Obituary: Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Click to follow
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, biochemist, neurophysiologist, philosopher: born Riga, Latvia c1903; married (one son, three daughters, and two sons deceased); died Jerusalem 18 August 1994.

YESHAYAHU LEIBOWITZ was a prophet in the Jewish tradition: like Elijah, he was 'the troubler of Israel'. He denounced Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and was a determined opponent of the Lebanese war. In addition, though himself a committed Orthodox Jew, he advocated complete separation of politics and religion, advising the dismantling of the established Chief Rabbinate, liberty of secular marriage, and the dissolution of religious political parties. Though he often aroused bitter anger, he was admired throughout Israel for the uncompromising sincerity of his views.

Leibowitz was born in Riga, Latvia, in a strongly Zionist family. He studied at the University of Cologne, received his doctorate from the University of Berlin, and completed his medical studies at the University of Basle. In 1935, he emigrated to Israel, began teaching immediately at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry and Neurophysiology in 1961. He was an outstanding teacher and theorist of science, but his main impact was as a religious and political thinker.

Leibowitz's theoretical standpoint was characteristically extreme. He regarded Judaism as a code of holiness aimed at nearness to God, and as having nothing to do with human ethics or the betterment of this world. This enabled him to approach political problems with a mind free, as he thought, from religious preconceptions. Paradoxically, however, he functioned as a typical Jewish prophet while denying that his prophetic pronouncements derived in any way from Jewish religious values. His own life was the best refutation of his theology.

At the same time, this same theology motivated him to a series of splendid denunciations of what he called 'idolatrous' perversions of Judaism. Though a convinced Zionist, he objected strongly to any worship of the nation or state, or to Messianic glorification of conquest or annexation. He even denounced the sentimental cult of the Western Wall as a 'Golden Calf'.

Leibowitz was indeed a far- sighted prophet. On the day after the end of the Six Day War in 1967, when rejoicing was at its height, he predicted that continued occupation of the lands acquired in the war of defence would bring only trouble and injustice. He even urged Israelis not to serve in the occupied territories. His opposition to the Lebanese war was total.

Last year, Leibowitz was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. When a public outcry ensued and the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, himself expressed dismay, Leibowitz withdrew his acceptance. But when Rabin initiated the peace process with the Palestinians, Leibowitz gave him unqualified support.

Leibowitz published many scientific papers, and among his books are Faith, History and Values (1983), Judaism, the Jewish People and the Jewish State (1976) and The Faith of Maimonides (1980). He was an acknowledged expert on the works of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, whom he recruited in support of his own theological standpoint. This interpretation, however, has been strongly challenged by the Orthodox thinker David Hartman and others.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, by his personality even more than by his writings, made an indelible impression on the mind of Israel and on the Jewish people.