Leo Strauss and Judaism Revisted

By George Anastaplo

  Oh, that is not true: I mean, that is simply not true…  Oh, God! That is, I think, really unfair.

                                                                                                                                                                  -Leo Strauss

            My 1974 eulogy of one of my teachers, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), was not well received by some of my former fellow students. One of their complaints [glanced at in Appendix A of this book] seems to have been that I made too much of his Jewishness. I had said, for example:

My limitations, even as the mere reporter I here try to be, should be acknowledged at the outset of these recollections: I was a quarter century Leo Strauss’s junior; I was never an intimate of his; and I am neither Jewish nor conventionally conservative, both of which conditions did tend to promote intimacy with him….

 It should be evident, when I speak of Mr. Strauss and Judaism, that I do presume to speak of matters which I can glimpse only at a distance, if at all. Even so, as I have indicated, the outsider can recognize that there is something here to be investigated by a competent student. Thus, Mr. Strauss could acknowledge publicly that there was a disproportion between the “primitive feelings” he always retained from his Orthodox upbringing [in Germany] and the “rational judgment” guided in him by philosophy. [Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983), pp. 254, 270.]       

Now, a generation later, I am intrigued to see Kenneth Hart Green’s collection of materials which very much testifies to Mr. Strauss’s lifetime interest in, if not even devotion to, Jewish things. Mr. Green is indeed “a competent student” of these matters. (My observations about the significance of Mr. Strauss’s Jewishness are generously noticed by the editor of this carefully annotated collection. (pp. 55, 59, 476. But, at p. 55, my “perhaps above all” becomes simply “above all.”) He can refer to my 1974 Strauss eulogy, understandably, as “a provocative article.” (pp. 476) “What neither [Strauss’s disciples nor Strauss’s many detractors have], until recently, been quite prepared to countenance is the utter centrality of Judaism, of the ‘insoluble Jewish problem’ to Leo Strauss’s oeuvre.” (George Steiner, “Inscrutable and Tragic: Leo Strauss’s Vision of the Jewish Destiny,” Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1998, p. 4.)

 Much more of Mr. Strauss’s “Jewish writings” is scheduled to come. Mr. Green opens his preface with these announcements (pp. xi-xii):

 The following is a collection of essays and lectures written by Leo Strauss in the field of modern Jewish thought, which have been gathered together for the first time. It is meant to offer the reader an introduction to the enormous range of Strauss’s Jewish interests. In doing so, I have been guided by two intentions: first, to present the best of Strauss’s shorter writings on modern Jewish though; and second, to present a comprehensive view of how Strauss expressed himself as a modern Jewish thinker…. I have included only those works of Strauss that were produced in the years following 1945. The reason for excluding all but the later writings is simply that this is merely one of five volumes to appear in a State University of New York Press series, “The Jewish Writings of Leo Strauss” (series editor, K.H. Green). The series will consist of the following volumes: the early German Jewish writings, 1921-32; a new translation of Philosophy and Law (1995); Strauss’s writings on Moses Mendelssohn; Strauss’s writings on Moses Maimonides; and the present work.

 Almost all of the score of pieces in this Jewish Philosophy collection have been previously published. Those pieces are collected by Mr. Green in seven parts: I—Essays in Modern Jewish Thought; II—Studies of Modern Jewish Thinkers; III—Lectures on Contemporary Jewish Issues; IV—Studies on the Hebrew Bible; V—Comments on Jewish History; VI—Miscellaneous Writings on Jews and Judaism; and VII—Autobiographical Reflections.

            My point of departure in this cursory book review is provided by the items in Mr. Green’s Part III, the two lectures given by Mr. Strauss forty or so years ago at the Hillel Foundation Jewish Student Center at the University of Chicago. Until recently, those two Hillel House lectures, which were delivered by Mr. Strauss from notes, were available only in unpublished transcriptions of tape recordings, which transcriptions evidently were never reviewed by him. The lectures are “Freud on Moses and Monotheism” (1958) and “Why We Remain Jews: Can Jewish Faith and History Still Speak To Us?” (1962). A personal Jewishness is more on the surface in these lectures than it is in almost all other materials Mr. Strauss had published or had anticipated publishing. This is particularly so during the question-period following upon the “Why We Remain Jews” lecture. It is from that question-period, for example, that the epigraph for this book review is taken. (p. 337) Consider a 1961 funeral talk by Mr. Strauss that also revealed what I call a personal Jewishness. (pp. 475-76; Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker, pp. 570-71)

            One can be reminded here of the materials that may best illuminate the mode of thought of this remarkable scholar, the transcriptions of many of his courses during his two decades (1949-1968) at the University of Chicago. (One can be reminded also of what is said in Plato’s Phaedrus about the superiority of living speech to unresponsive writing. Mr. Strauss himself once had occasion to speak of a formidable display of doctoral dissertations [in a University of Chicago departmental office] as “the dead husks of once living thoughts.”) Those course transcriptions, too, were never reviewed by Mr. Strauss. But the master teacher may be seen at work there, especially in the extended discussion that would often occupy much of each meeting of his classes. Mr. Green notices that those course transcriptions “do perhaps convey something of his charm, humor, and power as a teacher.” (p. xii)

            It is to be regretted that those of us who attended Mr. Strauss’s University of Chicago classes have not yet managed to have those transcriptions reviewed for their many errors. He himself recognized that those course transcriptions might be published some day—and he agreed, in several conversations with me, that he should write something that would serve, in effect, as their introduction, explaining particularly the difference between materials prepared for publication and the sort of thing that may be said and done in the classroom. I do not believe he ever wrote that explanation, which would no doubt have included a thoughtful elaboration upon what I have just reported. Perhaps someone as learned, energetic, and careful as Mr. Green could now put the Strauss course transcriptions in proper shape, consulting with the “first generation” Strauss students who happen to be still available. [This project has now been taken up by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago.]

            The two Hillel House lectures I have referred to reveal Leo Strauss as a loyal Jew, standing for a manly refusal to abandon one’s people, which is consistent with his youthful dedication to political Zionism. (See p. 505.) The distinctiveness of the Bible is very much in evidence here as elsewhere, as is Mr. Strauss’s insistence upon the unique contributions made by Judaism to the development of standards of righteousness, if not also of rationality, in the Western world. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 4:6.) Also evident are the passions Mr. Strauss was capable of when caught up in an inquiry into things, whether philosophical or personal, which mattered to him. Such inquiry may be seen throughout this fine collection. But however superior Mr. Strauss may have considered Judaism, in its rootedness in rationality as well as in righteousness, to the other religions of the world, he never seemed to suggest that sensible Gentiles with “religious” inclinations should try to become Jews. Is it then primarily a matter of chance (if not of Providence) who is, and hence who should remain, a Jew? (See, for the bearing of the Aleinu prayer and of Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari upon this question, pp. 120-21, 210, 288, 327-28, 352-53, 399-400, 469-70. See, on the Noahide law for the non-Jew, Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, I, xvi; Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, vol. 9, pp. 379-80 (1917); Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 12, pp. 1189-91 (1971); David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983); Elijah Banamozegh, Israel and Humanity (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), e.g., p. 237 (“There are… innumerable scriptural texts following the election of Israel which portray God speaking and acting as the God of all mankind, watching over the destinies of every people…. [A] radical forsaking by God of virtually the entire human race in order to attach Himself exclusively to a tiny people [as some suppose] is a hypothesis as monstrous as it is improbable.”).)

            There may be a problem with the term “Jewish Philosophy” used in the title of Mr. Green’s collection. One may wonder whether a mode of thought is properly called philosophy if it is distinctively Jewish (or, for that matter, if it is distinctively Christian or Buddhist or whatever). Mr. Green seems very much aware of this problem. (See pp. xvi-xvii. See, on “Jewish thought (philosophy),” p. 496.) Even more intriguing is the question whether one can be fully a Jew, in the traditionally sense, if one is truly a philosopher. Mr. Strauss was reluctant to call himself, or anyone else he knew personally, a philosopher. He was obliged to distinguish between the rare philosopher and, for example, the many members of philosophy departments in this country and abroad. Related to this question is the concern about what the failure to be an observant Jew does to one’s condition, if not to one’s status, as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Mr. Strauss recognized this concern during his 1962 “Why We Remain Jews” question-period (p. 344):

I believe—and I say this without any disrespect to any orthodox Jews—that it is hard for people, for most Jews today, to believe in verbal inspiration (I mean, in verbal inspiration of the Torah), and in the miracles—or most of the miracles—and other things. I know that. My friend Rabbi [Monford] Harrisis not here, but I am in deep sympathy with what he means by a “postcritical Judaism.” I think that it offers a perfectly legitimate and sensible goal,namely to restate the essence of Jewish faith in a way which is by no means literally identical with, say, Rambam’s “Creator of the world,” or with something of this kind—I mean, with any traditional statement of principles. That is not the point. But a Judaism which is not belief in the “creator of the world,” that has problems running through it.

 (The reference here to “Rambam” is to Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). See, on “postcritical Judaism,” Mr. Green’s preface, pp. xii, xiv-v. See also pp. 32f, 45, 47-48, 94, 380. See, on Greshom Scholem and the mysticism underlying Jewish rationalism, Hayim G. Perelmuter, Harvest of a Dialogue (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1997). pp. 119f.)

            This kind of inquiry has even been taken so far as to erupt from time to time in a controversy, since Leo Strauss’s death, as to whether he was an “atheist”. This has been alleged recently in a somewhat hostile manner by one scholar. (See Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence (Rocklin, Calif.: Forum, 1997), pp. 12-14, 171-73.) A far friendlier argument, but perhaps to somewhat the same effect, has been made by one of Mr. Strauss’s devoted students. (See David Novak, ed., Leo Strauss and Judaism (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), pp. 169-71. In some quarters, Mr. Strauss is even regarded as Nietzschean.) A stout rejoinder to such talk has been provided by still another of his devoted students, and could no doubt be provided by others as well. (See Hilail Gildin, “Deja Jew All Over Again,” Interpretation, Fall 1997, p. 125. Consider, also both the spontaneous invocation of the divine in the epigraph for this book review and the juxtaposition previously noticed of “primitive feelings” and “rational judgment.”) It was observed, during Mr. Strauss’s lifetime, that he made many of his students, both Jews and Gentiles, take their religious heritage seriously. (Perhaps some of his secularized Gentile students should have been regarded as Christians in the sense that he was regarded as a Jew?) It could also be observed that he spoke morally (or, as we say, responsibly) about what completes or transcends morality.

            Mr. Strauss, in considering what the charge of “atheism” can mean, reminded students of the precepts of natural theology, (See, e.g., K.H. Green, Jew and Philosopher (Albany: SUNY press, 1993), pp. 237-38.) Even more critical here, it seems to me, is what Mr. Strauss had to say, again and again, about the relation of reason to revelation, if not also about the Idea of the Good. Consider how this relation was put by still another devoted student of his:

 The most impressive alternative to philosophy in the life of Leo Strauss is summed up by the name of a city, Jerusalem, the holy city. What if the one thing most needful is not philosophic wisdom, but righteousness? This notion of the one thing most needful, Mr. Strauss argued, is not defensible if the world is not the creation of the just and loving God, the holy God. Neither philosophy nor revealed religion, he argued, can refute one another; for, among other reasons, they disagree about the very principles or criteria of proof. Leo Strauss was a Jew, a Jewish scholar, and, if I know anything about the meaning of the word, he was a philosopher; but he insisted that strictly speaking there is no such thing as Jewish philosophy. This mutual irrefutability and tension between philosophy and Biblical revelation appeared to him to be the secret of the vitality of Western Civilization. [Laurence Berns, “Leo Strauss,” The College (St. John’s College), April 1974, p. 5. See also Appendix A of this book, section IV.]

 Would not anyone who takes seriously the kind of juxtaposition of Biblical revelation and philosophy have to concede that a reasoned atheism is impossible? That is, does not a reasoned atheism imply that Biblical revelation has, in effect, been refuted, something which Mr. Strauss had good reason to believe could never be done? (See pp. 10-12, 14, 27-28, 32f, 39f, 50-51. See, on atheism, 489. See, on natural theology, p. 499. See also Virfil, Aeneid, I, 8-11, IV, 376-80. See as well Thomas S. Engeman, Book Review, Journal of Politics, vol. 57, pp. 875-77 (1995). Compare Christopher A. Colmo, “Alfarabi on the Prudence of the Founders,” Review of Politics, vol. 60, 721 (1998); Colmo, Breaking with Athens: Alfarabi as Founder (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005). My own additional discussions of biblical texts, influenced somewhat, I hope, by the Strauss legacy, may be found in collections published by me in volume 22 of the Loyola University of Chicago Law Journal and in volumes 20 and 23 of the Oklahoma City University Law Review. See, on the Idea of the Good, Anastaplo, The Thinker as Artists: From Homer to Plato & Aristotle (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997), p. 396. See, also, Anastaplo, “Law and Literature and the Christian Heritage: Explorations,” 40 Brandeis Law Journal 191-533 (2001). [and the subsequent volume, The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010)].

             Mr. Strauss has made invaluable contributions in showing what Judaism and Jewish things (including, of course, the Bible, carefully read) contribute to the thought of the West. Gentiles may be more apt to notice than are Jews these days that Christianity can be understood as a remarkable consequence of the combination of Judaism and Greekness (or philosophy). (But see Acts 17; Colossians 2:8; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 1, A.8, ad.2.) Put another way, Christianity (which has helped both preserve and discipline philosophy across millennia) can be seen as a Jewish sect for Gentiles, albeit a sect suspected, if not considered heretical, by the observant Jew.

            These derivations from, and influences of, Judaism can be generally appreciated. What does not seem to be sufficiently appreciated, I venture to add, is how much Judaism (as something to be taken seriously in and by modern world) relies upon Christianity, illuminated (as well as distorted) as Judaism has come to be, for many of us, by the great tradition of Christian theology and dependent as Judaism now is upon the political influence of that Christendom which once subjected it to many uncharitable trials. (See pp. 13-14.) This is illustrated most dramatically perhaps by the extent to which the formidable patronage of a still-Christian United States has made it possible for the country of Israel (“a tiny people”) to emerge and survive. The long-term consequences of Israel for Jews, and for their ability to probe deeply into and to speak frankly about issues which they have had to approach with caution for millennia, can be profound. (See, on esotericism, p. 492. See, on the “theological-political crisis,” p. 504. Is this crisis more Jewish than Christian to the extent that Christian thinkers are correct in believing that Christian revelation is in principle compatible with the truths of philosophy? (Friedrich Nietzche evidently regarded Christianity as Platonism for the masses.) See, on Israel, p. 496. See, on the case for supporting Israel, Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974), pp. 155-59; Anastaplo, “On Freedom,” 17 Oklahoma City University Law Review 465, 622-25 (1992). See also Anastaplo, “Our Iraq Follies, and the Perhaps Inevitable Search for Scapegoats,” The Greek Star, Chicago, Illinois, August 16, 2007, p. 8; Anastaplo, “September Eleventh, A Citizen’s Responses (Continued Further),” 35 Oklahoma City University Law Review 625, 661 (2010).

            Thar Mr. Strauss was much more sensitive to the questions I have raised than most of us are ever likely to be is illustrated by his pioneering work in both Maimonides and Machiavelli (who could celebrate the political prowess of Moses). One can see in Mr. Strauss’s Hillel House “Freud” lecture his concern about the threats to Judaism and the Mosaic community posed by secularized Jewish intellectuals. He recognized, as we have noticed, the power of Maimonides’s going to the roots of the differences between the philosopher and the man of faith. At these roots is, among other things, a divergence in opinion as to whether the world had a beginning in time—that is, whether, instead of being eternal, the world has created by God out of nothing. (Throughout the collection I am reviewing here Mr. Green’s references to the considerable literature about Mr. Strauss are very useful. See, on Creation, p. 491. See also Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, II, 13-31 (Sclomo Pines, trans., 1963). [See as well my Great Ideas Today article on “Beginnings,” also appended in an expanded form to my book on the Bible.])

            These and like matters are usefully considered in this Jewish Philosophy collection. Professor Green’s instructive introduction closes with the following passage (p. 48):

 Strauss came to maintain that the search for wisdom in the midst of our contemporary crisis seems to require us to return to the original sources of our wisdom. Over and above everything else, this meant in Strauss’s mind that we need especially to turn to the Hebrew bible, the most fundamental Jewish source, in order to consider whether this book contains a unity of forgotten knowledge that had provided us with our first light, and with an unrefuted truth that we can still recover.

 Just as Maimonides focused on the Hebrew Bible in order to meet the medieval philosophic challenge and the crisis it provoked, Strauss believed that modern Jews should return to studying the Hebrew Bible as one book with one teaching about God, man, and the world. As this suggests, Strauss thought that we are in need of its essential teaching about God, man, and the world. As this suggests, Strauss thought that we are in need of its essential teaching—blurred by tradition and obscured by modern critique—which we must try to grasp afresh. This is because, to Strauss, it is only in the original sources of our wisdom that true wisdom may reside and can best be rediscovered.

 It makes sense that the editorial mind evident in these remarks has produced a collection that should be well received not only by Leo Strauss’s students.


*This is an expanded version of a book review, published in the 1998 volume of The Great Ideas Today, of Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, Kenneth Hart Green, ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997). The epigraph is taken from the Green collection, 337 (February 4, 1962). Unless otherwise indicated, the citations in this book review are to the Green collection.

            See, for a discussion of Leo Strauss’s Philosophy and Law, George Anastaplo, “Constitutionalism and the Good,” 70 Tennessee Law Review 737, 843-51 (2003). At page 843 of that article, “understood” should be “undertook,” in my sentence that reads, “Leo Strauss, when he wrote, seventy years ago, his Philosophy and Law, undertook to rescue the religiously Orthodox from the centuries-old assault of the Enlighteners, an assault (reinforced by the findings and technology of modern science) which had seriously called into question, among educated men and women in the West, and received opinion of the religiously-minded.”

 This 1988 book review has been published as Appendix E in George Anastaplo, The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008), pp. 225-32.  


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s