Memories of the Argentine literary mystic’s visit to the Holy Land, and of his nuanced Zionism
In his 1969 Jerusalem lecture Borges made clear his enthusiasm for both the idea and the reality of a Jewish state.
In 1969 I was living in Jerusalem, waiting to be inducted into the Israeli army, for which I had volunteered a few months earlier. From friends at the Hebrew University I learned that Jorge Luis Borges was visiting Jerusalem and that he would be speaking that evening at the university. I arrived at a packed lecture hall at the university’s Givat Ram campus, where Borges spoke in slightly accented English, softly but very clearly. There was the aura of the blind seer about him, and his audience was clearly entranced. In his opening remarks he made it clear that he felt privileged to be in Jerusalem, a city on which so much attention had been focused over the millennia. He was particularly fascinated by Israel’s mixture of the old and the new. On that 1969 visit, Borges spent 10 days in Israel. He returned for a second visit, of shorter duration, two years later, and he often reflected on these Jerusalem journeys in subsequent poems, stories, and essays.
The audience at Borges’ 1969 lecture that evening in Jerusalem was international and included quite a few Argentinean Israelis. Argentinean Jews came in large numbers to Israel in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Some of them joined kibbutzim. Many in the audience had read Borges—either in Hebrew, Spanish, or English—and were eager to hear him. There was something oracular about his speech, and he had an uncanny ability to quote long selections of poetry and prose from memory. His smile was warm and at times joyful. He took questions from the audience, and he made us laugh. It surely wasn’t a “lecture” as we knew them at the Hebrew University, an institution often dubbed “the last 19th-century German university.” Most Hebrew University lectures were Germanic in style and delivered with considerable academic reserve. Borges’ talk was a nuanced performance delivered with a light touch. It was more like a lively poetry reading than a lecture, and the audience that evening was reluctant to let the author leave the stage.
We had hoped that Borges would speak of his interest in the Kabbalah, and he did not disappoint us. We thought of Borges as a literary mystic. Among the questions addressed to him were: Did he see affinities between his speculative, questioning stories and the tales of the Hasidism? Did he feel a kinship with Kafka? Were his ficciones influenced by the mystical tales of the Jewish tradition? He answered these queries in the affirmative. He said that Kabbalah formed a “technique” in his art, an idea at which he had hinted in his 1931 essay “Vindication of the Cabala.” Hearing him that night in 1969 was a turning point in my own intellectual development. For the five years before coming to Israel in 1968 at the age of 21, I had read widely in world literature, hungry for a wider view of culture after total immersion in the world of rabbinic texts. Reading and hearing Borges introduced me to the presence of the Hebraic in world literature, a presence that I was barely aware of. Listening to his lecture, I realized that the writer’s view of Jerusalem was related to his literary ideas on eternity and time. This mixing of the ancient and the modern, the concrete and the metaphysical, was at the center of Borges’ technique as a storyteller.
On the Jerusalem evening in 1969, Borges was still in the middle of his journey through the Hebraic, the Kabbalistic, and the mystical, a journey that would continue until his death 29 years ago this weekend, in 1986. In his lecture he returned again and again to the figure of the golem, the artificial being brought to life by wonder-working rabbis of Jewish folklore. The power to create a golem was God-like; it was a power that adepts both coveted and feared. Borges had read widely in the golem material, and on his first visit he discussed these tales with Professor Gershom Scholem of the Hebrew University. On his second visit, in 1971, he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.
For Borges, “the Bible was one of the first things I read or heard about. And the Bible is a Jewish book” and the root of all that is valuable in Western culture. This attitude was the legacy of his greatest childhood influences, his father and his maternal grandmother. With the rise of Fascism in Europe and Argentina, the Bible assumed even greater importance in his mind. The Bible stood for morality, justice, and the prophetic voice. Fascism, with its hostility toward the religion and the people of the Bible, was the enemy of culture and personal morality. This “biblical” antifascist cultural attitude was exemplified in a well-known literary project, the 1944 publication of The Ten Commandments: Ten Short Novels of Hitler’s War Against the Moral Code. Among the writers who contributed to the volume were many Borges greatly admired: Thomas Mann, Rebecca West, Franz Werfel, and Sigrid Undset. The book was published in Spanish and other European languages and had wide distribution through the Americas.
Borges was in his thirties when Argentinean politics turned to the right. That political shift was preceded by decades of anti-Semitic agitation and legislation, including restrictive immigration laws aimed at Jews. In Buenos Aires newspaper articles of the 1930s and 1940s, Borges relentlessly attacked the Nazis and their many Argentinean sympathizers, and he did this with an edge of sadness that only a lover of the German language and German culture could manifest. In 1937 Borges reviewed a new German book for children, Don’t Trust Any Fox From a Heath or Any Jew on His Oath: “Its goal is to instill in the children of the Third Reich a distrust and animosity toward Jews. … What can I say about such a book. Personally I am outraged, less for Israel’s sake than for Germany’s, less for the offended community than for the offensive nation. I don’t know if the world can do without German civilization, but I do know that its corruption by the teachings of hatred is a crime.”
In Argentina, as in Germany, pro-Nazi political sentiment was intimately linked to anti-Semitism. In a 1940 Buenos Aires newspaper editorial, Borges mocked Argentinean pro-German sentiment: “The Germanophile is anti-Semitic as well: He wishes to expel from our country a Slavo-Germanic community in which names of German origin predominate (Rosenblatt, Gruenberg …) and which speaks a German dialect, Yiddish.”
In the Buenos Aires of the 1930s, Borges was a member of the “Committee Against Racism and Anti-Semitism,” and his antifascist and philo-Semitic stance generated accusations that he was of Jewish origin. In 1934 the right-wing journal Crisol made the accusation. In the context of the magazine’s anti-immigration and anti-Semitic stance the article spoke of Borges’ “Jewish ancestry maliciously hidden.” Borges countered with the brilliant satire “I, a Jew” (“Yo, Judío”), published in the literary journal Megáfono. He mentions some ancestors who have come from “Judaeo-Portugese roots,” but he had not found any evidence to support the assertion:
Two hundred years without being able to discover the Israelite, two hundred years without managing to set my hands on this ancestor. I am grateful to Crisol for having impelled me to pursue these investigations, but I have less and less hope of ever ascending to the Altar of the Temple, to the Bronze Sea, to Heine, to Gleizer [the Argentine publisher], and to the Ten Righteous Men, to Ecclesiastes, and Charlie Chaplin. … Who has not one day played at searching for his ancestors, imagining the prehistory of his race and blood? I have often played at that myself, and it has not displeased me to imagine myself often as a Jew. It is a matter of a simple hypothesis, a sedentary and modest adventure that can harm no one—not even the good repute of Israel—in view of the fact that my Judaism, like the songs of Mendelssohn, is without words.
While indulging in a fantasy of Jewish origins Borges also satirizes it. He is aware of how persistent and common a Christian fantasy it is, and he is also aware of how Jews are singled out for persecution. “Statistically speaking,” he wrote, “the Jews are very few. What would we think of someone in the year 4000 who discovers everywhere descendants of the inhabitants of the San Juan province [one of the least populated in Argentina]? Our inquisitors are seeking Hebrews, never Phoenicians, Numidians, Scythians, Babylonians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmations, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyans, Cyclops, or Lapps. The nights of Alexandria, Babylon, Carthage, Memphis have never succeeded in engendering one single grandfather; it was only to the tribes of the bituminous Dead Sea that such power was granted.”
Thirty-five years after he wrote these words Borges came to Jerusalem and continued his admiring and somewhat playful relationship with the Jewish texts and the Jewish people. In his 1969 Jerusalem lecture Borges made clear his enthusiasm for both the idea and the reality of a Jewish state. Yes, he was blind, but he could “see” Jerusalem and was deeply moved by it. He spoke of his deep personal interest in Jewish texts in general and in the Kabbalah in particular. He then presented his meditations on Kabbalah, a system he thought relevant to the spiritual and literary concerns of modern life. “I am not dealing with a museum piece from the history of philosophy,” he said. “I believe the system has an application: It can serve as a means of thinking, of trying to understand the universe.”
Although Borges’ lecture expressed unqualified admiration for the Jewish state, in his writings he was less celebratory and somewhat more ambivalent. Critic Edna Aizenberg spoke of Borges’ “mixture of excitement and misgiving about the Jewish homeland.” This ambivalence sprang from his sense that the Jewish function in society was to be a catalyst for innovation, change, and conscience. He feared that if the Jews were gathered in one land they would lose that universal function. As Borges saw it, the Jewish role was to act as “the conscience of humanity” and “a light unto the nations,” and they had filled that role for centuries. But then came the moment in European history, the mid-1930s, when Jewish life in Europe was endangered. Like many other European Christian liberal intellectuals, Borges, when confronted with the perilous situation of European Jewry in the 1930s and their murder by the Nazis in the 1940s, supported postwar Zionist aspirations, as he questioned what the new state might mean.
In this new Zionist situation, how can one understand the catalyzing function of the Jews among the gentiles? Was it to be lost? Or could it be preserved in a Jewish state? Borges had given considerable thought to this question, one that concerned many Jewish thinkers of the time as well. Thus, when Borges visited Jerusalem in 1969, he had behind him a half century of engagement with Jewish themes. He was enthusiastic about the State of Israel, but the Judaism that interested him was the culture of the Diaspora. For Borges, the Jew in European culture was an intellectual; he was multilingual; he was an outsider and a persistent critical voice. But despite his initial ambivalence about Zionism, Borges supported the Israeli cause, especially when international opinion began to turn against Israel in the late 1960s.
In “An Autobiographical Essay,” written in the mid-1970s, Borges recalled his visits to Jerusalem:
Early in 1969, invited by the Israeli government, I spent ten very exciting days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I brought home with me the conviction of having been in the oldest and the youngest of nations, of having come from a very living, vigilant land back to a half-asleep nook of the world. Since my Genevan days, I had always been interested in Jewish culture, thinking of it as an integral element of our so-called Western civilization, and during the Israeli-Arab war of a few years back I found myself taking immediate sides. While the outcome was still uncertain, I wrote a poem on the battle. A week after, I wrote another on the victory. Israel was, of course, still an armed camp at the time of my visit. There, along the shores of Galilee, I kept recalling these lines from Shakespeare: “Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet, / Which, fourteen hundred years ago, were nail’d, / For our advantage, on the bitter cross.”
For Borges, Jesus’ story was Jewish, and the New Testament is a Jewish text. “Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism” was an aphorism he often affirmed. In the tradition that imbibed from his English grandmother Fanny Haslam, both the Old and New Testaments were “Jewish books.” Borges imagined Jesus as a Jew—as did Robert Graves in King Jesus and in The Nazarene Gospel written with Joshua Podro. Both writers were working against the “Aryan Christ” view of Jesus, which sought to divorce Christianity from its Jewish background. Borges, Graves, Edmund Wilson, and other Christian writers thus constructed a “Jewish Jesus.”
In the same period, the mid-20th century, we see a parallel move in Israeli scholarship and fiction to reexamine Jesus’ Jewish background. In Borges last book of poems, he penned these lines:
Christ on the Cross. His feet touch the earth.
The three beams are the same height.
Christ is not in the middle. He’s the third one.
His black beard hangs over his chest.
His face is not the face of engravings.
He is harsh and Jewish.
Jesus, for Borges, was “harsh and Jewish”—not the blond, gentle Jesus of European art. He rejected the “Aryan Christ” in favor of a more “authentic” Semitic Jesus.
Borges’ philo-Semitism and familiarity with Jewish texts led him to examine Christianity’s Jewish roots and to emphasize the similarities and differences between the two religious systems. Borges thus emerges as a late figure in the long history of Christian Hebraism and Christian Kabbalism who viewed both the Old Testament and the New Testament as “Jewish Literature.” The “Old Testament,” for Borges, was not subsumed into either Jewish or Christian categories, but rather, the Bible in its entirety was a Jewish document. He saw both a mystical and a historical connection between Western culture and Hebrew texts.
Although he mastered French, German, and Latin, Borges did not study Hebrew or Aramaic; his introduction to the Bible was through English, and his introduction to rabbinic Jewish literature was through German. “Borges approached Judaism as a creative writer,” says writer Alberto Manguel, “not as a professor of Semitics. If the Jewish material he required for his purposes was available in a form already accessible, there was no urgency to acquire the original linguistic codes.” A gifted multilingual reader in his teens, Borges continued to master new languages in adulthood. In this he was like Vladimir Nabokov, who became a master of American prose in his fifties after moving to the United Sates, and Robert Graves, the aforementioned master of the Greek and Latin classics. Borges began to study Old English in his fifties and Old Norse in his sixties.
For Borges, the tradition of reading and rereading was a mainstay of his life; in a sense, reading became his life: “Reading books, writing about books, talking about books: In a profound manner, Borges was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years ago and which, he believed, would never end.” A pivotal aspect of this cultural dialogue across time was his affinity with the Bible and postbiblical Jewish literature. Borges’ sense of literature as a dialogue across time—which for him started in his father’s library—mirrors the concept of Kabbalah, “tradition” in both its exoteric and esoteric senses. His seven-year sojourn in Europe, particularly his time in Geneva, brought him into contact with living Jewish intellectuals; two of these associates remained lifelong friends.
Borges eyesight, weak in his youth, diminished over the subsequent decades and failed him in his mid-fifties. “My eyesight left me for reading purposes in 1955,” said Borges, “and since then I have attempted no contemporary reading.” Borges’eyes failed as the result of a rare hereditary disease from the English side of the family. His father, too, lost his eyesight. The fact that he could no longer read or write was a cruel blow for a man whose entire life had been devoted to books. According to translator Eliot Weinberger, after Borges lost his sight, he wrote no more essays and few stories and devoted himself largely to poetry. In an essay titled “On Blindness” in his collection “Seven Nights,” Borges compares his situation to those of Samson and Milton. Blindness reinforced his mystical tendencies. According to Borges, the blind poet often “sees” more than those with sight.
It is striking that from his English ancestors, Borges inherited his eye disease, his love of English literature, and his familiarity with the Bible in English. “The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine,” Borges commented. “I should say that I am speaking for myself, and for my father and my grandmother, who both died blind—blind, laughing, and brave, as I also hope to die.”
From Borges’ “Poem of the Gifts”:
No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God; who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.
This essay is adapted from Shalom Goldman’s Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the the Promised Land, recently reissued in paperback.
Shalom Goldman is a professor of Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University,and the author of, among other books, the forthcoming Jewish–Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth-Century Converts.