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Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Born in Riga, Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of Nechama) was educated in
Germany and Switzerland and immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1935. He
joined the faculty of Hebrew University and taught chemistry,
physiology, and history and philosophy of science. He authored many
books and articles, lectured publicly, and was an editor of several
volumes of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. Outspoken in his views on
Judaism and Israel, he aroused a great deal of debate and antagonism
among religious and non-religious circles. The decision in 1992 to
award him the Israel Prize sparked much controversy, and Leibowitz
declined to receive it. He died in Jerusalem in 1994.
Leibowitz's notion of Judaism focused entirely on the importance of
Halacha. He held that the obligation to observe the commandments was
an end in itself, and that religion therefore was not a means to a
greater personal or social good. Because of his belief in the
overriding value of the Law, Leibowitz advocated fresh Halachic
deliberations that deal with situations and challenges of the modern
world. He stressed nationalism's religious importance, but following
the establishment of the State of Israel and its independence of
Halachic norms, Leibowitz argued fiercely for the separation of
religion from the state. He insisted that the state was not an ideal
with an intrinsic significance, but was there to serve its citizens.

Leibowitz was also uncompromising in his political views. Although he
had been active in various political groups, he disapproved of the
system of party rule and the numerous political parties, including the
religious parties. He labored publicly against government corruption
and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Following the Six Day War,
he objected staunchly to retaining any Arab territory, arguing that
occupation morally destroys the conqueror. He supported military
conscientious objection to serving in the territories and in Lebanon,
and it was largely his vociferous left-wing views that made him such a
controversial figure.

Source: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist
Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000,
Director: Dr. Motti Friedman,
Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz was one of the most controversial
figures whom I interviewed in my nearly three decades of journalism.
And he literally victimized me; it was as though we were acting the
sado-masochistic roles of professor and student in Ionesco's play "The
Lesson".Leibovitz answered me well enough, but he did so in explosive
tones. He pontificated rather than lectured; envisioned rather than
conversed; and he broke all the polite bounds of academic courtesy.
And at the slightest hint of disagreement, his intellectual airs made
it clear that I was an imbecile…any other explanation for not
parroting his opinion was impossible.But truth be told, this most
implacable of all of the critics of the Israeli establishment
(including several confrontations with Ben-Gurion), played his role to
the hilt. Biochemist and philosopher, born in Riga and educated in
Germany, arriving in Israel in 1934, deeply Orthodox and radically
left-wing, is considered by many in Israel to have been a true genius.
Reader, be warned: he spares no one……..

The Jewish People: Our problem isn't Israel, it's the Jewish people.
The state is simply a milestone…and the crisis that began two
centuries ago runs so deep that I am far from certain regarding the
future of the Jewish people. What is the collective content of Jewish
life? Is there anything that really unites these roughly thirteen
million people? Because the existence of the people depends on that
content. Do you know what it is? Because I don't.

Zionism: Zionism was the tool which created a political matrix for the
Jewish people. But a political matrix is no guarantee for the future.
Zionism really fulfilled its mandate when it achieved the realization
of the Jewish state; it doesn't have to be the watchdog of the Jewish
people. Herzl wasn't particularly concerned on that point. But the
Jews have been around before Zionism and Herzl. And only authentic
Jewish content will guarantee its survival.

Jewish Content: I have no easy recipes for you. And nobody would
accept my proposals anyway. Even those who have some inkling of Jewish
content. No political content can fill a spiritual vacuum. And the
only content the Jews share today is their mere existence. This cannot
go on. Individuals are suffering. And Jewish leaders are totally
impotent here…this is no problem of mere organization.

Religion and politics: What do I think of the religious parties? What
can I think? They don't play any spiritual role. They are cogs in the
wheel of the state. The Chief Rabbinate is an appendage of the Jewish
state and has nothing to do with our religion. What religious
authority can it have, anyway? As for Gush Emmunim, they are fanatical
nationalists with messianic pretensions. The fact that they are
religious is irrelevant. So were the idolaters of antiquity, after a
fashion, that is.

Prospects for Peace: All spiritualand material resources in Israel are
channeled in one direction: to maintain the Palestinian occupation in
the eventual hope that we may seize their land. We are truly
Bolshevik. And we should get out of the territories just as the
Portuguese left Angola, the British left India, and de Gaulle
abandoned Algeria. Then there might be a real possibility of peace.
Maybe Jews in the Diaspora like the image of the iron fist; I don't.
It's pretty hypocritical to call us a democracy while we deny the
Arabs their rights. Our national structure is starting to crumble…and
without US aid we would be cast adrift in the space of a single day.

Universities and their Spiritual Message: From an academic point of
view our universities aren't any worse than the average pickings in
any Western country. But our universities aren't cultivating or
transmitting any spiritual message. That is in keeping with their
being a loyal reflection of Israeli society as a whole. But now the
universities are in trouble because their budget, as well as those of
children and the elderly, is being cut; it seems that we need more
money for West Bank settlements.

A Simple Creed: From an ideological point of view I am indefinable.
I'm Jewish and I believe in Judaism, namely Torah, Obligations, Study,
Commandments, and Devotion to God. That's my creed, it doesn't have to
be your cup of tea. I can't sell anybody my belief-faith isn't
merchandise. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Jews
have no desire to uphold Judaism and the physical continuity of the
people is in doubt.

Spiritual Confusion: The majority of the student world, like that of
people everywhere, are not causing much of a stir. They perceive
content at the heart of the state. They are unaware of the fact that
they are fascist; conscious fascists, however, are few and far
between. On the other hand, many try to make hay out of the political
symbols of the state. A lot of young people are enmeshed in a deep
spiritual turmoil, and they visit me often, always wanting to speak of
Judaism, from kibbutzniks to army people, and including Arabs.....

Nechama Leibowitz


Nechama Leibowitz (sister of Yeshayahu) was born in Riga, educated in
Berlin, and moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1930. She taught for many years
at the Mizrachi Women Teachers Seminary, at Tel Aviv University, and
at numerous other schools, including Hesder yeshivot. In 1942 she
began to distribute stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah
portion, and over the years the "Pages," which became her trademark,
reached increasingly wider audiences. Leibowitz was a frequent radio
commentator on the Israel Broadcasting System, and she was awarded the
Israel Prize for Education in 1956. She died in Jerusalem in 1997.

Although appointed professor at Tel Aviv University in 1968 and
recognized publicly on numerous occasions, Leibowitz, known simply as
"Nechama" to her students, preferred the title of teacher to other
distinctions. Her approach to the Bible was an active one, and through
her thought-provoking questions, she demanded that her students adopt
a similar active role towards the text. For many years, Leibowitz's
"Pages" consisted only of questions, and it was only at the insistence
of many students that she later agreed to publish answers along with
the questions, yet still appending questions for further study. Her
interpretations reflect her vast knowledge of traditional and modern
Biblical commentaries, and display a sensitivity to the religious,
literary, and psychological meanings of the text. She sought to infuse
her students with a love of the Bible as well as the belief that its
levels of meanings were to be probed by its readers.

Leibowitz's "Pages" were translated into many languages and reached
students and educators alike around the world. They were later
collected into book form and published as Studies in the Weekly Sidra
and Studies in Bereshit (with similar volumes for the other books of
the Torah). She is recognized as one of the leading teachers of the
Torah of the twentieth century, as well as a role model for Orthodox
women who are professional Jewish scholars and teachers.

Source: Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education.