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.
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a film about her father and, in connection with retracing her father’s life, had asked me to look over these (as yet unpublished) Strauss letters and to transcribe and translate them.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.
When the correspondence resumes in 1936, both are in England and the German-Jewish world is being destroyed. Glatzer had done his doctorate with Buber, Tillich, and the orientalist Joseph Horowitz in 1931, and in 1932 became Buber’s successor at the University of Frankfurt. But he left for Palestine when Hitler came to power the following year. He started to teach at the Reali School in Haifa and continued to produce books
for Salman Schocken’s new publishing house, which was still operating in Berlin.
Strauss had gone to Berlin in 1925, written his books on Spinoza (1925-28) and Maimonides (1928-32), and become interested in Hobbes. With the help of Carl Schmitt he received a Rockefeller grant to study in Paris, but the pull of Hobbes and the threat of Hitler induced Strauss to move with his family to London in 1934. He spent his days in the British Museum studying Hobbes. In 1935, he was living in Cambridge. His book on Hobbes was finished, and he wrote to Alexandre Kojève in Paris: “The economic situation is serious. I have a grant until 1 October, which does not exceed the minimum for bare existence. . . . Where we turn, only the gods know. I have no luck, dear Mr. Kochevnikoff.”
It was not bad luck, however, but his intellectual probity and uncompromising pursuit of truth that proved to be the impediment to his professional advancement. In Berlin, Schocken had just published Strauss’s book on Maimonides, Philosophy and Law. It anticipated his Maimonides bomb of 1938. On March 29, 1935, Gershom Scholem wrote to Walter Benjamin:
Very soon, Schocken . . . is publishing a book by Leo Strauss (whom I tried very hard to get appointed in Jerusalem). The book begins—with admirable courage given that everyone will understand this to be the book of a candidate for Jerusalem—with an unfeigned and copiously (if madly) argued affirmation of atheism as the most important Jewish watchword. . . . I admire the moral courage and regret the obviously consciously and deliberately provoked suicide of such a capable mind.
Indeed, the chair in Jerusalem went to a safer, more conservative man.
In the summer of 1936 Strauss was so keen on seeing Glatzer in Cambridge that he showed up at the train station on the wrong day. He wrote how much he wanted to see him: Any day was fine “but Sunday is the cheapest day.” In 1937 his situation was desperate. On January 29 he wrote to Glatzer that he was consumed with worries and buried under work. He had finished editing the last volume of the Mendelssohn edition assigned to him and was looking for a new grant that would prevent his having to return to Germany in September. It occurred to him to ask Glatzer to approach Schocken, who had moved to Palestine in 1934:
Are you on the kind of footing with Schocken that will allow you to speak to him about me? You know what I am capable of and what I am incapable of. . . . You know my earlier publications. … If I had a moment’s peace I’d now write the book about the Moreh that I told you about in London. If you can arrange it, I urge you to speak with Schocken.
In a footnote, Strauss clarified that he planned to write “über die Geheimlehre des Moreh und den Sinn der Esoterik überhaupt” (“about the secret teachings of the Moreh”—Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed—“and the meaning of esotericism in general). He seemed to have been unaware that his first book on Maimonides had ruined his chances in Jerusalem, and that a book about Maimonides’s Moreh as a work of heretical philosophy would finish him altogether for the conventional Jewish world.
Glatzer, of course, did speak to Schocken, and Strauss thanked him for his speedy assistance. But it turned out that he was able to start a research fellowship at Columbia in the fall of 1937. In early 1938, the Glatzers, too, came to America. Strauss and Glatzer met again in New York. As the copious and substantial letters to Jacob Klein reveal, Strauss was now deeply engaged in working on his Maimonides bomb. He was figuring out just how Maimonides wrote esoterically, that is to say, duplicitously, in order to hide his thoughts from the uninitiated.
In July 1938 he finished his essay on Maimonides’s esoteric technique of writing that finally turned Strauss into a Straussian—and, as he could see during his conversation with Glatzer, would mean departing from the Jews. In his brilliant February 8 letter to Glatzer, Strauss indicated that he knew what he was doing. It’s a letter that recapitulates their history together and marks Glatzer as a sane Akiva and Strauss as the infamous heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, who went mad when he entered the “paradise” of full knowledge:
Our conversation today hurt you. May I tell you that I was pleased with that for your sake, however painful it is for my sake? You would not be the man I . . . esteem so highly if this “revelation” had left you indifferent or had pleased you. Now I would like to remind you of an impressive sentence in your last book: namely that the possibility represented by Elisha ben Abuyah, which was illegitimate in his own time . . . became legitimate at a later time. Accept this sentence in all seriousness and you admit that there is a place among our people even for the fully understood Rambam; that is, a place among our people for the quite dangerous (but fairly rare) possibility of the philosopher.
Strauss was pleading with Glatzer not to cut him off from the Jews, as Spinoza had been cut off. By mentioning ben Abuyah’s fate he played on Glatzer’s assertion that ben Abuyah’s thinking “pointed toward a path that gained legitimacy only much later in Jewish intellectual history.” More important, he invoked the passage in the Talmudic tractate Hagiga 15b that shows ben Abuyah in a Jewish house of study, Greek books falling out of his lap when he gets up.
Writing to Klein a week later, Strauss admitted that he was dismantling normative Judaism; but with Glatzer he pleaded not to be cast out. As part of his defense, Strauss asked Glatzer whether he did not consider Jewish thoughts and principles to be securely established.
Because where is there today the kind of temptation to apostasy that existed in earlier eras . . . ? Is the non-Jewish world not one of horror-inducing desolation? In the last century the “revelation” [of Maimonides’s philosophical skepticism] would have been a crime, but in our century it had to be made for our, the Jews’, sake. . . . I understand your feelings perhaps better than I wish to express. What I would like to ask of you is that you interpret my intentions lekaf zekhut [toward the side of merit rather than demerit]—despite everything.
It was a powerful plea. Glatzer remained his friend, but Strauss was never quite as open with him. Several more letters were exchanged, and they were always cordial; but it is clear that Glatzer and Strauss were moving in different worlds. The German-Jewish matrix that had kept these two very different minds in a tension-filled, creative dialogue dropped away in America. When it became clear, after the end of World War II, that no return to prewar German-Jewish intensity was possible, the two moved full speed along the trajectories they had embarked on in the 1920s. Glatzer became a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis. An unfettered Strauss was propelled forward by his discovery of esotericism, reinvigorating the study of political philosophy from Herodotus to Hobbes and beyond at the University of Chicago—and as conspiracy theorists would have us believe, directing American foreign policy from his quiet grave.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.