U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Revisiting Leo Strauss’s "Why We Remain Jews" (A High Holidays Post)

We’re currently in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays: last Monday and Tuesday were Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur starts this Tuesday at sunset.  I have a fairly complicated, and fluctuating, personal relationship to Judaism. I can’t–and don’t–claim to be a believer of any sort. Yet I always celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since moving to Norman, I’ve attended a traditional High Holiday minyan that a number of faculty and community members put together at the University of Oklahoma’s Hillel.  Being essentially a non-believer yet spending all day on Yom Kippur fasting and attending shul both is, and isn’t, unusual.  It’s unusual because, on the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense (it puzzled many of my non-Jewish friends in college). Yet, within the Jewish community, it’s its own kind of tradition. People like me are often called “three-day Jews,” a term that began life entirely pejoratively within the late-nineteenth or early twentieth-century German Jewish community, but now has slightly less negative baggage associated  with it.*

Thinking about these issues this year led me to reread Leo Strauss’s lecture, “Why We Remain Jews,” which was given at the University of Chicago’s Hillel half a century ago, on February 4, 1962.  This talk has received much attention since its initial publication in the 1990s.** The lecture’s appearance in print, and the subsequent interest in it, has reflected a more general reconsideration of Strauss as a Jewish thinker and as a thinker about Jewish things that has taken place in the last two decades or so, and which has led Strauss to be taken more seriously by a variety of academics outside the intellectual circle defined by his students and his students’ students.

“Why We Remain Jews,” in particular, seems to have an appeal for people who have an otherwise ambivalent relationship to Strauss.  To take two examples:  Eugene Sheppard concludes his critical, but not hostile, intellectual biography of the young Leo Strauss, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile (Brandeis, 2006), with a discussion of “Why We Remain Jews.” This leads into the book’s two concluding, unusually personal paragraphs, in which Sheppard notes that while he “reject[s] many of Strauss’s fundamental convictions about humanity and politics,” he sees a “progressive and radical alternative” in Strauss that has been, as yet, too little explored.*** The political scientist and anti-Straussian student of Straussians Anne Norton provides another example. Norton, author of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (Yale, 2004), which excoriates the Straussians while attempting to rescue Strauss’s legacy from them, gave a talk at a conference I attended on Leo Strauss in Nottingham, England, in which she used “Why We Remain Jews” as the (somewhat, but only somewhat, ironic) basis of a bitterly righteous critique of Guantanamo and the torture and detention policies initiated by George W. Bush.  Having largely blamed Straussians for what went wrong in the Bush years in her book, Norton managed to find in Strauss’s “Why We Remain Jews” resources with which to attack what she saw as his students’ works.

In the broadest sense, Strauss makes a case in “Why We Remain Jews” that Judaism as a religion, very traditionally conceived, remains necessary, even for those Jews for whom religious belief “is not feasible, humanly speaking” (320).  Such a message might, in principle, be illuminating for Jews like myself.  And it was in this spirit that I reread the text during these High Holidays.

What I found, however, was not a particularly usable Strauss, at least not for me.

Like practically everything written by Leo Strauss, “Why We Remain Jews” is a complicated, multilayered text, and I’m not going to be able to summarize it comprehensively in a blog post (it’s available, if you’re interested, at the Internet Archive, at the link above).  The title as well as the subtitle (“Can Jewish Faith and History Still Speak to Us?”) were not chosen by Strauss. Instead, his talk was one of a series of lectures on this theme, which seems to have been chosen by the U of C Hillel Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky.  Strauss reframes the theme in terms of “the Jewish Question,” which Strauss does not explicitly define, but which he seems to understand very traditionally.  And his overall thesis about it is, at first glance, very straightforward: “there is no solution to the Jewish problem” (317).

Much of the talk consists of rejecting a series of potential solutions.  Individual acts of assimilation are generally doomed to failure, as people will continue to recognize the assimilated Jew (whether he has assimilated to Christianity or to secularism) as a Jew and will continue to discriminate against him (313-317).****  Collective assimilation “as a sect like any other sect” is also, in Strauss’s view impossible, in part because such sects are entirely voluntary, while one’s status as a Jew is a matter, in the first instance, of birth (318).  A third possible solution is “assimilation as a nation,” i.e. Zionism.  But Strauss, who had been active in Zionist circles in his youth, rejects Zionism as a solution to the Jewish problem, as well. “Political Zionism,” which stressed the creation of a Jewish state was too strictly political: “The mind was in no way employed, or even the heart was in no way employed, in matters Jewish” (319).  “Cultural Zionism,” created in reaction to this deficit, hoped to supplement political Zionism by making “products of the Jewish mind” central to Zionism. But Strauss suggests that this effort was doomed to fail, as the “rock bottom of any Jewish culture is the Bible, the Talmud, and the Midrash. And if you take these things with a minimum of respect or seriousness, you must say that they were not meant to be products of the Jewish mind”(319-20).  This leads, in turn, to “religious Zionism,” which runs aground on the fact that some Jews simply cannot return to the faith of their ancestors.

Nonetheless, argues Strauss, “[i]t is necessary to accept one’s past. That means that out of this undeniable necessity one must make a virtue. The virtue in question is fidelity, loyalty, piety in the old Latin sense of the word pietas” (320). There follows a long discussion of varieties of anti-Jewish sentiment through the ages, meant to establish both the noble nature of Jewish belief and the heroic nature of Jewish struggle against persecution.  After a somewhat ironic side journey to Nietzsche’s Morgenröte (The Dawn), aphorism 205 (“Of the people of Israel”), which Strauss uses to suggest that the creation of the state of Israel is, in a positive sense, the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s radical vision of Jewish assimilation, Strauss reaches his conclusion:  Judaism is a “heroic delusion.”  After referencing the prayer Aleinu as “the greatest expression” of this delusion, Strauss elaborates: “What is a delusion? We also say a ‘dream.’ No nobler dream was ever dreamt. It is surely nobler to be a victim of the most noble dream than to profit from a sordid reality and wallow in it.” (328)

Strauss concludes with a discussion of the insufficiency of “positivism” and the need for science, too, to strive for the infinite:

the object of science is everything that is–being.  The belief admitted by all believers in science today–that science is by its nature essentially progressive, and eternally progressive–implies, without saying it, that being is mysterious.  And here is the point where the two lines I have tried to trace do not meet exactly, but where they come within hailing distance. And, I believe, to expect more in a general way, of people in general, would be unreasonable. (329)

After Strauss finished, Joseph Cropsey, Strauss’s old friend and colleague, who had introduced the talk, noted “Dr. Strauss is known to have spoken other times on the theme of ‘Jerusalem and Athens.’ My only observation tonight is, I believe he has done it again.” (329)

In a sense, I think Cropsey has hit the nail on the head, despite the fact that classical philosophy (“Athens”) goes virtually unmentioned in the talk. Strauss’s theme of “Jerusalem and Athens” consisted of the notion that revealed religion and classical philosophy were in constant tension with each other, and that the vibrancy of the West had historically depended on this tension. But modern political philosophy threatened both sides of this binary.

Classical philosophy’s most significant appearance in “Why We Remain Jews” is Strauss’s invocation of the virtue of pietas as underscoring the need for Jews who cannot believe to nonetheless remain loyal to the faith of their ancestors.  Strauss, it should be said, was such a Jew: an atheist by belief, but willing to affirm the importance of the most traditional understanding of Jewish religion as revealed, divine law. Strauss himself embraced neither of the possibilities that he invokes at the end of his talk, science and revealed religion. Then again, the careful listener will have noted that these are all that can be expected of “people in general.” And, in Strauss’s view, those fit for philosophy are, by definition, not “people in general.”

For all its intellectual interest and occasional elegance, “Why We Remain Jews” remains rather unappealing to me, for the same reason that I find most of Strauss’s political and philosophical conceptions unappealing.  At its heart is a rather pessimistic and deeply hierarchical understanding of human possibilities. Whatever else it may mean, my fasting on Wednesday will not be an attempt on my part to forestall nihilism by publicly reaffirming a necessary, noble delusion.

To all our Jewish readers: G’mar chatima tovah!
* In the interest of full disclosure, like many contemporary American “three-day Jews,” I actually only celebrate one day of Rosh Hashanah, but I also celebrate Hanukkah and Passover. Yet the old German epithet remains.

** “Why We Remain Jews” first appeared in print in Kenneth Deutch and Walter Nicgorski (eds), Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), pp. 43-79.  It was subsequently reprinted in Leo Strauss (Kenneth Hart Green, ed.), Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought (Albany: SUNY, 1997), pp. 311-356. Page numbers above reference this second work, which is also what I have linked to above.

*** Sheppard, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile, pp. 119-130.

**** This point is accompanied by a rather Friedmanite discussion of the impossibility of preventing discrimination in a liberal society, complete with warnings that the USSR is a fine example of a country that has tried to legally prohibit discrimination.  Like his fellow German-Jewish émigré Hannah Arendt, Strauss was skeptical about the advisability–or even the possibility–of attempting to legally end racial discrimination.

UPDATE (5:36 pm CDT, 9/25):  I’ve corrected the title of the Norton book above. I had mistakenly repeated the (very similar) title of the Sheppard book when originally posting this.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting post.
    Small correction: you give the same title for the Norton and Sheppard bks — I think the Norton must have a different title, don’t remember it offhand.

    • Thanks LFC (and Mike O’Connor, who sent me an e-mail about this very issue). The two books have very similar titles and I inadvertently typed the same title both times (and failed to notice the mistake when proofreading the post). It’s now corrected above.

  2. i didn’t know about this text, and look forward to reading it.

    an ignorant question: is there something about these years that made it possible, or desirable in a way it hadn’t been a decade earlier, for certain emigree intellectuals to talk about their jewishness? this could be only an anecdotal effect, but i feel as though both isaiah berlin and jacob talmon also published major statements about jewishness in the late 1950s.

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