The Magazine

The Reason of Revelation

May 25, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 36 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Strauss declines to report the details of his personal involvement in the Zionist movement. Rather, he analyzes the instability in the strictly political Zionism to which he was drawn as a young man, and he shows how, when its premises are clarified and its aspirations are fully thought through, Zionism reveals the need for a return to Jewish faith. Political Zionism, the Zionism of Herzl, proposed a political solution to what it perceived to be a fundamentally political problem: The failure of the liberal state to secure equality for Jews. Political Zionism's solution was to create a modern nation state -- liberal, democratic, and secular -- for the Jewish people.

Strauss was unstinting in his admiration for political Zionism, both because of its devotion to restoring Jewish self-sufficiency and because of its decisive role in the creation of the state of Israel, which in Strauss's eyes "procured a blessing for all Jews everywhere regardless of whether they admit it or not." But political Zionism, in his judgment, was insufficient because it neglected the moral and spiritual life of the Jews it was seeking to save.

Strauss agreed with the cultural Zionists -- those inspired by Ahad Ha'am -- that the Jewish people could not be defined primarily in political terms on the basis of a common history of exclusion and degradation. Neither could they be rescued by a purely political solution. But when the cultural Zionists contended that the Jewish people were constituted by a common heritage or community of mind, Strauss considered their analysis true but incomplete -- and misleading insofar as it implied that a recovery of Jewish culture, of Jewish art and dance and literature, could solve the Jewish problem.

Cultural Zionism suffered from a failure to reflect on the meaning of its central insight. To understand the heritage of the Jewish people solely in terms of culture is to misunderstand it, because "the foundation, the authoritative layer, of the Jewish heritage presents itself, not as a product of the human mind, but as a divine gift, as divine revelation." The clarification of its core insight transforms cultural Zionism into religious Zionism, a Zionism that takes his bearings from the Torah and Talmud.

But is a return to Jewish faith and devotion to fulfilling God's law even possible for modern, enlightened, and liberal people? Strauss reminds his readers that, according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, the leading Jewish thinkers in Weimar Germany, a return to Jewish faith was both necessary and possible.

It was made necessary by the realization that liberalism alone could not, even at his best, satisfy man's religious hunger. And it was possible despite the presumption, routinely embraced by intellectuals now as well as then, that modern science and scholarship had once and for all refuted religious faith. Buber and Rosenzweig contended that the trouble with all alleged scientific refutations of faith was not that they inappropriately appealed to empirical evidence but that they were not empirical enough -- blind to religious experience.

The atheist challenge was on its own terms based neither on a direct, unmediated perception of the essential character of the world nor on a comprehensive philosophical system that answered all questions and solved all mysteries. Rather, even more than the theism it rejected, atheism could not honestly deny that it too was an interpretation and hence uncertain and questionable.

The question becomes how to choose between an uncertain and questionable religious interpretation of the human condition and an uncertain and questionable atheistic interpretation. Strauss turned to Nietzsche, the greatest skeptic of his age, and came away with a surprising answer. Nietzsche, on Strauss's reading, "made clear that the denial of the biblical God demands the denial of biblical morality, however secularized, which, so far from being self-evident or rational, has no other support than the biblical God; mercy, compassion, egalitarianism, brotherly love, or altruism must give way to cruelty and its kin." But the logic that Nietzsche saw -- that the renunciation of the biblical God demands a renunciation of biblical morality -- is obligatory only if there is a demand placed upon us to confront our condition with intellectual probity. And that demand, Strauss points out, comes to us -- as Nietzsche himself proclaims -- only from the morality taught in the Bible. Strauss's startling suggestion, in other words, is that Nietzsche cannot escape the biblical God because he cannot escape biblical morality -- even his critique of the Bible deriving from the Bible.

Strauss's study of Spinoza was the first step in his reconsideration of biblical religion, because Spinoza had taken religion most seriously and rejected it most emphatically. But after extended engagement with the arguments, Strauss concludes that Spinoza's critique of religion, was, even at its most forceful, inconclusive. It did not prove but rather presupposed the impossibility of miracles. And Spinoza's ethics did not demonstrate the truth of his new account of man and the moral life, but rather proceeded from hypotheses about human nature that were left unconfirmed by the system and so remained open to doubt.

In subsequent books, Strauss determined that the critique of religion developed by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke was no more conclusive than that of Spinoza. In short, Strauss concluded, modern rationalism is incapable of deciding between belief and unbelief.

This is perhaps no disgrace, but modern rationalism's failure to acknowledge its incapacity is a grave weakness. Indeed, modern rationalism consistently deludes itself into believing that it has decided the issue once and for all against belief and in favor of unbelief. The critique of the delusions of modern rationalism did not lead Strauss, as it led so many intellectuals, to repudiate reason and embrace one of the many brands of modern irrationalism -- from romanticism and historicism to existentialism and postmodernism. Instead, spurred forward by intellectual probity, the very same intellectual probity that in his view was Nietzsche's most precious legacy, Strauss undertook to search for a more reasonable form of rationalism, one that comprehended both the limits of reason and the claims of faith.

Strauss's lifelong search, passed on to his students, is responsible at least in part for the late-twentieth-century revival of interest in Plato and Aristotle as living sources of wisdom about moral and political life. So, too, it is responsible for the renewal of the quarrel between ancients and moderns, the clarification of the fruitful tension between Athens and Jerusalem, the illumination of modern liberalism's dependence on a morality that it has difficulty acknowledging in theory and sustaining in practice, and the demonstration of the powerful support that modern constitutional democracy derives from Aristotelian political science. Not least, Strauss's quest for a reasonable rationalism helped build the case for preferring the medieval religious rationalism of Maimonides over the modern atheistical rationalism of Spinoza -- on the grounds of Maimonides's superior rationality.

Kenneth Hart Green concludes Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity with what at first glance seems a curious selection: the brief memorial remarks Strauss made in 1962 in honor of Jason Aronson, at the time of his death at age thirty-two, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Strauss pays eloquent tribute to Aronson's love of philosophy and his devotion to Judaism. In simple, striking words, Strauss identifies a soul in which two passions could grow together and both become strong without becoming one: "He did not permit his mind to stifle the voice of his heart nor his heart to give commands to his mind." Such, Strauss suggests, is the nature of a noble soul.

Reflection on his situation as a Jew in the modern world is what led Leo Strauss to become a philosopher who brought the claims of faith before the bar of reason. It seems that Strauss could not, in good conscience, be a believer in any ordinary sense of the term, but that did not prevent him from respecting Judaism's ways and loving its wisdom. Strauss was persuaded that the ultimate claims of faith could never fully satisfy the criteria of reason. But he was also convinced that reason could not satisfactorily refute faith's affirmations. His love of truth compelled Strauss to examine vigorously whether the universe was ruled by a just and merciful God. But his love of truth also obliged him to affirm that God, from the point of view of reason, was a magnificent idea that could not be ruled out and so must be examined sympathetically and critically. This is not what is ordinarily understood by piety. But piety of a kind it is nonetheless -- the piety of a philosopher.