Azure no. 16, Winter 5764 / 2004

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.
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.