As the American Mind Keeps Closing, Can the Bible Help to Keep It Open?

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.”

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Allan Bloom, Bible, History & Ideas, Judaism, Philosophy, University

How Israel Can Best Benefit from Its Newfound Friendship with Brazil

Jan. 21 2019

Earlier this month, Benjamin Netanyahu was in Brazil—the first Israeli prime minister to visit the country—for the inauguration of its controversial new president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has made clear his eagerness to break with his predecessors’ hostility toward the Jewish state, and Netanyahu has responded positively. To Emanuele Ottolenghi, the improved relations offer an opportunity for joint cooperation against Hizballah, which gets much of its revenue through cooperation with Brazilian drug cartels. In this cooperative effort, Ottolenghi cautions against repeating mistakes made in an earlier outreach to Paraguay:

Hizballah relies heavily on the proceeds of transnational crime networks, especially in the Tri-Border Area [where] Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay [meet], but until recently, Brazilian officials were loath to acknowledge its presence in their country or its involvement in organized crime. [But] Bolsonaro’s top priority is fighting organized crime. Combating Hizballah’s terror finance is a vital Israeli interest. Making the case that Israel’s and Brazil’s interests dovetail perfectly should be easy. . . .

But Israel should be careful not to prioritize symbols over substance, a mistake already made once in Latin America. During 2013-2018, Netanyahu invested heavily in his relationship with Horacio Cartes, then president of Paraguay. Cartes, . . . too, had a genuine warmth for Israel, which culminated in his decision in May 2018 to move Paraguay’s embassy to Jerusalem. Most importantly, from Israel’s point of view, Paraguay began voting with Israel against the Arab bloc at the UN.

However, the Paraguayan side of the Tri-Border Area remained ground zero for Hizballah’s money laundering in Latin America. The Cartes administration hardly lifted a finger to act against the terror funding networks. . . . Worse—when critics raised Hizballah’s [local] terror-financing activities, Paraguayan ministers confronted their Israeli counterparts, threatening to change Paraguay’s friendly international posture toward Israel. [And] as soon as Cartes left office, his successor, Mario Abdo Benítez, moved Paraguay’s embassy back to Tel Aviv. . . . Israel’s five-year investment ultimately yielded no embassy move and no progress on combating Hizballah’s terror network. . . .

Israel should make the battle against Hizballah’s terror-finance networks in Latin America its top regional priority.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Brazil, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israel diplomacy, Latin America