Great Expectations: Studying with Leon Kass by Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2009.


“Are you impressed with Rebecca at the well? Would you bring her home to meet your parents?”

The question hung in the air, and with it the familiar sense of excitement and uncertainty of a class taught by Leon Kass. It almost always began like this: a pointed question, and then silence. We students knew to expect it, yet somehow were always caught off guard. The question would come at the text from what seemed at first an odd angle, but then slowly chart a path to the very core of a large human problem underneath.

Eventually, some brave soul would venture an answer, and somehow Kass, with an approving smile, would find in it exactly the seed of conversation he had sought—as though it were just perfect. Soon we were trekking through the text and on to some essential and powerfully relevant problem: What is marriage for? How do families and communities contend with human failings and encourage human greatness? Do the arts and sciences corrupt our morals? What can man really know about nature?

National Endowment for the Humanities