Francis Nataf

Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s forgotten Yahrzeit

Yeshayahu Leibowitz (CC-BY-SA 2.5)
Yeshayahu Leibowitz (CC-BY-SA 2.5)

In recent years, the yahrzeit of Rav A Y Kook (last week) has turned into a real happening. That is neither surprising nor undeserved. Rav Kook was a brilliant and independent thinker who spanned many different worlds. Of course, this description could be applied almost equally to another thinker – one who could also be described as Rav Kook’s exact opposite – and that is Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. In contrast to Rav Kook, the anniversary of, at the end of this week, of Leibowitz’s death is never going to turn into a happening. He likely would have wanted it that way, so who am I to make trouble? Yet while I disagree with almost everything he wrote – and for that reason, am not calling for similar adulation – I think he lived a life well worth reflecting upon.

Earlier in my own life, I was somewhat attracted to Leibowitz’s politics. I also admired his intellectual consistency and his uncompromising willingness to take an idea to its logical extreme. But more than anything else, I appreciated his willingness to go it alone. And alone he truly was. Though adulated by the far-left, he made it quite clear that he was not a man of the left, and certainly not the secular left. Rather, he was a Kierkegaard-like figure, who insisted that the service of God suspended humanistic ethics. And beyond the far-left, he was viewed as an iconoclastic extremist – something attested to by Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s announcement that he would boycott a bestowal of the Israel Prize on Leibowitz in 1993.

He was slightly less isolated in his younger days and was thus able to get together with others and form a political party for the first Knesset elections of 1949 (Hapoalim Hadatiim). But those others were not numerous and the party predictably failed to receive a single mandate. More characteristic of his life was his decision to forego any more forays into political life, often asking, “Whom could I run with?” Whom, indeed?

Part of his isolation was undoubtedly due to his acerbic pronouncements, the most famous and controversial of which being when he deemed Israelis conducting the war in Lebanon, Judeo-Nazis. In a nation where a large percent of the population is made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, it was an outburst that many still refuse to forgive, over twenty years after his death.

But there was more to Leibowitz’s isolation than his rhetorical excesses – excesses he explained away by saying that otherwise no one would listen. Isolation is the fate of almost all who really think for themselves and resist the intellectual compromises required for popularity.

Actually, Rav Kook’s independence did not win him many friends either. Knowing that he had a different way of thinking, most political parties and organized religious groups kept their respectful distance. They had learned that he could not be counted on to automatically agree with right or left, religious Zionists or haredim. And so, like Leibowitz, he was only used as a source of approbation when his positions happened to align with those that cited him.

Rav Kook’s memory is more widely celebrated for many reasons. He was a rabbi who took the responsibilities of the office very seriously. He had a warm personality and sought to help everyone he met. And though his thought was as unusual and as hard to understand as Leibowitz’s, it was one infused with a spiritual power and love completely absent in Leibowitz. But truth be told, it is just as often the misunderstanding and misappropriation of Rav Kook that has led to his popularity. Not fitting into any popular worldview, many of his most interesting ideas are generally ignored.

It is hard to know whether it is better to have a legacy distorted or one forgotten. Yet in the case of both great men, their writings live on. Their responses to Judaism, modernity and the emergent Jewish state, as well as their thinking about man, God and halakha continue to be worthwhile for those that care about these important topics – as well as to resonate for those who are willing to work through them and really understand them.

It is encouraging to know that had either man cowed to the pressures of fitting in, they would not have had the legacies they actually have. Still, one cannot ignore the fact that the price of independence has only gotten higher. In the shadow of social media lynch-mobs of both right and left, I have learned that independence means there are very few people who will defend you when they do not see you as one of their own. What both Leibowitz and Rav Kook both teach, however, is that one who truly wants to make an impact should not care.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.