A lineage of literacy

To explain the Jewish relationship with texts, Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, both staunch secularists, nonetheless look to the scriptures.

amos oz 521 (photo credit: Reli Avraham)
amos oz 521
(photo credit: Reli Avraham)
A couple of months ago, Sarah Silverman – comedienne, professional provocateur – made Sheldon Adelson – gambling magnate, newspaper proprietor, Republican Party animal – what she described as an indecent proposal: stop funding Mitt Romney’s attempt to become the 42nd president of the United States, and she’d... well, let’s just say that what she suggested was pretty naughty.
Anyway, what stood out about this was what one might call the Jewish character of the spat. Not just because the the parties both identify as Jewish; not just because the short video was paid for by the Jewish Council for Education and Research. Not even just because the crux of the matter happens to be a variation on that age-old question, is he (Obama as much as Romney) good for the Jews? But because her lèse-majesté embraces acknowledged Jewish territory: public disputation; disagreement over what is best for the Jewish people; chutzpah in spades.
While one wonders whether Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger would concern themselves with something as vulgar as Scissor Sheldon (Google it if you must), one can’t but see their new collaborative essay, “Jews and Words,” as a validation of the nature – if not necessarily the content – of Silverman’s broadside. A companion volume to the forthcoming Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, the extended essay is ostensibly a consideration of the relationship Jews have with words. But the authors go an important step beyond this, asking how words might shape what one means when describing oneself as a part of the Jewish nation.
Father and daughter spend a lot of time clarifying what they are not seeking to do with the book. It is not, they say, a celebration of separatism or superiority; neither do they have anything to say about a “presumed genetic, racial or ethnic continuity” of the Jews: “We are not into noses. We are not into chromosomes, fascinating as their study might be. Our story does not need this hypothesis.”
Ah, stories. As the writers are, respectively, an acclaimed novelist and a respected historian, one might expect a partiality for stories and story-telling. But there is something to be said for emphasizing the primacy of words in Jewish civilization. The literary and text-based traditions have accompanied the Jewish people throughout history, at home as well as in exile.
Why words? Well, think of them as vessels.
Vessels that represent tradition, culture, history. Vessels that are malleable enough to incorporate nuance and subtlety.
Vessels that can be passed down from generation to generation. The authors are at their strongest when they consider the continuity that has been engendered by the role of words in Jewish communal life.
The Jews, they remind us, have remained particularly literate throughout history.
“Here is one astounding constant of Jewish history,” they write. “Every boy was expected to go to school from the age of three to 13.” And later, “We have no history of illiterate Jewish communities... it stands to reason that for more than two and a half millennia, Jewish scholars have maintained a genuine chain of learning which most Jewish men were more or less able to follow through reading. A lineage of literacy.”
There is something romantic about this.
But, like all romances, there is also something of the rose-tinted spectacles about this exposition. Learning ought to be a truly democratic enterprise, but so often is not; We are missing something about the place of women in the Jewish pantheon here. The authors recognize this, and their chapter on vocal women attempts – with partial success – to remedy the presumption that women played a marginal role in the evolution of Jewish culture. But it seems at times to be working backwards from a conclusion: we demand the right of women to sit at the high table, and if we look closely at the sources – which they do, in fascinating detail – we will find a way to justify it. One agrees wholeheartedly with the sentiment, but the ex post facto rationalization wavers at times.
But this does not take away from the central thrust of their argument: “So when you ran for your life from massacre and pogrom, from burning home and synagogue, it was children and books you took with you. The children and the books.”
The one to perpetuate the line, the other as a reminder of what it is they are perpetuating.
A sobering, but at the same time uplifting, thought.
Given that this reader is not directly preoccupied with the question of Jewish identity, it was interesting to think about for whom precisely this book – this celebration of Jewish literary and textual erudition – is intended. The writers celebrate the beauty, the humor and the wisdom of the Jewish scriptures – the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud. But they are both atheists, and make no bones about this. Certainly, Jews and Words is, in part, an attempt to to reclaim their Jewish ancestry, albeit with the caveat that it is equally important to “explain what kind of ancestry, in our view, is worth reclaiming.”
But reclaim it from what and from whom? No one has ever accused Oz of using one word where three would do.
Academics tend to be somewhat verbose as well. It is not until two-thirds of the way into the book that the authors begin to consider explicitly the overlap – and the friction – between the religious and social aspects of Jewish identity.
“Biblical vocabulary clearly reveals that ancient Israelites understood their god (sic) primarily as a lawgiver, and themselves primarily as a jurisprudential community,” they write. Which takes us back to the notion that words – rather than, say, religion in itself – shape the Jewish sense of self.
The discussion of Jewish identity has been sublimated into any number of secondary considerations. One gets the sense from Jews and Words that this is not necessarily a bad thing. What would be a bad thing is to surrender the discussion, the disputation, the exploration of the sources, the factors that the authors propose have sustained the Jewish people throughout history. The authors do not want secularists to give up the fight for Jewish identity to the religionists. This book is, for them, I suppose, a reminder that religious observance is a part, a rich source for the notion of Jewish belonging. But it is not the whole.
Which takes me back to Ms. Silverman and Mr. Adelson. Their public spat, at its core, was about two vastly differing conceptions of a modern Jewish identity. There is no harm in this, of course – it is no more and no less than anything else Jews have done throughout the ages, arguing about what it means to say that one is a Jew.
But one suspects that the authors of Jews and Words will be a bit skeptical of both arguments. Not because they necessarily agree or disagree with either one, but due to something more fundamental. Both arguments are rooted in the present, the now; and without a sense of the past, both arguments are pointless.