The Wizard of Oz

Long before she became the doyenne of all thing social media, Laura Brahm wrote lovely, crisp prose on an array of topics: Arthur Koestler, memory and the Holocaust, the cultural Cold War, and more. And then, mysteriously, she stopped. Well, I’m glad to say she’s back. This time in the Nation, writing about Amos Oz’s and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s new book Jews and Words. Sadly, the article’s behind the paywall. Happily, I climb walls. Here are some excerpts:

Two millennia ago, some rabbis were having a debate. The details—involving dead snakes, a broken oven, a flying carob tree—were convoluted. Downright Talmudic, you might say, were the argument not already in the Talmud. God himself intervened, siding with one of the rabbis by performing a series of miracles. But divine intervention isn’t why the episode was remarkable. Rather, it was how the other rabbis responded. “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute,” one said to God, “what have ye to interfere?” In other words: What business is it of yours? The Torah had already been given to Moses at Mount Sinai, he explained, and thereafter “we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice.” The text and its human readers trumped God. God’s response? He laughed, saying, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.” Well played, Babylonian sages, well played.

Jews, they claim, have a unique collective identity that is not religious, not biological, but rather textual. From the very beginning, they argue, the Jewish people shared the Hebrew Bible and its laws orally from one generation to the next. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the subsequent exile of the Jews into the Diaspora, the Jewish people existed only insofar as their texts existed. They possessed no geographical or other unifying identity outside the Torah, rabbinical texts, poetry, and women’s and children’s books. For Jews, literacy and community have gone hand in hand, from ancient and medieval times to today.

Given the title and the book’s focus on survival, its scope is surprisingly narrow. Anyone expecting a more expansive historical or literary survey of the relationship of Jews to words, from King David to Larry David, will be disappointed. European and American luminaries like Spinoza, Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth are discussed, but the focus skews toward the Hebrew Bible, with a leap to modern Hebrew writers (including, on occasion, Amos Oz quoting himself). What of the huge legacy of Yiddish literature? Where is the footprint of American Jewish culture? The book presumes that exile has necessitated and nurtured a text-based tradition, yet it breezes past large chunks of Diaspora history and culture.

Israelis and Hebrew would have been a more apt title: the open and porous notion of Jewish identity and culture that the authors champion ultimately appears more parochial than they intended.

“This book is not about current affairs,” they write. “We are not bringing our take on Jewish history and continuity to bear on the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we cannot ignore the political meaning of our claim to a Jewish textline, and our belief in the superiority of books over material remains.” However, when you make an eloquent case (as the authors do) that “ours is not a bloodline but a textline,” what does it mean if you live in a state whose citizenship laws are in fact based on bloodline? For all the luftmensch talk about a heritage that is “paved with words,” that rhetoric reveals itself to be a tactic in a struggle over actual physical space: between secular and Orthodox Jews within the state of Israel, and between Israelis and Palestinians over the land itself. Those struggles may be why the authors fail to address a question their book fairly demands: If the relationship of Jews to books is largely a product of the Diaspora, what happens when that exile comes to an end in the form of a Jewish state? In a book that extols the virtues of a textual tradition rooted in the asking of questions, this is one that should not be overlooked.


  1. BillR March 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm | #

    Large servings of the word salad that pro-Israel hasbara artists like Malcolm Schosha regularly dole out at your blog reminded me of an interesting article from a couple of years ago:
    What Is Pilpul, And Why On Earth Should I Care About It?

    What is thought to be the Jewish “genius” is often a mark of how pilpul is deployed. The rhetorical tricks of pilpul make true rational discussion impossible; any “discussion” is about trying to “prove” a point that has already been established. There is little use trying to argue in this context, because any points being made will be twisted and turned to validate the already-fixed position…What is most unfortunate about pilpul–and this is something that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the controversies involving Israel and Palestine–is that, since the rational has been removed from the process, all that is left is yelling, irrational emotionalism, and, ultimately, the threat of violence.

  2. BillR March 6, 2013 at 9:48 pm | #

    oops, forgot to add link to above excerpt:

    And, also an interesting account of that slick peddler of the “Shooting and Crying” genre of hasbara, Amos Oz:

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