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December 19, 1986 - Image 20

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-12-19

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Yeshayahu Leibowitz:
Slaying Sacred Cows


Special to the Jewish News

erusalem — Hailed by
some as the "closest
thing Israel has to an
Old Testament prophet," and
denounced by others as a
"traitor in need of a mental
examination," Prof.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz only
rarely fails to evoke his lis-
tener's passion. The world ac-
cording to Leibowitz has God
"completely transcendent,"
Golda Meir an "old, very
wicked woman," Ben-Gurion
a "hater of Jewish history,"
Jerusalem's Western Wall a
"religious disco," and Gush
Emunim a movement prop-
agating "false messianism."
For these and similar senti-
ments, the eighty-three year
old former Hebrew Univer-
sity professor has variously
been called a "heretic,"
"gadfly," "penetrating mind,"
"enfant terrible," and "the
most devout Jews in the
country today."
One thing for certain, and
on this even the professor
agrees, Yeshayahu Leibowitz
is an iconoclast: a breaker of
idols, an attacker of
cherished beliefs and institu-
If, as Will Durant main-
tains, "philosophy begins
when one learns to doubt —
particularly to doubt one's
cherished beliefs, dogmas and
axioms," then Yeshayahu
Leibowitz is a philosopher
par excellence. With a Ph.D.
in both bio-chemistry and
medicine, and extremely well
versed in Judaism, physics,
genetics and philosophy,
Leibowitz claims to be in-
terested only in fact, not
opinion or ideology. Nothing,
no matter how sacred, es-
capes the professor's critical
mind. The Western Wall,
Zionism, Divine Providence,
the Holocaust, Jerusalem: all
must, in Leibowitz's socratic
fashion, be defined free of the
preconceived notions which
often blur our vision. In
books and at personal ap-
pearances, on the radio and
through numerous newspaper
and magazine articles, Pro-
fessor Leibowitz has annoyed
and entertained, fascinated
and antagonized a never
bored Israeli audience. For
over two decades he has con-
tinuously challenged consen-
sus opinion which many Is-
raelis felt somehow fell out-
side the pale of public debate.
Characterized by a cantan-
kerous, arrogant and often
supercilious presentation,
Prof. Leibowitz has nothing
but scorn for those who would
believe that modern Jewish
history proves that God is
watching over His people Is-
rael. For, in Leibowitz's view,
the Holocaust has no theolog-
ical meaning, Israel's War of
Independence was not a mod-
ern parting of the Red Sea,
and the Six Day War does


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Friday, December 19, 1986 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

not prove that God actively
intervenes in the affairs of
man. God, in each of these \
three historical events, was
where He always is in rela-
tion to man: completely tran-
scendent. "Anyone who sees
the hand of Divine Provi-
dence in history," Leibowitz
declares, "is a blasphemer."
Yet despite a belief that
God is absent from history,
Leibowitz continues to ob-
serve kashrut, keep Shabbat
and pray. His reason is sim-
ple; "We are so commanded."
In Leibowitz's unemotional
theology, Judaigm is solely
concerned with serving God.
It is not, as many believe,
concerned with morals,
ethics, philosophy, folklore,
literature or political and so-
cial organization. Leibowitz
contends that a Jew can only
serve God through the
scrupulous performance of
His commandments as elabo-
rated by man in Halachah
(Jewish Law). It is Halachah,
therefore, which becomes the
only truely unique Jewish
value or contribution.
The professor's unconven-
tional views are not confined
to the theological realm. He
is as much a political as he is
a religious maverick. In the
euphoric wake of the Six Day
War, to those who claimed
that Israel's victory would c/
provide a magic cure for all
the nation's ills, Yeshayahu
Leibowitz called for an im-
mediate, unilateral and com-
plete withdrawal from all the
territories, including East
Jerusalem and the Golan
Heights. Again his reasoning
was simple; the demographic
and logistical problems in-
volved in "occupation" would
severly tarnish the moral and
Jewish color of the State. In
January 1968, while many
Israelis had already taken it
for granted that more terri-
tory means greater security,
Leibowitz declared: "Israel
should forwith return every
inch of territory taken in the
Six Day War. The demog-
raphic problems involved in
incorporating over one mil-
lion Arabs in the territories
will, in a short while, turn
Israel into a Levantine coun-
try, shot through with cor-
ruption and without either
Jewish farmers or workers.
Even those Israelis agree-
ing to territorial compromise c<\
were aghast, however, at the
prospect of returning East
Jerusalem and her holy sites.
The professor's blunt reply: (
"There is no such thing as a
holy place. A kibbutz which
raises pigs on its farm is as
much the Lord's heritage as
Jerusalem and Rachel's
Leibowitz has become even
more convinced, in the inter-
vening 19 years, that such a
withdrawal is in Israel's best
interest. By no means naive,
the professor realizes that ``,
such a move will not ensure
peace. However, in the cut-

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