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Hebrew Literature, American Zionism and more.




Hebrew Literature
TO THE EDITORS:
There are two ways to create and study an “ethnic” or a “national” literature: One is to focus on the group of writers and works who identify themselves as being of that people, and look at the diversities and common threads between them. The other is to identify the common thread that binds these writers together, and exclude examples which do not fit the thread, defining them as “outside the people,” or in some other way “diseased.” There are flaws to both approaches. In the first, the boundaries can become overly fuzzy as to what constitutes a literature properly belonging to that people. The second can gravely distort facts for the sake of intellectual purity, in the attempt to draw a fixed and stable boundary where none exists.
Assaf Inbaris article (“Towards a Hebrew Literature,” AZURE 9, Spring 2000) suffers gravely from the flaws of the second approach. We will focus, first, on his depiction of the ancient world (particularly India) and, second, on his portrayal of contemporary literature.
To begin with the ancient world: Inbari rightly asserts that polytheism should be viewed better as monism, diverse embodiments of a single cosmic power. However, his astounding assertion that there is no “story” to be found in that eternal, static absolute is completely false. The sources for much of ancient Indian monism, the Upanishads, are told almost entirely through narrative. Stories are told to illustrate philosophical principles; principles are enunciated through the frame of narratives. Moreover, ancient Indian literature is replete with “testaments” of encounter between personal gods and human beings, as well as between human beings and monistic principles. It is clear that Inbari has not read much of ancient Indian literature carefully. Current literary debate about the status of “history” and “historical consciousness” in India takes place at a much subtler, and more interesting, level.
Moreover, Inbaris repetition of the tired (and now challenged) dichotomy of “pagan” time being cyclical and Hebrew time being “linear” creates such a large generalization that comparison itself becomes an uninteresting list of cultural stereotypes. More recent writing on ancient India shows that its literature engages in the very dialectic between the individual and the collective that Inbari approves of.
Moreover, to assert that, contrary to the biblical authors, Indian authors harbored a love for philosophical abstraction and individualism entirely ignores a huge genre of Indian texts, of which we can name only a few. The Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (ten times the size of the Bible) narrate the exploits and duties of dynasties and kings; the Indian text of the Arthasastra outlines the world of ancient Indian politics and bureaucracy. All of these are classics in Indian literature; Inbari would do well to read them before he makes claims to Hebrew uniqueness.
There are indeed fascinating comparisons between biblical literary technique and that of its non-biblical counterparts which students of comparative literature and religion are now exploringׁabout the relationship between narrative and philosophy (both powerfully present in the literatures of ancient worlds); about the role of etymologies and punning; about the role of dynasty and lineage; and so forth. These themes are not the misleadingly generalized ones that Inbari engages; they are based on careful, linguistically informed, reading of other cultures texts.
What about texts closer to the Bible than those of India or Greece? Inbaris assertion about pagan narratives (and the lack thereof) contradicts without basis the findings of the last two centuries of research on the history of the Hebrew Bible. More specifically, it ignores the Bibles relation to the cultures of the Ancient Near East—and especially to the textual and narrative traditions of neighboring cultures. Inbaris assertion that “pagan texts” are about the individual, but the Bible is about the spiritual and material restoration of the Jewish polity in the land of Israel, can only work when one completely ignores the connections between the Bible and the other literatures of the Ancient Near East.
Yet the complexity and the grandeur of the various and varied biblical narrative, which shares so much with other Near Eastern “pagan” literatures, does not make it impure. Biblical literature need not have a single essence to be powerful. Its exhortation to Jewish national pride and restoration, a warning against “Hellenism” and nihilism, is only one of many possible characteristics of biblical literature.
Yet Inbaris article is more concerned with the contemporary Israeli literary scene, and it is best to turn now to the contemporary period. Decrying the “melancholy that has dominated Israeli literature since 1967” (an assertion that would shock the very large readership of contemporary Hebrew fiction), and blaming that “melancholy” on the New Left, the student revolts, the sexual revolution, and the wave of protests against the Vietnam War, Inbari calls for a return to what he describes as the “historical, national, deed-based… prose” of the Bible.
The only writer who escapes Inbaris censure, and seems to model this national, deed-based biblical prose, is S.Y. Agnon. According to Inbari, Agnon was the only author writing in the Hebrew language in the twentieth century who produced anything that can be properly called a “Hebrew literature.” Agnon meets Inbaris requisite standards of purity because his stories are in a “closed, ‘communal and particularist style, which stands in marked contrast to the universal communicativeness to which the artistic, individualistic Western narrative aspires.” Contrasted with Agnons “traditional” style is that of Yosef Haim Brenner, which is “intemperate, impatient and at times frenzied…Unlike Agnons language, which is infused with tradition, Brenners language is choppy, detached and chaotic.”
In his assertion of this dichotomy, Inbari blatantly overlooks the historical fact of Brenners relationship to Agnon. Brenner was mentor and advocate of the younger writer. Brenner was the revered cultural figure of the Second Aliya who projected a tone and voice to which Agnon continually responded. Brenner was the martyred defender of the Jewish settlements in Jaffa, a martyrdom which earned him a place in the pantheon of Israeli national identity.
But all of this goes unmentioned. For Inbari, it is Brenner, not Agnon, who is the most widely emulated of Israeli authors, and as todays Israeli authors disappoint Inbari, they are part of the “decades-long process of alienation from the Hebrew poetic tradition.” It is the tradition of Brenner and the ensuing “alienation” which must be blamed. Agnon himself would have strenuously objected to the Agnon-Brenner dichotomy. Agnon survived Brenner by fifty years and never expressed anything but the highest regard for the older and more revolutionary writer. This dichotomy is a modern expression of the earlier dichotomy posited by the author, mentioned above: Between the “national content” of the biblical narrative and the “individualistic, anthropocentric worldview” of the Greeks and other ancient societies.
Inbari is right to care about literature, Hebrew identity, and the creation of a vibrant, muscular Hebrew literary tradition. He is right to focus on Hebrew literature in its relationship to the cultures surrounding it. He is dangerously wrong to create the lengthy series of false dichotomies and generalizations which supposedly help to distinguish Hebrew literature from others. Our points are best punctuated by the testimony of Inbaris supposed exemplar, S.Y. Agnon. In a 1962 address in Jerusalem, Agnon spoke of his literary influences, and of his love for the world storytelling tradition. He enumerated for his listeners some of his favorite authors. First among them was Homer.
Shalom Goldman
Department of Hebrew Literature
Laurie L. Patton
Department of Early Indian Religions
Emory University
 
 


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