‘My Judaism Is the Civilization’

Amos Oz, Hebrew novelist, secular prophet and self-proclaimed “non-synagogue” Jew, has joined his local Reform congregation in Arad, the Negev desert town where he has lived since leaving Kibbutz Hulda a decade ago.

In reaction to last month’s massive haredi demonstration in Jerusalem against the Supreme Court, he joined other leading writers and intellectuals in urging fellow liberals to support Israel’s fledgling Reform and Conservative movements. So far, about 700 callers have registered their solidarity, and the Reform movement is launching a new recruitment drive.

In a wide-ranging interview, Amos Oz explains why he was one of the first to sign up — and why the Arad congregation should not expect to see much of him.

ERIC SILVER: If you are not a believer, why have you and your wife, Nily, joined a synagogue?

AMOS OZ: It is a measure of solidarity with the Conservative and Reform movements, which are now being discriminated against in Israel. They are the focus of a fierce attack from the ultra-Orthodox.

ES: Have you been affiliated with any kind of synagogue before?

AO: No, never. I am not a synagogue Jew, and I have not become a synagogue Jew. I shall participate only very occasionally. My affiliation is an act of solidarity, not an act of a born-again Reform Jew.

ES: You have been accused of hypocrisy for joining a religious community when you don’t believe in the religion.

AO:As I said, it’s an act of support; it’s an act of endorsement. I find the Conservative and Reform version of Judaism closer to my own than the Orthodox.

ES: What does being a Jew mean to you? What place does the religious tradition have in your Judaism?

AO: My Judaism is the civilization, of which the religion is only one of many components. There is not even a proper Hebrew word for religion. Dat does not mean religion; it means a body of law and customs. The entire concept of associating a Jewish civilization, a Jewish culture, exclusively with the synagogue is one of the manifestations of a stagnation dating back to the 17th century.

ES: Many Jews who share your lack of religious belief still maintain certain traditions, like lighting candles on Friday night, circumcision, bar and bat mitzvah. What part have such things played in your life?

AO: I maintain those traditions which I like and find meaningful. I maintain them because they are part of my beloved heritage.

ES: So why join a Reform congregation now?

AO: We are witnessing a crusade on the state of Israel, which is primarily over the exclusivity which the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox claim. I don’t think anybody deserves exclusivity over Judaism.

ES: But if you are not religious, what does it matter to you?

AO: This is my heritage. I am a Jew, and Judaism is not a religion. It’s a culture; it’s a civilization. Here are some people claiming exclusivity, and they intend to exclude anyone who does not treat Judaism their way. By the way, they intend to exclude not only the Conservatives and Reform. They intend to exclude my kind of Jew as well. And they intend this exclusion, using my taxpayer’s money, and I don’t like it.

ES: Their demonstration was a peaceful protest against the Supreme Court. Why shouldn’t they have the right to demonstrate just like anyone else?

AO: You mentioned the word hypocrisy earlier. That demonstration was a manifestation of hypocrisy because it was not at all about the Supreme Court. It was about the law of the state; it was about who runs the state. Does the state belong to its citizens, or should it be controlled by the rabbis?

ES: Those citizens are going to the polls in May. Jewish control of the whole of the ancient Land of Israel is receding as the central issue dividing right and left. A right-wing government has handed land to the Palestinians. Do you see a new opportunity for the secular politicians, of both camps, to curb the bargaining power of the religious parties?

AO: This is highly likely. The Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox are among the first to realize that they no longer hold the balance between hawks and doves, because there is no longer an abyss between hawks and doves. This is one of the reasons why their leaders are trying to establish hasty faits accomplis in order to change the Israeli reality.

ES: Do you agree with some commentators, who argue that, despite all the appearances, the religious are actually losing the battle?

AO: I am not sure that they are losing, but I’m quite confident that they are not gaining it. The entire Orthodox Jewish electorate was represented in the first Knesset in 1949 by 19 members. Fifty years later, they are represented by 23. That means that once every 14 years, they gained one more seat. At this rate, in 800 years, they will become a majority. After the elections, it will be time for the major secular parties to get together and conclude the conflict with the Arabs and start setting rules of the game for the state of Israel.

ES: What kind of state do you want to see?

AO: A place of thriving Judaism in all its forms, a place of thriving culture, a place of thriving creativity, in all its forms and all its manifestations.