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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2013
Number 79
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Power of the Word

A review essay by Daniel Grossberg

Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger claim in their co-authored book, Jews and Words, that “Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words.” The father/daughter author team theorizes that there exists a Jewish textual continuum in which written words link the generations, one to another; “not a bloodline but a textline.” Jewish history certainly includes religious, ethnic and political lineages, “but they are not its prime arteries” insist Oz and Oz-Salzberger.

Jews and Words presents strong arguments that are never dry or dense. The first-person plural prose including digressions, exclamations and interjections, many of them packing a good measure of humor, lends a folksy tone to this volume. Nevertheless, learning, intelligent insights and sparkling writing appear on every page. The light writing style advances the line of reasoning and often tickles the funny bone at the same time.

Read, for example, the discussion of Hannah (Samuel I 1 and 2): “Hannah fervently prayed for a child and promised to give him up to the service of God. And she delivered.”

Or see the conclusion of their discussion of the Book of Job where Oz and Oz-Salzberger quote Scripture and add an interpretive comment of their own. “‘And in all the land no women were found so beautiful as the daughters of Job; and their father gave them estate among their brethren.’ ?The fairytale ending of this stark morality tale involves individual recognition and equal property rights for women. Good Job.”

Here is a third instance of felicitous prose in Jews and Words. “The great story — passed from generation to generation on tablets, papyri, parchments, and paper. Today as we write this book, the historian among us checks all our references on her iPad, and she cannot resist the sweet reflection that Jewish textuality — has come full circle. From tablet to tablet, from scroll to scroll.”

These examples and many others that could be cited are all the more striking when we note that the authors are not native English-speakers but native-born Israelis whose first language is Hebrew. Their facility with the English language is stunning.

The omission of all notes from the body of the work, in favor of a listing of books consulted and references to the quotations only at the end, is a brilliant editorial decision that provides a genial readability.

Many loose comments, critiques and interpretations, at first blush, seem to be random, digressive and therefore, dispensable. I suggest that they are indeed integral to the work. These apparent faults are reflective of the Jewish engagement with the textual legacy. Oz and Oz-Salberger demonstrate in their very medium the nature of Jewish textual study. The Jew constantly ponders, argues, endorses and refutes the texts under study by seeking and contrasting situations, issues, and by juxtaposing earlier texts. The student doesn’t reject classical religious texts as much as he simply interprets them differently. Oz and Oz-Salzberger declare, “we remain committed to a view of Jewish texts as primarily and constantly conversing with previous texts.” Thus, the discursive style of Jews and Words reflects the tradition they are treating.

The father and daughter authors train their discerning eyes on telling aspects of Jewish culture and literature that are not often studied. They identify, and examine, for example, the Jewish penchant for questioning.

Oz brings his literary acumen to bear and Oz-Salzberger employs her research abilities in adducing numerous questions, rhetorical ones and others in the traditional literature. Jews and Words proposes that the abundance of interrogatives in the volumes of the Jewish library indicates the probing content of the literature. Furthermore, it bequeaths an inquisitive literary posture to the heir of the tradition. The authors cite the following Scriptural questions, for example:

God to Adam: “Where are you”
God to Eve and later to Cain: “What have you done”
God to Cain: “Where is Abel your brother” and..
Cain’s answer to the question with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

These four queries, among the earliest posed in the Bible, challenge, perplex and unsettle to this day. They are not the only ones. Questions are posed throughout the Bible, some brazen and perspicacious. And these too are formative of a Jewish posture toward the written word. Some examples:

Abraham to God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?”
Isaiah, on behalf of God, to the people of Israel: “Who asked this of you to trample my court?”
Ecclesiastes to his readers: “What profit has man of all his labor that he labors under the sun?

Jews and Words doesn’t stop in the biblical period. The authors argue that the Talmud continued and deepened the inquiring trend. The Classical rabbis even developed a legalistic inquisitiveness which became the very essence and style of the Talmud. The debate and dispute method ingrained a quizzical and questioning mindset. Lofty concepts as well as the seemingly trivial and mundane are scrutinized: there is no escaping the notion that some of the queries may have been included as brainteasers to amuse and hone the mind. There is, nevertheless, an edifying aim as well. One such inquiry quoted in Jews and Words is the following:

“What happens when a mouse enters a house that was already cleared of leavened bread, prior to Passover, with a bit of pastry in its mouth?”

Oz and Oz-Salzberger suggest that that the rabbinic inquiries show that “in God’s world, the tiniest things matter as much as the greatest. Delving into the intricate laws governing the most miniscule particles of human existence is an act of faith.”

Questioning and challenging the written word is paramount in Jewish study and a highly prized trait in a Jewish student. Our authors adduce the following biblical instance as reflective of a Jewish parent’s ideal, “If your son asks you tomorrow, What are the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God had commanded you?” Oz and Oz-Salzberger assert that the key is “the pedagogical module of memory, harking back to the national cradle, the Book of Exodus. Please, son, ask me.”

The authors examine topics and personalities from all ages of Jewish history, from the Bible to contemporary times, clearly presenting and cogently arguing their thesis that “Jewish continuity, even Jewish uniqueness, depends not on central places, monuments, heroic figures or rituals but rather on written words and an ongoing debate between generations.”

Jews have reason to regard the tradition depicted in Jews and Words with pride and to endorse its analysis. But, the findings of the authors, alas, raise disquiet also. The study appears to be a survey of the past, treating earlier generations of Jews and not reflective of the current reality. For the vast majority of Jews today the thread of the literary tradition is badly frayed if not fully severed. Oz and Oz-Salzberger, both avowed secularists, prove their familiarity with the classical Jewish sources and their facility in bringing those sources to bear on their writings and their lives. They are among the dwindling numbers who are so fortunate. Surely, there are Jews today whose engagement with the texts still connects them with the literary riches of former generations. But, in Israel and in the Diaspora, increasingly this engagement is concentrated only in the Orthodox extreme of the Jewish population. A significant proportion of Jews today do not have the familiarity with the classical Jewish library to continue the tradition.

I recommend Jews and Words as an informative book and a pleasurable read. I also express my hope that Jews and Words prove inspiring enough to bring a greater number of Jews back to the written word. Only then will the Jewish textual continuum indeed endure.


Daniel Grossberg is a professor emeritus at University at Albany, State University of New York, and a contributing editor.

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