Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Ermanno Garbi

Renée Néher about André Néher

Faithfulness to the biblical text, to its integrality, to its integrity—a new-old reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Born in 1914 at Obernai (Alsace in France) and died in Jerusalem in 1986, André Néher is considered one of the most important Jewish thinkers of contemporary Judaism. A Rabbi and a professor of Hebrew language and literature, André Néher taught at the University of Strasbourg and in Israel (mainly at the University of Tel Aviv in Jerusalem).

Among his many awards, he was named “Sage of Israel” by Prime Minister Ben Gurion in 1957, received the “Remembrance Award” from the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Association in 1975, and received the Zalman Shazar prize from the President of the State of Israel in 1973. His numerous books in English, French, Hebrew, etc., include Moses and the Vocation of the Jewish People (1959), The Prophetic Existence (1969), The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz (1981), Jewish Thought and the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century: David Gans (1541-1613) and His Times (1986).

His wife, Renée Néher-Bernheim (1922–), is a historian and lecturer in Jewish history at the School for Overseas Students of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has written Le Judaïsme dans le monde romain: textes latins commentés (1959), Histoire Juive de la Renaissance à nos jous (2 vols.; 1963–1965), and La Déclaration Balfour, 1917: Création d’un foyer national juif en Palestine (1969).

Shabbat Shalom*: The memory of André Néher is associated with faithfulness to the biblical text. His departure has left a void in the intellectual and spiritual world, which is difficult to evoke without pain for you. However, who better than you, his wife, could say what kind of personality André Néher was—his philosophy, his life, his passion, and his method of penetrating into the soul of the Hebrew Bible? 

Renée Néher: It is difficult for me to speak about it in a few words. My husband’s field of activities was very broad-ranging, from rabbinic tasks to the academic life of the university. He taught the Torah and Hebrew literature and philosophy at the University of Strasbourg (France); after our aliyah, he also taught in Israel numerous courses, meetings, and colloquiums, Jewish as well as interconfessional. He wrote many articles and a great number of books, most of which have been translated into several languages.

I would like to underline two essential points concerning the work and the personality of André Néher. In regard to his work, my husband was particularly concerned with providing a better understanding of Judaism. He helped especially to integrate Judaism on the various levels of philosophy, literature, sociology, and history. In regard to his personality, I should say that he was an intellectual Jew, or rather more simply, a Jew in its fullest sense on every level: human, spiritual, and intellectual. He deeply felt and lived his Jewish identity, or rather, as he would say, his “Jewish being"—this "being" which only God could grant and sound and which brings God and the Jew into a special relationship. As he put it, “I am not a Jew as I look at myself; I am not a Jew as others look at me; I am a Jew as God looks at me. It is God’s look at me that provides me with this unsoundable identity.”1

Shabbat Shalom: This is very far from stereotypical definitions.

Renée Néher: This is, indeed, a very important point that has often been read and discussed and that has impressed those who read it, precisely because it is not a banal definition. Also, it saves us from racist or anti-Semitic prejudice, or even from the confusion where politics and religion are mixed in a noncommendable manner. My husband has felt this Jewishness very deeply in a direct relationship with God, who is the only One who can judge who is Jewish or who is not. I am not a Jew as the others look at me (this is Sartre’s definition), but it is my relationship with God, which means that it is God who decides. It is in this vertical relationship that my genuine being is located. My husband has not only felt deeply in his heart this definition of what it means to be a Jew; he has also deeply lived it. This was not for him just words, but something extremely profound enrooted in his life, his prayers, his daily existence, always full of brachot (blessings), praises, and thanks to God for everything, his mitzvot towards God and his neighbor. He was very sensitive to this principle and applied it with spontaneousness and a very profound conviction.

Shabbat Shalom: How did your husband consider the covenant that God made with the Hebrew people on Sinai, and how did he apply it to our secularized world?

Renée Néher: My husband emphasized the notion of the covenant, the Berit in Hebrew: the covenant between God and mankind with Noah, which is called the Noachide covenant; the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. The covenant with Noah, the father of all the families of the earth, was a general covenant with mankind in which God promised that he would not destroy the earth by another flood. This covenant implies that those who enter it keep a number of rules (seven, which are mostly moral commandments). Then, within this general covenant, God has chosen a particular people, who are the people of Abraham and of his descendants Isaac and Jacob-Israel. These people have received the mission to proclaim the word of God to the world: the word of a unique God, of a Creator, of a Saviour, the word of God Who comes into history. The Jewish people will continue to bring this message to the world until the whole earth recognizes this God of the covenant and of the word, until the whole earth is, as the prophet Isaiah says, “covered with the knowledge of God.” Then the role of the Jews will be finished. The Jewish people have not been discharged and have never discharged themselves from this responsibility. It is enough to review the four thousand years of her history to realize it. This is what my husband has taught, understood, and lived. One of the basic ideas that my husband and I have cherished and explained is that there is no discontinuity between the biblical Israel and the Israel of today. Thus, the Bible remains the reference book in the absolute sense of the history of Israel. As far as continuity is concerned, there is, of course, an evolution. We are no longer living in the times of Moses or Jeremiah; there is a chronological unfolding; the word must be actualized. Yet the Bible remains the backbone of the life of the Jewish people. If the Bible is taken away from her, then there are no more Jewish people. The state of Israel is like a chapter of the Bible. It is this strong continuity that has marked all the thought and the historical and religious vision of my husband.

Shabbat Shalom: Although André Néher has translated large sections of the Bible, he did not translate the whole Bible. We know, however, how much the Bible translations of the Old Testament owe to him; even Christian translations such as the ecumenical translation of the Bible (TOB) have been inspired by his work and his insights. [What is his contribution to biblical exegesis?]

Renée Néher: There is one primary essential rule: faithfulness to the Hebrew text, taking into consideration its interpretations in the Massora and in Jewish tradition. It is, indeed, difficult to render in other languages the richness of the Hebrew text because of the triconsonantal roots of the Hebrew words, which have no vowels. It is possible to construct several meanings and thus give several meanings to the same word. Traditional interpretations play precisely on the multiplicity of meanings of the Hebrew term and help, thereby, to find the right word in the translation. The first principle in translation is, therefore, faithfulness to the text and to the Massora, which is the oldest tradition of biblical commentaries.

The second principle has been faithfulness to the integrality of the biblical text. My husband was a staunch opponent of the historical-critical method. When he defended his dissertation, a professor from the Catholic University told him, “You are a dangerous opponent to Biblical criticism.” He has always been faithful to this principle: the integrality of the text, not to cut the text into pieces. He did not want a polychronic Bible or a rainbow Bible. For him, there was never a first, second, or third Isaiah. He did not accept the documentary hypothesis, which taught that some texts might have been written by E (Elohist), J (Yahwist), or P (Priestly). He strongly believed in the fundamental unity of the biblical text, and in that, he also relied on tradition. More than a translator, my husband was an interpreter of the Bible. He thus set up a series of very important rules for the understanding of the biblical text, for instance, the chronological notion that we must respect. This means that the Torah comes before the prophets and that the prophets have not opened the way to Deuteronomy, but it is the reverse. The prophets were Jews who observed the totality of the Torah of Moses.

Shabbat Shalom: After the Second World War, André Néher greatly contributed to the revival of biblical studies. One of his contributions was the stress that besides the teaching by the word, there is also a teaching by silence. He has expressed this thought in his book, The Exile of the Word. Is it true that among the twenty books he wrote, he considered that one to be his most important work?

Renée Néher: Yes, indeed, he said it and wrote that The Exile of the Word was “drawn from his guts.” This was for him his most important book, because the whole problem of the Shoa is underlaid. The subtitle “From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz” is significant. It means that the silence of Auschwitz, as striking or anguishing as it may be, already originates in the Bible. In the Bible, God speaks not only through His word but also through His silence; He is the spring from which wells up the silence of the Bible. For André Néher, it was important to say that not everything is expressed, and not everything is expressible.

Shabbat Shalom: Silence is therefore not absence.

Renée Néher: No, silence is the other side of the word. But God, as far as we can speak in the name of God, waited for the human reaction, but this human reaction has not come.

Shabbat Shalom: Your husband used to say over and over again that “God needed men."

Renée Néher: Yes, he meant by these words that not only the world was entitled to demand from God, but that God was also demanding from the world. We are responsible; we also have our part to do. Faith is not something that is given once and for all. We must conquer it every day. Even the most religious believer has moments when he or she wonders. One must sometimes struggle and strive to come back to one’s feet. One must renounce the pride of reason. One must accept a certain humility in one’s knowledge. One stumbles on this problem every day. There are many things in the world that we do not understand. But there is a need to educate, correct, and improve the world, and in that, men and women must do their part and God His. This is what my husband meant to say when he stated, “God needs men.” Jewish thought, but also, I believe, Christian thought, makes room for this principle. André Néher has underlined the fact that, in whatever domain it may be, if we look at the ideal and compare it to reality, we are discouraged. We should not look at the gap that separates the ideal from reality. We must rather look at the daily effort to go one step further. 

This interview was conducted by Mr. Ermanno Garbi, pastor and president of the Seventh-day Adventist community in Jerusalem. 1Sens, 12 (1989): 460. 


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