restricted access Jews and Words by Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger (review)
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Reviewed by
Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Jews and Words. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 248pages. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN 978-0300156478.

A Jewish book is inevitably an argument, or at least one side of an argument. From the Torah to this most recent fulmination by Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, argument has been the Jewish way of making sense of the world: responding to questions with questions, to propositions with counter-propositions, to error with reason, and to reason with counter-reason. “Jewish literature, from scripture to stand-up,” write the authors of Jews and Words, “displays a recurring love of the counter-proposition, the answer-back, the chutzpah.” (41) That is why the Talmud looks the way it does, with Gemara nested within commentaries, which are still further nested in commentaries. To penetrate these nests of commentary can take a lifetime. Jews and Words is a response situated along a chain of responses, and while the book’s internal dramatics are themselves muted, we can be sure that it issued from a debate between father and daughter. Father and daughter, did I say? How heterodox is that? This is half the book’s raison d’etre. Father, the novelist, and daughter, the historian and professor at Haifa University, have produced a discourse on the text basis of Jewish history and culture, but who can doubt that the extended discourses, including an entire chapter on women in the Bible, and in contemporary Jewish life, are essentially the daughter’s contribution?

The authors are secular Jews whose claim to full citizenship in the Jewish nation—they do not mean exclusively Israel here—needs defending and defining against those who claim authentic Jewish citizenship for themselves alone. They mean in particular the haredim, against whose claims to exclusively define the Jewish way of thought this book is written. Curiously, the duo fail to cite the issues—crucially important in Israel—of the Orthodox hegemony over civil law, including marriage and divorce, and hegemony over where, and in what company, women may pray at the Western Wall. Recently there were stories in American newspapers about wives hiring gangsters to threaten and torture their husbands into giving them a Get for a Jewish legal divorce. Such matters are absent from the book, which revolves around abstract questions of legitimacy: who may call him- or herself a Jew, and with what authority.

Because they adhere to the view that the Jews are a civilization and not a religion, the authors are adamant about the full citizenship of seculars, such as themselves, quoting the Israeli writer Yizhar Smilansky, who signed his books with the pseudonym S. Yizhar. “Secularism is not permissiveness, not [End Page 79] is it lawless chaos. It does not reject tradition, and it does not turn its back on culture, its impact and its successes... Secularism is a different understanding of man and the world, a non-religious understanding.” (4) And yet, though they do not take part in rabbinic Judaism or lead observant lives, Oz and Oz-Salzberger insist that textual learning and inquiry are the life’s blood of Jewish civilization and the source of Jewish strength and uniqueness in the world. They quote Mordecai Kaplan saying, “No ancient civilization can offer a parallel comparable in intensity with Judaism’s insistence upon teaching the young and inculcating in them the traditions and customs of their people.” (7) They go on to say, “Teacher and student, rabbi and talmid, are the mainstay of postbiblical Jewish literature up until modern times.” (9) And,

What kept Jews going were the books... Incessant reading, whether purely collective or freshly interpretive, was the only act that retained, rebooted and re-consecrated the texts. There was collective reading and individual reading, wielding the scroll-pointer and orally reciting, knowing-by-heart and reading-in-the-heart, nigun-humming and melody-chanting and voice-raising and soundless lip-moving. There was reading as prayer, reading as ritual, reading as messaging, and reading as reasoning.


It is a stirring litany of ways to pray, but in what way does it distinguish secular Jews like the authors from any observant...