The Philosopher’s Bible

Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

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

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ach 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.”

Benjamin Balint is assistant editor of Commentary.

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