The Magazine

Atheist of the Book

A grand old man of letters meets the literature of Judaism.

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By DAVID WOLPE
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Many years ago, Will Herberg spoke of “cut-flower ethics.” He argued that, once unmoored from the religious soil that nurtured them, ethical principles would endure for a while, but would ultimately wither. To assume otherwise is to mistakenly dismiss the catalyzing effect that the idea of God has had on ethical motivation throughout 

Amos Oz in Tel Aviv, 2008

Amos Oz in Tel Aviv, 2008

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the centuries.  

That image kept recurring as I read Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger’s lovely and unwittingly elegiac book. Amos Oz has passed from cultural insurgent to grand old man of Israeli letters, and a perennial Nobel contender. Now a full-throttle member of the Israeli cultural establishment, he still shares with other major Israeli writers (A. B. Yehoshua and, preeminently, the late Yehuda Amichai) a wry knowingness that does not preclude depth, and a weariness that does not spill over into despair. But alongside Hebrew writers of the first few generations, most notably S. Y. Agnon, Amos Oz is drawing on a cultural patrimony that is thinning in the rarefied air of software startups, and has become a victim of increased polarization between the religious and secular in Israel.

Oz and Oz-Salzberger call themselves “atheists of the book.” It is one of many fetching turns of phrase here, no surprise from a premier novelist and his historian daughter. The very pairing of authorship is an illustration of the book’s central thesis: “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 books and the children.” It is a statement of continuity with the tradition whose claims to authority they are at pains to dismiss.  

Jews, write the authors, are not a bloodline but a textline. The great philosopher Saadia Gaon said that Jews were a nation by virtue of the Torah. Oz and Oz-Salzberger paraphrase as follows: “Tangential to Saadia, the nation is a nation only by virtue of its texts .  .  . we were not a people because we thought so and so, but we were a people because we read so and so.” It is not hard to make the case for Jewish entanglement with words: 

Jews talk a lot: Verbs denoting “speak,” “say,” or “talk” appear in the Bible more than six thousand times, making the utterance of words its most common activity. By comparison, the verb for “make” or “do” has fewer than two thousand appearances.

When teaching Judaism to college students, the first point I have to make is that it is an exegetical tradition. The Torah may be the foundation stone, but for addressing any significant question in Judaism, it is but a starting point. Jewish tradition believes in the interpretability of the book—indeed it demands it. Oz and Oz-Salzberger write that the Torah is “a book that gave birth to innumerable other books. As though the Bible itself harked and heeded the command it attributes to God, ‘go forth and multiply.’ ” As people enmeshed in language, they revel in Judaism’s fidelity to the ever-expanding cascade of once-sacred words. 

There is some repetition here, and a facile cleverness that collapses upon inspection: 

Who is a Jew? Whoever is wrestling with the question, “Who is a Jew?”

A moment’s reflection proves how vacuous this statement is. Jean-Paul Sartre and John Murray Cuddihy struggled with the question of “who is a Jew” but, I think, would decline the honor of being called, thereby, Jewish. They continue, “For us, as for any Jew, here is our personal definition: any human being crazy enough to call himself a Jew is a Jew.” This clever avoidance of the normative is symptomatic of the problem Herberg saw long ago. What we have in the Ozes’ Judaism are cut-flower texts.

Some secular intellectuals, and most religious Jews, spend a great deal of time studying Jewish texts. But the average nonbelieving Jew is rarely occupied with the textline of which Oz and Oz-Salzberger write so lovingly. Cultural traditions serve the people for whom they matter. Jewish texts, in some way, reflected the will of God; that was why people studied them. 

It is no coincidence that in the great enterprise of Daf Yomi—studying a page of Talmud each day until completion over seven years—the participants are overwhelmingly orthodox. The rationale for the nonbeliever begins with the texts’ beauty, but there are many beautiful texts; arguing simply for their wisdom enters Jewish texts in fierce competition, with everything from great literature to the latest tract of self-help. The text-lover pleads that you should read it because it is yours, but we all know how careless people are with their cultural inheritances. If it is mine, what need have I of the effort to acquire it?

In the end, for all its virtues and cleverness, there is a hollow evasion at the center of Jews and Words. Jewish literacy in Israel itself is appallingly low. No matter how lyrical Oz and Oz-Salzberger justly insist the Song of Songs is, in an Internet age, who will spend time with it? Paradoxically, for a book about Jews and words, two Israelis have chosen to write this book in English. No doubt that will assure it a wider audience than if it were written in Hebrew, but I fear that is both because Hebrew speakers are already familiar with some of the more facile comparisons and comments, and for a deeper, more troubling reason: They will no longer thrill to its possibilities.  

In the English-speaking world we might imagine there is a large coterie of “atheists of the book,” waiting to be swept up in the vast sea of Jewish literature. Its very foreignness gives it a seductive exoticism. But this literature was written in a believing spirit. Even when the spirits began to ebb, the first moderns had been raised in the study hall and knew the literature they alternately cherished and rejected. Today, the flowers wither. Or, to put it biblically, the bones only revive when the spirit of the Lord blows through them.

David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.