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Reading Exodus

with Leon Kass,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch (00:04):

Today we’re talking with Leon Kass about his new book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus. Leon Kass is one of our most significant thinkers and writers. He has the distinction of having a medical degree and being a practicing physician at one point in his career, but also is known for teaching at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago for decades and also being a major public intellectual. He is at the American Enterprise Institute and is the author of a number of wonderful books and essays, including Reading Genesis. He was also the chair of George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics and, I should also mention, co-editor along with Amy Kass and Diane Schaub of What So Proudly We Hail, a book that American civic educators definitely need at this point. Leon Kass, thank you so much for coming on the program.

Leon Kass (01:22):

Thank you very much, Richard for having me. Pleasure to be with you again.

Richard Reinsch (01:23):

It’s my honor to have you on. This book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, now, at one level, you write a book on Genesis, so maybe it’s natural or logical that you would turn to another book on Exodus. Yet, this is a weighty book, a lot of analysis, but one that pays well in reading. I can say that to all of our listeners. But why did you turn not just to reading Exodus but wanting to write a book on it?

Leon Kass (01:51):

Well, I mean partly, as you say, Richard, it is a sequel to the book on Genesis which, like the first book, is being read in search of its wisdom. In Genesis, we saw how after the first 11 chapters from the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood, Noah and his sons, and Babel, where it would show us what human life would be like left to its own devices. Beginning with Abraham, God embarks on a project to introduce into the world a way of life that can minimize the evils of human life uninstructed. The rest of that book shows how the germ of that new way of life barely survives two to three patriarchal generations.

If you want to know how you get from families to peoplehood, you got to read Exodus. So in terms of subject matter, I want to follow the emergence of the Israelites as a people. For historical reasons, they are one of the world’s oldest and most consequential nations. But continuing to read philosophically, I hope to learn from reading Exodus about nationhood, using the case of Israel as an example. What actually makes a people into a people? What forms their communal identity, holds them together, guides their lives? To what do they look up and for what should they strive? On the assumption that this particular case might provide material for thinking about and maybe even teach us a thing or two of importance about those permanent human questions, that really was what I was hoping to find.

Richard Reinsch (03:32):

You say you read Exodus philosophically. Now, I thought that was interesting. As a Christian, I’ve always read it as something revealed directly from God through human agency and those who wrote it. You sort of outline that. What did you discover in a philosophical reading of Exodus?

Leon Kass (03:53):

Well, I should perhaps say a sentence or two more about by philosophical. I don’t mean reading as they would do in a philosophy department necessarily or reading it irreverently. I mean that I treat this book regardless of the authorship and even if it’s a revealed book, I’m reading it not necessarily because it’s binding on me, but because it has wisdom that’s available to me even if I’m not yet a member of the community. Moses, in fact, says deep in Deuteronomy about the laws. He says, “These laws are your wisdom in the eye of the nations.” So there’s a sense in which, although the Bible might be binding in terms of its law and obligations only on the people within the covenant, nevertheless, there are teachings there that if people were willing to have a look, might be available to everybody. So that’s what I mean by philosophical, wisdom-seeking.

I don’t want just to learn about the book, but I want to learn from it and to learn from it by dwelling with it, by living with it, by imagining myself a participant in the story, but also stepping back with the aid of the text to reflect on it. I suspend whatever disbelief I might have about God or anything else. I’m just going to enter into this leaving my own prejudices aside as much as I can. I treat the book as a whole book, as an integral whole with a beginning and a middle and an end, not some patchwork quilt from different sources, like the source critics like to talk about. I read it naively. I try to keep my own opinions to myself. I read it without commentary and try to learn from the text how it wants to be read. I treat every word as if every word matters, the juxtapositions, the ambiguities. The silences are invitations to reflection. If you just slow yourself down and ask yourself, “What’s going on here? What does this mean? What sense does it make? What can you learn from it?” It’s amazing what you could learn from it, even if you haven’t signed up as a member of a faith community to begin with.

I’ve allowed the text to work on me, to live with me, to live inside me. I’ve had a filling out not only of the political, philosophical questions with which I began, but also in who and what exactly and less who and what, but more what it means to live in relation to this voice and this teaching and this source of this teaching because, as God says to Moses, “I will be what I will be.”

Richard Reinsch (06:28):

I wanted to ask you a question. I’ve got a lot of questions about something you just said. How does the text, Exodus, want to be read?

Leon Kass (06:37):

How does the text want to be read?

Richard Reinsch (06:39):

Yes.

Leon Kass (06:42):

I mean this is perhaps presumptuous of me to say, but dwelling on it, dwelling in this text for, well, more than 20 years, I first started teaching it at Chicago in 1998, a full course devoted just to Exodus, 10 weeks, four hours a week, undergraduates and graduates. I repeated that five more times, had a study group in Washington with friends and family members, really high-caliber people. I taught a class in Jerusalem at Shalem College, Israeli students, and another very intense seminar where people who really knew the Bible much better than I do read my draft chapters with me and actually got me across the finish line. I had to produce a chapter a week because they were meeting to discuss it. So over this time, look, it tells a story.

If you want to read it, you could either read it the way the scholars do as a prism, as an information about the beliefs and myths of an ancient people. Or you can read it as the Orthodox Jews do and pick out from this narrative story what are the laws that are obligatory? The rabbis have, in fact, treated the text in that way to extract the details of the law that have kept alive a way of life even though they were no longer living in the land for 2000 years till Israel was reestablished. Or you can read it by sort of submitting and saying, “What’s going on here?” And try to enter into this text as intimately as you can, to imagine yourself each character, even to imagine yourself Pharaoh, even though he’s the bad guy in the story, and to try to see the world through his eyes so that the power of the contest between Moses and God and Pharaoh turns out to be a real victory and not just beating up on some fellow who’s stupid and stubborn.

I think the thing that finally came to me is that the story is not a history book. The story is a book that’s intended to somehow move the soul of the reader to understand certain things, to believe certain things, to come to know not just the story of the people but also of their God. Maybe this is premature in this conversation, Richard, but a person who doesn’t know anything about the book picks it up on the first page, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth.” I mean we can’t help being moderns in a Judeo-Christian tradition, having some idea of who this character, God, is. Our head is filled with stuff on it. But for a reader who doesn’t have all of that going for him or her, the name, God, is a kind of placeholder in the text, the meaning of which is going to be filled in as you read along.

I have to say that these last few times through, the thing I’ve learned the most about in reading Exodus is because I’ve allowed the text to work on me to live with me, to live inside me. If I’ve had a filling out not only of the political, philosophical questions with which I began, but also in who and what exactly and less who and what, but more what it means to live in relation to this voice and this teaching and this source of this teaching because, as God says to Moses, “I will be what I will be,” which is a rejection of the answer for a name that would give His essence, but basically says, “You want to know who I am? Pay attention and see what I do.” In the course of Exodus, you see what He does and you see the effect of what He does.

When the tabernacle is erected and you imagine yourself inside with the people, a building that you’ve built under His instructions so that you might have an experience of His presence in your daily life, I imagine myself in that place. I begin to see what it might be like to acknowledge the source greater than us, a teacher who has given us our law, et cetera, et cetera. So I think the thing that I’ve learned this time through, the book wants to be read by a person who imagines himself a character in the story, not one of the ones talked about, but as a living participant in this book, both through memory but also through allowing the text to be actively at work in him. I’ve done that reading Plato’s dialogues. I’ve done it with other books. But it takes a while before you make this book as a book, not just as selected passages, but as a whole book, something that you live with and it works on you.

Richard Reinsch (11:58):

Building on that question, I love the way you write about Moses in the book. How did you live with his example and trials in the Book of Exodus?

Leon Kass (12:13):

Look, this is an absolutely astounding figure. God needs a champion to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt. He doesn’t find some Spartacus to lead a slave revolt. He gets Himself an outsider who’s born to the Levi family, the spirited tribe. He gets an Egyptian rearing an education in the palace. The text doesn’t say a peep about it but, boy, it would be really interesting to know what did he study there? It makes a difference. When you first meet him, he’s a spirited defender of the underdog. He’s offended by injustice. He’s a passionate young man, but he also has a kind of philosophical side. He wants to know, and God catches him on the curiosity side of the burning bush. Moses turns aside to see why this bush is not consumed. None of the patriarchs ask why. Moses wants to know the cause.

Although he’s curious, his wonder turns to awe when the voice speaks to him out of the bush and says that, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Take off your shoes. You’re standing on sacred ground.” It’s the most beautiful description of awe in literature that I know. And yet, Moses’ philosophical disposition isn’t silenced. He still wants to know God’s name in the conversation there. He takes on the job, but a very reluctant leader. So beginning, you’ve got Moses who’s a spirited young man, a very philosophical man, sort of reluctant about this job, but he goes. Then you see him get on-the-job training with Pharaoh. He’s sort of courageously holding his own in the administration of the signs and wonders known as the plague. He gains stature as God’s agent, but he increasingly takes his own initiative.

At the end of the story of the plagues when the Egyptians finally know about God, the Egyptian who’s learned most about him is Moses himself. He learns the difference between a God who is a voice in his head as he goes along the rest of his life. He’s got this voice traveling with him. He learns about God as the antithesis of Egypt and, in a way, as a correction of whatever philosophical teachings he picked up there. Then the next great moment is at the sea of reeds after the Egyptians drown and the children of Israel now trust in God and in His servant, Moses. What does Moses do with that trust? He becomes a poet and he writes the immortal song of the sea which interprets for generations to come the meaning of the event that’s just been witnessed. He teaches the Israelites that this was not a victory that I caused, but this is a victory of the Lord, the man of war who is like you among the gods. This is the equivalent of Lincoln at Gettysburg teaching everybody the meaning of the sacrifice and the meaning of the war. So Moses is not only philosopher and not only spirited leader, but poet and interpreter.

Richard Reinsch (15:53):

Interesting. In different ways you write about Moses, one of which is something that perhaps we need to learn, although when I say it we’ll automatically think authoritarianism or something. But his obedience to what he’s called to do, because it doesn’t happen right away, that meaning the liberation of the Israelites. But he keeps at it. The first time he goes in to Pharaoh, you point out, he’s arrogant. He goes in with his brother, Aaron. He’s arrogant. He wants to do it his way and he fails. He almost loses everything. And then he has to go back and do it the way he was told by God. I just thought, obedience. I mean I’ve been thinking generally obedience is something we need in appropriate ways to reconsider our culture. But I thought that was worth mentioning.

Leon Kass (16:40):

Yeah. He is obedient, but gradually as he gets the point, he’s able to embellish and act on his own, not from arrogance but because he’s gotten the spirit of it so that there are certain things he says to Pharaoh later on that he’s not told. In a kind of crucial time for him, I mean we see him … Well, one of the great moments, and this is not generally noticed, Moses doesn’t really like this people, and not without cause. They’re slavish. His first encounter with them when he tries to break up a fight between the battling Israelites and one says to him, “Who made you a prince ruler over us? Do you want to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?”

Moses says these people are ungovernable and repeated episodes of that. So he always calls them either, “Your people,” when talking to God or, “That people.” It’s only after the episode of the golden calf where he starts to plead for them against God’s threat to destroy them, that he finally identifies with them and starts calling them, “We, my people, our people, us.” His relation to God is on an intellectual plane. He doesn’t really understand why the people need … He can go 40 days and 40 nights without food and water. He doesn’t understand ordinary people. But finally, finally, he embraces them. He stands for them. It’s really one of the most beautiful moments where you see God makes him, in a way, plead for them. As a result for pleading for them, he now owns them and owns up to being part of them. That’s, in a way, the leader really becoming of the people and not as he’s in endanger of being seen by them as a separate god high and above them.

Richard Reinsch (18:45):

It’s funny. As I was reading your book, I thought to myself, “I’ve never really given that point consideration, Moses’ separateness.” What did you make of that, that the liberator would be separate from the people? I thought, “I’ve never given that consideration before.”

Leon Kass (18:58):

The problem of political leadership could be stated something like this. I mean you start with slavery. Then you move to a condition of anarchy. And then you get that before the law is given and they work on Moses’ charisma. Then the law is given and there’s still hierarchy. But in the end, Moses disappears into his law, not in Exodus, but in Deuteronomy. You then have equity under the law. That’s sort of the sequence of political things here. But if you’re going to have a political leader and you cannot somehow expect the people to liberate themselves from servitude, then the danger is the leader has to be sufficiently above the people to command their respect and to be followed, but not so high above them that they mistake him for God and that he himself might mistake him for that. He can’t be so close to the people as Aaron gets to be, that they can manipulate him, hold him in contempt, and revolt against him. So the problem of the relation between the leader and the led is one of the late … It’s not a theme. The book doesn’t have themes. But it’s a thread that you can follow here in how Moses came from being, in a way, much too good for them, to not only taking pity on them but embracing the cause not just from on high but from among them.

Richard Reinsch (20:40):

I mean just a big question here. How did this change or did it change your thinking about freedom and virtue generally?

Leon Kass (20:49):

Well, that’s very welcome. The Book of Exodus is taken by lots of people as a kind of basic text and inspiration for various struggles of national liberation. To go from slavery to freedom is thought to be the main theme of the first third of the book. But it’s very curious. It’s not the language of the text. There are Hebrew words for freedom, but they don’t occur at all in the story of the liberation from Egypt. Instead, the terms are redemption and deliverance. The transition really is said to be from service, I should say servitude to Pharaoh, not to autonomy but to service to God. In one of the most powerful insights that I think I had from this text in reading the beginning of the 10 commandments, it begins when God says when He starts to speak out of the mountain to the people, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” Now, as a historical statement in the text, that’s true. He is the same one here on the mountain who was the one who brought you out of Egypt and then, redundantly, out of the house of bondage, suggestion.

The Israelites are told basically, “You people have two great and enduring possibilities. You can either be aligned with me and follow me and have a relation with me or the alternative is there’s the land of Egypt and the house of bondage.” Those are the two enduring human possibilities, either some relation with God or live in the kind of way that ultimately will lead to being enslaved to men and to the mightiest of men. I think that even though the language of freedom doesn’t occur, I think it can speak to our understanding of freedom in the following ways. First of all, if freedom is opposed to being in bondage, it’s clear. They’re no longer subordinate to human will and to despotism.

I would say that Israel becomes a people in the Book of Exodus in three phases, and its peoplehood rests on three pillars. First is the shared story of slavery and deliverance. Second, they get a comprehensive law governing all aspects of life through constraint, through encouragement and uplift. That happens at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, the ordinances. Third, the building of the tabernacle, which is a place of worship.

Second, they acquire national self-rule under wise legislation, in this case, divinely given and/or inspired. The rule of law is consented to. The covenant is consented to. This rule of law, unlike comparable law of the ancient Near East, all are equal before this law. There’s not one law for the nobles and one law for the commons.

Third, the law doesn’t speak this language, but the law aims to free people internally from the enslaving passions, from fear and despair because we think we are lowly and of no consequence, from the opposite pride and hubris because we tend to believe in our human superiority and self-sufficiency, from our greed and stinginess because we think the world is inhospitable and will not provide for us. In a way, freedom here means not doing as you please, but doing as you should so that you will no longer be slave to Pharaoh or be enslaved within. I mean the formula would be getting the slaves out of Egypt was the easy part. Getting Egypt out of the slaves took forever and is not finished. These are people who have been emancipated or have been delivered from servitude to acquire a way of life, a kind of law that will make them free, make them free to be what it means to be the only creature made in God’s image.

Richard Reinsch (24:48):

I said obedience earlier talking about Moses. In listening to you, there’s almost this idea maybe obedience takes the form of participation in the law. Through that emerges your freedom. The temptations to lowliness or the temptations to arrogance fall away and you actually find who you’re supposed to be maybe. That is a thought that I had listening to you.

Leon Kass (25:14):

That’s wonderful. There are two nice formulas about the Torah. The Torah is a yoke and the Torah is a tree of life. In my formulation, putting them together is, the Torah is a tree of life because one has voluntarily put one’s neck in the yoke. The yoke sounds like slavery. It’s oxen. You tame the stiff-necked beast by yoking him. But if you voluntarily put your neck into this yoke, it enables you to live upright, rooted, reaching for what’s highest.

Richard Reinsch (25:56):

Yeah. Something else you said, law and self-rule. What kind of a nation is formed in the Book of Exodus?

Leon Kass (26:05):

This is complicated. English language has two words that we use interchangeably often, I do it myself, nation and people. The word, nation, comes from the Latin word, natio, meaning birth. A nation would be a large, distinct group of people who are united through generations upon generations of common descent from which follows by their separation, probably common language and culture. Whereas, a people is less a naturally constituted body, but would be a group of human beings who are united by a common story, by common mores and law, by shared aspirations, shared ideals and institutions, a common way of life. We would say, I think, of the United States, but we sometimes call it a nation. But the United States are a people, “We the people,” et cetera. That’s a people-defining act in the constituting law, just as the covenant approving consent is the constituting moment, the first major constituting moment of the children of Israel. I would say that I use the word, nation, but I, in a way, mean it in the sense of people.

I would say that Israel becomes a people in the Book of Exodus in three phases, and its peoplehood rests on three pillars. First is the shared story of slavery and deliverance. This is told from generation to generation. In fact, the deliverance is for the sake of the story. One of the most astounding things is the commandment to tell the story annually at Passover is given the night before they actually go out. So they go out instructed already thinking about their children and their children’s children who have to hear this story. So one of the fundamental features of being a nation is you have a shared national story that tells of your servitude and divine deliverance. Second, is they get a comprehensive law governing all aspects of life through constraint, through encouragement and uplift. That happens at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, the ordinances. But third, and this is in there and I used to neglect this because a lot of the description’s just boring, is the building of the tabernacle, which is a place of worship. This embodies the people’s aspiration not only to have rules governing their conduct with each other, but to remain in contact with their God, with what is highest. Those are the three pillars of Israel’s founding.

If you’re reading this not just historically but for its wisdom, you can then ask yourself the question, “Can a people, a people such as ours, flourish if it lacks a shared national story, if it shares an accepted law and mores, and if it shares common aspirations of something higher than our own comfort and safety?” The book doesn’t do contemporary politics. There’s a paragraph or two at the very end, but I think it’s a serious question for us whether we can substitute technological progress, economic prosperity, private pursuits of happiness in place of a national story which is now contested and partly despised in the nation when our morals are weakened, when the national dedication is abandoned. It looks like we’re in danger of losing our national fabric and submit to angry passions, technocracy, and hedonism.

Richard Reinsch (30:21):

Reading your book, that came to mind because I think what was going on, particularly this summer when monuments were being defaced and destroyed, was something like ancient tribal warfare in the sense of we destroy your gods. We reject your gods. That’s why we pull them down. That’s why we rename high schools. Just reading before we got in this discussion today, a high school in San Francisco named Abraham Lincoln High School is going to have its name changed, these sorts of things, yeah, losing your shared national story. I thought also, and this is more controversial, thinking about the tabernacle discussion in the book, it suggests that a good nation also has to have a third term, that being not just the people in the law, the people in the government, but something higher than both that they submit to, participate into, that grounds them. I think that’s also a part of any well-regarded, healthy national loyalty.

I’m teaching the founding text of the Jewish people to really admirable, noble young people. All of them had done national service being coming to college. I’m reading it in Jerusalem in a reborn land of the people after 2000 years of dispersion, kept alive only by adherence to this book and the ones written on top of it. They’re reading it and speaking a language which until 100 years ago had not been spoken in public in everyday life anywhere in the world for 2000 years.

Leon Kass (31:25):

I agree with you completely. Near the end of the book, I quote Chesterton, his remark, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.” The other thing, really important thing I learned, you see, Israel is formed as a nation or a people in a context that has several other very dominant nations, Egypt, the Canaanites, and the Babylonians or Mesopotamians. These are just ancient peoples, but what they represent or what the soul of those nations were are permanent human alternatives. In Egypt, you have the techno-administrative state finally ruled by one man and his will. Among the Canaanites, you have Earth-worshiping people with licentious sexual practices. In Babel, you have the cosmopolitan soulless dream that man can be a god to man. Those alternatives are here waiting in the wings. They’re waiting in the wings. With atheism on the rise in the West and in America, we could very well return to those dehumanizing pre-biblical conditions where the choices will be the battles between the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and the Babel builders. The achievements of biblically-based Western civilization could be permanently lost. My serious Christian friends tell me despair is a sin. I have a close Catholic friend who told me, “Leon, God will win in the end. You may not live to see it.” I hope he’s right.

Richard Reinsch (33:21):

I thought too your discussion of Egypt and Pharaoh, the overwhelming power of this state, of this empire, and also Pharaoh’s power, the attempt to use science and magic, to worship and also control nature I thought was significant in thinking about the modernist quest. And then also Pharaoh’s attempt to control life and death, in particular, to control birth, and you made the observation, “This is every what tyrant does, to control birth of those worth dwelling on.”

Leon Kass (34:00):

Yeah. Look, we’re halfway there. I mean the technological project to conquer nature, to relieve the human condition begun by Francis Bacon and friends in the early 17th century, the ultimate goal of the project, the mastery of nature, is to eliminate mortality. At the end of Genesis, one saw the two alternatives very starkly laid out. We had the funeral of Jacob in which his sons take him back and bury him in the cave and which the idea is you bury the dead and you transmit their way of life in remembrance of the covenant with God that began all of this. The alternative was the mummification of Joseph in Egypt where he will lie in rest. He actually asks to be taken out, but with the pharaohs lying in wait until the magicians can figure out how to reanimate them. There it’s this world and this life for ourselves and for the mighty alone rather than a way of life which is transmitted from generation to generation, excepting for now the limitations of our mortality but keeping alive a righteous and a holy way of life which is why we’re put on Earth to live. The West has been nourished by this fountain. Now the project to finish the Egyptian project is back and it’s doing very well. By the way, lest I be misunderstood, only an idiot would complain about modern science in the age of COVID. God bless them, but within limitations.

Richard Reinsch (35:52):

That’s why I wanted the modernist quest or the notion that some of these can relieve us of the human condition, that somehow economics or science alone or medicine alone can somehow answer the deepest questions finally is a source of many problems. Something else that’s working in Exodus is the plagues, the visiting of the plagues on Pharaoh. I think that, to me, was instructive in the sense of power meeting power and one man’s quest to use power finally defeated and that being something that Moses and the people need to see. I thought that was worth dwelling on.

Leon Kass (36:37):

It’s certainly about power, by the fact that Pharaoh’s magicians can only imitate two of the plagues. With each passing one, everybody else in Egypt tells Pharaoh, “Quit, we’re all going to be destroyed.” Pharaoh, strengthening his heart and refusing to give in, plays the game to the end. But the plagues are also a metaphysical contest about an attack on the gods of Egypt and finally on the highest god of all, Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh has wanted to be in command of life and death. Pharaoh finally yields when a god can come into a house and distinguish the firstborn from all the others, including in Pharaoh’s own house. So there’s a kind of contest not only about pure power, but the question is who’s right about divinity? That’s really very, very important.

Let me try to say this slightly differently. If you’re simply thinking about liberation or you’re simply thinking about power politics, you will miss the fact that God says He sends these plagues into Egypt, “So that Egypt may know who I am,” that the purpose of all of this, in a way, is knowledge. It’s knowledge. It’s knowledge to begin with with the Egyptians, including Moses the Egyptian. It’s finally because the greatest civilization of the world as they’re sinking into the water after the sea of reeds, the last thing you ever hear from Egypt in this book is, “It’s hopeless. The Lord fights for them.” It’s, in a way, the acknowledgment of the supremacy of the Lord God of Israel. When the Egyptians pay that tribute, the Israelites will know it and then the world might know it as well. So it’s a kind of correction of the wrong metaphysics of the belief in nature gods, on the one hand, and the belief in man’s godly powers on the other that are both at issue in that contest with the plagues.

Richard Reinsch (38:51):

Something I just wanted to circle back to here at the end, you said you taught this book for a number of years at Chicago and then in Israel. What did you discover from American students and Israeli students reading this book?

Leon Kass (39:09):

I had a class of mixed religious and nonreligious kids in both places actually. There were a small number of students in the American classes who were reared on the Bible, including a couple of evangelical Protestants who, they really knew the book. I learned from them because they pushed me on this or that or showed me things that I hadn’t yet seen. But they were willing to enter into my wisdom-seeking reading. In Israel, there were religious kids who had read the Bible from childhood. They read it with commentators. They never read it as a whole book. My favorite practice is to find passages and dilate upon them for their teaching for their law, for their wisdom. But that there could be a coherent political teaching through the book as a whole, that they had not done before, and what I was doing was strange. I was also teaching in English and some of them didn’t have adequate English.

But it turned out, in certain personal terms, the teaching of this text in Israel was just an extraordinary experience. I can’t find the right words. I’m teaching the founding text of the Jewish people to really admirable, noble young people. All of them had done national service being coming to college. I’m reading it in Jerusalem in a reborn land of the people after 2000 years of dispersion, kept alive only by adherence to this book and the ones written on top of it. They’re reading it and speaking a language which until 100 years ago had not been spoken in public in everyday life anywhere in the world for 2000 years. I have this privilege to do this, aged 77. I said to myself and I think I say it in the book, “Even an atheist would have to think this was a miracle.” It was as if I was on a kind of journey to have this experience to teach this book in this place to these people at this time of my life and that there was still something for me to see and learn. Teaching was frustrating, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that this was a kind of destined experience for me. It moved me immensely and has still.

Richard Reinsch (41:41):

Maybe we can end there. That was excellent. Leon Kass, thank you so much. We’ve been talking with the author of Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus. Thank you for coming.

Leon Kass (41:52):

Thanks very much, Richard.

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