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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Interviews Leon Kass. 7.25.03

BILL MOYERS: Why would a scientist, a physician, a scholar always wrestling with contemporary ethical issues, spend 20 years on a book about the Bible?

LEON KASS: It's quite a wonder to me, too, Bill. I began life as a child of the Enlightenment, raised in a secular home, Yiddish speaking, socialist. Believed in the indefinite progress of humankind in all respects. And wasn't bar mitzvahed. Never was in the synagogue.

Thought religion was really, partly a matter of superstition and a thing of the past. And two things, I guess, happened. One was when our own children were born it dawned on me that the moral teachings of my home were, in fact, parasitic on traditional Jewish thought and morals. The prophets without the law. And it seemed to me incumbent on my wife and me to try to give our children something of a knowledge of the heritage which we ourselves didn't receive.

But more importantly, in my own teaching, I discovered that the BIBLE was a book that could more than hold its own with the great works of philosophy and literature that I had been teaching to undergraduates. And, quite by accident, really, I sort of stumbled upon this book in my teaching. And it got a hold of me.

BILL MOYERS: Well, does this suggest that what you were looking for, your children, when you introduced them to these stories, which you had neglected for the first part of your life? Were you trying to impart something to them? Did you feel there was a vacuum in their lives?

LEON KASS: I've learned through teaching, Bill, that this is a common situation, especially amongst the children of privilege.

They have opportunities, they have knowledge, they have power, they have prosperity undreamed of by your parents and mine. And yet, they've come to discover that there's something missing in their lives, that-they're are no longer so infatuated with science and technology. And they don't believe that they holds, somehow, the key to life's mysteries.

The bloom has gone off the rose of many of the idealistic professions. But in personal, life they have a kind of spiritual hunger and longing. And many of them, to my amazement, are-- really interested in the ultimate questions.

And the classes that I've had on Genesis, Bill, have been the best classes I've ever taught. I don't lecture. I mean we sit and read these stories, and they take to them-- like thirsty men and women to water.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a theme to the wisdom you take out of or read into this book?

LEON KASS: Yeah. No you see, I don't think Genesis hands you pearls of wisdom in that sense.

BILL MOYERS: Like Psalms or the Song of Solomon--

LEON KASS: No, no. And not like the law. I mean it gives you stories which, if you ponder them, take you to the deepest layers of our humanity, show you the elements, psychic and social, of human life, in all their moral ambiguity.

And you're given a kind of panorama of human alternatives to ponder, so that what you have, I think, when you finish this story, is a deepening understanding of why human life is so bittersweet, and what the enduring human problems are. And also, some beginning glimpse of how one might go about addressing them.

BILL MOYERS: How much history do you think lies behind the BIBLE? I mean there is no archaeological evidence - no archaeological evidence ever been found that Abraham - Jacob, Joshua even existed.

LEON KASS: Well, certainly there's no archaeological evidence for anything in Genesis. And, I don't wanna say it doesn't matter. But it doesn't matter decisively, I don't think.

It certainly doesn't matter whether there was or was not a Garden of Eden in a historical sense. The truth of that story, as far as I can tell, is that Adam and Eve, in my reading, are not so much the historically first man and woman as they are the paradigmatic man and woman, as a picture of what primordial, uninstructed male and female human being would be like.

Cain and Abel are the paradigmatic brothers in the absence of some latter day teaching about how brothers ought to behave. The city of Babel is, I mean there was a Babylonian city. And, the Bible is, I think, impolemic against the existing traditions.

But, I don't think that there was a historical city in which they really did try to reach to the Heavens. But there is some deep universal truth about the aspiration of a universal city that that story reveals.

So that I don't care at all myself. And I don't think the deep truth of the beginning part of Genesis depends upon what's there. Now I have to say the question of creation is different. I mean it really does, I think, finally matter.

BILL MOYERS: There's an old story about a professor of biology, one of your kind, teaching evolution. A student raises his hand and says, "What difference does it matter, Professor, if my ancestors were apes?" And the professor said, "Makes a big difference to your grandparents."

So my question, makes a big difference to the people of Israel whether Abraham, Joshua, Isaac, Jacob existed.

LEON KASS: Oh, I think it does. And I don't want to-- I was speaking mostly about the pre-Abrahamic chapters. I do think it makes a difference.

But. and I do think that the-- event that makes a decisive difference, it seems to me, is less Abraham, Isaac and Jacob than the giving of the law of Sinai. I mean that is the covenant making-- the decisive covenant and people making event-- for which what comes before is antecedent in preparation.

But, there was somebody who started this. There was somebody who started this. There was somebody...we don't know how many other people got called who didn't answer.

BILL MOYERS: Got called?

LEON KASS: Got called by - as Abraham was called at a certain point.

BILL MOYERS: I understand, but when you use the word, "Call," when you know, Abraham hears God's call, this is not the language of a philosopher or a scholar. This is the language of religious revelation.

LEON KASS: That's absolutely right. And, I don't want to fudge that. Although I'll fudge it for a moment. The opening of THE ILIAD is "Sing, muse of the wrath of Peleus' son, Achilles." And the poet-- whether he's serious or not, suggests that he opens his mouth and the muse sings through him.

You don't have to be a Jew or a Christian to believe that we are in touch with powers of inspiration that summon us. There are powers that speak through us. My own view is that I'm responsible for my own errors. But if I speak the voice of truth, it's not me.

BILL MOYERS: You have been beaten up by your critics who want to paint you as a dangerous right wing radical. I'm quoting directly from some of the articles. One of those conservatives in the emerging Republican theocracy who substitutes faith for thought. I mean, it's even been suggested that you are a, God forbid, no pun intended, closet Christian. I mean, what do you think of the Leon Kass painted in the imagination of your critics?

LEON KASS: I don't recognize it. I mean, I'm in the line of fire of battles that have nothing to do with me. And public life is very uncivil. And if you are thoughtful about things for which other people are dogmatic you become their enemy.

I believe in science. I believe in technology. I believe in medicine. The lives of countless people have been improved really through the gift of science and technology. And I wouldn't want to see this reversed or arrested. On the other hand, it does seem to me the pursuit of certain kinds of powers to transform our nature and to conquer every aspect of our nature is, it seems to me, in danger of causing us to lose our humanity rather than fulfill it.

BILL MOYERS: To transform our nature? Is that-- your concern about gene manipulation?

LEON KASS: Gene therapy for the treatment of genetic disease is, it seems to me, just a new form, a highly sophisticated form of medicine and should be welcomed. But should we acquire the power to begin to alter our genetic makeup to become something other at what we are, then we are in uncharted territory. Medicine is guided by some notion of-- the norm, of the norm of health. But the new technological powers can take us beyond the norms of health-- to really begin to work on the limitations that nature has-- imposed upon us.

BILL MOYERS: If one your children came and said, "Dad, I want to reproduce a perfect little Leon Kass and we have the means to do it now."

LEON KASS: I would say it's perverse.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

LEON KASS: Why? Because the gift of new life is, first of all, a mystery. It is a fresh and new beginning. And the genetic independence that our children have of us, that they are the fruit of the lottery of sexual union, that kind of genetic independence is a biological announcement of the independence that they will wrest from us and from which we have to rear them.

And it is also a sign that they are supposed to live a never before enacted life. That it's also one of the reasons why I am opposed really to the indefinite prolongation of life. The culture that seeks indefinite prolongations of its own life beyond the fourscore of a full life is a culture that is increasingly hostile to renewal and to children. Whereas, what we want really is the renewal of human possibility with fresh eyes, without cynicism, without fatigue and with the precious novelty that the chance of sexuality provides us.

BILL MOYERS: So do you make a distinction between reproductive cloning and cloning for the research and treatment of disease?

LEON KASS: Well, those are distinguishable things. But I'm opposed to both, Bill. And I'm opposed to both partly because I don't think we can hold the line between the second and the first. I think if you perfect the technology of cloning for research, you clone little embryos, you grow them up to seven days-- you're gonna perfect this technology and it's gonna be very, very hard to prevent some people from actually implanting them in uteruses-- and allowing the clone babies to be born.

BILL MOYERS: But I think all of it, I have kin and friends whose suffering, I'm told, I'm just a layman on this, could ultimately be alleviated. Parkinson's and others from stem cell research.

LEON KASS: Yeah, let-- the stem cell research question and the cloning research--

BILL MOYERS: Two different issues. Right. But-- right.

LEON KASS: You want to talk about the stem question?

BILL MOYERS: Yes.

LEON KASS: 11:55:07:27 We can. Look, stem cell research is a very exciting new area of research. It's too early to know how much of its promise will be delivered. And there's been a lot of hype one has to say which sadly exploits the hopes now of suffering people.

We should be patient. And we shouldn't allow ourselves to be gulled by excessive promises. Second, we should be in favor of the now liberalized policy that allows research to go on with these existing stem cell lines. There are vastly more lines now in use--

BILL MOYERS: And a line is?

LEON KASS: What is a line? These are embryos that are left over in the in vitro fertilization clinics. They grow up to five or six days when they're 100 or so cells. Inside are cells which are plury potent They can become all the tissues of the body.

By destroying the embryo you can harvest these cells. And because they can grow indefinitely in culture, they are a line of cells just like a line of ancestors. They are now a line that keeps you propagating.

BILL MOYERS: From Adam to Noah.

LEON KASS: From Adam to Noah. And what you can do with these cells is you can instruct them by chemical means to become nerve cells or heart cells or kidney cells or liver cells. And the hope is that you can eventually put those into a sick person's body to regrow the nerve cells that are missing in Parkinson's Disease or the heart muscle cells that have been damaged after a heart attack.

Right now, those cell lines-- there are-- quite a number of cell lines that have been derived from embryos. The embryos are already destroyed. The lines are now no longer embryos but just cell cultures. And we now have ongoing vigorous research in this country funded by the federal government on a significant number of those lines.

BILL MOYERS: And you support that?

LEON KASS: And I support that.

BILL MOYERS: What you don't support is--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, and the President supports it. What you don't support is?

LEON KASS: What I don't support, at least for the time being, is the further destruction of new embryos at least with federal funds.

BILL MOYERS: Because?

LEON KASS: Because this really is a, I think, a major step to-- it's one-- this research, by the way, is now free to go on at whatever pace in the private sector.

BILL MOYERS: You're letting science go.

LEON KASS: Science goes. The question is whether the people's representatives on an issue of such deeply divided moral sentiment ought to pronounce by way of official judgment we approve of the destruction of nascent life for the sake of research. It's a boundary to be crossed. I'm not-- I have a lot of trouble with this.

I mean, it's not absolutely open and shut. But I want everybody to understand we cannot afford to be cavalier about human suffering. But we also can't afford to be casual about what we do with nascent human life. And we don't wanna become a society in which nascent human life, what you and I once were in our earliest stages is regarded as a mere natural resource.

BILL MOYERS: You mean down when we were mere cells?

LEON KASS: When we were--

BILL MOYERS: Or a cell?

LEON KASS: We were a very special kind of cell, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Potentially.

LEON KASS: No, no. We were-- when you-- look, when-- R.G. Edwards created the first test tube baby, Louise Brown , 1978, he said, and he sort of stumbled over the truth. He said, "She was beautiful then and she is beautiful now." And by "then" he meant when she was a zygote, when she was a fertilized egg which he had fertilized.

There's a continuity there. I don't know whether an early embryo is one of us. I don't tend to believe it but it's an awesome and mysterious being. And you and I were once no bigger than that.

BILL MOYERS: Isn't it possible that religion clouds our thinking about-- bioethical issues? I mean, I know people who do not throw a distinction between natural and unnatural behavior. Who don't hold, quote, "naturally occurring plants, animals and chemicals," in such a sacred position.

And they say that the issue here is not ethical but survival of-- the human race. And that if biotechnology, genetically modified food can ensure the survival of the human race, that that's more essential than the religious contemplation of what it means.

LEON KASS: I-- don't think one should accept the either/or. That's a-- that the question implies. The human race has to survive. And we should make use of all the means at our disposal. The survival of the human race doesn't, however, require the indefinite survival of you and me and all of our kin to-- Methuselah's age and beyond.

In fact, what we want is not just health and survival but the preservation of that for the sake of which we want to survive. Which is the possibility of nobility and decency and love and friendship and science and art and all of those things that disappear in a culture of A Brave, New World.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think we human beings most need to be fulfilled?

LEON KASS: I would say probably three things. Deep love and friendship at least once. And,God willing for a while. Second, some kind of meaningful work that brings out the best of what one has to offer. And third, and the third really is a way of combining the other two, to put oneself in the service of something higher than oneself.

BILL MOYERS: The book is THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM: READING GENESIS. Thank you, Leon Kass for joining us on NOW.

LEON KASS: Bill, thanks very much.