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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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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.



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