Suddenly, Yeshayahu Leibowitz appeared and turned the tables on us. As the furious exhortations of the prophets rattled off his lips, the prophets suddenly came to life and loomed up before us, admonishing and making demands on us.
There is one thing I regret: Having been the cause of his losing the Israel Prize. The Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which I helped to found, was holding a debate in a large hall. I was afraid that a colloquium on peace wouldn't draw a large crowd, so I suggested that Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz be invited. I knew that his name on the program would fill any auditorium. On top of that, the judges had just announced their decision to award him the Israel Prize. He agreed right away, but he had a condition. He would only speak on one topic: the moral obligation of Israelis not to do military service in the occupied territories. I said yes, even though this wasn't the topic of discussion. Leibowitz was the first speaker. The hall was packed. The audience, which included a large number of university students, filled all the aisles. There were even people sitting on the windowsills.
Leibowitz immediately launched into a tirade against the operations of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza and the West Bank. He compared their actions to those of the Nazi SS. The media, which usually ignore events organized by the "radical" peace camp, pounced on it like a gold mine. Leibowitz's remarks got first-page coverage and set off a holy furor. The prize committee was asked to withdraw the nomination. Just as things reached a peak, Leibowitz announced that he declined to accept the prize. I don't think he was sorry about it. On the contrary, he loved expressing himself in the most provocative way. He did it on purpose. That's how he got the public and the media to sit up and pay attention. Ordinary opinions are boring. Leibowitz wanted to shock his listeners, to shake them out of their stupor and make them think. He also enjoyed it. Many of his quips will be remembered forever: the Western Wall as God's discotheque, religion as the mistress of the government, mixing religion and state leads to fascism. He had nothing but scorn for the Chief Rabbinate.
Incidentally, it wasn't coincidental that he was the first speaker that night - and at every other debate I ever organized. I learned from experience that Leibowitz would make mincemeat out of every speaker who came before him. It didn't matter what their views were - left or right, moderate or extreme. Leibowitz would lay them out on the dissecting table and rip them to shreds with his keen, analytical mind and biting sarcasm. Nothing would be left whole. The way to get around this was to make him the first speaker, and then those after him could respond to what he said, which always yielded plenty of food for thought. I used to call him Yeshayahu (Isaiah) the Third (based on the theory that there were at least two different prophets by that name). That used to make him furious. "I'm not a prophet," he would say, "and anyone who says such a thing doesn't understand what a prophet is." As a religious Jew who wore a skullcap and observed the commandments, he believed that prophets spoke the word of God. They weren't just clairvoyants.
To me, Leibowitz was a prophet in that second sense. He was the first person after the Six-Day War who predicted that occupying territories would destroy Israel from within. "In a few years, we will be a nation of foremen and Shin Bet [security service] agents," he prophesied - in other words, a nation of exploiters and oppressors. I also proposed at that time that we end the occupation immediately, but for a different reason. On the fifth day of the war, I appealed to Levi Eshkol, both in an open letter and personally, to allow the Palestinians to establish a state in the territories we had just conquered. I believed (and I still do) that this was one-time historic opportunity to make peace.
Now, Leibowitz didn't believe in peace altogether. He had no knowledge of what life was like for the Palestinians, and maybe he wasn't even interested. He thought there was no solution to the conflict. He wanted to return the occupied territories right away to save the soul of Israeli society - not to reach a compromise with the Arab world. It was connected to his religious outlook. For a secular person like myself, it was very hard to understand that side of his personality. He was a scientist by training. He was incredibly knowledgeable, a man of absolute reason. But his religious outlook was light-years away from scientific logic. He didn't try to link the two. He rejected the very idea that it was possible. Religion, he explained, had nothing to do with logic. It existed on a different plane. Jews were supposed to observe the mitzvot - the religious commandments - not to get anything in return, not to bribe God and enlist his aid, but "just because." The mitzvot needed no explanation and couldn't be explained.
Once he told me that Judaism had died 200 years ago. It hadn't created anything since then , or produced even one important thinker. All that remains, he said, are dry texts that people learn by rote. How could a man as religious as Leibowitz and a man as nonreligious as myself get along? We were like two people who come to the river from opposite directions and meet on an island in the middle. The island was our desire to end the occupation - a moral-religious demand on his part and a moral-political one on mine.
Leibowitz couldn't work in a group. He was a comet, soaring alone in the heavens. He belonged to Oved Hadati, which was a kind of religious branch of Mapai, but dropped out. He hooked up with Shmuel Tamir when he founded the New Regime movement in 1959, but quarreled with him and got out before it moved to the far right. He formed an anti-nuclear association with Eliezer Livneh, but didn't get along with him either. Prophets are like that. Leibowitz did best when he was on his own.
If he had any influence, it was because of his personality. His ammunition - cold, calculated logic, together with articulateness, passion and a razor-sharp tongue - attracted admirers. He was prepared to speak anywhere, anytime, in any godforsaken place, no matter how small the audience. Once he told me that it was a matter of principle for him: He would say what he had to say to anyone who was willing to listen, even in a telephone booth. When he was invited to lecture at the university, he would arrive in the taxi sent for him, sit in a chair on the side and read his little Bible. He lived like a monk. His only pleasure in life seemed to be things of the mind and the spirit.
Today everyone agrees that his doomsday prophecy about the harmfulness of occupation has come true. Most of the public now understands what Leibowitz understood from the very first moment: that the settlements are a disaster for Israel. To Leibowitz, the people of Gush Emunim were idolaters. Their beliefs had nothing to do with Judaism. To impute holiness to the Western Wall, burial sites and hills was an abomination in his eyes.
"When the Wahabis conquered Mecca," he once told me, "the first thing they did was smash the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed. They didn't leave a trace. Turning a burial site into a holy place was considered a desecration of Mohammed's teachings. The same is true for Judaism."
No one knows where Moses is buried, and for good reason. By the same token, I don't visit the grave of Yeshayahu Leibowitz. For me, despite his protests, he remains a prophet. He is gone, and since his death there is no one to replace him.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, 1903-1994
Yeshayahu Leibowitz was born in 1903 in Riga, Latvia. From 1919-1924, he studied chemistry and philosophy at Berlin University and received a doctorate in philosophy. He earned a medical degree at Basel University in 1934. In 1935, he immigrated to Palestine and joined the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a year later. He was appointed professor of chemistry in 1941.
During the War of Independence, he participated in the defense of Jerusalem and was a platoon commander in the Old City. He was also politically active during the early days of the state, in the Religious Worker (Haoved Hadati) faction of the Histadrut labor federation.
In 1952, Leibowitz was appointed professor of organic chemistry and neurology. He edited the "Hebrew Encyclopedia" and published a number of books on scientific topics. Leibowitz also wrote books on Judaism and philosophy, and devoted much time to the study of the writings of Maimonides.
He officially retired in 1970, but continued to teach philosophy and the history of science. In 1993, his nomination to receive the Israel Prize aroused opposition, including an announcement by the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, saying that he would not attend the prize ceremony if Leibowitz were honored.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz died in Jerusalem on August 18, 1994.
He was not a prophet. He was a smart man who could see what we couldn't see. He had foresight that we didn't have. But he taught us to read the words of the prophets differently. We always saw ourselves on the side of the prophets. They spoke about "them," not us. They scolded the bad guys, not us. We imagined that we were standing alongside them as they castigated the sins and the sinners. Suddenly, Yeshayahu Leibowitz appeared and turned the tables on us. As the furious exhortations of the prophets rattled off his lips, the prophets suddenly came to life and loomed up before us, admonishing and making demands on us. As he quoted Ezekiel - "You have relied on your sword ... yet you expect to possess the land" (33:26) - we learned that not only the prophet's words of consolation, but also his dark prophecies applied to us, touching on a raw nerve.
I once told Leibowitz that there was one Sabbath morning Haftorah portion that I would not want to be called upon to recite in public. I was referring to the chapter on King David's legacy to his son Solomon in the first Book of Kings, which speaks of killing and revenge. "Ordinarily, I'm not selective when it comes to the Bible," I innocently remarked, "but the fact that these were the king of Israel's last thoughts on his deathbed bothers me terribly. I wouldn't want to read these verses out in front of the whole congregation." What was Leibowitz's response? "That's my favorite chapter in the whole Bible. It teaches us that power corrupts - even in the case of King David, the sweet singer of Israel." I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by this subversive remark. After all, that was the man: an iconoclast, a man who spurned convention, who challenged all the truths that seem so self-evident to us, forcing us to rethink things.
The secret of Leibowitz's success was not in having students who followed in his path. The number of people who accepted his teachings lock, stock and barrel could be counted on the fingers of one hand - which is probably a good thing. But hundreds and thousands of people, myself included, carry these teachings inside and wrestle with them when faced with fundamental questions in the course of their lives, questions of faith, values, science, ideology, politics. I find myself arguing with him, threatened by him, dismissive of his criticism, yet always coming back for another round, drawn by his hypnotic power.
Leibowitz questioned everything, but he himself was an exclamation point, solid as a rock, a man of answers rather than a man of questions. Maybe that was the secret of his charm for many people: They naively believed that there was someone who knew. He was also a very courageous man. Never have I met anyone who tried so little to please his listeners. Sometimes, when I saw him battling everyone around him, shooting his witty barbs in all directions, I imagined that here was a man who didn't need love and affection. The only thing that mattered was getting to the truth. But when I saw him up close, I discovered that this was not so - not at all.
Many of Leibowitz's admirers were not aware of the profound religious motives behind his fiery, iconoclastic approach. His religious faith was founded entirely on negation - nay-saying for the sake of heaven. A religious person, a la Leibowitz, was a person for whom there were absolutely no sacred cows, be it object or symbol, country or nation. Anything that human beings worship passionately and invest with sanctity must be dashed to smithereens. The guise of holiness must be ripped away. That was the essence of Leibowitz's monotheism. God, and only God, is holy.
This, I think, is the source of the contradictions that one finds in Leibowitz's teachings. He never set out to construct an orderly philosophical system. Every day, he got up and asked himself who his opponent was, who was destroying Jewish values or faith. Then he would charge, using all the intellectual strength and rhetorical passion he could muster. As his adversaries changed, his arguments changed. Paradoxical as this may seem, these changes were an integral part of his thought. His criticism of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the 1950s and his criticism of Rabbi Kook were not the same thing; his criticism of Rabbi Kook the father was not the same as his criticism of Rabbi Kook the son. His dispute with the Brith Shalom movement was not the same as his dispute with latter-day Israeli chauvinism, and his fight against Ben-Gurion's state policies was not the same as his fight against the militarism of his political heirs.
If there is any explanation for the sea change in Leibowitz's views on religion and state, it is this. Early on, he saw the Jewish state as a religious mission of great importance. Later, he became an outspoken critic of any link between the two. But this was not the result of bitter disappointment, or simply giving up the fight, as many mistakenly believe. It was the danger that had changed. The adversary was no longer an Orthodox Jewry refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state, but an Orthodox Jewry that sanctified and glorified the state as God's earthly seat. Depending on the circumstances, even that which is done for the sake of heaven can change.
Leibowitz used this same principle to explain the contradictions he found in the views of the biblical prophets. The spiritual danger that hovered over the People of Israel in the days of Isaiah - idolatry plain and simple, worshiping gods fashioned of wood and stone - was not the same as the spiritual threat in the days of Jeremiah, when country, city and Temple were deified. The response of the prophets may have changed from one generation to the next, but the religious doctrine remained one and the same: Only God is holy. Here again, Leibowitz was speaking not only about the Israelites, but about us, about our children and our generation. Maybe he was also speaking about himself and the burden of prophecy he took upon himself.
Even the messiah did not emerge unscathed from Leibowitz's holy war. Leibowitz originally saw messianic faith as having constructive value. Redemption is not a fact, he said. Messianism is not an inborn quality. It is a demanding doctrine that is constantly being measured up against reality, challenging it, pushing for implementation. Only later, when vulgar political messianism began to spread, did Leibowitz dissociate himself entirely from messianic hope and look down upon it as a weakness and departure from belief in one God. Two kings cannot share one crown.
It was this restlessness, this alertness, that enabled Leibowitz to predict the crises and upheavals that lay in store for us. Before we grasped what was going on, he warned that occupying another people would turn our cities into military forts and destroy our morals. Before other religious thinkers saw it, he predicted the dangers of religious legislation. He was one of the first to speak out publicly against the evils of ethnic discrimination.
Of course, he also made serious mistakes. The worst, in my opinion, was the sharp line he drew between religion and morality. True, Leibowitz drew this distinction to guarantee the autonomy of religion, to defend it from being diminished and swallowed up entirely by European humanism. What he didn't know was that one day the tables would be turned and morality would be pushed aside in favor of religion. He didn't know that separating the two would lead to the Torah being equated with cruelty and barbarism. Today, to his misfortune, those furthest away from him - religious extremists and secular boors - are suddenly quoting his fine rhetoric about the contradiction between Torah and morality.
Leibowitz was a Renaissance man: He was a chemist, a doctor of medicine, a philosopher and a theologian (or maybe anti-theologian is more like it). He was a raging prophet, a political analyst, a charismatic speaker, an actor, a stand-up comedian, a fearless warrior, an editor of the "Hebrew Encyclopedia." Very few can claim to have made such a contribution to educating their generation.
But to those who knew him well, Leibowitz was first and foremost a teacher. He was a man of the word who loved teaching with all his heart. He rarely turned down an invitation: He would take a bus up north to teach a high-school class, and that same evening, head down south to talk politics at a community center in a development town. There was no stopping him. I remember how years ago, when he was no youngster, he traveled with a group of young teachers to an all-night symposium in Kiryat Shmona. The whole trip, he never stopped talking, explaining, convincing. When we arrived, he gave the opening address. When we split into discussion groups, he was the only one who led two classes, one after another. When we gathered for the concluding session, he did most of the talking. Even on the long way home, he continued to discuss finer points of the material we had been studying. As we reached his home in Jerusalem, dawn was breaking. "In two hours I have to get up for the morning minyan," he said, as he spryly hopped out of the car." When I asked if it wasn't hard for him to talk for so many hours, he looked at me in amazement. "Hard to talk? It's harder to listen to others!"
That talk is sadly missed today - by me, by all of us. We need that extraordinary man to raise his voice and give us a scolding.