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Of Greeks and Jews

Old letters throw new light on Leo Strauss.

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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A poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life this fall finds that 43 percent of Jews do not know that Moses Maimonides, codifier of Jewish law, author of the Thirteen Principles of Faith, physician, and philosopher extraordinaire, was Jewish.

Of Greeks and Jews

Leo Strauss

Drew Friedman / The Weekly Standard

They are the smart ones, Leo Strauss would have said, because Maimonides was not a Jew. On February 16, 1938, Strauss wrote to his longtime friend Jacob Klein: “One misunderstands Maimonides simply because one does not reckon with the possibility that he was an ‘Averroist.’ ” Strauss knew, of course, that “to pull Maimonides out of Judaism is to pull out its foundation,” but his recent insights into Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed had led him to the “determination that Maimonides in his beliefs was absolutely no Jew” because he was a philosopher. Strauss had long maintained, as he wrote to Klein, “the incompatibility in principle of philosophy and Judaism.” Eight years earlier in Berlin, he had argued heatedly with Julius Guttmann that “Jewish philosophy” was a contradiction in terms. But he had never overtly proven the claim for a major Jewish figure, and now he was getting ready to do so.

“When I explode this bomb,” Strauss wrote to Klein, “a great battle will be kindled.”

Just eight days earlier he had tested his bomb during a conversation in New York with the Jewish scholar Nahum Norbert Glatzer, like Klein a friend from the early 1920s. Afterwards Strauss felt sorry about the effect he produced. We know this because the letter in which Strauss immediately tried to comfort Glatzer on February 8, 1938, is carefully kept (along with other correspondence Glatzer received) by his daughter Judith Wechsler, a professor of art history. She is currently making a film about her father and, in connection with retracing her father’s life, had asked me to look over these (as yet unpublished) Strauss letters and to transcribe and translate them.

It’s a slim sheaf: seven postcards and 14 letters written between 1924 and 1965. Strauss wrote with pencil and fountain pen, either in a hurried or cramped script that, as Harvey Mansfield put it dryly to me, is “notoriously difficult to decipher.” Studying Strauss’s handwriting through a magnifying glass for days on end in order to learn just which curlicue signified ist, ich, in, der, des, and so on had a surprising effect: I could feel myself falling through the rabbit hole of time and right into Strauss’s thoughts. To be that close to the handwriting was to hear the scratch of the pen and feel the movement of the hand and to want to know the ideas that moved it.

Nahum Glatzer and Leo Strauss met at Franz Rosenzweig’s Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, an adult education institute Rosenzweig had created to rattle the Jewish nerves of happily assimilated, complacent German Jews. Strauss ran seminars there on Hermann Cohen and Baruch Spinoza. He, the son of orthodox but uneducated rural Jews, had already gotten his doctorate at Hamburg in 1921 (at age 22) with a thesis directed by Ernst Cassirer. 

Glatzer, four years younger than Strauss, was still finding himself. Raised in a well-read family of observant Jews, he was expected by his father, after graduating from a German gymnasium in Silesia in 1920, to enroll in Solomon Breuer’s ultra-orthodox Talmud academy in Frankfurt. He stayed for two years but secretly joined the study group of the modern orthodox rabbi Nehemiah Anton Nobel, where he met Franz Rosenzweig. Glatzer had already read Martin Buber and visited him in 1920. Around 1922 he fully entered the Buber/Rosenzweig orbit and became their most trusted assistant for their famous Bible translation. 

If Strauss was attracted to Rosenzweig’s intense intellectual curiosity, Glatzer was attracted to Buber’s humanist theology, whose anthropocentrism Strauss skewered as a kind of atheism since it “absolutized” the human. Despite these differences in Jewish descent and worldview, the postcards Strauss sent Glatzer indicate that he was very eager to study with him. They read the Book of Joshua and the prophets with Rashi’s commentaries and exchanged instruction in Plato for instruction in Abravanel. On March 10, 1925, Strauss writes from Kassel a witty letter in Hebrew to his “dear teacher and friend,”
complaining of the ignorance of the local Jews and saying that he keeps afloat with the help of Dalman’s Talmudic dictionary.

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