Suzanne Klingenstein of MIT reports on a new cache of Leo Strauss letters today in the Weekly Standard website. They confirm what I always have assumed, that Strauss’ work on Maimonides was intended to prove that the great Jewish legal scholar and commentator was a secret atheist. She writes:
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.”
To argue that Jewish religion and reason are incompatible, I believe, is an act of hysteria; man seeks God through reason and God seeks man through Revelation, in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s formulation. There are serious problems in Maimonides’ philosophy (on which see Michael Wyschogrod’s “The One God of Abraham” in Abraham’s Promise). Strauss seized on these problems in order to twist Maimonides into his own atheist mold.
What a faker, a fool, a posturer, a rogue Strauss was! The damage he has done to American intellectual life is inestimable. As I wrote some years ago, he played the Gypsy Melchiades to the Macondo of American universities, teaching classics to students who had never read them, knew nothing of Jewish or Christian readings of them, and were generally inclined towards atheism to begin with. The fact that Americans learned Strauss rather than Rosenzweig is perhaps the greatest intellectual disaster to befall the conservative wing of American thinking after World War II.
As Klingenstein reports, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Sholem had this to say about Strauss’ book on Maimonides:
Very soon, Schocken .??.??. is publishing a book by Leo Strauss (whom I tried very hard to get appointed in Jerusalem). The book beginswith admirable courage given that everyone will understand this to be the book of a candidate for Jerusalemwith 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.
Klingenstein excerpts letters from Strauss to the Jewish scholar Nahum Glatzer (whose popularization of Rosenzweig made English-speaking readers aware of him) in which Strauss begs Glatzer not to denounce him as an apostate, atheist, and saboteur of Judaism. Sadly, Glatzer kept his mouth shut; he should have blown the whistle on Strauss.
The idea that faith and reason are incompatible has a grain of truth—they are quite different—but the idea that the human personality can live without both of them is pernicious. For what it’s worth, here’s my summary of the problem (from a recent review-essay on Rebecca Goldstein):
Why, indeed, would anyone try to prove that God exists? The religious don’t need to, and the atheists don’t want to. “Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and well? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that he exists?” asked Joseph Soloveitchik, quoting Søren Kierkegaard.
But even the most enraptured lovers pause between sighs to ask whether it is true love or infatuation, and whether the beloved will wax fat as her mother, and whether the lover’s domestic inclination and career prospects make him marriageable. Some things really must be decided by faith, Augustine said, such as, “Who is your father?” DNA testing has transferred that question to science, but we still must take as a matter of faith the answer to the most important question we are likely to ask: Do we really love the object of our affections, or do we love a projection of ourselves on an object of convenience?
Lovers never really will be sure whether they adore a particular human being or an idealized image, for all earthly love contains a bit of both. Every lover has a bit of Pygmalion as well as Paris. Anyone who has loved knows the dizzying alternation of “sky-high jubilation” and the “deathly gloom” of doubt, as Goethe’s Klärchen sang. That is why love does not suppress reason; on the contrary, with desperate appeal, it summons to its service all of reason’s instruments of torture, the better to test the beloved. Precisely because lovers do not trust their passion and resort to reason, lovers’ misunderstandings have been the stuff of comedy (and sometimes tragedy) since Menander.
Those who most love God turn to reason in similar fashion. Reason is a purifying fire. For those who have had a conversion experience, a sense of the divine presence, how can they be quite sure that what they felt was an intimation of God rather than a psychotic delusion? Not for nothing did the prophets inveigh against the ancient Hebrews’ whoring after foreign gods. As the Tanya states, sin is proof of idolatry, for if we actually believed the First Commandmentthat the Lord is Godwe never would sin. The risk in attempting to approach a God who is wholly other is that we may worship a projection of ourselves.
That is why people of faith emulate human lovers, subjecting their love to trial by reasonnot because reason can replace faith but because reason demands to know, “faith in whom?”
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?