Leon Kass, best known for his work in the field of bioethics, including his service on President Bush’s Council, has established himself also as a formidable interpreter of the Bible. In 2003, he published his commentary on the Book of Genesis, a volume that gathered accolades from many reviewers. His current book, a commentary on the Book of Exodus, underwent a long period of gestation in which Kass pored over the text line-by-line and shared his work in a variety of pedagogical settings. He has plumbed the depths of what this text has to offer.
Though I enjoyed having Kass as my guide for this most important of biblical books, I must confess a certain disappointment. As in his volume on Genesis, Kass remains committed to reading the Bible as one of Western Civilization’s “Great Books.” This means that the Jewish tradition can play no decisive role in determining what the text teaches. This is not to say that Kass has ignored the tradition. There are many references to premodern and modern interpreters, but they play no essential role in Kass’s discernment of the enduring value of the text. “The meaning and teachings of the book,” Kass declares, “should be approachable without intermediaries.” Needless to say, Catholic readers beholden to Dei Verbum or Jewish readers devoted to the entirety of the Torah (oral and written) will have a different attitude. Even so, reading this book recalls the wise adage of the biblical scholar Brevard Childs: If you want to become a better exegete, become a better person. In Leon Kass, we see what Scripture looks like in the hands of a reverent and moral man.