Lessons from a secular rabbi

John Osmond reviews Leo Abse’s last collection of essays, Old Testament Stories with a Freudian Twist

I may be among the last generation in Wales to have been brought up on tales of the Bible, drawn mainly from the New Testament to be sure, but with a fair sprinkling of the Old as well. My early imagination was bound up with stories of Abraham being commanded to kill his only son Isaac, of Moses being placed in a wicker basket and let drift down the Nile, of the tribes of Israel freeing themselves through the parting of the Red Sea, of bushes catching fire, golden idols, graven images, fatted calves, and of the lands of Canaan, Samaria and Judea.

It has often been said that the Welsh know more about the geography and history of Israel than they do of their own country, and that was certainly true when I was growing up in the 1950s. But those days are long gone. And, although our young people today are in many ways more sophisticated and worldly wise, I can’t help but feel that they have lost touch with something primordially precious.

A reading of Leo Abse’s last book, published posthumously last year, will tell you why. As he was coming towards the end of his long and remarkable life, the nonogenerian returned to the Talmudic roots of his childhood in early 20th Century south Wales where he was brought up in the orthodox faith. He tells how he would sit at the knee of his grandfather, who had migrated to Wales from Russian Poland, and hear tales from the Midrash Haggadah, the rabbinical commentary on the legendary parts of the Scriptures beginning five centuries before Christ. He recalls how “in a grubby ante-room of the local synagogue” he was taught to read Hebrew fluently and to translate the texts of the Pentateuch. “There I discovered for the first time how the dramatic lives of the patriarchs were punctuated by awesome parricides and infanticides.”

It is clear that here also began Leo Abse’s life-long fascination with the internal psychodramas that determine the development of our personality, our relationships and behaviour. In this endeavour, later in life he was much informed by the insights of Freud and his followers who in turn depended on the texts and myths of the Bible and ancient Greece. For Abse, the autodidact, his reading of Freud only confirmed what he had absorbed unconsciously as a youth from his study of the Book.

The significance of all this for us today is that it provided Abse with a profound understanding of human nature. In turn this explains how he was empowered to take on fearsome opponents and obstacles in his efforts to civilise the way society deals with such matters as divorce, homosexuality, adoption and suicide. As Pontypool’s MP from 1958 until 1983, and for Torfaen until he retired from Westminster in 1987, he was extraordinarily successful as a back bencher in putting reforming social legislation on the statute book. Following the 1975 Children’s Act that regulated fostering and adoption, Home Secretary Jim Callaghan wrote to him:

“This is another reform that your own activity and zeal has been largely responsible for. You will have a wonderful collection of worthwhile scalps under your belt before you finish. And you do much more good in terms of human happiness than 90 per cent of the work done in Parliament on what are called ‘political issues’. ”

Typically, Abse quotes this accolade in his book – not, he claims, out of conceit, but because it shows that “it is possible for a politician to engage in successful counter-cultural assaults in our country and, although within the culture of, in particular England, there are few more undesirable motifs than an indifference to or antagonism to children, it is nevertheless challengeable.”

Abse singles out England in this judgement as a place where children are emotionally starved on such a routine basis that the 2007 report of the United Nations Children’s Fund found them to be the most neglected and unhappy in the western world. However, he acknowledges a contrast with Wales. As he puts it, when he began his campaign to reform the adoption laws he was confident of a speedy and positive response. However, his optimism was misplaced:

“I was making incorrect assumptions about England that were based on the warmer and more affectionate family units of the Welsh Valleys when I was a lad, and upon the passionate Jewish family life with which I was so familiar.”

Nonetheless, England was to benefit enormously from the impulses that derived from Leo Abse’s blend of Jewish and Welsh consciousness. They also profoundly informed his insights into the UK’s present political predicaments. These, he judges, are largely the result of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, carefully nurtured by Tony Blair and New Labour. He recorded them at length, in two highly controversial psycho-biographies, Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (1989), and The Man Behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion (1996).

Thatcher was the more significant in the impact her personal predicaments made upon public policy. Abse believed this to be the consequence of her antagonism towards her mother, Beatrice – so much so that the daughter erased references to her mother in her entry in Who’s Who, ceased all communication with her when she was a teenager, and in later life only referred to her in deprecatory terms. Abse says the relationship provides a modern illustration of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, of the destructiveness that can be unleashed when mother and daughter struggle unforgivingly with each other, when the resentments and hostility within the dyadic relationship are never assuaged, and when there is never a reconciliation between the two. As he also declares:

“Thatcher took that battle with her mother into the public arena; traditional ‘Old’ Labour was a party identifying with the mother, a party whose self-perception and ideals were essentially mother-orientated, even as yesterday’s Conservative Party was father-orientated. The Labour Party was the ‘welfare party’, maternally concerned, the provider, the bountiful caring one, the party that created the tendering National Health Service and gave the protection to the stumbling in our society of the National Insurance Act, the creator of the 1945 welfare state. With great effect, Thatcher displaced all her rage against her mother in an onslaught on what she described as the ‘nanny state’, stigmatizing it as a cultivator of dependency and a subverter of individual effort and aspiration. Margaret Thatcher was engaged in matricide not politics, and the uncaring Thatcherite society we now have in place proclaims her victory.”

This passage is worth quoting at length because it illustrates the insights that can be gained from a lifetime’s study of human behaviour, sourced in a culture deeply imbibed with the lessons from millennia of generations recorded in ancient texts such as the Greek myths and the Old Testament. We lose touch with that inheritance at our peril. Leo Abse’s bequest, now from beyond the grave, is to warn us of the dangers of the loss. In his later years he seems to me to have become a kind of secular rabbi. I think he would have liked that description.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a secular rabbi

  1. I wonder what psychological oddities were behind Abse’s refusal to go with Labour policy and to use every kind of slur and innuendo to destroy the Devolution proposals of the Callaghan Goverment?

  2. I don’t think they were “psychological oddities”. I first met Leo Abse shortly after the 1979 referendum, and despite as you might imagine being a mortal enemy over devolution, actually got on very well with him and we stayed in touch down the years. He was very much a product of his era in terms of his attitudes to devolution and Welsh nationalism more generally – that is to say, his formative experience during his youth was the Second World War and its aftermath. Like many in his generation he linked ‘nationalism’ with Hitler’s fascism, and also, along with Aneurin Bevan, regarded socialism and the welfare state as only being achievable within a British framework. It was interesting, and revealing, however, that towards the end of his long life, and in the wake of the impact of both Thatcher and Blair on the Labour Party, he came round to the notion of devolution and the National Assembly. He said so in terms in a final extended television interview with the late Patrick Hannan.

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