Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
From Hyam Maccoby
SIR: Edmund Leach (LRB, 2 December 1982), reviewing my book The Sacred Executioner, complains about my ‘phoney scholarship’, and that I do not include reference to his own work on the Bible which he says has ‘received favourable comment from both Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars of high repute’. I passed over his work because he lacks the basic requisite for Biblical study an acquaintance with the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. This ignorance leads to gross errors. He is evidently unaware even of the Hebrew alphabet, since he equates names which are similar in English transliteration but quite dissimilar in Hebrew (e.g. Rahab and Rechab, Jeroboam and Rehoboam). On fancied equations of this kind, he builds up complicated theories about an endogamy/exogamy dichotomy. Despite his protestations to the contrary, his elementary errors have been detailed by ‘both Jewish and Christian scholars of high repute’: for example, by Professor J.A. Emerton, in his devastating article in Vetus Testamentum, XXVI, 1. Leach further reveals his ignorance even of secondary works of Biblical scholarship In his absurd insinuation that I have taken the idea of the Cain and Abel story as a human sacrifice from him without acknowledgment. This theory, so far from being original to Leach, has long been familiar to Biblical scholars (e.g. S.H. Hooke, writing in the 1920s and 1930s, to whose work I refer repeatedly).
Leach contrasts my allegedly unscientific method with his own structuralist procedure, which consists of regarding the Bible as a seamless, timeless whole, ignoring all questions of dating, redaction, source-criticism, genre, literary style – indeed everything that might reveal the Bible as a developing cultural entity. In the structuralist method, Leach informs us, ‘the introduction of hypothetical “missing” texts is absolutely forbidden.’ This may be a required arbitrary rule for the structuralist game, but it has very little to do with the Bible as a historical phenomenon. It is quite certain that there are missing texts in the background of the Bible (some of them are even mentioned by title in the Bible itself), so for someone not hooked on structuralism it may well be fruitful to attempt the recovery of one of these texts, using the evidence found in the Bible. The text which I attempt to recover in part is that which lies behind the stories of Cain and his descendants (‘the Kenite saga’): an inquiry which demands philological knowledge, literary insight and depth of exegesis. Such methods are what Leach calls ‘hunches’, since they are not required at all in his own method, which is perfectly applicable to any religious masterpiece, whether in Hebrew, Chinese or Swahili, by an investigator innocent of these languages, and, as Leach himself has remarked, would best be applied by a computer.
Leach’s method might be called ‘positivism-cum-structuralism’. While positivism tells us that we should stick to the facts, positivism-cum-structuralism tells us that the facts we happen to have in hand are all the facts there are, and, also, that they form a perfect structure or pattern. If this seems implausible, we are reassured by the further dogma that this perfect pattern arises from the endless repetition of one theme (the more trivial or reductionist this is the better) in various inversions and dislocations. (Once the pattern has developed, even the rule about sticking to the available facts may be flouted. ‘Facts’ may be created to perfect the pattern, and inconvenient data destructive of the pattern ignored. I could fill several pages with examples of this.)
The basic theme which Leach has decided to impose on the Hebrew Bible is that of an obsessive concern for racial purity. This assumption, on which the ‘scientific’ structure is built, is nowhere argued on the basis of textual analysis, and is in fact disproved by many aspects which Leach ignores: for example, the approval given throughout the Hebrew Bible to the concept of conversion to Judaism. The concerns of the Hebrew Bible are actually quite different. One of them is featured in my book: the polemic against human sacrifice.
My book, however, is primarily concerned with the origin of anti-semitism, which I trace to the Christian myth of the Crucifixion. Leach says that there is no special problem about anti-semitism or the Holocaust. In a curious outburst, he equates Begin with Hitler, the PLO (not the Palestinians) with Hitler’s Jewish victims, and the Beirut massacre with Holocaust, the conclusion being that anti-semitism and the Holocausts are occurrences of a common type and are unconnected with the Christian myth. How far the Begin Government must share responsibility for the vendetta-massacre of fellow Arabs by Lebanese Christians in Beirut is at present the subject of an exemplary public inquiry in Israel, but whatever the results, there can be no comparison with the crimes of the Nazi regime, which comprised an explicit programme of genocide resulting in millions of deaths, compounded with prolonged torture and degradation. If anti-semitism is a common type of phenomenon, Leach has failed to give another example of it. His other attempted example is the Biblical massacre of the Amalekites. But these were bitter, powerful external enemies of the Israelites, not defenceless, unarmed and loyal citizens, as the German Jews were. Again, the allegedly similar event is entirely dissimilar. Moreover, anti-semitism is not an isolated event, but a phenomenon that spans two thousand years.
Though an anthropologist, Leach is quite incurious about the pariah-status of the Jews in Christendom and the special myth that has sustained and perpetuated this. My book, on the other hand, tries to face the facts of the long persecution of the Jews in Christendom, and seeks an explanation in the role given to the Jews as alleged performers of the god-sacrifice at the heart of Christianity. I also trace parallels to this role in earlier human-sacrificial religions, though in these it was always an individual, not a people, that was given the role of the Sacred Executioner. At the same time, the book deals with the irony that the Jewish Bible has been engaged in continual combat against just this type of sacrificial mythological complex.
Leach is so far from comprehending the argument of my book that he asks: ‘If the crucified Jesus equates with Abel, where do we find the Sacred Executioner who equates with Cain?’ The answer, as the whole book argues, is the role assigned to the Jewish (Judas) people, an equation which is found explicitly (as I point out) in the writings of most of the Early Fathers of the Church. Further crass misunderstanding is shown in Leach’s attribution to me of the view that Cain is redeemed by his guilt, an idea that I never express and which makes no sense.
As for Leach’s preposterous accusation that I have used no theories later than 1885, the attentive reader will see that I have used, on the definition of the purpose of sacrifice, the work of Hubert and Mauss, Westermarck, Loisy, Freud and Money-Kyrle, as well as that of Frazer. Leach’s demand that I should offer a single definition of sacrifice is misconceived: no such definition of this complex and over-determined phenomenon is possible. As for the much-debated and continuing issue of matriarchy, I do not feel bound, as Leach does, to accept the latest fashionable English trend as eternal truth.
I am sorry that I did not exercise sufficient supervision over the binding of my book to prevent Leach’s review copy from lacking pages 112-129. It was very clever of him, nevertheless, to discover that Chapters Nine and Ten, which are almost entirely contained in those pages, were ‘messy’. Since I cannot praise Leach either as an anthropologist or as a Biblical scholar, it is pleasant to be able to congratulate him on having second sight.
Leo Baeck College, London N3
Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983
From Edmund Leach
SIR: I only wish to make three comments on Mr Maccoby’s angry letter (Letters, 10 January).
Because Hebrew originally survived only as a written language, the modern pronunciation being reconstructed according to decidedly arbitrary phonological equations – as is the case with the modern pronunciation of other classical languages – Maccoby, like many Hebrew scholars, makes the curious assumption that if two names are spelled differently in Hebrew they must be unrelated phonologically. This is a complete fallacy, as can readily be seen in any telephone directory, where, for example, my own name is arbitrarily transcribed as Leech or Leach or Leitch.
I did not suggest that Maccoby had borrowed the idea that the Cain and Abel story is about human sacrifice from myself. I simply said that, as compared with Bachofen, it was relatively modern and that I agreed with it.
The ‘attentive reader’ will not be able to see that Maccoby’s acquaintance with anthropological/psychoanalytic theories of sacrifice extends to about 1930 rather than 1885. On the contrary, as his letter shows, my review gave a very accurate indication of both the argument and the scholarly quality of his book.
Vol. 5 No. 4 · 3 March 1983
From Hyam Maccoby
SIR: Many thanks to Edmund Leach for giving me a good laugh (Letters, 3 February). Not only does he regard himself as the Grand Panjandrum of anthropology (a subject which, he imagines, has a body of theory equal in certainty to the propositions of Euclidean geometry), but he can even put the Hebrew scholars right. His remarks would not impose on a first-year student of Hebrew. He claims that he is entitled to equate words like Rechab and Rahab because they are ‘alternative spellings’ like ‘Leach’ and ‘Leech’. On such equations he has based far-fetched structuralist theories. In a language in which only the consonants are written down, and every consonant has a unique pronunciation, the opportunities for alternative spellings are reduced to nil. The reason certain Hebrew words come out misleadingly similar in English transliteration is that some of the Hebrew gutturals (originally pronounced distinctively, as Arabic shows) were elided or simplified in later pronunciation. Thus, Leach’s blunder of equating Rechab with Rahab involves confusing the guttural khaf with the guttural het – not a question of spelling the same word in two different ways, but of two words from entirely dissociated tri-literal roots, with different meanings: Rechab from a root meaning ‘to ride’ and Rahab from a root meaning ‘to be broad’. This must have been explained to Leach a dozen times, but he persists in defending his infallibility. This feat of charlatanry comes from the man who accused me of ‘phoney scholarship’!
I note that Leach avoids comment on the issue of the Christian origins of anti-semitism – the main topic of both my book and my letter. He still asserts that my reading stops at 1885. As a matter of fact, the most helpful work that I found on Hebrew sacrifice was by Jacob Milgrom, and was published in 1980. I wonder if Leach has read this?
Leach describes himself in his review as a ‘hardnosed gentile’: but, on the evidence of his letter, I think the adjective ‘soft-headed’ would be more appropriate.
Leo Baeck College, London N3