Israel Against Itself
A few days after the recent death at the age of ninety-one of Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, biochemist, theologian, and indefatigable public gadfly, I spied the following notice on the Jerusalem street where he lived:
Blessed Be the True Judge
With Much Sorrow We Announce the Death
Of the Great Thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz
Who Was Among the Regular Worshipers
In the Central Yeshurun Synagogue
In the outpouring of encomia that followed Leibowitz’s death, such praise for him was not at all extravagant. There was perhaps one odd thing about it—namely, that most members of the Yeshurun synagogue belong to what is known as “the national religious camp,” a sector of Israeli society for which Leibowitz had considerable contempt.
But since Leibowitz had considerable contempt for most of Israeli society, this was part of a larger question. And that was: how could a man who was an interesting polemicist but an undistinguished scientist and far from a “great thinker”—who indeed exhibited little intellectual subtlety to speak of—have grown so esteemed by a country denounced by him for decades? Indeed, Israel’s media heaped upon his grave such epitaphs as “prophet,” “intellectual giant,” “revered spiritual shepherd,” “great giver of answers,” and “the most luminous intelligence of his times,” while no less a personage than the president of the state of Israel proclaimed him “One of the major figures in the life of the Jewish people in recent generations.”
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.