“Religion is based on the idea that God is an imbecile.” That is one of the many things that Noam Chomsky, the legendary left-wing linguist, academic, political thinker, and activist, has to say in his interview with contributing editor David Samuels today in Tablet Magazine. Chomsky, 81, narrates his childhood attending Philadelphia’s most elite Sephardic synagogue in a thoroughly cultural-Zionist milieu; explains how his revolutionary theory of generative grammar emerged from his study of Hebrew and Arabic; and offers his opinions on various facets of international affairs, including Israel’s crimes and the United States’s complicity in them.
Mostly what emerges is a still-fiery intellectual, ridiculously smart, whose feeling of obligation is powerful, yet also, at points, tempered by an unexpected sense of resigned, ironic self-awareness.
Did you read Nivi’im, the prophets, with your father in Hebrew?
The word “prophet” is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they’d be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on.
I don’t want to say it was all beautiful. Dissident intellectuals aren’t all beautiful. You read Sakharov, who is sometimes appalling. Or Solzhenitsyn. And the nivi’im were treated the way dissident intellectuals always are. They weren’t praised. They weren’t honored. They were imprisoned like Jeremiah. They were driven into the desert. They were hated. Now at the time, there were intellectuals, “prophets,” who were very well treated. They were the flatterers of the court. Centuries later, they were called “false prophets.”
People who criticize power in the Jewish community are regarded the way Ahab treated Elijah: You’re a traitor. You’ve got to serve power. You can’t argue that the policies that Israel is following are going to lead to its destruction, which I thought then and still do.
Did you imagine yourself as a navi, a prophet, when you were a child reading those texts alone in your room or on Friday night with your father?
Sure. In fact, my favorite prophet, then and still, is Amos. I particularly admired his comments that he’s not an intellectual. I forget the Hebrew, but lo navi ela anochi lo ben navi—I’m not a prophet, I’m not the son of a prophet, I’m a simple shepherd. So he translated “prophet” correctly. He’s saying, “I’m not an intellectual.” He was a simple farmer and he wanted just to tell the truth. I admire that.