Amos Oz speaks up for freedom to be yourself with Jewish examples, because he was Israeli, crafting an argument to apply to everyone. He argues for a Jewish identity separate from the Law of Moses and all the commentaries accreting to it since the destruction of the Temple. Adherence to the Law should not rank how good or authentic a Jew one is.
I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretence, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness. A Tale of Love and Darkness, p472. From that unprepossessing start, he reaches One person is equal to the whole of creation- quoted in Dear Zealots, second essay, “Many Lights, Not One Light”, p48. Each of us is in the image of God, unique.
The oldest inscription in Hebrew is on a potsherd from Khirbet Qeiyafa, over three thousand years old. It reads, Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave. Support the stranger. In Hebrew, charity (tzedaka) is close to justice (tzedek). Oz calls this the core of Judaism.
His universal moral imperative comes from the fact that all people suffer pain, and know when they hurt another: Cause no pain.
Jewish culture is based on argument and dialogue to reach the best understanding- the Talmud on the Mishnah, the Mishnah on the Torah, even within the Torah. The Talmud is the record of a process of debate and discernment between differing interpretations, an age old game of interpretation, reinterpretation and counter-interpretation, doubt and disagreement, creativity and spiritual renewal. Follow the majority view but do not oppress or silence the minority. The Jews did not create spectacular monuments, but living texts. If you want to construct a building for future generations, write a book.
Disagreement is not a troubling state of weakness, but a vital climate for the growth of a creative life. The world has many lights, not just one. Abraham argues with God to save Sodom, Job demands justice and God compensates him.
Oz quotes Isaiah Berlin: is political liberty negative, “live and let live” or positive, as in “live correctly in order to be truly free”. For me, the first. The way I live would fit noone else.
Yet the Hasidim have one, incredibly complex understanding of God’s law, the Halacha- the Torah and all the customs and commentaries. Nothing is ever deleted from those commentaries. The space for freedom or original thought reduces.
When Jews live among communities which also primarily identify with a religion, with Christianity or Islam, this is an identity which can withstand temptations from outside. However liberal secularism is more tempting, and Jews might seek religious reform or assimilation to the wider culture. The orthodox responded by excommunication and tougher enforcement of law. They cannot even cope with Zionism, as the new Jerusalem was supposed to be founded by the Messiah, not some secular movement.
Oz’s Jewish identity includes that secular political movement, and a reinterpretation for new circumstances of old Jewish ideas, in modern literature. Did God hide his face in the Genocide? Like them I have yearned for God and poured out my wrath and resentment at God.
The Jewish people have survived because Jews have chosen to identify with it, separate from surrounding peoples, paying additional taxes or suffering persecution. Jewish culture is not just the Law, but all literature, ideas and customs. Perhaps a certain type of humour and a tendency to wisecrack. Perhaps a blatant inclination to be critical, sceptical, ironic, self-pitying, self-righteous. Pragmatism tinged with fantasy, ecstasy diluted with scepticism, melancholy cheerfulness and a profound, healthy suspicion of authority. A measure of stubborn resistance to injustice. He makes it so attractive! Choosing to identify as a Jew is then a positive choice, not a stubborn and counter-suggestible way of responding to persecution.
The Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, cannot accept the State of Israel as it is, with non-Jewish citizens and with a different authority deciding who is Jewish so entitled to move there. They could live under non-Jewish, even hostile, government more comfortably than secular-Jewish.
The Law is sophisticated on relations within a small community but not relations with other peoples, viewed as either oppressors or victims. You must be like us or we will not recognise you- an imbecile to be guided, or a rebel to be suppressed. Oz, in contrast, finds a Jewish character in the country separate from the Law: in modern Hebrew literature, and in Jewish towns and institutions. These are new, for new conditions, not reproductions of ghetto or shtetl. A Jewish state following the Law would be oppressed and frustrated.
When outsiders, including Jews in other countries, see the suffering of the Palestinians, they find Israel and Zionism oppressive and extremist. That makes Jews wish to dissociate themselves. The Law becomes part of that oppression and the young seek spirituality elsewhere.
Who then is a Jew? Oz can justify his seeking peace with Palestinians with Torah and Tanakh texts. His Judaism is humane, merciful, seeking justice for the oppressed.
Whoever saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. That is in the Talmud. People are more important than property. Rather than stultifying Law, following the rules of centuries before, Oz seeks continual renewal.