A Hebrew text message

Israeli writers and thinkers Amos Oz and his daughter Fania affirm 'true' story over biblical narrative

By Natasha Lehrer, December 7, 2012

Jews and Words/ By Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger/ Yale University Press, £18.99

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In this provocative, playful, speculative journey through the rich, centuries-old heritage of Jewish literature, father and daughter Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger propose a “textline” rather than a bloodline — a notion of Jewish lineage that is etched not in blood but in words, spoken and written.

Quoting Yehuda Amichai, they measure Jewish continuity not through archaeology or history, but “on the scale of a different measurement” — a scale made of words.

Oz the novelist, and his daughter, a historian of ideas, insist on an engagement with Jewish texts that is dissociated from religion. They remind us repeatedly that they are secular Jewish Israelis: “We do not believe in God… our Jewish identity is not faith-powered”.

For non-religious Israeli Jews, who have Hebrew as their mother tongue, the relationship to Hebrew texts is facilitated but problematical, and part of the impulse behind the writing of this book is the desire to reclaim a textual heritage for secular Jews.

As they point out, Jewish texts “are our cultural and intellectual gateways to the world”, yet the secular Israeli society in which they live has long distrusted interest in the culture of the Bible as “at best atavistic… at worst triumphalist or nationalist.”

For the authors, this is, at the very least, misguided. Citing Spinoza’s “brave denial of biblical authority over metaphysical truth and historical narrative,” they propose a defence of secularism as a form of “intellectual restlessness” and insist that the Hebrew Bible is a work of human creativity that demands critical scholarship.

This isn’t new ground (a quarter-of- a-century ago Robert Alter and Frank Kermode radicalised the reading of the Bible as literature in their seminal Literary Guide to the Bible) but the inclusive way they approach the three broad themes of the book — continuity, women, and time — has a beguiling charm (if one overlooks the use of the first person plural, a stylistic tic that pervades the book and lends it a faint, if unintended, archness), and is very much for the lay reader with no specialist knowledge.

In their sweep of Jewish literary history they embrace the biblical Naomi, Tamar and Hannah; Glikl of Hameln; Marcel Proust’s mother Jeanne Clémence Weil; Rosalind Franklin; and Alvy Singer’s mother within the same textual continuum.

The very notion of time and history, is according to the authors, quite different for Hebrew speakers than for the speakers of other languages: “when we speak Hebrew we literally stand in flow of time with our backs to the future and our faces towards the past.” For the authors, there is something undeniably romantic, if avowedly reactionary, in this insight, which they attribute to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

I think it really belongs Walter Benjamin, who was in turn inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. Benjamin’s Angel of History, his back turned to the future, “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet” — a ghastly, haunting image pertinent, perhaps, to today’s Middle East. The idea that Jewish history is expressed in words not wars seems like wishful thinking right now.

Natasha Lehrer is a Paris-based writer

Last updated: 3:20pm, December 7 2012