The Beginning of Wisdom by Leon R. Kass

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

On the front cover flap, potential readers are invited to imagine they could explore the biblical book of Genesis as a “philosophical classic” and could discuss its implications with “one of America’s leading intellectuals.” The invitation is compelling, as the intellectual in question holds an endowed chair at the University of Chicago and chairs the President’s Council on Bioethics.

The classroom analogy is fair enough. When Leon Kass writes about his book’s genesis, he quickly mentions schools and students. He mentions St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, where he has taught and where the Great Books Program of education has found its strongest following. He also mentions the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he has studied and taught the great books. This approach to higher education, as devised in the early twentieth century, eschews watered-down textbooks and goes directly to the classics. Students learn principles of geometry from Euclid, principles of politics from Aristotle, and so forth. The approach has proved most successful at small, selective colleges, for it requires small classes led by instructors gifted in the art of Socratic dialogue—instructors who ask more questions than they answer, who make connections between Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton, say, or Aristotle and John Locke, and who thus draw students into the conversation.

From all the evidence, Kass is just this sort of teacher. He has thirty years of teaching experience and twenty years of experience leading students through Genesis. He is forthcoming about his own background (he grew up as a secular Jew but now attends synagogue) and his biases (he is a neoconservative, distrustful of “Marxist or feminist or environmentalist ideologies”). He is passionate about ideas and compassionate about the concerns of students from all backgrounds, respectful of both believers and nonbelievers. He knows when to ask the next question and how to frame it so that students think deeply. Does one wonder, for example, why there are so few women in Genesis? Is it simply because the book is the product of a patriarchal culture? Could it be that someone realized men need instruction in civilized living more than women do? What were men doing in other cultures of the time—in Egypt or Canaan or Babylonia? These are not just rhetorical questions. They are meant to be answered, thoughtfully, and the readers who get the most out of this book will be those who take the time for reflection.

Kass’s approach to Genesis is both ahistorical and undogmatic. He is ahistorical inasmuch as he takes no interest in biblical archaeology or in the competing claims of so-called minimalists and maximalists. He is not concerned with determining when Abraham lived or whether Abraham’s covenant with God gives a historical claim to the modern state of Israel. Kass is undogmatic inasmuch as he considers the stories in Genesis open to interpretation and does not insist on an orthodox or unorthodox reading of any passage.

He admits that he resisted teaching the Bible because he thought it was properly the subject of historians and theologians, but Kass goes on to voice his frustration with their often narrow interests. He seems to be entering the domain of the literary critic, especially the reader-response critic, who wants to know what happens when a reader engages with the text rather than what really happened in antiquity or what should happen as a result of the text and its teachings. At least one reviewer has compared his achievement to that of the late literary critic Northrop Frye inThe Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982). Like Frye, Kass treats his text as a “coherent narrative” or “continuous story,” not a grab bag of duplications and contradictions. He approaches Genesis, as he approaches Homer’s Iliad (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), by asking “how it wants to be read.”

Kass reads Genesis as a...

(The entire section is 1,793 words.)