Thursday, 1 March 2007

Amos Oz has a long piece about Jews and the culture of the people of Israel on the Web site of Italian journal La Stampa. I've endeavoured to translate it, as follows. Anything that fails to make sense is probably the result of my poor understanding of the language of origin.

We Jews wandering without a pope

Frank reflexion on the people of Israel who, from the time of Moses, have hated to obey, debating everything with God

Democracy and tolerance imply humanism, humanism implies pluralism — in other words the recognition of the common right of all men to be different from each other. Diversity between men is not a transitory evil, rather a source of benediction: we are different from one another not because some among us are unable to see the light, but rather because there are many different kinds of light in the world; many faiths and opinions and not just one faith and one opinion.

The Jews have no pope. If a Jewish pope were ever to appear, every coreligionist would go and give him a good slap on the back, saying: listen, you don’t know me nor do I know you, but your grandfather and my uncle used to do business together, in Zithomir, or in Marrakesh… So give me two minutes so I can explain once and for all what exactly God wants from us. Sure, we saw all kinds of assholes and there were those who followed them with their eyes shut. But throughout their history, the people of Israel hate to obey. Ask Moses, ask the prophets. Even God complains non-stop that the people of Israel don’t obey and instead discuss everything; the people discuss with Moses. Moses discusses with God, hands over his resignation and in the end takes it back — but only after negotiations and only after God submits to receive the substance of his demands (Exodus 32, 33). Abraham negotiates with Him about Sodom like a used-car salesman: fifty of the just, forty, thirty… And he dares throw in God’s teeth a fairly hefty sin, “The judge of all the world doesn’t judge according to law” (Genesis 18, 25-32); furthermore we don’t see fire descending from heaven to consume our patriarch, for these heretical words of his. The people quarrel with the prophets, the prophets quarrel with God, the kings quarrel with the people and with the prophets, Job protests while turned to the sky. Who, for his part, refuses to confess to having done wrong by Job and yet lavishes compensation on him personally. Even in recent generations there have been many pious men who have brought God before the law of the Torah.

Israel’s culture has an anarchic nucleus: we don’t want discipline. We don’t obey so much: we demand justice. A donkey driver or some shepherd in whom resides the holy spirit has the right to rule over the people of Israel or to compose psalms. A picker of sycamores one morning wakes up and begins to prophesy. Some shepherd originally from Calba Shavua, a shoemaker, a smith, any one of them could have signed the Torah and expounded it and with that leave an indelible impression on the everyday life of all the people of Israel. Nevertheless — the question hovers always, or almost always: what are you doing here? How do we know that you are actually this? You are really strong on the Torah, but who’s to tell us that in the road behind us there doesn’t live another who can knock you off your perch and arrive at the opposite conclusion? Quite often, in fact, “as much as these so much those others are words of the living God”.

Almost always the word of authority is constrained to affirm itself by virtue of a partial consensus, not unanimous. The cultural history of Israel in recent millennia is a chain of bitter divisions, some vile and turbulent, others fertile. In general there was never any compelling mechanism of official authority; at most Tom was the most illustrious of his company because he was thought to be, enough said. Jewish culture at its best has always been a culture of mediation, of negotiation, of waiting for one sentence and for another, of harsh powers of persuasion, of objections “in the name of heaven”, of arguments for “growing and honouring the Torah”, and even less of potent impulsiveness disguised by learned diatribes. This spiritual base is easily grafted onto the idea of democracy as polyphony — a choir of diverse voices permitted by a system of rule that must be respected. So many lights, not just one. So many faiths and so many opinions, not one alone.

In effect, there were and there are in the culture of Israel “enclaves” of blind obedience. Which are, in my opinion, a form of deviance from tradition, even when they pretend to hold a mortgage on tradition. Blind obedience cannot be traditional. “We will do and we will listen" (Exodus 24, 7) means: we will do as long as we can listen.

For thousands of years there has been nothing that all Jews as one man were in agreement on believing a miracle, a prodigy. Without fail there are sceptics and doubters and deniers. Before almost every authority another appears that is opposed. There are very few who contemporaries and those who came after have considered authoritative without appeal. At the very end, “the source of authority” in Israeli culture is the willingness of the people — or of some of them — to accept this master, this jurist, this saintly man who gave proof of miracles, or this spiritual guide, as authoritative. The hierarchy is voluntary. In this sense, Jewish culture has a profoundly and unequivocally democratic character.

I will use the definition that I learned from my daughter Fania, professor Fania Oz-Salzberger of the University of Haifa: “Liberal democracy is the organisation of a society or a state, whose declared scope is to establish a logical order between the desires belonging to the individual, preserving his freedom. The system mediates thus between the individual desires through the direction and the decision of the majority.”

I should add: and the preservation of the rights of the minority with a system of compromises. Doctor Fania Oz-Salzberger writes also that the second request in the discussion among democrats is: “Political freedom is substantially negative — live and let live — or positive: live in the right way in order to be truly free?” I’ve also learned from my daughter that the declared democrats of the beginning of the modern era were precisely religious zealots, the Huguenots in France and the Levellers in Great Britain, who fought against the attempts of the government to constrain them to accept the religion of the majority.

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