Benjamin Storey on Leon Kass (interview)

The following entry is from our colleague, Dr. Benjamin Storey (Furman University). Dr. Storey’s experiences with a great teacher, Dr. Leon Kass (University of Chicago), helped set the course of his life as a scholar and a humanist. 

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing my teacher, Dr. Leon R. Kass, on the subject of his forthcoming book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus.  The conversation was one in a series of “Hertog Conversations,” sponsored by the Hertog Foundation, offering what the New York Times has described as a “Great Books Summer Camp”—fully funded!—to outstanding college students from across the nation.  

In Founding God’s Nation, Kass turns to the Bible’s most important political text, the book of Exodus, to understand the “foundation, character, and purpose of political communities.”  He wants to know “what makes a people a people?”—a highly relevant question in our moment of deep national division.  

In his reading of Exodus, Kass tells the story of the establishment of a new and special nation on three pillars:  a shared memory of slavery in Egypt and miraculous deliverance from that slavery; a “covenantal comprehensive law governing all aspects of life;” and, in the building of the Tabernacle, an “embodiment” of nascent Israel’s “aspiration to remain in contact with the highest.” And while the story of the Exodus concerns the particular nation of Israel, Kass sees Israel as “a particular nation with universal—and permanent—significance.”  

As such, it bears lessons for our nation, and for every nation.  In particular, Kass wonders, “Can a people endure and flourish if it lacks a shared national story, accepted laws and morals, and an aspiration to something higher than its own comfort and safety?  Can a devotion to technological progress, economic prosperity, and private pursuits of happiness sustain us when our story is contested, our morals weakened, and our national dedication abandoned?”  He doubts it. 

Our American divisions are deep; our national leadership in the major arenas of our culture is largely feckless, foolish, or both.  As our crisis deepens, however, our need for wise, just, and courageous leadership will only become more acute.  Our classical schools—by guiding the young through a capacious and nuanced investigation of our national history, and by encouraging their respect for equal human dignity, their aspiration to virtue, and their hope in the divine—are training young men and women to provide that leadership.  The work of Leon Kass, not only on Exodus but also on America (cf. the splendid volume entitled What So Proudly We Hail, edited with his late wife Amy and Diana L. Schaub), can be vital resources in this essential task.     

Note: Dr. Leon Kass is a founding Academic Advisor to the Institute for Classical Education. 


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