Intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz Dies
Leibowitz, Lecturing at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1964. Photo: אבישי טייכר

August 18, 1994

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a controversial Jewish thinker and Israeli public intellectual, dies in his sleep at age 91 in Jerusalem.

Leibowitz was born to a religious Zionist family in Riga, Latvia, in 1903. Educated at the University of Berlin and the University of Basel, where he earned a medical degree, he settled in Palestine in 1932. He joined the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where for nearly six decades he taught biochemistry, neurophysiology and philosophy. Leibowitz not only was skilled in the sciences, but also was known for his religious scholarship and his contrarian views on Jewish law. Leibowitz thought of morality as atheistic, and he thought an action possessed religious value only when it was a divine commandment. He also believed in the separation of church and state, and he criticized the Lubavitcher rebbe and the spiritual leader of Shas for bringing religion into politics. He thought the state corrupted religion, and he denied that Zionism had a religious aspect. In his later years, he became more outspoken about his political beliefs and opposed the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as morally corrupting.

Leibowitz was selected for the Israel Prize in 1993, but he sparked outrage with a speech he made to the Israel Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, in which he compared Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Hamas fighters. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin threatened not to attend the Israel Prize ceremony, and many Israelis protested. Leibowitz then refused to accept the prize to avoid more antagonism. He did support Rabin’s peace efforts through the Oslo process.