March 26, 2019

The Secularism of Amos Oz

“It is not every day that such a daring, self-confident secular figure emerges in our midst, presenting a bold and positive secular-Jewish stance that serves as a beacon for Jews all over the world. Amos Oz was not only a literary giant, he was also an exemplary secular Jew.

Amos Oz’s secularism never involved an insidious struggle against religious coercion or religionization. It did not deal with “what not,” but rather “what is.” It did not address the ostensible appropriation of Jewish culture by the Orthodox, nor with the ostensible religious takeover of the public sphere or the education system. Oz was far more concerned with the abandonment of Jewish culture by the secular Jews, an abandonment that he felt required healing and change.

Oz was never apologetic for his deep-rooted connection to the Jewish bookshelf. He loved it, loved to read it and loved to use it, either in his literary works or as justification and validation of his moral and political positions. He apparently learned a thing or two from the national-religious rabbis, who were not afraid to connect their spiritual and text-based world with a solid and courageous political and social worldview.

Oz and his historian daughter, Prof. Fania Oz Salzberger, wrote in their book Jews and Words: “In the secular and modern part of Israeli society there is today a cultural atmosphere that increasingly identifies any “Jewish matter” – a biblical quotation, a Talmudic reference, even a mere interest in the past – as politically suspect, outdated at best, nationalist and chauvinistic at worst. There are many reasons, some of which are understandable, for the liberal resistance of secular Israelis to the depths of Jewish heritage. But this is a misguided, wasteful, perhaps even dangerous, aversion.”

Instead of dealing with the question of whether “religious” content should enter “secular” spaces, Oz preferred to ask what we – secular Jews – could do with this content. What benefit can a secular person find in both ancient and new Jewish texts? How do we make the Jewish bookshelf relevant for us?”

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