Obituary: Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before