A textline, not a bloodline

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger make the case for literary Judaism

amos oz and daughter (photo credit: BEN WEINSTEIN / REUTERS)
amos oz and daughter
(photo credit: BEN WEINSTEIN / REUTERS)
This article first appeared at www.aslanmedia.com.
What has connected Jews through the centuries? Celebrated intellectual, writer and novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, writer and journalist Fania Oz-Salzberger, consider this question in their lovely new book, Jews and Words.
Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Oz is a longtime advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The author – whose previous books include Fima (1991), Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays (1994), A Tale of Love and Darkness (2003) and How to Cure a Fanatic (2006) – is the recipient of numerous international literary awards, such as the Legion of Honour (1997), the Goethe Prize (2005) and the Primo Levi Prize (2008). He is a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University.
Oz-Salzberger, a professor of history in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa, was born in Kibbutz Hulda in 1960 and educated at Tel Aviv University and the University of Oxford. She recently held the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University, and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University.
The author of Translating the Enlightenment (1995) and Israelis in Berlin (2001), she has written for many international journals and newspapers, such as Newsweek, The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Haaretz and Forbes.
In Jews and Words, father and daughter – both secular Jewish atheists – show how words and texts are the common threads among Jews over the centuries.
Discussing the book in an interview, they argue that “ours is not a bloodline, but a textline.”
What was the inspiration for your new book? Oz: There is an ancient debate, among Jews and among non-Jews, on the issues of “What is Jewish?” and “Who is a Jew?” We wanted to add our modest input to those debates. We maintain that the unifying force of Jews in different times and in different places is the adherence to a large body of texts, as well as a long tradition of interpreting, counter-interpreting and reinterpreting of those texts. We maintain that the Jewish lineage is not necessarily a bloodline, but rather a textline.
Oz-Salzberger: Two current and stormy debates have inspired us: (1) Was the Jewish people “invented” in modern times, for devious motives, or is it as ancient as Abraham? (2) Can an atheist be meaningfully Jewish and pass this identity to his or her children, especially if not living in Israel? We offer a few out-of-the-box answers.
How did your passion for reading begin? Oz: It began when I was about one year old, or even earlier, with the books my parents vied to read to me.
Sometimes they even read to each other things which I could not possibly understand, and yet I loved the sound of words and the melody of sentences.
Oz-Salzberger: Our tiny kibbutz home, a room and a half, was so full of books that they reached both the ceiling and the floor. That floor was my earliest world, and the books were as reachable as the toys, and far more numerous. A little later I read my first word, which happened to be “Elite,” the name of a chocolate manufacturer.
I slowly deciphered it on the red wrap of a chocolate bar, next to a smiling cow. By sheer accident, I thus received the ancient Jewish jumpstart: Your first letters are sweetened by almonds, raisins or candies.
How are Jews “texted” to their ancestors? Oz-Salzberger: I have no idea whether I am genetically descended from Sarah, or from Deborah, or even from the Talmud-era Jews. Probably not. Our genetic lineage ascends painfully from medieval and early modern Jews, some in Sepharad [Spain], most in Ashkenaz [central and eastern Europe], a loose network of nomads carrying bags, babies and books, suffering a great deal of violence.
Precisely because so much blood was spilled, we are not a bloodline. Genetically speaking, I probably hail from their attackers, too.
Except that the chromosomes are not the main inheritance that my Jewish ancestors left me. It is the books. I am the child of Moses and Ruth, the talmudic sages and the Sephardi poets, because I inherited their words, their old books, and some – not all – of the ideas.
But what if Moses or Ruth are mere fictional characters? Oz-Salzberger: Well, that does not preclude me from being texted to them, belonging to a line of wordiness coming from them. And from the real, living, immensely creative Hebrews who put them into the books.
What is the “Jewish theology of chutzpah”? Oz: It has to do with an ancient Jewish tradition of arguing with scholarly authority, of differing from rabbi or ancestor, of challenging God himself. In an amazing chapter of Genesis, Abraham argues with God over the destiny of the city of Sodom – bargaining with God like a shrewd second-hand car dealer – “Fifty righteous men? Maybe 40? Thirty? Twenty? Even 10?” – he is trying to save Sodom from divine wrath. Finally he turns his eyes upward, saying, “Would not the Justice of all the earth do justice?” The prophets, Job, talmudic sages, pre-modern rabbis and contemporary Israeli writers and poets follow suit.
Oz-Salzberger: If I had to pick one thread that flows through Jewish personalities from Abraham to Woody Allen, I would call it “irreverent reverence.” Jewish belief is strengthened, not weakened, by scathing criticism and spiky humor hurled toward the authorities, the strong, even the Almighty. This mind-set is so appealing that even seculars like us embrace the tradition.
Is it a blessing that “the Jews never had a pope”? Oz: Yes, it is. It signifies that every individual has the right to try to interpret the scriptures in his or her own way. It testifies to a certain “anarchistic” cultural gene. It means that almost everything in our culture may be debated, reinterpreted and even reinvented. It attests to the centrality of the individual in the Israelite and Jewish tradition.
What is the difference between a “museum civilization” and a “living civilization”? Oz: In a “museum civilization,” the heritage is so sacred that one is not allowed to touch it, certainly not to change it or add to it. The individual in a “museum civilization” is expected only to worship the heritage, to preserve it and to pass it on, unchanged, to future generations.
In a “living civilization” everything is changeable.
It is a civilization of doubt and argument. Every generation, and even every individual, is free to add, to reinterpret, to detract and even to relegate part of the heritage to the basement.
What can we all learn from Jewish self-criticism? Oz-Salzberger: That Jewish self-criticism is not only Jewish.
It is universal. Many of the things described in our book, the mental curiosity, the irreverent reverence, the ability to laugh at oneself and one’s ancestors, while sometimes rather loving them – all this is universal. So many people, probably from every culture, share these things or aspire to them. The love of reading, the rise and rise of the printed word, which now commands almost all of our waking hours – all this is universal. We can critique what is dearest to us, or tease it, but still have a strong sense of belonging. This is a lesson the Jews might offer the world.