Amos Oz, daughter explore Jewish love affair with words

‘jews and words’ by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The hackneyed description of Jews being “the People of the Book” is no less valid just because it has been overused for decades. The words and sentences that make up our sacred texts and rich heritage of secular literature form an unbroken chain that unites Jews of all stripes—the religious, the secular, the believers and the skeptics. Indeed, the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, makes it clear in the Book of Genesis that God used words to create the heavens and the earth, humankind and all of the animals and plants that sustain our precious planet: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

Israel’s Amos Oz, the internationally renowned author and professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, has been short-listed for years as worthy of a Nobel Prize in Literature, along with American novelist Philip Roth.  It is to the discredit of the Nobel Selection Committee that neither have received the prize which they so richly deserve.

In ‘jews and words,” deliberately spelled in all lower-case printing, (Yale University Press, $25) Oz teams up with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. She recently held the Leon Lieberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University.

These two high-powered Jewish intellectuals deploy their full inventory of literary, biblical and historic insights to their review of the vital role of words as a sustaining force in Jewish life. Although Oz and Oz-Salzberger are Jewish, they emphasize that while they are students of the Bible and other ancient texts, they no longer subscribe to a religious basis for their Jewishness, describing themselves as “atheists of the Book.” The fact that the two authors reject a literalist religious faith in no ways diminishes their passion for Jewish literature and history. Indeed by removing any religious constraints on where their intellectual curiosity leads them, they have been freed up to explore the entire range of Jewish life, history and culture.

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The traditional Jewish belief that the Bible — and even the entire corpus of the Talmud — were received by Moses in the Revelation at Sinai is rejected entirely by Oz and daughter. They even reject the more Reform or “liberal” concept that the Scriptures and other sacred texts were divinely inspired. Jews gravitated towards a universe filled with words in all of their myriad forms and uses. For millennia, scholars and sages pored over every word, every paragraph, every syllable of the Torah and Tanakh, enriching their intellect and analytical skills as well as a positive Jewish identity in the process.

The authors totally reject that to be Jewish and not religious is to condemn oneself to despair and confusion. They note that the Book of Ecclesiastes is excessively gloomy, describing everything as “vanity of vanities,” while Viktor Frankl, the Jewish therapist and Holocaust survivor from Vienna strikes a much more optimistic tone in his acclaimed book “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which the word “hope” was more useful to his beliefs than “despair.”

The use of words as a means of banishing despair is also noted with appreciation by the authors. They applaud the “chutzpah” of Jews from Abraham to Jerry Seinfeld, from Tevye to Woody Allen who literally talk back to God and challenge God to “choose someone else once in a while” for pain and suffering. 

Woody Allen has also called himself a Jewish non-believer, and the authors note that Sigmund Freud, who called his father’s religion (and all religions) an “illusion,” steadfastly refused to resign his membership in his Vienna B’nai B’rith Lodge, and like Allen enjoyed collecting and telling Jewish jokes. To Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Sulzberger, the answer to the ages-old question “Who is a Jew” cannot be found in a rigid definition provided by halacha, or Jewish law. To them, a Jew is “anyone who is wrestling with the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’”

Some have faulted the Oz team for choosing to spell their book title “jews and words,” calling the lower-casing of the word “jews” disrespectful. Stefan Kanfer in his Moment magazine review/essay noted that the brilliant but harshly anti-Semitic poet T. S. Eliot spelled the word “jew” in some of his most offensive writings. That seems to be a bit of a stretch. The authors seem no less respectful towards Jewishness by admitting their own non-belief; rather they are reflecting honesty about their own perspectives. This slim (232 pages), but insight-packed volume deserves a wide reading audience.