Atheists of the Book

Jews have long been called the People of the Book, but the fact is that we elevate words and even letters to the realm of the sacred.
November 14, 2012

Jews have long been called the People of the Book, but the fact is that we elevate words and even letters to the realm of the sacred. The name of God is so holy in pious tradition that we are not permitted to speak it aloud, and some of the glorious wordplay of Jewish texts, prayers and songs is the result of the effort to preserve a primal taboo. 

Even more intriguing, however, is what we dare to say aloud. “In Jewish tradition every reader is a proofreader, every student a critic and every writer, including the Author of the universe, begs a great many questions,” writes acclaimed Israeli novelist and public intellectual Amos Oz, and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, in “Jews and Words” (Yale University Press: $25).

The father-and-daughter collaboration is a source of some playfulness. “We have discussed and disputed topics relevant to this book,” they write together, “since one of us was about 3 years old.” Together, they ponder the miraculous role of words in creating and preserving the Jewish people across several millennia of history, and they offer a benchmark of Jewish identity that has less to do with genomes than with words on parchment, papyrus and paper. “We are not about stones, clans or chromosomes,” they insist. “Ours is not a bloodline, but a textline.”

The authors are quick to announce that they approach the subject from a nonreligious stance. “Both of us are,” they remind us, “secular Jewish Israelis,” a potent three-word phrase that rings with meaning in itself. But they refuse to cede the Bible and the Talmud to their fellow Israelis who are observant. “To secular Jews like ourselves, the Hebrew Bible is a human creation,” they write, and “[t]he Bible is … outliving its status as a holy writ.” But they also agree that the Jewish religious texts have long functioned as the root and anchor of Jewish identity: “In order to remain a family, a Jewish family perforce relied on words,” they write. “Not any words, but words that came from books.”

“Jews and Words” is the work of writers who are in intoxicated with language and in love with texts. Yet they are willing to recognize new meanings in old words, as when they use “text” as a verb to suggest our linkages with the distant past. “Like our ancestors, we are texted,” they declare. “And — if one further liberty with the English language is permitted — we are texted to our ancestors. We are the Atheists of the Book.” 

They are hot-wired to American popular culture: “Think of the Abraham-to-Seinfeld, or the Sarah-to-Hannah Arendt, proneness to argument,” they quip. They cite Philip Roth and Woody Allen, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, as readily as they turn to Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and the Pirke Avot. 

Even secularists, they remind us, are willing to entertain the subversive notion that truth and fiction are not necessarily opposites. “An archaeologist may worry that biblical accounts are mere ‘fiction,’ but we come from a different place,” they explain. “As readers, we know that it conveys truths. As secular Jews, we have no stake in the historicity of Moses or Miriam.” Storytellers may “invent plots and mess around with evidence,” they concede, “while telling us things about the universe and humankind that we recognize as genuine and profound.”

There are many ways to understand and use “Jews and Words.” It is a heart-stirring tribute to the enduring power of our religious writings, a spirited celebration of a certain kind of Jewish genius that has lasted just as long and a gloss on the Tanakh and the Talmud that allows us to approach the old texts from new points of entry. Above all, father and daughter, authentic and committed Zionists whose beliefs are the same as those of the founders of modern Israel, offer us a way of seeing ourselves not as the victims of history but the makers of history.

“The annals of the Jews contradict the facile assertion that history is written by the winning side,” they write. “Even when they lost, and lost terribly, the Israelites, and then the Jews, took great care to tell the stories themselves. They told their offspring bluntly and honestly all the bad things that had happened: sin and punishment, defeat and exile, catastrophe and flight. It is not a pleasant history, but it is consistently self-authored. To many children, it was — and is — a captivating, troubling, and ultimately exhilarating legacy.”

Leave it to Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger to pick exactly the right words.  Captivating, troubling and exhilarating — all three of these adjectives apply with equal force to “Jews and Words,” an important and invigorating contemplation of the shared experiences and values that have always defined the Jewish people.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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