Tag Archives: leo strauss

The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss,

There is a new anthology of articles on Leo Strauss reviewed on ndpr. The review points out that all the articles present Stauss as a modern secularist. None of them present his work as having tensions between the Neo-Platonic and the contemporary situation. Rather than the approaches to Strauss that emphasize the natural order, the classic text, or the role of the philosopher-king, here we have a flexible pragmatic thinker. We dont have the Strauss that flirted with Orthodoxy in the 1930’s, nor the Strauss that looked for word plays in the 1970s. And those who just read the theological work God Interrupted by Benjamin Lazier will not find continuity. We have a Strauss that believed in philosophy and showed how it survived the assaults of religion and politics. The tension of religion and revelation will never be solved so we have to learn about techniques like esotericism to survive.

Steven B. Smith (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, Cambridge UP, 2009, 307pp., $28.99 (pbk),
Reviewed by Samuel A. Chambers, Johns Hopkins University
Full version here.

Philosophy is threatened on the one side by a politics that would destroy it (3, 33) and on the other by a set of religious principles that would replace its search for knowledge with the positive content of revelation (115, 174).

In one of the stronger pieces in the volume, perhaps especially for those who are not close readers of Strauss’s entire body of work, Leora Batnitzky demonstrates… that Strauss was a non-believing Jew, an atheist who early in life embraced a strictly political zionism (43). While Strauss obviously understood the role that religious principles played in supporting social order, there is simply little reason to take him as a religious believer.

Strauss never sought a wholesale return to the pre-modern. The general argument, that Strauss does not simply or literally wish to return to ancient Philosophy, is repeated by numerous authors (7, 41-42, 93, 117, 173), but Catherine Zuckert makes this case most forcefully in her subtle exploration of the way in which Strauss returns to premodern thought. She quotes Strauss’s most important statement on this issue: “only we living today can possibly find a solution to the problems of today” (117).

As most contributors to this volume read Strauss, he saw the conflict between reason and revelation as irresolvable because the positions from which they argue are incommensurable. Revelation can be neither supported by nor blended with reason; this was the main problem Strauss identified in medieval philosophy, especially Thomism (58). Nor, however, can the former be refuted by the latter; this was potentially a problem for the earlier, perhaps more dogmatically atheistic Strauss who was tempted by this possibility, before later recognizing the complete incompatibility of the two. Indeed, it is Strauss’s later understanding of the fundamental importance of these two “roots of western civilization” (94), that reveals him fully — according to most of the contributors here — as a thoroughly non-dogmatic philosopher who believes in no universal moral standards, no singular truth. Smith emphasizes this perhaps unexpected or controversial point (one that certainly cuts against the grain of many criticisms of Strauss) when he insists that there is nothing absolutist about Strauss’s thought, and that his “return to nature” was a return to “flexible” standards (33).

Some readers may balk at the picture of a Strauss with flexible standards, as a skeptical thinker, as one who returned to a “nature” in premodern thought that was not fixed and eternal. But those readers are well-advised to engage closely with the readings in this volume, with the work of Strauss, and perhaps also with the writings of the classic political philosophers that Strauss and his followers have championed.

Strauss’s most explicit statement on interpretive method, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” also stands as his most famous piece of writing (27). While it is well known that Strauss claimed to have “rediscovered” the ancient art of “esoteric” writing, this volume clarifies an important related point: precisely this rediscovery led Strauss to his own personal revolution in thought.

One of the little jewels of this collection, especially for those not already well steeped in the secondary literature on Strauss, is the exegesis by Laurence Lampert (and the summary by Smith and others) of the letters Strauss wrote to Jacob Klein in 1938 and 1939. These letters, only recently published in German and still untranslated into English, show clearly that Strauss did not develop his hermeneutics independently of his own readings, but truly did “discover” it in the sense that he came upon a way to make sense of a text that, for Strauss, was previously mysterious or full of contradictions. In the first letter that Lampert quotes, Strauss tells Klein that “Maimonides is getting more and more exciting” (63) and from this point on Strauss’s excitement only builds, with each letter more full of thrill than the previous one. Strauss is thrilled because for him Maimonides makes sense when one sees that “Maimonides in his beliefs was absolutely no Jew” (64, emphasis in original) and therefore he cannot be read as a “Jewish philosopher” writing a guide for believers. He must be read, instead, as a non-believer, writing a “radical critique of the Torah” that sounds to believers as if it is merely a repetition of the Torah, yet which adds “‘little’ ‘additions'” to signal to a few select readers (philosophers) what the text is really all about (65). Strauss’s better-known and (as Smith notes) much maligned theory of esoteric writing is contained in this kernel of insight (3). Philosophers like Maimonides who write under conditions of persecution (conditions in which to state plainly the truth in the face of dominant opinion would be to court disaster) must therefore produce texts that contain within them two very much distinct and at times utterly contradictory meanings. This then sets up the requirements for how good readers, those that Strauss refers to with an ambiguity that some might find ominous as “the few,” will read.

One problem with esoteric writing as a general theory of interpretation is that it becomes very difficult to know when to take an author at his or her word. Thus, my telling you that I have not written this review esoterically may in fact be the secret signal I give to a certain few readers that I am in fact writing esoterically, and to indicate to them that they should make sure to read me as such. Indeed, on Lampert’s interpretation of him, this is precisely what Strauss does in his essay on Halevi.

Here are the steps of the various readings, starting with Halevi’s text and then moving to Strauss’s reading of Halevi and Lampert’s reading of Strauss.
1) Halevi omits a discussion of the conflict between believer and philosopher.
2A) Strauss says the omission is intentional, designed to show esoterically that this conflict is exactly what matters most. (78)
2B) But Strauss then goes on to say that we should not “lay too much emphasis on this line of approach” (79).
3) Lampert then argues that this last line is Strauss’s esoteric claim: “to not lay too much emphasis on this approach is to take this approach” (79).

To sum up, Halevi omits what is, in fact, most important; Strauss downplays what is, in fact, most significant. But if we know that Halevi is writing esoterically (and can only interpret him properly because of this knowledge) and if we know Strauss is also writing esoterically in his interpretation (ditto), then we therefore know how to read Strauss on Halevi.

Moreover, Strauss felt certain that only a few were fit for the life of philosophy that he championed, and he therefore argued fairly directly that philosophy must be protected from the many who are simply unfit for it as a way of life. For this reason, much of Strauss’s political philosophy seems designed to make sure that philosophy can continue to exist, but precisely as a private and sheerly pedagogical affair (85, 150).

Moshe Kline and the Structured Mishnah

The 1980’s and 1990’s attracted many original minds to Jerusalem. One of them, Moshe Kline, part-time real estate developer, devoted himself to a Torah lishmah quest for the structure of Mishnah. I was always intrigued by anyone who can discuss Leo Strauss, Maharal, and Mishnah in one sentence. My interest was originally the Maharal angle. But, I have had many colleagues who use Kline’s structured approach to the Mishnah in teaching HS or adult education.

An introductory lecture presenting his discovery and method as delivered to Talmoodists is available here.
Having this chart in front of you will help in understanding the lecture.
An article capturing his original insight based on Maharal is available here.
The website has his articles on Bible and his complete printable color-coded Mishnah. If you want to discuss the method then please read the above articles first. Here is the home page of the website with tabs for articles on Torah and Mishnah.

He recently stopped by on a cold wintry NY day and answered a few questions.

1] What was your discovery about the Mishnah?

The original goal of my Mishnah project was to determine the principles according to which chapters of Mishnah were organized. In order to uncover these rules, it was first necessary to identify the components of chapters. The differing divisions into mishnayot (Bavli, Yerushalmi, various printings of the Mishnah) are all late and extraneous to the text. So I began going through the Mishnah dividing the chapters into components according to literary indicators.
Early on, I realized that the chapters were actually composed with two levels of division, a fact which is totally disguised by the common division into linearly-divided mishnayot. This was the key to the discovery that the chapters were composed as non-linear texts which could be visualized and understood as tables.
The chapters of the Mishnah were formatted according to a paradigm that resembles a table. I then set out each chapter in a visual format consistent with its inner literary structure. The discovery of the literary structure of the chapter leads to an approach to the study of the chapter as a coherent construct rather that a collection of loosely connected laws.

2] Who has supported it?

My edition of the Mishnah was accepted for publication by BGU Press on recommendation of Shamma Friedman and Daniel Boyarin. I have also received encouragement from David Weiss Halivni and Shlomo Zalman Havlin. Since I made it available online (chaver.com) about ten years ago, I have lost track of how many people actually use it. Currently people are downloading about 20-30 copies of the full text per day. In addition, several hundred individual chapters are accessed every day. So I guess a lot of people are using it.

3] What did you learn from Leo Strauss about reading a text?

Although I cite Persecution and the Art of Writing, and see the Mishnah as an exoteric/esoteric text, I learned how to read during four years of the great-books program at St. John’s College. (Strauss retired to St. John’s as scholar in residence.) The most important element of this education, relevant to my research, is the requirement to read primary texts without commentary. This made me uncomfortable with the traditional Jewish approach to its foundational texts, i.e. that they could not be approached without commentaries. I was also influenced by the fact that the historical approach was anathema at St. John’s. Consequently, my work is neither “traditional” nor academic/historical.

4] What did you gain from Maharal?

The Maharal opened the door for me to see the Mishnah as a coherent composition, primarily through his exposition of the pairs in the first chapter of Avot. He made it clear that this structure was to be read as a philosophic composition rather than a loose compilation of aphorisms.

5] What did you learn from Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou)?

From Manitou I learned first and foremost to trust in myself and my St. John’s training. After we studied Maharal together for a period of several months, I began to see other parts of Avot as literary constructs, in addition to the pairs in the first chapter. Manitou then told me that he had received a tradition that the whole of the Mishnah used to be studied in the way that I was beginning to read Avot. However, several generations ago this knowledge had been lost. He asked me to restore this knowledge by identifying the literary structure of the Mishnah. He was sure that the “kabbala” was embedded in the formal structure, or in his words, that the Mishnah was constructed according to the “kabbala”. However, he instructed me to avoid reference to this in my work, and limit myself to literary analysis. Monitou gave me my life’s work, which has now gone farther than he envisioned.

6] What are you current Bible projects?

I am preparing a structured edition of the Torah which is similar to my edition of the Mishnah. In the meantime, I have published articles on Leviticus. Jacob Milgrom has become my mentor in biblical studies. I am also finishing an article on the link between the structure of the Torah and the structure of the Mishnah. In it, I demonstrate that Rabbi had an esoteric tradition regarding the literary formatting of the Torah which he applied to the composition of the Mishnah.

The paradigm can be seen in the first chapter of the Torah through the six days of creation. We all are familiar with the parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6. These parallels actually divide the days into two parallel cycles of three days each, 1-3 and 4-6. What is less known, is that the cycles differ from each other in a fixed manner. The days of the first cycle contain creations that are unique, separated, named and motionless (Straus). The days of the second cycle contain groups of multiple, unnamed, moving creations: stars, fish, etc. By arranging the six days in a table containing two columns, the two cycles, and three rows, the paired days, you get a visual representation of the structure underlying the six days of creation. Each individual day is a function of the intersection of two planning lines, its column and its row. “Reading” the text according to this structure reveals the underlying metaphysics of the creation.

7] How does your approach differ from the literary approaches to Bible and Mishnah that are being produced by Machon Herzog?
My specific focus is on the division into the structural literary units and the additional meanings that are made available by the identification of these larger units.