Two millennia ago, some rabbis were having a debate. The details—involving dead snakes, a broken oven, a flying carob tree—were convoluted. Downright Talmudic, you might say, were the argument not already in the Talmud. God himself intervened, siding with one of the rabbis by performing a series of miracles. But divine intervention isn’t why the episode was remarkable. Rather, it was how the other rabbis responded. “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute,” one said to God, “what have ye to interfere?” In other words: What business is it of yours? The Torah had already been given to Moses at Mount Sinai, he explained, and thereafter “we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice.” The text and its human readers trumped God. God’s response? He laughed, saying, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.” Well played, Babylonian sages, well played.

This story, often referred to as “Akhnai’s Oven,” represents a watershed moment for the Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, the two authors of Jews and Words (Yale; $25). “Gone is the lone prophet with a direct link to the Almighty,” they write. “Enter the interpreter, in constant conversation with fellow interpreters, applying human intelligence to the sacred texts, now prone to multifarious readings.” The Torah and its laws may be God-given, but thereafter fathoming their meaning is the task of human beings alone. 

The authors go a step further, taking God out of the picture entirely. Reading, within and apart from the Jewish tradition, is what makes them Jews, regardless of the existence of God: “We are not morally bound by any of it. But we find so much that is true, good, and insightful in parts of the Jewish bookshelf, that we can claim to have replaced faith with wonder.” Jews, they claim, have a unique collective identity that is not religious, not biological, but rather textual. From the very beginning, they argue, the Jewish people shared the Hebrew Bible and its laws orally from one generation to the next. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the subsequent exile of the Jews into the Diaspora, the Jewish people existed only insofar as their texts existed. They possessed no geographical or other unifying identity outside the Torah, rabbinical texts, poetry, and women’s and children’s books. For Jews, literacy and community have gone hand in hand, from ancient and medieval times to today.

The care and feeding of literacy centered on the synagogue and, more important for these authors, the family. “In order to remain a Jewish family, a Jewish family perforce relied on words,” they write. “Not any words, but words that came from books…. No other premodern people were systematically exposed, in this way, to written texts in their homes across a broad social spectrum…. This piece of social history is, to us, the single most important fact about the survival of the Jews.”

Given the title and the book’s focus on survival, its scope is surprisingly narrow. Anyone expecting a more expansive historical or literary survey of the relationship of Jews to words, from King David to Larry David, will be disappointed. European and American luminaries like Spinoza, Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth are discussed, but the focus skews toward the Hebrew Bible, with a leap to modern Hebrew writers (including, on occasion, Amos Oz quoting himself). What of the huge legacy of Yiddish literature? Where is the footprint of American Jewish culture? The book presumes that exile has necessitated and nurtured a text-based tradition, yet it breezes past large chunks of Diaspora history and culture.

In this way, Jews and Words grants to Hebrew culture a centrality that many non-Israelis no longer accept (if we exclude the enormous influence at the moment of Hatufim, the Israeli television series on which Homeland is based). The book is intended as an entry in a conversation among all Jews, but it seems caught in a moment from thirty years ago, when Israel was much more at the center of American Jewish consciousness. The authors concede that they made no attempt to write a comprehensive survey of Jewish works, or even to highlight the most famous or influential ones. Still, Israelis and Hebrew would have been a more apt title: the open and porous notion of Jewish identity and culture that the authors champion ultimately appears more parochial than they intended.

“This book is not about current affairs,” they write. “We are not bringing our take on Jewish history and continuity to bear on the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we cannot ignore the political meaning of our claim to a Jewish textline, and our belief in the superiority of books over material remains.” However, when you make an eloquent case (as the authors do) that “ours is not a bloodline but a textline,” what does it mean if you live in a state whose citizenship laws are in fact based on bloodline? For all the luftmensch talk about a heritage that is “paved with words,” that rhetoric reveals itself to be a tactic in a struggle over actual physical space: between secular and Orthodox Jews within the state of Israel, and between Israelis and Palestinians over the land itself. Those struggles may be why the authors fail to address a question their book fairly demands: If the relationship of Jews to books is largely a product of the Diaspora, what happens when that exile comes to an end in the form of a Jewish state? In a book that extols the virtues of a textual tradition rooted in the asking of questions, this is one that should not be overlooked.

In the last installment of Shelf Life, Mark Oppenheimer reviewed Shawn Francis Peters’s The Catonsville Nine.