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(Secular) Jews and (Too Many) Words

What potential. A world famous Israeli novelist, peace activist and shortlisted Nobel laureate teams up with his daughter, an accomplished scholar of the German Enlightenment (mentored by philosopher Isaiah Berlin) to write Jews and Words, a book about “the relationship of Jews with words.” Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, deft with words, attempt to track the history of a people defined by the book.

“We don’t know about God,” write the accomplished Israeli chilonim in the book’s preface, “but Jewish continuity has always been paved with words.” They continue, writing, “In Jewish tradition every reader is a proof-reader, every student a critic, and every writer, including the Author of the universe, begs a great many questions.”

Their powerful preface sets a careful tone. They warn that the essayist genre is disposed to slip into bias, scholarly myopathy, and “arrogant” generalizations. They emphasize the limited scope of their project and apologize if their work fails to persuade.

However, turn the page to their first essay “Continuity,” and the pair seems to fall into the very traps they so reflexively and purposefully warned against. Halfway through the essay, the project has unraveled into a messy disappointment. The pair insinuates that Joshua “sounds not like a great Torah scholar to us, but a regional warlord.” Later, the pair admits that “the present authors, indeed have political axes to grind against Akiva’s disciples.” Insolence forgiven, the authors constantly and unabashedly inject their own loud voices into what could have been an absorbing foray into the world of Jewish textualism.

I pressed on, optimistic that amid the highbrow literary namedropping (“Berdyczewski’s insight that Jews preceded Judaism is true in a basic linguistic sense”), secular snobbery (“There is something adolescent, eternally puerile, about some Jewish attitudes to God, rabbis and worldly authority”), and hackneyed utilization of Jewish texts (read tanur shel akhnai) I would find a persuasive underlying argument. Alas, it would not be so.

In four essays, the pair attempts to center their discussion around the shared coordinates of the written word. Seldom do they succeed. Instead, these rambling, uncooked and lackluster chapters add little to the discussion. Simply put, it is unclear what the pair want to accomplish.

Their fifty-page essay entitled “Vocal Women,” a treatise on women within Jewish text, skips along the surface of female figures. All the while, the pair  insert scornful intellectualism wherever they possibly can. The chapter’s first five pages are at least grounded thematically, starting with a philological rewriting of the preamble to the Song of Songs (asher leShlomo becomes ashir lishlomo, changing the speaker to a seductive woman) to current Ultra-Orthodox waves of chauvinism in Israel to Maimonides’s rather unfortunate edict to keep women indoors all but “twice a month;” never mind that on the very next page they write “Cherish discovery and surprise more than your own agenda.” (And later, in “Each Person Has a Name,” write, “Maimonides, by the way, is on our side…well done, Maimonides.”)

The rest of this painfully long chapter seems to tick off a laundry list of Biblical, Talmudic and Medieval personalities, appropriating a paragraph to an irreverent reading of Eve in Genesis 2, a sentence to Lilith (the female demon from the Babylonian Talmud), a word or two about Glickl of Hameln. What does this have to do with the written word? Your guess is as good as mine.

In “Time and Timelessness” the book careens across topics, untethered by any meaningful leitmotif. We go from Zecharia’s vision for a time when there is “neither day nor night” to a nod to Einstein’s interplay between time and space, which they thankfully refrain from delving into because it is not “particularly Jewish (except in its sheer chutzpah). Instead, we invite you to dwell on the biblical sense of holiness.” This transition, typical of the many wild turns in the book, will have you sore from whiplash, ready to throw your hands up in surrender. I say, capitulation before venturing further.

The pair often seem to realize how far-afield they have driven, and attempt to recalibrate their course before their essays careen off literary cliffs. “Thus the recurring themes that render Jewish continuity so persuasive are lined up along a written and verbal genealogy. One cannot be a Jew without exposure to a certain lexicon,” write Oz and Oz-Salzberger, attempting to re-center their essay. But read their carefully crafted sentences again, and you will realize they contain a wealth of words but say little.

The real problem lies in the duet’s rejection of all semblance of thesis. They prefer, it seems, to throw in a trite piece of text, a few niblets from the world of theory and a dash of profane posturing in the hope that readers stuff themselves with delight. Not surprisingly, humanists find their work full of the cheeky political and religious chutzpah, full of “refreshing” insight, and fanciful one-liners. Those uninitiated to any Jewish texts praise the book for its playful interchange of texts and concise biographies. But don’t be fooled by the reviews. The volume fails to take flight beyond anecdotes plucked from high school Jewish medieval history and middle school Bible.

Conspicuously absent from the world of words created by the duo is the centrality of Jewish prayer, an oversight as only stridently atheist kibbutznikim could execute. This isn’t my own compartmentalization. Not a section of each chapter lacks a form of “as secular Israelis” or “as atheistic Jews.” Almost every use of a Biblical or Talmudic text comes with a caveat about its authorship; “Once again, we are at a loss to establish whether Hannah ever existed and who really wrote ‘My heart exults in the Lord.’ But we are fascinated by a literary culture that ascribes this polished piece of highbrow poetry to a humble woman.”

That being said, Oz and Oz-Salzberger do open up a world of Jewish texts to a secular and skeptical readership. They equivocate on authorship and dating perhaps to placate certain voices while paving the way to a greater understanding, and thus respect for, the Talmud and Bible. In fact, for every impudent remark concerning the Bible’s chauvinism or the Talmud’s misogyny, the pair is careful to emphasize their unwavering affection for the texts and, more importantly, the centrality of Jewish  textual culture. “We don’t like all of it,” write Oz and Oz-Salzberger, “but we find so much that is true, good and insightful in parts of the Jewish bookshelf, that we can claim to have replaced faith with wonder.”