A brilliant essay

by | Mar 6, 2015 | Book Reviews

Jews and Words
by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger
Yale University Press, 2012.
232 pages

Jews and Words is not an ordinary book. It is the enchanting outcome of a unique collaborative conversation between a father and daughter. Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger are both well-known figures, particularly the world-renowned Israeli author Amos Oz, professor of literature at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University and a center-left political activist. His daughter Oz-Salzberger, an author in her own right, serves at Haifa University’s Faculty of Law as a history professor. She also taught at Australia’s Monash University, holding the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies and at Princeton University sponsored by the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship for Distinguished Teaching.

Defined as an essay by its authors who ordinarily write in their native Hebrew, this gem of brilliant writing explores the long and intimate bond of a genuine love affair between the Jewish people and language that has proudly defined them as “The People of the Book,” reflecting their ownership of the Hebrew Scriptures along with their passion, to the level of sanctification, of the literary enterprise. “The point of our book is not that Jews were any better then others, but that Jews had a special way with words. Words became texts. The published became perennial.”

Staunchly defending Jewish identity and describing themselves as “secular Jewish Israelis” who do not believe in God, the authors’ overriding and underlying thesis is that looking at the historical Jewish experience through secular Jewish lenses is no less authentic, particularly in the current political and social climate in Israel where the religious Orthodox perspective hovers over the cultural conversation with the liberal persuasion in retreat. Yet, the authors face the ultra-Orthodox world head on regarding it as a “museum civilization” which lost touch with a changed world while it is solely committed to perpetuating a lost past.

The Oz pair calls to replace it with a “living civilization,” one willing to confront and challenge. “A living civilization is a perpetual drama of struggle between interpretations, outside influences and emphases, an unrelenting struggle over what is wheat and what is chaff. Rebellion for the sake of innovation. Dismantling for the purpose of reassembling differently. And even putting things in storage to clear the stage for experiment and for new creativity.” However, has not ultra-Orthodoxy proven quite resilient?

The authors find the Jewish encounter with Western humanism to be a fateful one, unlike its other encounters in history, for Western humanism contains “Jewish genes” and consequently has an understandable and undeniable appeal to Jews with all that implies, positively and negatively. A significant by-product of the book’s inquiry is the writers’ assertion that the claim by Palestinians and others that a Jewish state is a recent concept has no legs to stand on given the Biblical heritage of words affirming an early Jewish sovereignty. The authors also unequivocally call for recognizing Palestinian pain of loss, disavowing the rigid ideology of a Greater Land of Israel.

Throughout this intellectually reinvigorating essay from an unabashedly proud liberal prospective, we find incisive and insightful use of words–living up to the book’s title–such as, “Ours is not a bloodline but a text line; “At its best, Jewish reverence has an irreverent edge;” “In Jewish tradition every reader is a proof-reader, every student a critic, and every writer, including the Author of the universe, begs a great many questions;” “Jewish continuity was always paved with words;” and “Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs are our pyramids, our Chinese Wall, and Gothic Cathedrals. They stand un-demolished in the flow of time.”

The book is also enhanced by the authors’ mixing profound reflection with biting humor, such as with their defining of who is a Jew. “Here is our personal definition: any human being crazy enough to call himself a Jew is a Jew. Is he or she a good or a bad Jew? This is up to the next Jew to say.”

This original volume is divided into four chapters: Continuity, Vocal Women, Time and Timelessness and Each Person Has a Name; or, Do Jews Need Judaism? It is the brainchild of Felix Posen, providing for a unique contribution to the distinguished 10 volume in-the-making Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. The Posen Library’s challenging and most welcome mandate is to embrace Jewish history in its wider context with all its intriguing complexities and connecting crossroads, which the Ozs so ably probe and explore with lingering delight.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman is founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.