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 …