- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM: READING GENESIS

By Leon R. Kass

Free Press., $35, 576 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY WITHAM



Reading a thick and scholarly commentary on Genesis, the Bible’s first book, can be daunting. These types of works, which expand on Genesis’ 50 chapters, scores of characters, and mountains of genealogies and customs, are anything but easy reading. Leon R. Kass, in his very modern and readable commentary “The Beginning of Wisdom,” shows how Genesis can be somewhat more effortless when taken as a “coherent narrative that conveys a moral whole.”

To persuade us, Mr. Kass, who is chairman of the Bush administration’s Council on Bioethics, presents Genesis as a book of philosophy to be read in same spirit as studying Homer or Plato. Theology and history aside, he says, Genesis present us with nothing less than a basic cosmology (Chapters 1-2), followed by an “anthropology” of human nature (Chapters 2-11). Then, we get to see how people try to “learn” and live out this God-given way.

Mr. Kass is natural scientist turned philosopher. He was reared in a secular home, but became curious about the Hebrew Bible in 1978, while teaching at the University of Chicago. After discovering his own “rabbinic gene,” he spent two decades with students and scholars, including lectures in Jerusalem and Rome, plumbing the depths of Genesis. Clearly, Mr. Kass is a believer in God. But his commentary is a summons in particular to secular Jews and unchurched Americans to tip-toe back into Genesis in search of modern wisdom.

As it turns out, he is a perfect guide for such an audience. His conclusions about the dictates and providence of God have no “closure,” and the morals of the biblical heroes and villains are indeed “ambiguous.” But from this, he has lifted out a great number of jewels of wisdom. Genesis lends well to commentary because its text is so spare and the characters’ inner thoughts never revealed. Indeed, Jacob is the first to get truly emotional about God’s presence, saying, “How awesome is this place!”

Yet what does Genesis not cover? It tells of family breakdown, fratricide, incest, conquest, capital punishment, assimilation, idolatry, revenge, shame, anger and mortality. On the other hand, it has romantic love, friendship, justice, loyalty, memory, reason, and wise speech. Here are what Mr. Kass calls composite stories, “timeless” and yet unerringly reminiscent of “contemporary concerns.”

The art of Bible commentary is to paraphrase the text, citing new scholarship and “ancient authorities” for interpretation. Mr. Kass’ Genesis is easier than most, for he avoids too much scholarly texture in order to paint broader themes. The themes worth interpreting are legion. For example, Mr. Kass takes the Creation story to be about hierarchy, not chronological. The cosmic parts separate, motion follows, and then life itself emerges, with humans at the obvious apex.

Adam and Eve, in turn, teach about male-female complementarity, procreation and households; the Tower of Babel about cities recklessly proud about technology. With Noah, the nature of heroism and the first law giving and covenant are portrayed.

Always in the background, meanwhile, are the Babylonians, who worship planets, the earthy and lusty Canaanites and the high-tech Egyptians. The children of Abraham try “the new way” between these extremes. And it is a way that is “a permanent human choice” down to the present, Mr. Kass says.

The bulk of Genesis (chapters 13-50) is the story of Abraham’s divine call, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, whose brood takes the clan into Egypt by way of great-grandson Joseph. Their story is “the education of the fathers,” Mr. Kass says, for none are perfect. Still, all of them respond to God and learn essential lessons of life.

Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, was clearly the brains behind his success. But for all the motherly care, he might have learned better how to teach the clan’s young women “how should they comport themselves.” As a result, a wandering Dinah is raped by the son of a local nobleman. This slight to the Israelite clan evokes its first “nationalistic” emotion. They go on to slaughter the rival group.

One of Jacob’s sons, Judah, acts out the Bible’s first allusion to “friendship” and undergoes the first explicit “inner transformation” of a person. In Joseph, we see how mysterious “dreams” — of which Joseph had many — vie with “traditions.” And in the end, Jacob is buried humbly as dust before God, while Joseph gets an Egyptian embalming in hopes of man-made immortality.

Human life, Genesis is telling us, is about how to “avoid” evil and to peruse “righteousness,” with its fairness and humanity, and “holiness,” a reverent recognition of a higher Being. The stories of Genesis, Mr. Kass says, show “what always happens” in human affairs. It is about our “dangerous natural tendencies.”

In this world of patriarchs, the reader cannot escape the imperatives of ethnicity, dynasty and bloodlines. For Jewish readers, it is a strong message against assimilation. What do Gentiles read?

To a happy extent, Mr. Kass offers a general wisdom about all family lines, with links between grandparents and grandchildren, and the importance of memory and passing down values.

There is assurance here that Genesis is not tantamount to Zionism. The patriarchy that began with Abraham “is hardly sufficient for governing a whole country or a political people,” Mr. Kass says. Although the ethnic and legalist Hebrews gave the world “the new way,” the world needs “further and novel developments.”

At the outset, Mr. Kass also notes that pious Christians and Jews will “be suspicious of a philosophical approach to the Bible.” Still, the impious abound these days. And many of them would agree with Mr. Kass that there is a “deep cultural weakness beneath our superficial technical strength.” A little Genesis philosophy couldn’t hurt.

Larry Witham, a writer in Maryland, is the author of six books.

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