Amos Oz was the ultimate secularist

To me, Oz’s great contribution to Jewish culture is the boldness and directness with which he spoke about current issues, pointing out the great challenges ahead.

Wreaths are laid at a memorial service for Amos Oz in Tel Aviv, December 31st, 2018 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Wreaths are laid at a memorial service for Amos Oz in Tel Aviv, December 31st, 2018
It is not every day that such a daring, self-confident secular figure emerges in our midst, presenting a bold and positive secular-Jewish stance that serves as a beacon for Jews all over the world. Amos Oz was not only a literary giant, he was also an exemplary secular Jew.
Amos Oz’s secularism never involved an insidious struggle against religious coercion or religionization. It did not deal with “what not,” but rather “what is.” It did not address the ostensible appropriation of Jewish culture by the Orthodox, nor with the ostensible religious takeover of the public sphere or the education system. Oz was far more concerned with the abandonment of Jewish culture by the secular Jews, an abandonment that he felt required healing and change.
Oz was never apologetic for his deep-rooted connection to the Jewish bookshelf. He loved it, loved to read it and loved to use it, either in his literary works or as justification and validation of his moral and political positions. He apparently learned a thing or two from the national-religious rabbis, who were not afraid to connect their spiritual and text-based world with a solid and courageous political and social worldview.
Oz and his historian daughter, Prof. Fania Oz Salzberger, wrote in their book Jews and Words: “In the secular and modern part of Israeli society there is today a cultural atmosphere that increasingly identifies any “Jewish matter” – a biblical quotation, a Talmudic reference, even a mere interest in the past – as politically suspect, outdated at best, nationalist and chauvinistic at worst. There are many reasons, some of which are understandable, for the liberal resistance of secular Israelis to the depths of Jewish heritage. But this is a misguided, wasteful, perhaps even dangerous, aversion.”
Instead of dealing with the question of whether “religious” content should enter “secular” spaces, Oz preferred to ask what we – secular Jews – could do with this content. What benefit can a secular person find in both ancient and new Jewish texts? How do we make the Jewish bookshelf relevant for us?
And if we decide to reclaim the Jewish bookshelf as our own, what do we do with the content that is incompatible with our humanistic and modernistic views? What should we do, for example, with the prohibition of homosexuality, the stoning of adulterers or laws dealing with the economic treatment of non-Jews? In this regard, I especially like the metaphor that first appeared in his book In the Land of Israel. I call it the Cellar Metaphor:
“I see myself as one of the legitimate heirs (of Jewish tradition), not as a stepchild, not as a rebellious son, and not as a bastard – but as an heir. And the implication of my status as an heir will certainly shock you; it implies that I am free to decide what part of this great estate will be in my living room and what will be stored in the basement. Of course, future generations have the full right to reorganize and furnish their lives as they wish. And I also have the right to ‘import’ from the outside and blend into my inheritance what I choose… this is the pluralism that I spoke earlier in its praise.”
This is a distinctly secular position, and one which, I believe, can be embraced wholeheartedly today: In Jewish culture there are treasures that can serve as a great inspiration for action in this world, to create personal and national moral standards. And there are things we choose to leave “in the basement.” Not to hide, to erase or cancel anything – we have no interest in removing even one single page from the Bible or from the Talmud – simply not to emphasize them. Recognize their existence and move on to rejoicing in the beautiful aspects of our heritage: the social commandments, the universal morality, the attitude toward the stranger, the firm ethics of the prophets against empty ritual, corruption, discrimination and the exploitation of the weak.
Jewish culture needs hands to shake it up and down, turn the pages and give them a new spirit. Amos Oz’s unique definition of Judaism teaches us something about both the grandiosity of the Jewish enterprise and the modesty required for its understanding. Oz saw Judaism not as a confined religion, but rather as a cultural world with religious dimensions. Jewish culture is a linguistic-textual culture, not a biological one.
“It is not stones that interest us, not tribalism or chromosomes.
Anyone who wants to trace the Jewish continuity and affirm its existence need not be an archaeologist or an anthropologist or a geneticist. There is no need to be an observant Jew. Not even a Jew at all... It is enough that a person be a reader.” (Jews and Words)
On the other hand, as stated, great modesty is required. Without pretending to understand Judaism in all its manifestations or to represent the word of God, Oz is the representative of multifaceted Judaism, which some of us like to call pluralistic, diverse and in its deepest sense, non-Orthodox. If the ortho-doxia (“straight path” in Greek) points to one single path, then Oz’s secular Judaism points to the multiplicity of paths as an ideal to be aspired to. Thus, for example, he writes in The Land of Israel that “the sin of arrogance [is] not because a religious person believes in the existence of a divine plan... but rather in that one pretends to understand this plan better than others.”
To me, Oz’s great contribution to Jewish culture is the boldness and directness with which he spoke about current issues, pointing out the great challenges ahead, and providing a harsh yet sensitive rebuke to Israeli society. From The Seventh Day, through the difficult conversations with the people of Ofra, to his latest book, Dear Zealots, which served as his spiritual will for his beloved state, Oz was a Jew who pursued peace and demanded justice in the fullest. He dreamed peace and worked for peace, spoke truth and was not afraid to prophesy. As we part from him, we remember the Judaism he decreed, the secularity he charged us with, and the Israeli society he sought for us here in the days to come.
The writer is an educator at the Secular Yeshiva of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.