Yeshayahu Leibowitz was one of the best known thinkers and scientists in the history of Israel. He was also one of the most controversial ones, his outspoken and non-compromising opinions on a number of issues from the Israeli policy of settling in the territories it gained control upon in 1967 until the relation between the Jewish state and the Jewish religion influence until today, 17 years since his death the political and social dialog in Israel. Born in 1903 in Riga he seemed to have been almost all his life an outsider, a new comer, a foreigner. His family moved and he studied in Berlin after the first world war but he was an Eastern Jew, not completely assimilated and respected even by his fellow other German Jews. Arrived in Israel in the 30s he was part of a wave of immigration that impacted strongly the Jewish society in Palestine, but now he was too German for the middle-eastern establishment. Later after the state of Israel was created his philosophical and political positions placed him on the extreme left. Yet, he was deeply religious, and his way of thinking came from a very different place than all other left-wing thinkers in Israel.

source flickr.com

I finished reading a book of interviews given by Leibowitz to journalist Michael Shashar. The first edition was published in 1987, the second one in 1993 and from some of the timed references in the book I am getting the impression that content was added between the two editions. The author of the interviews prepared each time a group of questions which Leibowitz answered and the conversations often took off to different directions. I dare not write a review of such a book and I am hereby presenting some reader’s notes. The intellectual stature of Leibowitz is huge, and I certainly did not get but to the surface of his thinking inmany places. His views bother, hurt, question many of the ideological and religious sacred cows, and I found myself in disagreement or even disbelief many times. The notes refer to the French edition published in 1993 by Desclee de Brouwer and you need to cope with my translation from French (my second language) to English (my third language).

Part 1: Zionism and the State of Israel

- Motto: It is awful that the only value we are left with is the Jewish fist

-The book chapter starts with a dialog which is actual until today (pag. 27):

‘Q: Professor Leibowitz, what is your political program?

A: I totally reject the autonomy proposal, as I see in it a despicable and hypocrite maneuver to maintain the violent domination of the Jewish power over the Palestinian people. As a consequence I am foreseeing the partition of the country between the two peoples.

Q: On the border of 1967?

A: We can discuss the details. We can discuss anything, excepting the principle the we recognize the right of the Palestinian people to political independence. Which implies obviously that they do also recognize ours. This is the significance of the proposal of partition of this land between the two peoples: The State of Israel by side of the State of Palestine.’

- p. 35: amazing revelation – Leibowitz says that he never met with Arabs from the territories.

- p. 38: about Moshe Dayan: ‘Here is quite a character, typical for our socio-historical reality. A man deprived of any human value, immoral and stealing from public property. I even do not know any special military deeds on his record.’

- p. 44: defining Zionism has nothing to do with religion. The essence of Zionism is ‘we are fed up with being ruled by goyim‘ (in English in text)

- p.47: People like rabbi Kook and Jabotinsky considered (Jewish) nationalism as supreme value

- p. 49: Ben Gurion vs. Menachem Begin: ‘Ben Gurion was not a man of truth, while Begin, apparently believed all he said’

- p.53: describing a conversation with Ben Gurion about separation of religion and state he describes the differences in vision. He (YL) was seeing religion as a matter of values, and to be so it must be independent from the state, so that religion confronts government from a values position. Ben Gurion replied to this: ‘I will never accept separation of religion from state. I want state to control religion.’ Well, neither Ben Gurion nor YL anticipated a situation like the one of today when religion controls the state on many respects!

- p.60: a very pessimistic view on the future of the kibbutzim and on the influence they have on Jewish life and values.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3csrCx5Ndo

(video source marinata01)

Part 2: The Jewish People

- Motto: The State of Israel has nothing to do and no authority on the issue of ‘who is a Jew’

- pag 70: Einstein was feeling deeply and spiritually Jewish, but this had nothing to do with Judaism (note – he means religious Judaism here)

- pag. 77: ‘Martin Buber was a Jewish theologian for goyim

- pag. 82: (from a discussion with Agnon) ‘what caused the destruction of Judaism was the professionalization of the Torah studies’

- pag. 85: observation on the cultural discontinuity in the history of the Jewish people that happened in the 19th century, opposed to the cultural continuity of other nations (even Russia under Communist rule)

- pag. 92-93: speaking about the work of Christian theologian Karl Bart he emphasizes the strong contradiction between Judaism and Christianity – ‘The fact that Judaism exists as a living religion is the proof that Christianity is a lie’

- pag 102:

Q: What do you think about the numerous groups in the Orthodox Judaism which define themselves by the strict observance of Judaism?

A: The reality of this population does not cover the reality of the Jewish people today. This groups must ask a question which did not exist for the Jewish people until the 19th century: what halakhah applies to a Jewish people which is no longer the Torah people?

- pag. 114: speaks about his experience of being a Ostjude in the interwar Germany – not completed accepted by the native German Jews

- pag. 118: ‘The greatest error today is making out of the Shoah the central question in all aspects concerning the Jewish people. The Only Jewish interest many intellectuals express concerning their Jewishness is related to the Shoah’

- pag. 120: about Ben Gurion’s relation to Judaism: ‘Ben Gurion hated Judaism as a way of expression in the lives of Jews. Up to the point – this is my personal interpretation – that his enthusiasm for Hebrew derived from his hate for Yidish’

- pag. 121: ‘The Eichman trial was a complete failure. He was in fact a small insignificant wheel in a huge system …  we should have hired him the best lawyer we have to explain that the man was not guilty or responsible

Q: … because he just obeyed orders?

A: There orders where just the final point. Before anything Eichman was the product of two thousands of years in the history of Christianity whose whole significance was destruction of Judaism.

Q: Do you consider christianity as an important component of the Nazi doctrine?

A: Not of the Nazi doctrine in particular but of the general relation of the world with the Jewish people.’

- pag. 125 – the role of personalities in history – without Hitler the Shoah would not have happened, very few persons had such impact on history, maybe Lenin, maybe Alexander the Great, not even Napoleon – French troupes would not have marched on Moscow but the general picture would not have changed.

Part 3: Judaism

- Motto: The Jewish religion goes through a crisis which may be – God forbid – its final crisis

- pag. 135: the basic principle of the halakhah is that the Jewish people is the people of the Torah. With the Jewish people not observant any longer the principles of the halakhah cannot be applied to the day-to-day life

- pag. 136: the halakhah does not apply to our reality

- pag. 137: first step to a solution to get out of the crisis – separation of religion and state

- pag. 138: what rabbi Kook tried to do (judge all according to halakhah) – idolatrous fundamentals in his thinking

- pag. 139: there is a certain racist trend in Judaism and it continues until today

- pag. 148: ‘Faith does not consist of what I know about God, but of what I know about my duties towards God’

- pag. 158: ‘The Bible makes no sense for people who do not intend to serve God’

- pag. 165: The existence of the Temple is not essential, as the mitzvot can be performed out of the Temple

- pag 167: The act of praying is what matters, not the content of the prayer / Judaism was in crisis 100 years before the birth of the state of Israel

pag. 169: The halakhah is the set of rules and conventions adopted by the community

pag: 172: He does not deny the possibility a halakhic reality where women would be rabbis

(video source leibowitz111)

Part 4: Culture, Spirit and Human Values

- pag. 181: quoting the wise men of the Talmud: ‘The one who says “I know only Torah” does not know even the Torah

- pag. 182: ‘Nationalism is the destruction of human essence’

- pag. 187: discussion about computers and artificial intelligence – his views are dated, he denies the capability of the machines ‘to think’

- pag. 194: a very critical view of psychoanalysis – ‘nothing consistent’, ‘ ‘a Jewish profession and a bad symptom for Jews’, he seemed to consider even graphology at a higher esteem

- pag. 200 – speaking with one of the Mapai leaders (maybe Peres) he compares the Mapai mentality with the one of the Mafia.

- pag. 209: ‘I am not a Humanist!’

- pag. 216: the intellectual and emotional level of people living in democracies is decreasing

- pag. 217: the essence of democracy is the capability of changing the leaders, but this not necessarily means progress.

- pag, 225: dictatorship in Israel is not possible because of the Americans. ‘America keeps our rotten regime in its pockets and is not interested in changing it’ (personal note – change to what?)

- pag. 226: ‘It looks like the Americans are interested only in maintaining here (in Israel) an American army of mercenaries that they can use as they please when time comes’

Part 5: Leibowitz speaks about Leibowitz

- Motto: I do not think that I have achieved anything of original

- pag. 244: He does not think that Chagall drawings contain any original expression of Jewishness! On the other hand he loves Wagner! (and Beethoven)

- pag. 247: sport causes him nausea, he reads from time to time a pornographic novel

- pag. 249: ‘I oppose any form of censorship, whatever is the subject, without any exception’

- pag. 252: the reasons of his style – he sometimes tries to shock people by the way he expresses himself, so that people open their eyes

(video source leibowitz111)

Part 6: Life and Death

- Motto: ‘If you do not accept living in this terrible world, then commit suicide!’

- pag. 271: a discussion about the definition of death – heartbeat vs. brain activity, still actual today, but overcome by developments of medicine

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Here ends my collection of reader notes. I was reading the thoughts of a tremendous intellectual personality. He was not afraid to challenge any sacred cows, neither the darker prejudices nor the most banal consensus. I found myself agreeing in a number of cases and disagreeing in other. He could irritate but he always provoked thought. The Israeli society is missing him.