If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.
The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.
The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.
The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.
Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.
He practiced hard science as a National Institutes of Health researcher, but then began to focus on long-brewing interests in philosophy and ethics as the executive director for social policy with the National Research Center, followed by an NEH fellowship. Those years saw the beginnings of a series of pointed articles on ethical issues. After teaching stints at St. John’s College and Georgetown, he joined the Chicago faculty.
Kass won wider public and journalistic attention during 2001-2005 when he served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics and shepherded controversial reports that are worth a journalistic second look in light of developments since. Personally, Kass professes skepticism that biological experiments upon our species should be done simply because they can be done, and warns about dangers in, for instance, human cloning and tinkering with stem cells.
He confesses that as an undergraduate he was “inclined to think all religions were fossils, superstitious leftovers from before the Age of Enlightenment,” while as a mature thinker he perceives “the insufficiency of the scientific understanding of human life.” His broad intellectual scope, influenced by but also targeting our science-bound secular age, seems a particularly pertinent media project in a time of moral confusion, polarization and disruption on up to the highest levels of American political, academic, and religious life.