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About Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ישעיהו ליבוביץ
Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Hebrew: ישעיהו ליבוביץ 1903–1994) was an Israeli philosopher and scientist known for his outspoken, often controversial opinions on Judaism, ethics, religion and politics. In 1993, he was nominated for the Israel Prize.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz was born in Riga in 1903. In 1919, he studied chemistry and philosophy at the University of Berlin. After completing his doctorate in 1924, he went on to study biochemistry and medicine, receiving an MD in 1934 from the University of Basel. He immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1935 and settled in Jerusalem.
- Leibowitz was married to Greta, with whom he had six children.
- His son, Elia, was chairman of the Tel Aviv University astrophysics department and the longest-serving director of the Wise Observatory.
- Another son, Uri, was a professor of medicine at Hadassah University Medical Center.
- His daughter, Yiska, is a district prosecutor.
- His sister, Nechama Leibowitz, was a world famous biblical scholar.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz was active until his last day. He died in his sleep on August 18, 1994.
Leibowitz joined the faculty of mathematics and natural science of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1936. He became a professor of biochemistry in 1941 and was promoted to the position of senior professor of organic chemistry and neurology in 1952. He taught at the Hebrew University for nearly six decades, lecturing in biochemistry, neurophysiology, philosophy and the history of science.
Leibowitz was an Orthodox Jew who held controversial views on the subject of halakha, or Jewish law. He wrote that the sole purpose of religious commandments was to obey God, and not to receive any kind of reward in this world or the world to come. He maintained that the reasons for religious commandments were beyond man's understanding, as well as irrelevant, and any attempt to attribute emotional significance to the performance of mitzvot was misguided and akin to idolatry.
Leibowitz was a staunch believer in the separation of state and religion. He believed that mixing the two corrupted faith. He condemned the veneration of Jewish shrines, cynically referring to the Western Wall as the Discotel (a play on the words "discothèque" and "Kotel").
In contrast to his strict views on some religious matters, he was surprisingly liberal in others. On the subject of homosexuality, for example, Leibowitz believed that despite the ban on homosexual relations in Judaism, homosexuals should do their best to remain observant Jews.
Lectures and published work
Leibowitz served as the editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica in its early stages. Apart from his innumerable articles and essays, Leibowitz authored a wide range of books on philosophy, human values, Jewish thought, the teachings of Maimonides, and politics.
Many of his lectures and discourses, including those given as part of the "Broadcast University" project run by Israeli Army Radio, were subsequently compiled and printed in book form.
Leibowitz was a prolific letter-writer and his advice or comment was sought out widely. A first collection of his letters (in Hebrew) was published posthumously.
Before the founding of the State of Israel and for a few years after, Leibowitz still believed that the state should strive to adhere to Jewish Law, Halacha. He became progressively critical of government policy, and came to change his views completely. In his later philosophy he denied that the state of Israel had any Jewish religious significance and became an outspoken defender of the complete separation between religion and state.
He was among the first Israeli intellectuals who warned immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War that if Israel would hold on to the occupied territories, this would lead to the decline of Israel's moral stature. From then on to his death Leibowitz was an outspoken critic of Israeli values and national policy. His remarks accusing Israeli soldiers of a "Judeo-Nazi" mentality provoked a public outcry amongst Israelis.
In 1993, he was nominated for the Israel Prize. Before the award ceremony, Leibowitz was invited to speak to the Israel Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, where his controversial remarks calling upon Israeli soldiers to refuse orders triggered outrage (and Yitzhak Rabin had threatened to boycott the ceremony).
The jury convened to discuss the possibility of withdrawing the prize, but Leibowitz himself announced that he would refuse to accept it, because he did not want to create antagonism when receiving the prize.