Leon R. Kass | Yale University Press | 2021
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern
With Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, Leon Kass, currently the dean of faculty at Shalem College in Israel, continues his learned and eloquent readings of the Hebrew Bible, which started with the Book of Genesis and more recently with the Book of Ruth. Kass, whose background is in bioethics and an emeritus professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, came to Jewish learning later in life. But he has found it an endless fount of wisdom. As he defines it, the Bible, like the works of Plato and Aristotle, articulates the “whole-hearted pursuit of the truth about the world and our place within it, in search of how we are to live.”
Kass sets out, in this volume, to demonstrate how the Book of Exodus offers moral, political, and philosophical insights relevant and inspiring to all those—Jewish and non-Jewish—who come to its pages seeking meaning.
Kass is a keen reader with a dignified writing style and a talent for felicitous phrasing. Writing of the population expansion of the Israelites at the beginning of the book, he glosses, “Israelite fecundity seems to partake of the natural and hyper-abundant fertility that is characteristically Egyptian—a gift of the land where the overflowing river guarantees plentiful crops… before things go bad, the Israelites swarm happily on their own, flourishing like the Egyptian land that is now their home.”
While Kass’ commentary frequently sticks closely to the peshat (literal-contextual meaning of the text), only occasionally quoting traditional medieval interpreters, he often chimes in with characteristically astute observations. In his description of Moses’ birth and early childhood, he notes that Moses, the offspring of a Levite husband and wife, is “doubly descended from one who would kill to avenge injustice to his own,” a reference to the earlier biblical story of Levi avenging of the rape of his sister Dinah. When Moses is surprised to hear that word has gotten out about his slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster, Kass reassures the reader that while Moses’ early stage actions were “not successful, we notice many fine qualities on display. He is a man of forceful deed and reasonable speech. He cares for the underdog, he cares for justice, he cares for peace.”
As with any comprehensive commentary, some original interpretations are more convincing than others. But even when disagreeing with Kass’ interpretive offerings, they remain food for thought.
Commenting on the genealogy in Chapter 6, Kass notes that while Aaron’s line is listed all the way to his grandson Phineas, Moses’s children are not mentioned (though we do already know about their birth from earlier in the narrative). As Kass notes, “In this genealogy, Aaron is a father as well as a son; Moses is only a son. The tacit lesson is clear: Moses, and what he stands for, is genealogically a dead end. Aaron and what he stands for survive through the generations… What [Moses] brings either was not successfully transmitted or will no longer be needed.”
While no doubt, in the subsequent historical consciousness, Moses’ biological children are a footnote in Israelite history, in the practical sense, one cannot compare the role played to this day by the Mosaic law to the role played by the priesthood, which, absent a Tabernacle or Temple, is purely symbolic, manifesting only in relatively minor ritual and liturgical contexts. So the boundaries of what Moses “brought” that is now considered moot are unclear.
Similarly, Kass suggests that until the story at the inn where God seems to try to strike down Moses (a notorious exegetical crux), there is a concern that Moses and Aaron are not yet covenantal brothers, whose relationship until then stood “on the natural plane of rivalry.” While Kass is alluding to earlier stories of sibling rivalry in the Bible, the text does not seem to presume, here or in general, that all siblings are presumed to be in competition until proven otherwise.
Independent of potential exegetical disagreements, Kass’ latest magnum opus offers endless possibilities for considering Exodus and its teachings. Even the footnotes are ripe for unpacking. Quoting a discussion he was involved in with his Washington, D.C. Bible study group, he cites Yuval Levin’s observation that “Biblical Israel will offer the world a great model for moral and spiritual living, but a very poor model for political living, for governing and self-government… it is simply not true that God will always provide. The community will have to provide for itself, and it is being kept from learning that in the desert. Perhaps they are meant to be less a nation, more a light unto the nations.” An entire seminar (multiple seminars!) can be dedicated to unpacking this suggestion from the perspectives of biblical interpretation, Zionist history and political philosophy, and contemporary Israeli politics.
Kass’s robust reading of one of the West’s most impactful texts is intellectually stimulating, philosophically nuanced, and spiritually edifying. Readers of all backgrounds will find in its pages the passionate and profound teachings of a masterful reader and teacher.
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