Towards a Hebrew Literature

By Assaf Inbari

A call to revive the Jewish story.

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Hebrew literature has a character that is its own. There is a special way, a Hebrew one, of telling a story. A writer who writes this way writes Hebrew literature; one who does not, even if he is writing in Hebrew, cannot produce Hebrew literature. The novels and stories written in Israel over the last generation have abandoned this approach: With each passing decade, Israeli literature has grown more distant from its Hebrew literary roots, and today it is more estranged from this legacy than ever before.
In speaking of Hebrew literature, I do not mean to use this term as it is often used, to refer simply to works that have been composed in the Hebrew language. Likewise, I am not following those scholars who consider “Hebrew literature” to be essentially synonymous with “Jewish literature,” those who expand it to include anything written by Jews,1 or those who use the term to refer to traditional Jewish religious literature. All of these definitions ignore the unique literary qualities that form the heart of the Hebrew literary tradition. Hebrew literature, for my purposes, refers to literature that employs a particular kind of poetics—that is, a certain artistic strategy for writing—of which the biblical narrative constitutes the first, but by no means only, example. The application of this strategy is not limited to works composed in Hebrew. The writings of Leo Tolstoy, for example, can be considered more “Hebrew” than those of Marcel Proust, because the former adopted a literary approach more in keeping with the Hebrew poetic tradition than did the latter.
The nature of Hebrew literature is not simply an academic matter, as its implications reach to the heart of Jewish cultural and national identity. For the essence of Jewish identity is not ethnic, religious or lingual—but literary.2 The literature that we have created, beginning with the Bible, is the foundation of our common heritage, the essential inheritance which every generation of Jews must interpret and build upon before passing it on to the next. The claim that our Jewish national identity is founded on our textual tradition—rather than on ethnic or religious commonality—is not a new one, having been made quite compellingly during the past century by writers such as Ahad Ha’am, Haim Nahman Bialik and Gershom Scholem.3 They were not specific enough, however, since they spoke of texts in general, not of literature. It is important, therefore, to clarify the point: The nucleus of our textual heritage is to be found in literary stories, rather than in the halachic, philosophical, lyrical or mystical writings that have also been part of the Jewish corpus.

What is Hebrew literature? In its essence, Hebrew literature is historical, national, deed-based narrative prose. In other words, it is narrative prose that is based on an understanding of time as the flow of history, of man as part of a nation, and of reality as a series of actions rather than a constellation of objects in space.
Narrative prose is the authentic form of Hebrew literature. Jews have always written philosophy, poetry and plays, but these literary genres were adopted from other cultures. Narrative prose, as a cultural preference, is the innovation of the Bible. This revolutionary decision was a critical element of the monotheistic revolution of Hebrew culture. Unlike the writings of the other cultures in antiquity, the Bible could only have been written in prose. Its message was, in no small measure, its narrative style; its form expressed its content.
Prior to the Bible, narrative prose was relegated to the margins of human culture. Literature consisted almost entirely of epic and lyric poetry, or of plays which were written as poetry. Although the Egyptians wrote some works of prose, their importance was negligible in a culture whose mythology was expressed primarily through monumental architecture and visual art. As far as we know, the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians did not compose a single work of literary prose. The only literary prose left to us by the Greeks was written centuries after the Bible had been completed, after their culture had already declined, in the first centuries of the common era.4 The Chinese, who wrote copious poetry beginning in the fourth century B.C.E, discovered prose only a thousand years later, during the period that was parallel to the European Middle Ages; they began to take it seriously as an art form only around the seventeenth century.5 The Japanese, who likewise wrote poetry from the dawn of their civilization, discovered literary prose in the late tenth century C.E.6 Islamic culture, which inherited the pagan poetry that had been widespread in the Arab world before Muhammad, and which was tied to poetry in all the phases of its development, encountered prose only in the Abasid period (between the eighth and thirteenth centuries), and even then as an inferior genre used merely for popular entertainment.7 The ancient Indians wrote poetry and philosophy, if such a distinction can be made between the two genres in their writing; their early compositions are ritual religious psalms (the four Vedas); the premier creation of their classical culture, the Mahabharata (assumed to be contemporary with the Bible), is an epic poem, as is the other great exemplar of that period, the Ramayana. The Indians turned to narrative prose only in the first centuries of the common era, with the rise of Buddhism.8 Their apathy with regard to history and its writing is consistent with their predilection for poetry rather than prose.9
Why was prose, which in contemporary culture is more closely identified with “literature” than any other genre, passed over by the ancient world? This was not a matter of “oversight,” or of the vagaries of taste. It was, rather, a cultural decision reflecting the worldview that was prevalent in the ancient world—a worldview that prose was simply ill-suited to express.

Assaf Inbari is an author and literary critic living in Tel Aviv.

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