Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Cultural Nuisance

Although he is not well known in America, Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) is one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. 

A true polymath, his day job was as a biochemist and professor of neurophysiology at Hebrew University, but truly, he was a prophet in the tradition of Elijah, a 'troubler of Israel.' He was a committed Zionist who vocally denounced Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a Jerusalemite who denounced the sentimental cult of the Western Wall as a 'Golden Calf' and was a committed Orthodox Jew who advocated complete separation of politics and religion, including the dismantling of the established Chief Rabbinate.

In 1993, the year before he died, he called on soldiers to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, using highly provocative language to compare special units of the Israeli army to the Nazi army. When the government announced that he was to receive the Israel prize — the country's most prestigious civilian award — in recognition of his life's work, appeal were made to the Supreme Court, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin threatened to boycott the the ceremony and it seemed as if the government might fall on account of the tension until Leibowitz declined the award.

He might not have been the most fun person with whom to get that proverbial beer, but Leibowitz is a far-sighted and provocative thinker who challenges us to rethink what Judaism is and might be. 

We'll be looking at Leibowitz's writings in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State in more depth on Sunday mornings starting in January ( Jan 13th, 20th and 27th, Feb 10th and 24th, and March 3rd and 10th). More details and registration are here.