Successive, often polemic interpretations, citations in a context of sacred doctrine or of political-historical opportunity, construe, around the archaic, cardinal words in the Hebrew canon, a resonant field. An aura of vital paraphrase and definition extends around the word-core; or of dubious definition and misunderstanding, no less dynamic (misunderstanding can yield the more urgent reading, the more compelling attention). Meaning vibrates as does a crystal, out of whose hidden clarity pulsate fragmentation and interference.
To the word mikra scholars of Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew attach a network of meanings. They question its literal roots - kof, resh, alef, and the consonantal mi. The definitions put forward are polysémie, they delineate a semantic field (again, literally, à la lettre). The mikra may, at the outset, have been the place of summoning, of vocation and con-vocation. To experience the Torah and Talmud as mikra, to apprehend these texts in cognitive and emotional plenitude, is to hear and accept a summons. It is to gather oneself and the (inseparable) community in a place of calling. This summons to responsible response, to answerability in the most rigorous intellectual and ethical sense, is simultaneously private and public, individual and collective. The concepts and association that attach to mikra make of the reading of the canon and its commentaries the literal-spiritual locus of self-recognition and of communal identification for the Jew.
It follows, proclaim a number of rabbinic masters, that the supreme commandment to Judaism, supreme precisely in that it comprises and animates all others, is given in Joshua, 1, 8: “The book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night.” Observe the implicit prohibition or critique of sleep. Hypnos is a Greek god, and enemy to reading.
In post-exilic Judaism, but perhaps earlier, active reading, answer-ability to the text on both the meditative-interpretative and the behavioural levels, is the central motion of personal and national homecoming. The Torah is met at the place of summons and in the time of calling (which is night and day). The dwelling assigned, ascribed to Israel is the House of the Book. Heine’s phrase is exactly right: das aufgeschriebene Vaterland. The ‘land of his fathers’, the patrimoine, is the script. In its doomed immanence, in its attempt to immobilize the text in a substantive, architectural space, the Davidic and Solomonic Temple may have been an erratum, a misreading of the transcendent mobility of the text.
At the same time, doubtless, the centrality of the book does coincide with and enact the condition of exile. There are radical senses in which even the Torah is a place of privileged banishment from the tautological immediacy of Adamic speech, of God’s direct, unwritten address to man. Reading, textual exegesis, are an exile from action, from the existential innocence of praxis, even where the text is aiming at practical and political consequence. The reader is one who (day and night) is absent from action. The ‘textuality’ of the Jewish condition, from the destruction of the Temple to the foundation of the modern state of Israel, can be seen, has been seen by Zionism, as one of tragic impotence. The text was the instrument of exilic survival; that survival came within a breath of annihilation. To endure at all, the ‘people of the Book’ had, once again, to be a nation.
The tensions, the dialectical relations between an unhoused at-homeness in the text, between the dwelling-place of the script on the one hand (wherever in the world a Jew reads and meditates Torah is the true Israel), and the territorial mystery of the native ground, of the promised strip of land on the other, divide Jewish consciousness.
Hegel’s analysis is ominous. By leaving his native land of Ur, Abraham deliberately “breaks the ties of love.” He breaks the natural bonds which unite a human person to his ancestors and their places of burial (the ‘Antigone’ theme obsesses Hegel); he abandons his neighbours and culture. Such bonds, says Hegel, transcend the human and the secular sphere. They constitute man’s legitimate presence in nature, in the organic totality of the actual world. Specifically, argues Hegel, Abraham repudiates the works and days of his childhood and youth. No less than for Rousseau and the romantics, such repudiation seemed to Hegel the most corrosive of alienations, of estrangements both from the rest of mankind and the harmonious integration of the self. (Hegel’s polemic calls to mind the severance from childhood, the pre-maturity in the bent shoulders and somnambular mien of the very young Yeshiva students, old readers in the muffled bones of children.)
Abraham, to Hegel, is a wanderer on the earth, a passer-by severed from the familial, communal and organic context of love and of trust. He is a shepherd of the winds, traversing each land with indifferent lightness of foot. He is incapable of love in the unreflexive, instinctual (Greek) sense. Seeking only God and a singular, almost autistic, intimacy with God, Hegel’s Abraham is radically uninterested in or even hostile to other men, to those outside the covenant of his search. Abraham objectifies, masters and uses physical nature; contrary to the Hellenic, the Hebraic perceives in the natural and pragmatic order no animate mystery. Thus the Judaic relations between the finite and the infinite, the natural and the supernatural which inspire Greek religiosity and its creative at-homeness in the variousness and beauty of the real world. In its extreme commitment to abstraction, to word and text, Hebraism comes to scorn the natural sphere. As Hegel’s dialectic would have it, Abraham and his seed are enmeshed in a tragic contradiction. More than any other people, Jews claim, indeed they seem to achieve, nearness to the concept of God. They do so at the suicidal cost of mundane renunciation, of self ostracism from the earth and its family of nations. But the God to whom the Jew would stand so near is, by virtue of the implacable abstraction, of the unfathomable elevation attributed to Him, furthest from man.
Mosaic law, the Jewish addiction to minutiae of archaic observance, the atrophy of the Jewish tradition through legalism and literalism of reiteration and ritual represent, for Hegel, a logical but also desperate endeavour to keep the world at bay and to remain in God’s neighbourhood. The descendant of rootless Abraham has no other place to go. For even the land promised him was not his. He could seize upon it only by cunning and conquest. Driven out of this land by subsequent conquerors, the Jew is, strictly speaking, merely restored to his nativity of dispersal, to his chosen foreignness. According to Hegel, this ‘foreignness’ becomes ontological. The sensibility of the Jew is, par excellence, the medium of the bitter struggle between life and thought, between spontaneous immediacy and analytic reflection, between man’s unison with his body and environment and man’s estrangement from them. (Lévi-Strauss’s tragic anthropology, itself a chapter in the critiques of the messianic by emancipated Judaism, is, here, profoundly Hegelian.) To Hegel, ‘the people of the Book’ are as a cancer - deep-seated, vital, enigmatically regenerative. Their Book is not that of life. Their arts and energies of reading, like analytic thought at its most intense, laser-sharp pitch, consume and deconstruct the living object of their questioning.
What is to Hegel an awesome pathology, a tragic, arrested stage in the advance of human consciousness towards a liberated homecoming from alienation, is, to others, the open secret of the Jewish genius and of its survival. The text is home; each commentary a return. When he reads, when, by virtue of commentary, he makes of his reading a dialogue and life-giving echo, the Jew is, to purloin Heidegger’s image, “the shepherd of being. "The seeming nomad in truth carries the world within him, as does language itself, as does Leibniz’s monad (the play on, the illicit congruence between the two words are, one senses, unsettling to Hegel, and suggestive).
But whether they are seen as positive or negative, the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practises in Judaism are ontologically and historically at the heart of Jewish identity.
This is obviously so in a formal sense. The Torah is the pivot of the weave and cross-weave of reference, elucidation, hermeneutic debate which organize, which inform organically, the daily and the historical life of the community. The community can be defined as a concentric tradition of reading. The Gemara, the commentary on the Mishna, the collection of oral laws and prescriptions which make up the Talmud, the Midrash, which is that part of the commentary pertaining particularly to the interpretation of the scriptural canon, express and activate the continuum of Jewish being. The incessant readings of the primary texts, the exegetic, disputatious, elaborative readings of these readings (the process is formally and pragmatically endless), define temporality. They manifest the presence of the determinant past; they seek to elicit present application; they aim at the futurities always latent in the original act of revelation. Thus neither Israel’s physical scattering, nor the passage of millennia, can abrogate the authority (the auctoritas of authorship) or the pressure of meaning in the holy books, so long as these are read and surrounded by a constancy of secondary, satellite texts. By virtue of metaphoric, allegoric, esoteric explication and challenge, these secondary texts rescue the canon from the ebbing motion of the past tense, from that which would draw live meaning into inert or merely liturgical monumentality. Via magisterial commentary, the given passage will, in places and times as yet unknown, yield existential applications and illuminations of spirit yet unperceived.
The Adamic circumstance is one of linguistic tautology and of a lasting present. Things were as Adam named and said them to be. Word and world were one. Where there is perfect contentment, there is no summons to remembrance. The present tense of the verb is also that of the perfect tomorrow. It was the Fall of Man that added to human speech its ambiguities, its necessary secrecies, its power (the counterfactuals, the ‘if constructions) to dissent speculatively from the opaque coercions of reality. After the Fall, memories and dreams, which are so often messianic recollections of futurity, become the store-house of experience and of hope. Hence the need to re-read, to re-call (revocation) those texts in which the mystery of a beginning, in which the vestiges of a lost self-evidence- God’s "I am that I am”- are current.
Ideally, such recall should be oral. In Hebraic sensibility, no less than in that of Plato, a distrust of the written word, a critical regret at the passing of orality, are evident. The written is always a shadow after the fact, a post-script, in the material sense of the term. Its decay from the primary moment of meaning is exemplified, obscurely, in the destruction of the Tables of the Law on Sinai, in the making of a second set or facsimile. The letters of fire, of that fire which spoke in the burning bush, have been extinguished in the graven silence of the stone. On the other hand, assuredly, writing has been the indestructible guarantor, the 'underwriter’, of the identity of the Jew: across the frontiers of his harrying, across the centuries, across the languages of which he has been a forced borrower and frequent master. Like a snail, his antennae towards menace, the Jew has carried the house of the text on his back. What other domicile has been allowed him?
But the destiny and history of Judaism are ‘bookish’ in a far deeper sense; and in one that does virtually set them apart.
In the relation to God which defines the Jew, the concepts of contract and of covenant are not metaphoric. A narrative charter, a magna carta and document of instauration in narrative form, setting out reciprocal rights and obligations as between God and man, is explicit in Genesis and in Exodus. The foundation of elect identity is textual. In Hobbes and Rousseau, the invocation of an original contract between individuals founding civic society or between the sovereign and those who delegate their powers to him, is a methodological fiction. In Judaism, it is a literal instrument, a spoken-written deed of trust, subject not only to constant personal and communal ratification, but to close probing. Even after the promise to Noah, even after the transcendent redaction at Sinai, and doubly so after each visitation of disaster on the Jewish people, the God-pact, the covenant and its innumerable legal-ritual codicils, are the focus of re-examination. The latter is moral, legalistic and textual. There has been too much agony in the fine print.
The millennial dialogue with God, of which the Book of Job is only the most pointed protocol, is that of a ‘bookkeeper’. This image can be pressed closely. God ‘keeps book’ on His people, who are, everlastingly, the debtors to His initial advance - which is, past all repayment, creation, which is survival after the Flood, the covenant at Sinai and the deed of title to the promised land. At all times, for such is the compounding of God’s interest, His partner and client Israel is in arrears, even in default. Where it is allowed, a moratorium is an act of grace. The cancellation of the debt, the revaluation of all currency, as proclaimed in Christ, is, to the Jew, an empty fantasy.
Concomitantly, there is a sense in which the Jew ‘keeps book’ on God. Do the accounts, and note the semantic overlap and interference as between ‘account’ and ‘narration’, ever balance? Is there an intelligible balance-sheet to be drawn between merit and recompense (Job’s attempt to inspect and certify the book of life), between suffering and happiness? Has God met the obligations He contracted with man, more precisely, with those first advocates and negotiators of being, the Jews? Anti-semitism has always denounced in Judaism and its relations to God, vide Shylock and his bond, a contractual, litigious economy, an inheritance of sharp practises and barter. Is there not, in the moralistic- didactic epilogue to the mysterium tremendum of Job, a twofold restitution, payment for damages incurred?
But the ‘bookkeeper’ is also, and inextricably, a ‘keeper of the Book’, an archivist of the revealed. The accountant is, by virtue of this custody, accountable to God as is no other tribe. In Ezekiel, 3, this ‘keeping of books’, this clerkship to eternity, takes on a grotesque physical vehemence. God’s emissary holds out a scroll to His servant, “and it was written all over on both sides.” Ezekiel is bidden “eat this scroll” (Ben Jonson tells of the ‘ingestion’ of classical texts). “Swallow this scroll.” Ezekiel does so “and it tasted as sweet as honey” - we speak still of “honeyed words”, of the links between language and that haunting savour which Middle Eastern and Attic mythology associate both with the sun and the gardens of the dead.
It is the contractual, promissory foundation and core of Judaism which have entailed the singularity (the pathology contra naturami) of survival. The ‘books have been kept’ and kept up to date. The ‘keepers’ make new entries at every moment in their individual and historical existence. But consider the determinants of terror in the script. Consider the overwhelmingly manifest yet metaphysically and rationally scandalous adherence of Jewish experience to the pre-script set down for it in the books which are its card of identity, in the books it has so proudly and contentiously kept. Rigorously viewed, the fate of Judaism is a post-script to the penalty clauses in God’s contract (that fine print, again). It is a sequence of demonstrative foot-notes, of marginalia, to the text of God’s (non-)reply to Job and to the texts of the Prophets. Everything is there, spelt-out from the start. The rest has been unbearable fulfillment. No other nation, no other culture on this earth has been so prescribed. No other men have had to bear like witness to the cognate meanings of prescription and of proscription, which signify denunciation, ostracism, and a written designation for death.
What is there to add to Amos, which scholars take to be the oldest of prophetic books, dating it c. 750 B.C. when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was heading for ruin? God’s promise is unequivocal:
I will send a fire upon Judah,
and it shall devour the palace of Jerusalem.
As the shepherd takes out of the mouth of
the lion two legs or a piece of an ear, so
shall the children of Israel be taken out …
The city that went out by a thousand shall
have a remnant of a hundred, of that which
went out by a hundred, ten shall remain.
The long terror of the Diaspora is precisely promised: the songs of worship “shall be howlings,” Israel “shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east” seeking sanctuary in vain. Because God’s words are of fire, those who hear and who read them are to be made ash.
The oracular is open-ended. Its duplicities and triplicities - three roads meet at that crossing near Delphi- are those of human freedom. Prophecies are the contrary of oracles: they answer before they are asked. How has it been possible for the Jewish people to endure without going more or less collectively mad, without yielding to more or less willed self-destruction (the impulse to both do run deep in Judaic sensibility) knowing, reading and re-reading the binding foresight of its Prophets? Where did Judaism find the resolve, the life-tenacity, when an apocalyptic writ had been served on it by its own seers of darkness and when the predictions set out in this writ have been realised, to the hideous letter, time and time and time again? This strikes me as the ‘Jewish question’.
Part of the answer lies, of course, in the antinomian, pendular motion of the Mosaic and prophetic prescripts themselves. Catastrophe is never unconditional. In God’s sentence on Israel there are redeeming clauses. The just, be they but a handful, may be saved; the repentant restored. The dialectic of possible rehabilitation springs from the heart of terror. It is eloquent at the close of Arnos: the captive, wind-scattered remnant of Israel shall be brought back to the promised land, “and they shall rebuild the waste cities, and inhabit them. They shall plant vine- yards and drink the wine thereof. They shall make gardens and eat of their fruit.” The entire Zionist dream and purpose, the manner of miracle in which these have been realised, are ‘programmed’ in this fourteenth verse of this ninth chapter of Amos’s script. Throughout the Torah, throughout the prophetic books which dictate the future of Israel, the note of compensation, of the messianic horizon, is set against that of interminable suffering.
But this twofold truth in holy writ only complicates the phenomenological and the psychological question. The deterministic imperative of the promise of selective or ultimate rescue is as binding, as coercive a blueprint, as are the previsions of persecution, dispersal and martyrdom. Amos’s clairvoyance as to Zionism is as prescriptive as is his foresight of Jewish agony. No other community in the evolution and social history of man has, from its outset, read, re-read without cease, learnt by heart or by rote, and expounded without end the texts which spell out its whole destiny. These texts, moreover, are felt to be of transcendent authorship and authority, infallible in their pre-diction, as oracles in the pagan world, notoriously, are not. The script, therefore, is a contract with the inevitable. God has, in the dual sense of utterance and of binding affirmation, ‘given His word’, His Logos and His bond, to Israel. It cannot be broken or refuted.
Again one asks: what abstentions or strengths of spirit, what genius for servitude and what pride, are required of a people called upon to act out a primal pre-script, to, as it were, take dictation of itself? Light blinds us when it is too clear. Yet the Jew has had to inhabit the literal text of his foreseen being. Canetti has written a play which turns on the conceit of a society in which every man knows, in advance and ineluctably, the date of his own death. The parable on Judaism is unmistakable. It is because he lives, enacts privately and historically, a written writ, a promissory note served on him when God sought out Abraham and Moses, it is because the ‘Book of Life’ is, in Judaism, literally textual, that the Jew dwells apart. (It was just this suffocating déjà-vu, this servile immunity from the unknown in the Jewish condition, which both fascinated and repelled Hegel.)
Though the psychological mechanism remains obscure, the fact is a commonplace: prophecies are, to a degree, self-fulfilling. The stronger the prophecy, the more often it is proclaimed, the greater its inertial thrust towards realisation. In his dread history, the Jew would seem to have been intent to certify the accuracy of the road mapped for him by the Prophets. The script has been ‘acted’, first across that valley of the shadow and of the night of dispersal and massacre which climaxed in the “whirlwind” of the 1940s, in the Shoa (the noble Greek word, ‘holocaust’, signifying a solemn burnt offering, has no legitimate place in this matter); more recently in the foretold, contractually underwritten return to Israel.
Does this mean that the Utopian pre-vision of homecoming and of peace which, in the settlement with Abraham and in the coda to the prophetic books, follows on millennial suffering, will also be realised? Not now, not necessarily in secular time. The print is too fine for that. The messianic is an escape-clause for both parties. It is on the advent of the messianic order that the prevision of blessedness hinges. Till then, even the in-gathering at Zion is, in the exact Latin etymological sense, pro-visional, it is a prevision the nature and temporality of whose certain accomplishment remains uncertain.
But the crux is this: neither the Jewish endurance, indeed traditional acceptance of a continuum of ostracism and persecution across history, nor the rationally, geopolitically absurd, return of a modern ethnic group to a largely barren strip of earth in the Middle East, to a strip of earth long occupied by others and whose frontiers could only be those of hatred, can be understood outside the metaphysics and psychology of the pre-scribed. The canonic texts had to be shown to be true.
The price for this ‘keeping of the books’ (for this ‘going by the book*) has been, literally, monstrous. The notion that the night-vision of the Jew has, somehow, in some secret measure, brought on itself the torments foreseen, is irrational, but haunting none the less.
It is compelling in our reading of Kafka. The practises of literary criticism and study are more or less helpless before The Trial and The Castle with their minutely faithful prevision of the clerical inhumanities of life in our time. Explication, reference to stylistic means or literary context, merely trivialize Kafka’s blueprint of the concentration-camp world, of the coming obscenities of intimacy between torturer and victim, as these are spelt out, in October 1914, in “In The Penal Colony”; or consider Kafka’s use of the word “vermin” in “The Metamorphosis” of 1912 in precisely the sense and connotations that would be given to it by the Nazis a generation later. In Kafka’s writings there is a revealed literalism avant la lettre which renders almost wholly worthless the spate of commentaries which they have provoked. Even the masterly exchange on Kafka’s religiosity in the Walter Benjamin- Gershom Scholem letters, which may, together with Mandelstam’s essay on reading Dante, be the best that the arts of modern literary criticism have to show, avoid the urgent conundrum of the prophetic. As no other speaker or scribe after the Prophets, Kafka knew. In him, as in them, imagination was second sight and invention a pedantic notation of clairvoyance. Kafka’s misery as one coerced into writing, his almost hysterical diffidence before mundane authorship, are the facsimile, perhaps consciously arrived at, of the attempts of the Prophets to evade the intolerable burden of their seeing, to shake off the commandment of utterance. Jeremiah’s “I do not know how to speak,” Jonah’s flight from foretelling, have their literal parallel in Kafka’s “impossibility of writing, impossibility of not writing.” Having the unspeakable future so lit to his sight, Kafka was, not only in his writings but also in his personal existence, knowingly posthumous to himself. It is some notation of this scarcely conceivable condition which, I suspect, informs the profoundest allegory produced by western man after Scripture, that of the parable “In Front of the Law” composed in November or December 1914.
In Kafka’s credo of reading, the Jewish experience of the imperative terror of the text is manifest:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had not books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide.
How much could be said (inadequately) of that mesmeric opposition between “one we love better than ourselves” and “suicide”, about Kafka’s implicit finding that suicide is always the killing of the 'other’, of the one ‘loved better than ourselves’ within us. What is pellucid in this famous dictum is the paradoxical need, the self-testing to destruction, in the Jewish vision and experience of the book.
The indispensable books, those whose coming upon us is more powerful even than the death of the beloved, are the syllabus of the Judaic. What they have in common, what relates the rare secular examples to the canonic, is, indeed, their status as a mikra, a summons and sub-poena to mankind. They call and call upon us. The fist hammering on our skull forces us to keep our eyes open.
Nothing can erase this night but there’s still light with you. At Jerusalem’s gate a black sun has risen.
The yellow one frightens me more. Lullaby, lullaby, Israelites have buried my mother in the bright temple.
Somewhere outside grace, with no priests to lead them, Israelites have sung the requiem over her in the bright temple.
The voices of Israelites rang out over my mother. I woke in the cradle, dazzled by the black sun.
This poem by Mandelstam is entitled “Black Sun”. Lacking Russian-the translation is by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin - I can say very little about it, about the sources of its spell. Moreover, there may be in these four quatrains esoteric echoes of Russian apocalyptic and eschatological symbolism accessible only to the informed. This happens to be the case, quite often, in both the great voices of Russian Judaeo-Orthodoxy (the baptized but remembering Jew), Mandelstam and Pasternak. Yet the strength and universality of the poem’s summons are such that we must listen as best we can.
Certain motifs declare themselves. In Russian poetry and fiction, in the incomparable articulation of the ‘strangeness’ of the Russian political and psychological tradition by Pushkin and Dostoevsky, the “white nights”, particularly in St. Petersburg, are emblematic. The “black sun” of Mandelstam’s lyric, with its precedent in Baudelaire and Nerval, reverses the febrile white nights. The black sunrise answers to the white nightfall. But more ominous to the poet than either is the light of common day - “The yellow one frightens me more.” In Paul Celan’s poetry on the destruction of European Jewry, a poetry which, by incessant echo and allusion, often incorporates that of Osip Mandelstam, the ‘yellow sun’ will have become (remaining, in actual reference, the same) the yellow star of the condemned.
As does so much of elegiac and philosophic poetry after Proverbs and Ecclesiastes - it is the latter text which seems subtly active in Mandelstam’s lines- there is in the “Black Sun” an interplay of the cradle and the grave. Lullaby interweaves with requiem. The birth of the child is always, in a banal sense, the end of maternity. On the other hand, a mother’s death is a son’s re-birth, but a re-birth into adult aloneness, into the most definite of exiles from shared identity and remembrance. From this psychic and somatic exile, there can be no return.
Exile would seem to be at the hammering heart of Mandelstam’s poem. Israelites bury the speaker’s mother “in the bright temple”, a ritual absurdity or scandal. They do so “Somewhere outside grace,/ With no priests to lead them.” The allusion to burial in unconsecrated ground, a pagan or Christian rather than a Jewish motif, is evident. But, in a larger sense, the statement is one of ostracism. No kaddish, but a requiem. In the Diaspora, a Jew is made homeless even in death. The child is woken by the exiled voices of Israel, woken to apocalyptic terror. The sun which dazzles him is a black sun, and it rises “At Jerusalem’s gate.” We can read this image in at least two ways. That gate is shut to the outcast and/ or a blackness at noon shall enter through it into the city.
Mandelstam’s poem is dated 1916. Russian Jewry had known the pogroms of the fairly recent past, and the so-called civilized world was at war. But neither the Bolshevik-Stalinist nightmare nor the Whirlwind out of Hitler were in any way visible. Yet Mandelstam wakes, and wakes his reader, to the clear vision of the night-dawn ahead. He already knows - a knowledge to be fulfilled in his own appalling suffering and death.
As in Kafka, so there is here an inextricable intimacy between the imagined and the foreseen. Not only Amos, but numerous rabbinic masters, have conjectured that every Jew, when he is wholly present to God’s word, to the living summons of the Torah, is in a condition of prophecy and pre-vision. He is, at some level, made a party to the fact that God remembers the future.
Again the question nags. Where prophecy is so penetratively acute, does it not prepare for, indeed provoke, fulfillment? Could there be some (incomprehensible) guilt in annunciation? (In the Brussells museum hangs an anonymous ‘primitive’ depicting the Annunciation; behind Mary’s bowed, overwhelmed head, hangs a small painting of the Crucifixion.) In Judaism, has the text come to lord it over life? Does the fact follow humbly, but also murderously, after the commanding word? At its greatest, Jewish secular writing when, at last, it springs from the liturgical, exegetical textuality and monopoly of the ghetto, carries with it, from Heine to Celan, an enforced clairvoyance and guilt of accomplishment.
The bookkeeper is not only the custodian and, in his racked bone and flesh, the certifier of prophecy. He is a cleric. The mystery and the practises of clerisy are fundamental to Judaism. No other tradition or culture has ascribed a comparable aura to the conservation and transcription of texts. In no other has there been an equivalent mystique of the philological. This is true of orthodox praxis, in which a single erratum, the wrong transcription of a single letter, entails the permanent removal of the relevant scroll or page from the holy books. It is true, to the same pitch of literalist intensity, in the whole theory and techniques of the Kabbala, in the kabbalist’s exhaustive scrutiny of the single Hebrew letter in whose graphic form and denomination manifold energies of meaning are incised.
The quarrel with Hellenism and with Christian gnosis is stark. In Judaism, the letter is the life of the spirit, indeed to the kabbalist, it is the spirit. Hence the clerical ideals, the clerical code of scribal observance and conveyance in the exilic history of the Jews. Hence the clerisy of the rabbinic caste in the ghetto and Stätile. To say of this ecstatic textuality and clerkship- both are totally instrumental in Kafka’s profession and in Kafka’s calling - that they were a surrogate for the political, social acts barred to the Jews, to say of the ‘scribal’ nature of Jewish survivance that it was an inhibiting substitute for the production of secular intellect and art, is a facile cliché. The point is that the sometimes hallucinatory techniques and disciplines of attention to the text, the mystique of fidelity to the written word, the reverence bestowed on its expositors and transmitters, concentrated within Judaic sensibility unique strengths and purities of disinterested purpose.
It is these which have made so many Jewish men and, more recently, women most native to modern intelligence. It is these that have generated the provocative pre-eminence of the Jew in modernity, be it humanistic or scientific. The ‘bookish’ genius of Marx and of Freud, of Wittgenstein and of Lévi-Strauss, is a secular deployment of the long schooling in abstract, speculative commentary and clerkship in the exegetic legacy (while being at the same time a psychological- sociological revolt against it). The Jewish presence, often overwhelm- ing, in modern mathematics, physics, economic and social theory, is direct heir to that abstinence from the approximate, from the mundane, which constitutes the ethos of the cleric.
Under Roman persecution, Akiba made of his refuge a ‘place’ or ‘house of the book’. A secularized but closely derived system of values was to make of Central European Jewry and its American after-glow the intellectual-spiritual heartland of modernity. Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Leningrad, Frankfurt and New York have been the Jewish capitals of our age, but also the capitals tout court. In them, the clerks, the addicts of the word and of the theorem, the exact dreamers after Einstein, have led, have danced the life of the mind; for that motion of the dance before the ark in which the text of the Law is housed, lies at the ancient core of Jewish consciousness.
A kabbalistic and hassidic intimation has it that evil seeped into our world through the hair-line crack of a single erroneous letter, that man’s suffering, and that of the Jew especially, came of the false transcription of a single letter or word when God dictated the Torah to his elect scribe. This grim fantastication is utterly expressive of a scholar’s code. It points to the definition of a Jew as one who always has a pencil or pen in hand when he reads, of one who will in the death-camps (and this came to pass) correct a printing error, emend a doubtful text, on his way to extinction. But the morality and metaphysics of the clerk are not only, nor indeed primarily, those of pedantic, mandarin abstraction. We need only look to Spinoza to know otherwise. What is at stake is a politics of truth. Such politics are, in essence, Socratic - and Socrates is the one gentile of whom a thinking Jew has the never-ending obligation to be jealous.
The socratic moment for modern Jewry is the Dreyfus Affair. It compelled on the Jew the question of whether he could, even in an emancipated and assimilationist garb, ever obtain a secure citizenship in the city of the gentile, which is the post-Napoleonic nation-state. With cruel edge, the Dreyfus Affair confronted ideals of justice and of personal conscience with the claims of the nation-state to transcendent loyalty. The case threw the sharpest possible light on the inherently anarchic genius of abstract thought and the search for absolute truth. Imperatives of reason and of conscience clashed, metaphysically and ethically, with those conventions of expediency, of moral approximation and irresolution without which the fabric of society cannot hang together. As does the trial of Socrates, so the Dreyfus Affair passes judgment on the polis. The resulting schism, the contested victory of individual justice over patriotism and reasons of state, lamed not only France - the Vichy regime, the rhetoric and tactics of civil war perennial to French politics are a direct legacy - but the very concept of nationalism. Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus.
Both the occasion and the logic of the conflict came out of Judaism. They came from the ambiguous entry into the territorial, fundamentally Roman polities of the modern nation of a people at home in exile, of a pilgrim tribe housed not in place but in time, not rooted but millennially equipped with legs. Whether he knew it or not, whether he wished it or not - indeed, he desperately hoped otherwise and did much to deceive himself - the Jew, when given nationality by his adopted gentile hosts, remained in transit. Judaism defines itself as a visa to the messianic ‘other land’.
For the cleric, for the ideal of clerisy in Jewishness, this house of the future tense need not be Israel. Or rather, it is an ‘Israel’ of truth-seeking. Each seeking out of a moral, philosophic, positive verity, each text rightly established and expounded, is an aliyah, a homecoming of Judaism to itself and to its keeping of the books. The impositions and glory of this trusteeship, as they modulate from the religious to the secular domain, are formulated in Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Clerics, an inescapably Jewish book which came of the Dreyfus case.
Heir to Spinoza, Benda defines and himself instances the fanaticism of disinterested vision, the ecstatic exactions and exactitudes, which underlie major thought and scholarship. On the Sabbath, the benedictions spoken in the synagogue extend explicitly to the scholar. There is, or ought to be sadness in a Jewish household if there is no scholar or future scholar among its children. Benda goes further. He takes for his own a dictate by a now-forgotten savant of the nineteenth-century:
Whoever, for whatever motives- patriotic, political, religious and even moral- allows himself even the slightest manipulation or adjustment of the truth, must be stricken from the roll of scholars.
The tranquil enormity of this commandment must be felt. Observe the ascending order in which the condemned apologias are listed. Patriotism, the love and defense of the homeland- of the Third Republic under threat of German invasion- is the lowest non-excuse. Next come political loyalty, efficiency, those practicalities of civic compromise and herd-instinct which a Socrates and a Spinoza refuse. Let the city and the nation perish before the cleric commits “even the slightest” mendacity. They are not the native ground of his being, which is truth. Where it cannot afford truth a natural habitation, even religion must yield. ‘Morality’ is the crown of motives. Yet it too is set aside. The injunction to do so is a fearful edict (Kierkegaard will repudiate it utterly). Where Kant postulated a transcendent coincidence between the ethical and the cognitive, Benda knew that there may be cases of irreconcilable conflict between ethics and the pursuit of knowledge - in nuclear physics, in genetics, in the psychologist’s and the writer’s findings in man. The cleric betrays his calling, he is absent from the mikra, if he flinches from, if he muffles or deflects the pure hunt for truth - Plato records the hunter’s halloo when a truth is cornered- even if this hunt should lead to his own destruction or that of his community.
It is here that the creed of Spinoza and of Kafka meets with the conduct of Socrates. A true thinker, a truth-thinker, a scholar, must know that no nation, no body politic, no creed, no moral ideal and necessity, be it that of human survival, is worth a falsehood, a willed self-deception or the manipulation of a text. This knowledge and observance are his homeland. It is the false reading, the erratum that make him homeless.
A Jew enters on manhood, he is admitted to the history of Judaism, on the day on which he is, for the first time, called, literally, to the text, on the day on which he is asked and allowed to read correctly a passage from the Torah. This summons entails, to a greater or lesser degree of intensity, to a greater or lesser degree of self-awareness, a commitment to the clerisy of truth, of truth-seeking. The prophetic and the speculative addiction to insight are the nationhood of Judaism. In the humblest of clerks as in the greatest of thinkers, the acceptance of this calling, of this ‘calling up’ in the full sense of a perilous enlistment and promotion, must have practical (impractical) consequences.
How can a thinking man, a native of the word, be anything but the most wary and provisional of patriots? The nation-state is founded on myths of instauration and of militant glory. It perpetuates itself by lies and half-truths (machine guns and sub-machine guns). In his model of the social contract, Rousseau declared unequivocally that there is a contradiction between humanity and citizenship: “Forcé de combattre la nature ou les institutions sociales, il faut opter entre faire un homme ou un citoyen; car on ne peut pas faire à la fois l'un et l'autre.” The consequence is stark: “a patriot is hard on strangers, for they are but men.”
The ‘patriotism’ of the truth-seeker is antithetical to Rousseau’s civic option. The sole citizenship of the cleric is that of a critical humanism. He knows not only that nationalism is a sort of madness, a virulent infection edging the species towards mutual massacre. He knows that it signifies an abstention from free and clear thought and from the disinterested pursuit of justice. The man or woman at home in the text is, by definition, a conscientious objector: to the vulgar mystique of the flag and the anthem, to the sleep of reason which proclaims “my country, right or wrong”, to the pathos and eloquence of collective mendacities on which the nation-state - be it a mass-consumer mercantile technocracy or a totalitarian oligarchy- builds its power and aggressions. The locus of truth is always extraterritorial; its diffusion is made clandestine by the barbed wire and watch-towers of national dogma.
The quarrel is as ancient as Israel. It is that between priest and prophet, between the claims of nationhood and those of universality. It speaks to us irreconcilably out of Amos and Jeremiah. The mortal clash between politics and verity, between an immanent homeland and the space of the transcendent, is spelt out in Jeremiah 36-9. King Jahoiakim seizes the scroll dictated by God’s clerk and bookkeeper. He cuts out the offending columns and casts the entire text into the consuming flame (governments, political censors, patriotic vigilantes burn books). God instructs the prophet: “Take thee again another scroll and write on it all the words that were written on the first. "The truth will out. Somewhere there is a pencil-stub, a mimeograph machine, a hand-press which the king’s men have overlooked. "So Jeremiah abode in the court of the prison till the day that Jerusalem was taken; and he was there when Jerusalem was taken.” The formulaic specification is magnificent in meaning. The royal city, the nation are laid waste; the text and its transmitter endure, there and now. The Temple may be destroyed; the texts which it housed sing in the winds that scatter them.
Pauline universalism was an inspired amalgam of the transcendent, immaterial textuality of the Prophets in Judaism and of Hellenic syncretism. It proved to be the most serious challenge ever to Jewish survival, precisely in so far as it sprang from within the Utopian elements in the Jewish tradition (and utopia means “no-where”). Paul of Tarsus set prophecy against priesthood, ecumenism against territoriality. It is altogether possible that Judaism would have lost its identity, would have diffused itself in Christianity, if the latter had been true to its Judaic catholicity. Instead, Christendom became, itself, a political-territorial structure, prepared, on all practical counts, to serve, to hallow, the genesis and militancy of secular states. Ideological imperialism is inseparable from the Constantine adoption of Christianity; modern nationalism bears the stamp of the Lutheran programme. Truth was, again, made homeless; or, more exactly, it was left in the (unsafe-keeping of the pariah and the exile.
During the period, roughly, from 70 A.D. to 1948 A.D.
In the founding secular manifesto of Zionism, Herzel’s Judenstaat, the language and the vision are proudly mimetic of Bismarckian nationalism. Israel is a nation-state to the utmost degree. It lives armed to the teeth. It has been compelled to make other men homeless, servile, disinherited, in order to survive from day to day (it was, during two millennia, the dignity of the Jew that he was too weak to make any other human being as unhoused, as wretched as himself). The virtues of Israel are those of beleaguered Sparta. Its propaganda, its rhetoric of self-deception, are as desperate as any contrived in the history of national- ism. Under external and internal stress, loyalty has been atrophied to patriotism, and patriotism made chauvinism. What place, what license is there in that garrison for the ‘treason’ of the Prophet, for Spinoza’s refusal of the tribe? Humanism, said Rousseau, is “a theft committed on la patrie.” Quite so.
There is no singular vice in the practises of the State of Israel. These follow ineluctably on the simple institution of the modern nation-state, on the political-military necessities by which it exists with and against its nationalist competitors. It is by empirical need that a nation-state sups on lies. Where it has traded its homeland in the text for one of the Golan Heights or in Gaza- “eyeless” was the clairvoyant epithet of that great Hebraist, Milton - Judaism has become homeless to itself.
But this, of course, is only a part of the truth.
To many among the few survivors, the interminable pilgrimage through persecution, the interminable defenselessness of the Jew in the face of bestiality and derision, were no longer endurable. A refuge had to be found, a place of physical gathering in which a Jewish parent could give to his child some hope of a future. The return to Zion, the fantastic courage and labour which have made the desert flower, the survival of the ‘Old Newland’ (Herzel’s famous phrase) against crazy political and military odds, have made a wonder of necessity. The overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel, of Jews in the Diaspora, seek neither to be prophets nor clerics deranged by some autistic, other-worldly addiction to speculative abstractions and the elixir of truth. They hunger, desperately, for the common condition of man among men. They would, like all other men and nations, vanquish their enemies rather than be oppressed and scattered by them; if harsh reality dictates, they would rather occupy, censor, even torture than be occupied and censored and tortured as they have been for so long. What mandarin fantasy, what ivory-tower nonsense, is it to suppose that alone among men, and after the unspeakable horrors of destruction lavished upon him, the Jew should not have a land of his own, a shelter in the night?
I know all this. It would be shallow impertinence not to see the psychological, the empirical force of the argument. Moreover, is the return to Israel not foreseen, indeed ordained, in the very texts I have cited? Is Zionism not as integral a part of the ‘prescribed’ mystery and condition of Judaism as were the terrible times of sufferance (Shylock’s word) and dispersal?
The Orthodox answer is clear. Both currents of prevision are to be accomplished. The prescriptions of suffering have long been made manifest. And so shall be the homecoming to the promised land. But not before the messianic hour. The imperilled brutalized condition of the present State of Israel, the failure of Israel to be Zion, prove the spurious, the purely expedient temporality of its re-establishment in 1948. There were, then, armed men about and politicians. The Messiah was nowhere in sight. Thus the State of Israel, as it stands today, neither fulfills nor disproves the Mosaic and prophetic covenant of return. The time is not yet.
Personally, I have no right to this answer. I have no part in the beliefs and ritual practises which underwrite it. But its intuitive and evidential strength can be felt to be real.
The survival of the Jews has no authentic parallel in history. Ancient ethnic communities and civilizations no less gifted, no less self-conscious, have perished, many without trace. It is, on the most rational, existential level, difficult to believe that this unique phenomenon of unbroken life, in the face of every destructive agency, is unconnected with the exilic circumstance. Judaism has drawn its uncanny vitality from dispersal, from the adaptive demands made on it by mobility. Ironically, the threat of that ‘final solution’ might prove to be the greatest yet if the Jews were now to be compacted in Israel.
But there is a more central intimation. One need be neither a religious fundamentalist nor a mystic to believe that there is some exemplary meaning to the singularity of Judaic endurance, that there is some sense beyond contingent or demographic interest to the interlocking constancy of Jewish pain and of Jewish preservation. The notion that the appalling road of Jewish life and the ever-renewed miracle of survival should have as their end, as their justification, the setting up of a small nation-state in the Middle East, crushed by military burdens, petty and even corrupt in its politics, shrill in its parochialism, is implausible.
I cannot shake off the conviction that the torment and the mystery of resilience in Judaism exemplify, enact, an arduous truth: that human beings must learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet, even as they must learn to be guests of being itself and of the natural world. This is a truth humbly immediate, to our breath, to our skin, to the passing shadow we cast on a ground inconceivably more ancient than our visitation, and it is also a terribly abstract, morally and psychologically exigent truth. Man will have to learn it or he will be made extinct in suicidal waste and violence.
The State of Israel is an endeavour - wholly understandable, in many aspects admirable, perhaps historically inescapable - to normalize the condition, the meaning of Judaism. It would make the Jew level with the common denominator of modern ‘belonging’. It is, at the same time, an attempt to eradicate the deeper truth of unhousedness, of an at-homeness in the word, which are the legacy of the Prophets and of the keepers of the text.
In Jerusalem today, the visitor is taken to the “Shrine of the Scrolls” or, as it is also known, “House of the Sacred Books”. In this exquisite building are kept some of the Dead Sea scrolls and priceless biblical papyri. It is a place of poignant, if somewhat sepulchral, radiance. One’s guide explains the hidden hydraulic mechanism where- by the entire edifice can, in the event of shelling or bombardment, be made to sink safely below ground. Such precautions are indispensable. Because nation-states live by the sword. But such precautions are also a metaphysical and ethical barbarism. Words cannot be broken by artillery, nor thought live in bomb-shelters.
Locked materially in a material homeland, the text may, in fact, lose its life-force, and its truth values may be betrayed. But when the text is the homeland, even when it is rooted only in the exact remembrance and seeking of a handful of wanderers, nomads of the word, it cannot be extinguished. Time is truth’s passport and its native ground.
What better lodging for the Jew?