Amos Oz: A Posthumous Tragedy

Long before I became a rabbi and a scholar, my first encounter with mystical texts was through the early prose of Amos Oz. It included seminal and soul-stirring stories such as “Unto Death,” a mystical story about the Crusades; “Late Love,” a riveting tale about cosmic longings and universal solitude; and “Touch the Water, Touch the Wind,” a metaphysical novel about genius and survival.

Enchanted and bewitched by Oz’s verbal virtuosity, I wrote to him from London — my place of residence at the time — and Oz responded to me with depth and generosity of heart. Later on, we were able to briefly interact in person during one of my summer visits to Israel.

Amos Oz was an injured soul. His mother took her own life when he was twelve, and his relationship with his father was thereafter severed for life. As an orphan, Oz moved to a kibbutz, changed his name and turned his inner pain into literary genius. Oz passed away in December 2018, at the age of seventy nine, after a battle with cancer. He authored more than thirty books, was translated into thirty five languages and was the recipient of numerous national and international awards. He was shortlisted several times for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Amos Oz was also, in the eyes of many, the beautiful Israeli. A secular prophet of left-wing Zionism, he was a stunning combination of world-class literary genius, humanistic conscience, overflowing charisma and dazzling external beauty. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called Amos Oz “The most expressive man I ever met.”

Earlier this week, Oz’s second daughter, Galia Oz, published a scathing memoir in which she accuses her late father of systemic physical and verbal abuse throughout her childhood. She also claims to have witnessed her father beating her mother in front of her on a couple of occasions.

This sordid affair facilitated a veritable cultural earthquake in Israel this week. The dissonance between Oz’s external persona and the accusations leveled against him by his own daughter is simply mind-numbing and heart crushing.

Oz’s widow, Mrs. Nili Oz, and Oz’s two other children, Fania and Daniel, recall an “astoundingly different” father and husband — loving, attuned, sensitive and caring. However, they will not explicitly deny the veracity of the claims made by their sister Galia.

This is an unspeakable tragedy — first and foremost for Galia Oz and the entire Oz family and secondarily for all those who loved and admired this unique artist and visionary. It is also a stunning real-life parable about the prospective darkness inherent in the human soul and the complexities of man.

It is a stunning real-life parable about the prospective darkness inherent in the human soul.

Ten Passovers ago, my friend and colleague Rabbi David Wolpe delivered an existentially ingenious sermon entitled “Brokenness.” In this sermon, Wolpe spoke about how we humans hide pervasive facets of our lives from others at times. The problem with that, reminded Wolpe, is that “if you hide — then no one will know you.” Wolpe went on to say that our cultural heroes of decades past were akin to “untarnished gods,” but that “it is better now,” when we can see our heroes in their all-too-human three-dimensional existence.

Finally, teaches Rabbi Wolpe, the antidote to brokenness (and we are all broken to varying degrees, and we all have facets of ourselves that we are not too proud of to varying degrees) “is acceptance, is love.”

Galia Oz says she wrote her shocking memoir for two reasons. First — to empower other people who grew up in similar life circumstances to cope better, to break the prison of their silence and to come to grips with their trauma and pain. Second — Galia Oz felt that her parents utterly declined to recognize her pain and its validity. Her mother told her that she had “an ordinary childhood.” It is not for us to judge the dynamics of the Oz family, nor is it our business to do so. Having said that, there is a universal lesson to be learned here about the intricacies of the human condition.

When Oprah Winfrey finished her show, she was asked what she learned about humanity after having conversed with people from all walks of life. Oprah responded by saying: “I learned that everybody has a story and that everybody wants to be heard.”

Philosopher Charles Taylor has written much about recognition in a cultural context. Recognition is also oxygen for the soul on the interpersonal realm. Perhaps this whole fiasco would not have transpired had Galia Oz felt that her pain was genuinely and compassionately recognized and lovingly affirmed by her parents.

For as Rabbi Wolpe taught us, the antidote to our brokenness and pain — to what Nietzsche called “the wound of existence” — the antidote to emotive suffering “is acceptance, is love.”


Rabbi Tal Sessler, Ph.D., is the author of four books in philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity. He is the Senior Rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, and the incoming Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Academy for Jewish Religion in California, where he also teaches Jewish philosophy.

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