Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State
Encounter on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber
On Intersubjectivity and Cultural Creativity
Scripture and Translation
Early this year a ninety-year-old man was driving Israel crazy. In January Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was declared the winner of the Israel Prize, which is awarded by the minister of education in a formal ceremony on Independence Day to honor an Israeli citizen for his life’s work. The winners are usually highly respected Israelis whose activities are not controversial. Leibowitz is different. According to the judges, the prize was awarded to him partly because he has been a “rebuker at the gates.” In biblical times the courts of law were located at the city gates, and a “rebuker at the gates” was a person who defended the rights of the oppressed. The expression came to mean a social critic with religious inspiration, practically synonymous with a prophet.
However, as the prophet Amos said, “They hate him that rebuketh in the gate” (Amos 5:10). Yitzhak Shamir had an immediate comment: “The very decisions to award the Israel Prize to Leibowitz disgusts me” (Ha’aretz, January 18). Yitzhak Rabin inquired at a cabinet meeting whether the prize committee’s decision could be changed. The answer was no: the prize had been awarded by an independent, nongovernmental committee. Embarrassingly for Rabin, it turned out that on the committee was a former general who had been the chief intelligence officer on Rabin’s own staff.
But at the same time an appeal was made to the Supreme Court to cancel the award because Leibowitz urges Israeli soldiers to refuse to do military service in the occupied territories. The cabinet spent an hour and a half discussing the award to Leibowitz, and Rabin and most of the ministers in his government announced that they would not attend the ceremony at which the prize would be given. Leibowitz, for his part, said that the actions of the Israeli army undercover units in the occupied territories were no different from those of the Muslim group Hamas. At last Leibowitz announced that he would relieve the government of the burden of giving him the prize.
Isaiah Berlin—who, like Leibowitz, was born in Riga—has called Leibowitz the “conscience of Israel,” yet very few outside of Israel have heard of him. The recent English translation of his collected articles provides a useful introduction to his work. Leibowitz writes marvelously clear Hebrew, heir to the crystalline language of Maimonides and the editor of the Mishna. It is very far from the broken Hebrew of the rabbinic period. The English translation is precise and responsible, although it cannot convey the power of the original.
In contrast to the Israel Prize award that never took place, the Hebrew University, in 1958, held a grand ceremony in honor of Martin Buber’s eightieth birthday. Ben-Gurion came and sat in the first row to show his respect for Buber, to whom he sent birthday greetings as “a friend, an admirer, and an opponent.” Ben-Gurion was neither a friend nor an admirer—he was only an opponent. But Buber, in contrast to Leibowitz, was a very polite critic of the Israeli establishment. If Rabin had Ben-Gurion’s sense of history, he would have understood, as De Gaulle once said of Sartre, that “Leibowitz is also Israel.” In Israel, Buber and Leibowitz have both acquired the ambiguous status of “prophets.” It is worth comparing them and considering how the halfserious, half-mocking title of “prophet” applies to each of them.
Buber believed that his life was exemplified in his writings, and he never encouraged anyone to write his biography while he lived. Perhaps he expected that his many letters would be edited and published to reveal a “life in letters,” and, indeed, an impressive collection of Buber’s letters has recently appeared, with a useful introductory biographical sketch by Grete Schaeder. “The bare facts of Buber’s biography can be quickly stated,” she writes, for “his life was not marked by many external developments.”
I’m not sure she is right. It is true that Buber was married to the same woman for over sixty years, and that he spent most of his life at his desk. But he was active in the Zionist movement from its beginnings in Central Europe. He lived and worked under the Nazi regime almost until the “last possible moment” (1938). He moved from Vienna, where he was born in 1878, to Galicia, then a part of Poland under Austrian rule, then to Germany, and, in 1938, to Palestine. But I agree that the impression one gets of Buber’s life—an impression that is only strengthened by reading his latest biography, by Maurice Friedman—is that Buber succeeded in living a sheltered life even when in hostile surroundings.
Buber’s parents were divorced when he was three years old, and he was separated from his mother. When he finally saw her again after many years, he felt that something was missing in their longed-for meeting. This “encounter that never was” with his mother was an important experience for him and a source of his longing for what he called a “significant encounter.” Until the age of fourteen, Buber lived with his grandfather Solomon, a patrician Jew who owned an estate in Galicia and was a scholar and a great collector of Jewish manuscripts. He then went to Lvov to live with his father, an immensely rich Polish Jew, and studied in a Polish gymnasium. At eighteen he went to Vienna, where he tried to combine university studies with his Zionist activities, but after a year of “study and thought” in Florence, instead of following the career in academic life that had been expected of him, he became an editor in a Berlin publishing house. For ten years, until 1916, he lived in Berlin and then, until he left for Palestine in 1938, he lived in the little town of Heppenheim near Frankfurt. At the same time he became the director of Jewish adult education programs under the Nazi regime. In Jerusalem Buber was professor of sociology at the Hebrew University until his retirement. He died in 1965.
Leibowitz came to Palestine by a somewhat different route. Born in Riga in 1903 to a religious family, he acquired a religious education at home while studying at the local Gymnasium. When he was sixteen he emigrated with his family to Berlin, where he studied chemistry and philosophy at the university, and received a doctor’s degree. Leibowitz served as assistant to the noted biochemist Karl Neuberg, and in 1928 he began the medical studies in Cologne that led him to take his medical degree in 1934. He left for Jerusalem later that year to become a professor at the Hebrew University, where he has taught chemistry, biology, neuropsychology, and the history and philosophy of science. Although he has retired he continues to teach philosophy of science to this very day.
Both Leibowitz and Buber mastered an exceptional range of knowledge and have been willing to make their learning available not only to students but to adults in lectures, courses, and informal seminars. Buber became well known among German Jews to a large extent because of his popular lectures, and much the same could be said about Leibowitz’s reputation among the educated classes in Israel. Leibowitz served brilliantly as the chief editor of the Hebrew Encyclopedia and wrote many of its entries on science and philosophy, including “Bernard, Claude” and “Ben-Gurion, David.”
On the first page of his biography of Buber, Friedman writes: “It was Buber’s beard that made many speak of him as a biblical prophet.” (I remember how surprised I was to see the beardless prophet Habakkuk in Donatello’s group statue of prophets, Lo Zuccone.) Yet of course it was not so much his beard that made people see Buber as a prophet as his “spirituality,” his sublime Zarathustra-style rhetoric full of biblical imagery, and his criticism of society from a religious perspective—all these, combined with a particularly photogenic beard, created the prophetic image.
Yet Buber “the prophet” aroused deep suspicion in Israel. A prophet is a person who takes risks, and Buber was unjustly perceived as spoiled, a spiritual dandy. His collection of ties could compete with Imelda Marcos’s collection of shoes. Buber had close friends who were also compared to prophets—Gustav Landauer, who was murdered by right-wing extremists after the failure of the 1919 “German revolution” in Munich, and Franz Rosenzweig, the tortured religious thinker, who suffered from total paralysis. But these men were exempt from the suspicions that clung to Buber including the harshest accusation of all—that Buber, when speaking to his people, kept looking out of the corner of his eye to see what impression he was making on the goyim. When a literary critic compared Buber to Jeremiah, another critic immediately attacked him: “How can you compare the spontaneous Jeremiah to the cerebral Buber, who always seems to look around after writing a beautiful line as if to say, ‘Look how beautifully I write’?” By “cerebral” this critic apparently meant “calculating.”
Yeshayahu Leibowitz is often called a prophet in Israel, mostly a prophet of wrath. He has the sharp ascetic face of Savonarola and a tall, thin, monkish body. (A French movie about Leibowitz was entitled “No One is a Prophet in His Own Country”: Nul n’est prophète en son pays, but this was nonsense: Leibowitz is very much a local prophet.) The image of Leibowitz as a prophet is sustained by his fierceness, and his fearlessness, as a social critic who writes from a religious viewpoint, by his dramatic ability to make his audience confront a fateful “either-or” decision, and by his razor-sharp rhetoric, which is combined with the humor of a standup comedian. Either we get out of the occupied territories, he would say, or we meet our moral downfall. Either we create a Jewish state that observes the Torah or we become a nation that has no connection with historical Judaism. Leibowitz is capable of supreme moral provocation. He used the expression “Judeo-Nazis” to describe the mentality of some of Israel’s right-wing politicians—words no one else in Israel would dare use. After the Six Day War, when the Wailing Wall became the site of many national festivities, he called it the “Disco Wall.”
Leibowitz is not impressed by the record of prophecy in Israel, for, in his opinion, “All the prophets that arose in Israel did not succeed in reforming even one soul.” The period of the prophets in Israel was the peak of idol worship. For Leibowitz, the Jewish law, Halakha, rather than prophecy, is the secret of Jewish survival through two millennia of life in the Diaspora.
The Halakha is the normative part of the Jewish religion, which has been compiled during the last 2,000 years, mainly in the Talmud and the commentaries on it. Buber, for his part, sees the success of Halakha as the catastrophe of Judaism: “The strength of Judaism was not held down from without, but also from within by the despotism of the Law, which is to say, by a mistaken, disfigured, distorted religious tradition.”