PERHAPS NO RELIGION has as much existential uncertainty baked into the product as Judaism. Who, or what, is a Jew? The question remains Jewishness’s most persistent quandary. In modern times, this has not only been a theological or anthropological question but also a political and military one: leaders as diverse as Adolf Hitler and David Ben-Gurion have sought to develop criteria that may nail down Jewishness as something discrete, distinctive, and susceptible to legislation. But still some confusion persists, some hazy aura around the edges of Jewish identity, evident in the thousand and one sects and offshoots and private credos that, collectively, constitute “the Jewish people.”
Enter Amos Oz — one of Israel’s greatest writers, a frequent Nobel contender, author of marvelous works like the memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness and the novel My Michael, and a cofounder of the activist organization Peace Now — and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, a historian and professor at the University of Haifa. In their “little book,” Jews and Words, father and daughter argue that the Jews are best understood as a people with a shared literary history. “Ours is not a bloodline but a textline,” they proclaim. “Jewish history and peoplehood form a unique continuum, which is neither ethnic nor political.” In other words, Jews are not first and foremost a race or a religion but a civilization, one linked by the texts they read, the stories they tell, and the history they’ve chronicled.
This is not a wholly original argument. Some Jewish thinkers, particularly in the last 150 years, have attempted to detach Jewishness from its religious roots, creating humanistic, cultural, secular, or literary strains of Judaism that can be appreciated apart from matters of commandments or belief in the Almighty; examples range from Theodor Herzl’s secular Jewish nationalism to Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the person most responsible for the contemporary revival of Hebrew, thought that the propagation of the Hebrew language was less a holy responsibility than a means of uniting the Jewish people into one polity. And many members of the yishuv — Jewish settlements in pre-state Palestine — migrated there not for religious reasons but out of a desire to return to the history-rich lands of their ancestors.
Jews and Words engages some of these forebears (the authors particularly admire Ben-Yehuda), but it is distinguished both by the clarity of its authors’ arguments and the intellectual panache they display on the page. It’s a little book, perhaps, but also an uncommonly delightful and learned one, bringing together (sometimes in a single paragraph) Yiddish poets, Renaissance-era Italian scholars, ancient shepherds, and ghetto dwellers as part of one great textual canvas. It’s a book that will give comfort to the faithless and jab at the certitudes of the faithful. (That it’s written in English — a second language for both writers — adds a grace note of triumph to the affair.)
In Jews and Words, Oz and Oz-Salzberger argue that, over the course of their history, the Jews have created “a trove of referential buildup,” a “genealogy of familiarity that is unique,” the same stories, the same blessings, the same tales of woe, all repeated ad infinitum in a language virtually unchanged for millennia. The origin point for this linguistic tradition is found in the story of Genesis, they write; according to the Biblical account, God “[created] the world by a series of succinct utterances,” and Adam followed by “naming” God’s creations. Similarly, “the national and cultural genealogy of the Jews has always depended on the intergenerational transmittal of verbal content” — l’dor v dor, from generation to generation. The words come in, the words go out.
To be sure, Oz and Oz-Salzberger do not believe in the literal truth of Genesis, but they do value its fictional truth, its centrality in Jewish myth, and its poignancy as a kind of linguistic creation story. “‘Fiction’ does not frighten us,” they explain. “As readers, we know that it conveys truths. As secular Jews, we have no stake in the historicity of Moses or Miriam.”
Once Jews had codified their story in the Bible, they settled down and inaugurated a scholarly and educational tradition that, in many respects, persists to this day. From early on, Jews understood that “an informed progeny is the key to collective survival,” and all Jews, male and female, rich and poor, were encouraged to study. As a result, some of the prominent sages who contributed to the Talmud were also modest craftsmen and laborers. (As the authors note, this fact has become a political talking point in Israel today, where many ultra-Orthodox choose welfare and Torah study over working.)
“[N]o other premodern people,” Oz and Oz-Salzberger insist, “were systematically exposed, in this way, to written texts in their homes across a broad social spectrum.” At the very least, the primacy of Torah study set Jews apart. For their first 12 or 13 years of life, Jewish children would (and do) listen to their families engage in prayer and tell stories; as soon as they are old enough to do so, they begin to read and memorize prayers and tractates on their own. Upon reaching the appropriate age, children undergo a bar or bat mitzvah, a ceremony that not only anoints them as adults but entrusts them with the “textual legacy” of the Jewish people. In the eyes of Oz and Oz-Salzberger, “this piece of social history is […] the single most important fact about the survival of the Jews.”
Then there is the fact that many of Judaism’s most venerated heroes are scholars, sages, and priests. Even King David was a poet. Moses, meanwhile, achieved his eminence not just by leading the Jews to the promised land but by bringing them the Ten Commandments, that most canonical of written texts. Even in their myths, authorship and education offered Jews the surest path to achieving renown. And scholarship, as Oz and Oz-Salzberger convincingly argue, could also be the key to being remembered at all: “From late antiquity until early modernity, most of the Jews on historical record are on record because they studied” (emphasis theirs).
The survival impulse of Judaism, its endurance in the face of diaspora and disaster, is thus inseparable from its great literary tradition. In fact, the two were wedded from early on. After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the Jews flung into exile, “only books remained sacrosanct, and certain words. Nothing else.” In the diaspora, Hebrew became “the ‘holy tongue,’“ the most vivid manifestation of the sacred. It was preserved accordingly. In this way, Jews carried holiness within themselves, charged with speaking it, writing it, preserving it, making it live in the world. That Hebrew eventually lapsed from a spoken language into a liturgical one only added to the reverent air surrounding it. Its miraculous revival in the early 20th century allowed a sense of the sacred to filter into everyday Jewish speech — a development which, for some ultra-Orthodox Jews, still clinging to Yiddish, represents a heresy.
It’s these extended investigations into the ancient and Biblical past that give Jews and Words its heft. Things get a bit more difficult as we approach the modern era, however. The “textline” approach to Jewish history brings with it some problems; with its focus on cultural inheritance and its tendency to look towards the past rather than the present, it leaves its adherents an escape hatch from Judaism’s contemporary problems, which are largely political. To their credit, Oz and Oz-Salzberger don’t entirely avoid questions of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to being resolute atheists (“our Jewish identity is not faith-powered”), both are comfortable with their Israeli identity, though both identify with the left. And they are wary of how archaeological research and literal readings of Jewish texts — in Israel, the two are sometimes paired — can be co-opted by right-wing nationalists.
To that end, they announce, “Here is the unsentimental bottom line: David and Solomon, their cities and their glory, were all hyped up by later kings and their nimbler chroniclers.” Accordingly, they have no desire to “use the scriptures to stake a Jewish claim to the full expanse of Solomon’s legendary empire, and to every ancient stone therein.” Echoing Oz’s political writings, in which he has called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “a real estate dispute,” the authors declare that they “will happily share our hazy, shimmering biblical geography with our Palestinian neighbors, if they too give up some of their past for the sake of a future.”
These sorts of comments can seem like detours in a text primarily concerned with literature, but they are necessary ones. And while much of the book, which is organized around diffuse concepts like “Time and Timelessness” and “Continuity,” is an exuberant jaunt through Jewish cultural history, the authors do sometimes assume a more somber posture. It’s often at these moments that their arguments, and their passion, are most convincing. Take the following passage, for instance, which should have been the book’s jacket copy:
[W]e now live in a cultural climate — in the modern and secular part of Israeli society — that increasingly identifies Bible quoting, Talmudic reference, and even a mere interest in the Jewish past, as a politically colored inclination, at best atavistic, at worst nationalist and triumphalist. This current liberal withdrawal from most things Jewish has many reasons, some of them understandable; but it is misguided.
This discussion is about fashion and culture and historiography, true, but it is also about politics and faith, and it should be seen in the context of its authors’ home country: an officially Jewish state where Orthodox Judaism controls the rabbinate and where hardline religious elements increasingly exercise a disproportionate influence over national affairs. Jews and Words is, among other things, a declaration of cultural emancipation. But it’s notably one that doesn’t reject the foundational texts of the Jewish religion; it simply interprets them differently. “[W]e find so much that is true, good, and insightful in parts of the Jewish bookshelf,” the authors write, “that we can claim to have replaced faith with wonder.” In their shared imagination, wonder proves as inexhaustible as faith, and as thrilling, too.
Even so, this exchange of faith for wonder is easier to perform in Israel, where even secular Jews, owing to their education and the osmotic effect of their surroundings, are still deeply versed in Biblical history and lore. Judaism’s ancient past is written on street signs, referenced in novels, invoked by politicians; Biblical culture remains alive in popular culture. In the diaspora, where Jewish life finds its locus in the synagogue, Bible study is, by nature, an act of religious devotion. For us secular American Jews, wanderers among the wanderers, the question becomes how to pursue a purely literary study of the Bible — how to find that wonder Oz and Oz-Salzberger speak of — without submitting to the faith-based trappings of Orthodox culture. The larger unsolved conundrum for secular diasporic Jews is how to pursue an authentically Jewish life — which would include the study of sacred texts as literary artifacts — apart from a religious community.
Paradoxically, in other words, it may be easier to be a secular Jew in the holy land of Israel than it is in the diaspora, where more work is required to carve out and preserve one’s Jewish identity. In Los Angeles or Omaha, the levees of secular Jewish identity must be shored up against the encroaching waters of goyishe life. In Tel Aviv, a child of Jews is legally and axiomatically a Jew. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Oz and Oz-Salzberger display little of the common existential insecurity of secular diaspora Jews — a frequent malady of everyone from Woody Allen and Philip Roth to this reviewer. In contrast, the man who gave himself the name Oz, meaning “strength,” in an act of filial defiance (read A Tale of Love and Darkness to learn why), is a serenely self-confident sabra, and the serenity and confidence have been passed on to his daughter. The battles they fight over the meaning of Judaism are not inward, existential ones — questions of who or what they are; rather, they are public, intellectual conflicts against God-fearing Jews who claim to be the true inheritors, and righteous interpreters, of their people’s textual legacy.
And while they tend to adopt a respectful pose, Oz and Oz-Salzberger do enjoy going head-to-head with believers and right-wingers; their elegant style leaves plenty of room for pugnacity. They argue that the appeal of traditional Judaism remains, in part, that one can “live in a timeless realm,” before embarking on a savvy critique of ultra-Orthodox Jews who
walk the world in the clothing of Polish nobility of the seventeenth century, sing beautiful Hasidic songs based on typical Ukrainian melodies, and dance ecstatic Ukrainian folk dances. They argue with us seculars, at best, according to Maimonides’ logic, drawn from Aristotle, or — alternatively — attack the weakness of our national loyalty on the basis of Hegelian arguments, courtesy of Rabbi Kook. But of us, they demand faithfulness to the original fountainhead.
Against this rigid, anachronistic position, the authors of Jews and Words insist on Judaism’s ultimate hybridity, its incorporation of many outside influences. No Jewish sect — except perhaps the Karaites, who only trust the Bible, forsaking the Talmud and all other elements of Rabbinic Judaism — can claim to uphold a purely Jewish vision. And yet many continue to do so, in what essentially represents the union of literary criticism and religious fundamentalism.
Ultimately, Oz and Oz-Salzberger’s political critique of Orthodoxy isn’t a detour so much as it is an illustration of one of their core precepts: Jewish learning, they write, is built upon a “good disputative education,” and they are certainly not above engaging in some intellectual pugilism. That willingness to argue has, at times, contributed to the fracturing of Jewish culture, its tendency to create outcasts, splinter groups, false prophets, small legions of the alienated faithless. But at the same time, the fact that Jewish scholarship, both Talmudic and otherwise, has remained “enthusiastically disputative” has ensured its intellectual dynamism, and thus its continuity. The Jews, Oz and Oz-Salzberger claim, understand that some questions are never settled.
Unlike Oz and Oz-Salzberger, I don’t have the confidence of atheism, having settled for the roomier chambers of agnosticism. (Call it the habitual indecision of the millennial.) But their textline, put forth with such brio and honest intent, has animated even a jaded young sod like me. Perhaps it simply found me — negotiating a late-20s accommodation with my Jewishness — at the right time. Even so, I leave Jews and Words ready to turn back to the believers’ ancient books, the same texts that I, charged with adolescent rebellion, once proudly threw off. Next time, I’ll read them looking not for faith, but for wonder. Yet I will do so knowing that, whatever freedoms the diaspora might offer, something is lost, too.