TORONTO (Oct. 22)
Abba Eban’s ambitious television series, “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews,” being telecast on the more than 270 stations of the Public Broadcasting Service, deserves much praise. The photography is lush (sweeping shots of the Mediterranean coast), the music is sonorous and stimulating (especially the blowing of the shofar) and Eban, as the series’ narrator, is as mellifluous and elegant of speech as he always is.
The problem with the Heritage series, however, is multi-faceted. Some of its weakness derives from its very conception. Trying to reduce the experience of Jewish civilization to nine one-hour segments is an audacious exercise and one bound to tailure.
Unless one watches the programs with the special study guide, a kind of overload effect occurs. It is simply impossible for the average person to cope adequately with the massive documentation which Eban tries to provide the television audience.
The richness of the Jewish historical saga is such that any attempt to encapsulate it requires oversimplification and the omission of vast and intricate episodes in the Jewish past.
THE NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
The problem is compounded by the fact that Jewish history, from its beginnings, occurs in different geographical spheres and within the context of other peoples’historical development.
In the first two episodes of Heritage, Eban guides the viewer not only through Jewish history but accross the civilizational experience of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Canaanites, Persians, Medes, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans.
Because of the peculiar alchemy of Jewish history, Eban has to do this in order to show how Israel’s intersecting with the powers of antiquity helped fashion the particular Jewish consciousness.
At the same time, however, the viewer has the sensation of watching something on fast forward as he tries to digest the transnational experiences of the Jewish people. From the technical point of view, then, the series is flawed. In terms of content also there are serious defects in the presentation.
TWO STARTLING REVELATIONS
In a recent interview in The New York Times, Eban revealed two rather startling things about the program. The first is that while he wrote a number of memoranda suggesting how the series should be done, the actual script for Heritage was the work of others.
The second is Eban’s recounting of a discussion he had with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat prior to the filming of certain Sinai sequences. Sadat told Eban that Jewish history began in Egypt and that the patriarchial sagas were mere myths. “That is true, by the way,” said Eban to New York Times correspondent James Feron.
The script which Eban reads as the narrative element in the Heritage series, reflects a view of Jewish history which combines a secular approach tinged with the 19th century Protestant Christian higher Biblical criticism orientation — at least in the early episodes of the series.
Whether or not Eban personally subscribes to this vision is problematic; he does utter the word commentary for the program (with his usual elegant diction) and the inference that he agrees with those words is a legitimate one.
This being the case, then it is lamentable that Eban retails a theological version of ancient Jewish history which can only offend the more traditional elements in modern Judaism. This is all the more surprising since Eban reports in his New York Times interview that consultation occurred with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City to ensure that traditional views were being respected.
(In fact, five Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement on October 5 objecting to the series. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, on the whole, approved of the first three segments. See October 11 Daily News Bulletin.)
In the first segment, Eban glosses over the patriarchial sagas of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and introduces Jewish history with the Egyptian experience, explaining that the first non-Jewish reference to Jews is from an Egyptian monument recording the destruction of Israel and the nullification of its “seed.”
It seems bizarre that in the “Sadat-Eban” version of the Jewish beginning, a fragmentary (and disputed) reference found in an Egyptian stela is given perference over the testimony provided by the Hebrew Bible in the first several chapters of the Book of Genesis.
Eban’s predilection for secular and critical theories about Jewish origins insinuates itself in numerous other sections of the first two segments. He is insistent, for example, that the deity revealed in the early portions of the Torah is merely a local one, superior to the other gods, of course, but still local.
A MONUMENTAL LAPSE
In what is surely a monumental lapse, Eban actually pronounces the tetragrammaton, the ineffable four letter name of God — which no traditional Jew (and most liberal Jews as well) ever voices — out of respect for the awesome power which that name once suggested.
Perhaps the most offensive part of the Eban scenario regarding Jewish history is the one on the text of Hebrew scripture. Eban obviously has no sympathy for traditional views about the written Torah (given to Moses in that form on Sinai) and the oral Torah (also given at Sinai but committed to writing much later).
Eban says that the written Torah existed only in fragmentary memories of the Jewish people and that it took shape as a written document only after the Jewish people went off into exile in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. There are many who will find Eban’s thesis objectionable.