Are Books All We Have Left?
A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today
The genealogical lists that fill the Bible are notoriously hard going; but if you want to reflect on the strangeness and singularity of Jewish history, a good place to start is the list of generations in Genesis 11. Here are the fathers and sons who bridge the centuries between Noah and Abraham—men with names like Arpachshad, Peleg, and Serug, which are strange to the eye and on the tongue. When the name of Abram first appears in the Bible, it is in this list of names, and for an instant the context manages to defamiliarize it. We peer into an alternate reality where the syllables of Abram sound as foreign, as primordial, as Arpachshad—a world where Abram is not yet Abraham, not yet the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In these names, we can read in very concrete terms what it meant for the Jews to be a chosen people. There is only one reason why Abraham escaped the anonymity that encloses his ancestors and contemporaries. It is that, as we read in Genesis 12, God made him a gratuitous promise: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you.” In token of this covenant, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham just as, two generations later, he would change Jacob’s name to Israel, “for you have striven with God.” For centuries afterward, Jacob’s progeny would refer to themselves as b’nei Yisrael and am Yisrael, thus inscribing the name of God in their own name.
It is paradoxical, then, that in their new book, Jews and Words, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger see in the name B’nei Yisrael the promise of a liberation from religion. Starting in the 19th century, they argue, Jews began to conceptualize Judaism as a religion, in parallel with Christianity and Islam. But historically speaking, the word and idea of “Judaism”—in Hebrew, yahadut—have shallow roots among the Jewish people. (In the Hebrew Encyclopedia, they point out, the word “Jew” has no entry: Look it up and you will be redirected to “The People of Israel.”)
To the Ozes, the word yahadut is an ahistorical coinage, now favored by the Orthodox of Israel as a “tool for correcting the infidels.” But if you replace “the Jews” and “Judaism” with the older term “children of Israel,” they argue, you can find your way to a more capacious and potentially more secular way of thinking about what it means to belong to the Jewish people. The Children of Israel are not all those who believe in a certain creed or practice a certain set of laws; they are all those who descend (biologically or, the Ozes would insist, by culture and tradition) from the patriarchs. To be a Jew is not to practice a faith, but to belong to a nation; and you can’t forfeit membership in the nation by losing the faith.
This linguistic argument recapitulates the basic thrust of Zionism, which was largely a secularizing movement. The Zionist project was to reconceive Jewish nationhood in secular political terms; the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was, in a way, only the symbol or capstone of this more fundamental ideological work. Yet there was always a deep paradox in this mission, which surfaces, once again, in the question of names. The inevitable name for the Jewish state, of which Amos Oz has become one of the greatest novelists, is Israel: From b’nei Yisrael and am Yisrael come medinat Yisrael. Yet the name Israel bears within it the memory of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, and of the divine covenant. Israel could not have become Israel without God. The question that faces millions of Jews today, and that the Ozes are canvassing in their passionate book, is whether Israel can remain Israel once God has disappeared.
The title of Jews and Words suggests the answer that Oz and Oz-Salzberger have to give. “What kept the Jews going,” they write, “were the books.” From earliest times, the Torah was at the heart of Jewish identity. But with the destruction of the Temple and the kingdom of Judea, in the first century CE, words and books became the very substance of Jewish practice and belief. You could no longer offer a sacrifice in Jerusalem, but you could study the Mishnah at the beit midrash—and after the Mishnah the Talmud, and Maimonides, and the Kabbalah, and so on down the centuries. For the Ozes, initiation into Jewishness meant instruction, most often carried out from father to son, in how to read texts. “The children were made to inherit not only a faith, not only a collective fate, not only the irreversible mark of circumcision, but also the formative stamp of a library.”
Today, most Jewish children are still circumcised—though it’s possible we’re about to undergo a sea change in public attitudes toward circumcision that will make it a much more difficult choice for Jewish parents. But not all Jews inherit the same faith—they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, atheist, indifferent. And not all of us inherit the same fate; on the contrary, the fate of Jews in America, the pressures and possibilities we face, are very different from those facing Jews in Israel. Every day it is becoming easier to imagine how those differences may one day result in a serious breach between the world’s two major Jewish communities.
What that leaves is the library. Not the contents of the library, of course—Jews today grow up with a very different reading list than our ancestors had 300 or 2,000 years ago. What the Ozes are banking on is that the very idea of libraries, of reading and writing, of textuality, are enough to sustain a coherent Jewish identity. Much of Jews and Words is devoted to an affectionate exploration of Jewish feelings toward books, writing, and the intellect in general. In the Seder’s Four Sons and the dialectic of the Talmud, the Ozes see a Jewish respect for questioning and debate. In the anxiety Jewish parents famously feel for their children, they find the key to cultural transmission: “Jewish parenting had, perhaps still has, a unique academic edge. Being a parent meant performing some level of text-based teaching.” In the bar mitzvah boy’s speech, they find the Jewish pressure to contribute something new to tradition. All these qualities persist, they argue, in modern, secular Israel, helping to explain the country’s high-tech prowess: “We are talking habits, not chromosomes.”
Satirist and media gadfly Henryk Broder attacks his countrymen’s attitudes toward Israel and Jews