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.

In ancient times, pagan societies understood the various phenomena of reality as deriving from a single supreme principle, a cosmic rule that dictated everything (the ma’at of the Egyptians, the brahman of the Indians, and the moira of the Greeks are examples). Their many gods were viewed not as independent powers, but as diverse embodiments of this eternal rule. Polytheism, contrary to popular belief, was based on a monistic conception that regarded natural phenomena as constituting the entirety of reality, in accordance with the absolute cosmic rule. And this, simply put, does not make for good narrative: There is no story to be found in the eternal, static “absolute.” It does not act, but simply is. Its essence cannot be linked to any plot. The literary genre best suited for expressing what is essentially a pantheistic worldview, which perceives time as eternal repetition and nature as the object of sensual worship, is not narrative prose, but poetry.
The pagan way of life is a never-ending cycle of poetry. Pagan civilization is a reflection of the laws of nature, an application on earth of the cosmic order. Life under the rule of nature is an endless repetition of day and night, of the seasons of the year, of the lunar cycle, and all that these entail: The high and low tides of the seas, the ebb and flow of the rivers, the migration of birds, the mating seasons of animals, the planting and harvesting of crops. Pagan cultures were totally dependent on the rivers: The Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Ganges and the Indus, upon whose banks they lived and flourished. Their indefatigable interest in the movement of heavenly bodies was no mere intellectual hobby, but part of their struggle for survival, which depended heavily on the effects of the sun and the moon. These were societies for which the earth was the object not only of agricultural labor, but also of religious worship. The perception of nature as an immutable set of rules, and of the universe as an all-encompassing order that governs not only the earth but the gods as well, gave birth in these cultures to a wellspring of scientific inquiry, in fields as diverse as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, astrology, logic, spatial and architectural engineering, and acoustics. Science, like poetry, is the fruit of paganism.
In its practical dimension, pagan science gave birth to technology. As a theoretical pursuit, it produced philosophy. The breathtaking physical achievements of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Mayans and Chinese included the construction of great temples and planetariums, the production of weapons and means of transport, sophisticated methods of irrigation, and the embalming of corpses. Their theoretical inclinations found expression in the abstract, logical and metaphysical discourse that developed in Greece and India. If all reality reflected a mysterious, eternal set of laws, then it was through conceptual abstraction that these cultures sought to understand it. The pagan philosopher, as Aristotle explained, was not interested in the question of why, in a certain year, rain suddenly fell in the summer in a place where the rains generally come only in winter, but rather of why it tends to rain in the winter. The philosopher was uninterested in the exceptional, the singular, the historical. He dealt with the eternal.

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