultural comparisons, or they “read the Bible as literature butֹ do not regard literature as an aid to wisdom.” Here too, as his own literary allusions and frequent reliance on Robert Alter, Robert D. Sacks, and Nahum M. Sarna show, Kass’ rejection is less than absolute. He is not unwilling to compare the labors of Jacob—whom he calls “the biblical counterpart of Odysseus”—for Rachel to Ferdinand’s struggle in The Tempest to win Miranda, the birth of Eve to Aristophanes’ account of the origin of the sexes in the Symposium, and Shechem’s rape of Dinah to the rape of Helen by Paris and the rape of the Sabine women. Still, Kass concludes that the Bible’s literary critics have a habit of reading it too narrowly.
So do traditionalist readers, including many Orthodox Jews, who often “brush aside textual ambiguity” in favor of a pious reading that“places certain obstacles in the way of a disinterested and philosophic pursuit of the truth.” Kass calls his own approach “reverent,” and indeed he does not indulge in mythsmashing. But he does think that many of those who regard it as the revealed word of God mistakenly deny that the Tora is also “a book that can be read and interrogated like any other.”
Kass’ interrogation of the text, in contrast, assumes the Bible to be a coherent narrative that serves to convey universal truths entirely accessible even to those who do not make a faith commitment to it. He aims in his commentary on the Bible’s first and most narrative book “to demonstrate by example a wisdom-seeking approach” that relies “as little as possible on intermediaries”—a way of reading that looks “into the mirror of the text to discover permanent aspects of our humanity.” When studying in this way, Kass writes, one discovers that
the text is concerned with this question: Is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life, responsive to both the promise and the peril of the human creature, that accords with man’s true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his god-like possibilities?
Seen in this light, the wisdom of the Bible—and especially of Genesis, which “shows us not so much what happened as what always happens”—is timeless; but Kass wants us to see that it is also urgently timely. In “our current situation of moral and spiritual neediness,” he writes, we need biblical wisdom more than ever, precisely because “the dominant modes of modern thought are… inhospitable to the pursuit of wisdom.”
Kass blames two “anti-wisdoms” in particular for this new form of ungraciousness to the biblical view of the world: Modern science, which “broke with both its philosophic and religious ancestors, especially in abandoning the large metaphysical-theological questions and spiritual-moral concerns that preoccupied them”; and the forces of agnosticism, nihilism, and moral relativism that have plunged modern civilization into deep moral crisis. “The West often seems tired,” he warns, and he looks to Genesis to lend it vigor.
Thus, in Kass’ reading, the story of Cain’s murder of Abel “shows the reader what unregulated human life is like... [and] why the natural or uninstructed way does not work.” The account of Noah and his sonsׁHam, who shamelessly looks upon his father’s nakedness, and Shem and Japheth, who respectfully cover itׁillustrates the need for both filial loyalty and paternal dignity and occasions, in one of Kass’ rhetorical asides, a censure of contemporary moral decay:
Honor and respect, fear and awe, and filial piety seem increasingly vestiges of an archaic world. Democratic fathers find it easier not to exercise authority; democratic sons find it easier not to recognize it. Sex, utterly demystified, is now sport and chatter; nakedness is no big deal.
Similarly, Isaac, who is the first to be born into the “new way” and who, in an act of great symbolic weight, re-digs Abraham’s wells, is “the prototype of the son who passively receives a tradition that he must actively choose to make his own.” And the story of Jacob’s wife, the lovely but long infertile Rachel, demonstrates that "erotic love of the sort Jacob felt for Rachel may not be the best foundation for marriage and family life... the love of the beautiful is, by itself, sterile.”
What, then, is Kass’ Genesis that it can help re-moralize the West? It is, first, a profoundly political book, one with a great deal to say about the unregulated “state of nature”; the Noahide law (which “stands as a perfect embodiment of the foundations of law in general”) as a first response to that state; the emergence of the family as “the first human institution [and] hence the first element of society”; the education of the “founders”—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—“in international relations; and the unveiling of a ׂnew national-political teaching” to the children of Israel. But the theme Kass brings into boldest relief concerns the morally ambiguous roots of cities and civilization.
In his deft interpretive hands, for example, the story of the tower of Babel, the builders of which declare, “let us make for ourselves a name,” becomes a tale about the disastrous arrogance of “the universal, technological, secular city,” and it inspires another of Kass’ forceful polemical pivots:
The project of Babel has been making a comeback. Ever since the beginning of the seventeenth century, when men like Bacon and Descartes called mankind to the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate, the cosmopolitan dream of the city of man has guided many of the best minds and hearts... Whether we think of the heavenly city of the philosophes or the post-historical age toward which Marxism points... whether we look at the World Wide Web... or the globalized economy, or the biomedical project to re-create human nature without its imperfections; whether we confront the spread of the post-modern claim that all truth is of human creationׁwe see everywhere evidence of the revived Babylonian vision.

From the

Lost Generation
Nietzsche: A MisreadingNietzsche and Zion by Jacob Golomb
Star-CrossedRosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy by Peter Eli Gordon
I.B. Singer's Cruel ChoiceFate and freedom for his characters, for himself.
Jews and the Challenge of SovereigntyIs "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022