Revisiting the philosopher Allan Bloom’s seminal The Closing of the American Mind (first published in 1987) and its attacks on the stultifying intellectual climate of American universities, Jon D. Levenson both evaluates how well its strictures apply to today’s college campuses and raises questions about Bloom’s treatment of the Bible. To Levenson, there is little doubt that most of the trends highlighted by Bloom have only worsened, but Bloom’s diagnosis of the underlying problem as one of moral and cultural relativism now falls flat. Instead, a new absolutism appears as the greatest threat. As for the Bible, Levenson writes:
[I]f the biblical books are read in the modern educational context as Bloom recommended, “with the gravity of the potential believer,” they will not be presented as “their authors wished them to be read” [which is how Bloom argues all Great Books should be approached] at all: they will be read through the interpretive lenses of the ongoing traditions to which the believers are committed and, in some cases (certainly the Jewish), in tandem with other books with authoritative status in those same traditions. . . .
Bloom’s focus on “the potential believer” reflected the cognitivist or contemplative bent of his whole project. But in the case of the Bible . . . the objective is not belief alone but practice as well: observance, that is, of the norms that the scriptures disclose and the tradition interprets. One thinks of the famous talmudic dictum that study is greater than action—because study leads to action. If that is so, Bloom’s Bible reader, who approaches it “with the gravity of the potential believer,” fails, ironically, to take belief with the requisite gravity. To such a person, reading the scriptures has become an end in itself, and in that he is far from reading them “as their authors wished them to be read.” For this kind of literature presupposes not a solitary reader contemplating the great truths and living the “theoretical life,” but rather a community of readers whose common experience derives from specific, distinctive, and identity-conferring practices. The reading and the practice enrich each other; neither is complete by itself. . . .
[I]n an exceptionally moving passage in The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom attributed to the Bible—here unquestionably referring to the Jewish version—a capacity to transcend social and economic class and to generate a common culture [by drawing on the example of his own grandparents’ commitment to the holy book]. Yet . . . surely the spiritual richness of his grandparents’ home did not come from anything like Bloom’s depiction of the ideal encounter with the Great Books—one in which the student is “just reading them.” Rather, by his own account, it came more from practice than from study, from observing those commandments that he [reports to have] questioned continually, and from creating a mode of life and not just of thought. His grandparents’ highest pursuit was thus something very different from Bloom’s own ideal of the “theoretical life.”