The Philosopher’s Bible

Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

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

Unlike Aristotle, who took a positive view of the origins of the city in the Politics (“Man,” he wrote famously,” is by nature a political animal”), Kass argues that Genesis emphasizes the dark foundations of the city, in which prideful self-sufficiency, violence, and the desire for domination reign. He invites us to see, over Abraham’s shoulder, “why the city—not just Sodom, but the city as such—is a breeding ground for injustice,” and to accept that “politics—the life of cities and communities—necessarily involves the suffering of at least some innocent and righteous people.”
But Kass also reads Genesis philosophically—which means that he looks to it for universal wisdom about the special dignity of man, the nature of free will, the knowledge of good and evil, and, most of all, how best to live. Here, too, a single theme—in this case the limits of human reason—emerges from, and in turn tints, Kass’ way of reading. To take one example: It is reason, not desire, Kass rather unconventionally claims, that “leads human freedom astray” in the Garden of Eden, where the serpent tempting Eve embodies “the separated and beguiling voice of autonomous human reason speaking up against innocence and obedience.” Such a reading boldly sets aside many centuries of mainstream Jewish exegesis in order to arrive at the philosophic heart of the matter.
If The Beginning of Wisdom is impressive in its ambitions, it is also striking in its limitations. To begin with, there is something unnerving about reading politically a book suspicious of the polis and reading philosophically a book suspicious of reason. Even apart from its rebuke to rationality, the Bible is not, Kass himself admits, “a work of philosophy…. Neither its manner nor its manifest purposes are philosophical.” But he fails adequately to explain how he can then examine it in “the same spirit in which I read Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.” The many philosophical books that measure the limits of reason—whether by Kant or Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or, for that matter, Franz Rosen-zweig—are one thing: They want to be taken as philosophy. The decidedly nondiscursive Bible is something else: Its very essence seems pervaded by inescapably anti-philosophical notions like the one expressed in Psalms that gives Kass’ book its title: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”
But there is another important way in which Genesis, though it yields many insights to Kass’ keen verse-by-verse commentary, resists his method and larger purposes. To read philosophically, for Kass, is to read with an eye to universal wisdom; so it is no surprise that his approach works best in Genesis’ first eleven chapters, which form a universal human history spanning from creation to the tower of Babel. But it falters in the second half, where the narrative narrows its focus to the single family-cum-nascent nation of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Kass, of course, is well aware of this shift, and explains it thus:
After and because of Babel, God abandons his plan to work simultaneously with the entire human race. But he in no way abandons his universal aspirations for human beings. On the contrary, he pursues the same ends but by different means. Having dispersed mankind into many nations, he now chooses one nation to carry his way as a light unto all the others, and he takes up a prominent role as that nation’s educator and guide.
But that very shift cuts against Kass’ principle that the Bible’s first aim is to evince universal truths. The rest of the Bible, from the story of Jacob’s sons to the laws of Leviticus, and down to the final cry of Chronicles, tells the tale of a very specific, uniquely burdened, divinely visited nation—a story that defies universalization at every turn. “The theological concept of election is manifestly present in Genesis,” the biblical scholar Gary A. Anderson has written, “and election is a stumbling block to any philosophical reading of the text.”
The critic James Wood has said that every book brings with it its own criteria of evaluation, and this is certainly true for the book of books. Kass’ commentary shows that although the Bible—which in the end is neither literature nor philosophy nor political treatise—benefits from being put in conversation with the greatest examples of these other kinds of wisdom, it magnificently resists being read like them.
At the same time, however, Kass has given Genesis a rhetorically impassioned, morally articulate, and profoundly intelligent reading that forms a powerful invitation to marvel at its inexhaustible richness and to take its wisdom seriously. That is accomplishment enough.

Benjamin Balint is assistant editor of Commentary.

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