Commentary Magazine


Ahad Ha-Am-Asher Ginzberg, by Leon Simon

A Jewish Humanist

Ahad Ha-am—Asher Ginzberg.
by Leon Simon.
Jewish Publication Society. 348 pp. $4.50.

In 1955 there appeared in Hebrew a definitive study of Ahad Ha-Am’s career written by Sir Leon Simon and the late Joseph Heller. Dividing their work into two distinct sections, Sir Leon wrote the biography while Professor Heller undertook to explore Ahad Ha-Am’s thought. It is to be regretted that in this English version of the Hebrew volume, the Jewish Publication Society saw fit not to include Professor Joseph Heller’s contribution but only that of Leon Simon. Professor Heller, with great acumen and scholarship, had succeeded in giving system to the rather random collection of essays and aphorisms which form Ahad Ha-Am’s literary legacy. But this, the publishers decided, was “unlikely to interest the general body of English readers of Jewish books.” A pity. The liberal, pragmatist approach has again come to the fore in intellectual criticism, as against the recent anti-humanist, existentialist vogue. Jewish readers—some of whom, at least, ought not to be protected from the headier stuff of Jewish thought—might be ready, in the present intellectual climate, to take a new look at the humanism of men like Simon Dubnow and Ahad Ha-Am; for all its secularism, that humanism possesses the virtues of clarity and intellectual honesty which earn for it the right to be taken seriously.

We may, nevertheless, be very thankful for the English volume that is before us. It is an expanded version of Sir Leon’s original biographical sketch, a forthright and lucid character study of Ahad Ha-Am, the man, by a pupil and disciple, one eminently qualified for the task he undertook. After all, it was to Simon that Ahad Ha-Am wrote: “You are the only friend I acquired during my fourteen-year sojourn in London.”

This biography of a complex and fascinating Jewish intellectual has the added interest of being a document which testifies to the degree to which the forces of acculturation work even on the personality of one who is as committed a Zionist and Hebraist as Sir Leon. His whole approach in appraising Ahad Ha-Am’s life—balanced, fair-minded, judicious—is very British indeed.

No less praise can be given—and this the ordinary reader must find gratifying—to the skillful way Sir Leon camouflages his careful scholarship as he pursues his subject. Footnotes are not used, but the student of Ahad Ha-Am will discover that no source material has been ignored. Everything is adroitly employed—the six volumes of personal letters which Ahad Ha-Am collected shortly before his death, the occasional fragments of biography which he composed, and even the not very accessible private memoirs of his sister.

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The problem Ahad Ha-Am posed, “the problem of Judaism” he called it, is still on the Jewish agenda. How can a Jew remain a Jew in an essentially secularized world? How, living on the fringes of a Gentile world, can we retain our integrity and avoid turning our intellects into a device to escape our Jewish responsibility? How genuine is our relation with Western culture? Are we simply trying to save our Jewish necks at the price of our Jewish souls? And, finally, what significance does Judaism have for the skeptic and agnostic? Ahad Ha-Am answers all these questions by giving a secularist, humanist reading of Jewish history, relying heavily on French sociology and English utilitarianism. He argues that even in the early stages of Judaism the animating force was not religion but the people, and if the traditional view of God has now lost its meaning for millions of Jews, the ethics and values of Judaism retain their validity. Judaism is the expression of the goals, ideals, and symbols of a spiritual people. If religion can no longer serve to rally all Jews, a Jewish state—or at least a cultural center in Palestine—can serve: not only as the focal point for Jewish enthusiasm, but as a place of concentration for an authentic Jewish culture to continue to evolve. The acculturated Western Jew, living in two worlds, is at home in neither. Only as he is reinforced by his own authentic culture can the modern Jew confront the Gentile world honestly and as an equal—neither a cultural parasite nor a victim of protective ghettoization.

These answers of Ahad Ha-Am cannot resolve all of our present dilemmas. The reality of modern Israel can hardly conform to Ahad Ha-Am’s projected Utopian cultural center. For one thing, in an age of jets, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of maintaining an authentic culture in splendid geographical isolation. Most of us would nevertheless agree that whatever Jewish creativity survives will probably do so in Israel, and the relation of Diaspora Jews to Israel has to be cultural rather than political. Nor can we today be as certain as Ahad Ha-Am of the positive value of an ethical nationalism. It is questionable whether the mystique of a morality grounded in religion can maintain itself either in ethical nationalism or in humanism as such. These often lead to chauvinism, or to a vague relativism. Yet it would be desirable to channel the national pride engendered by the establishment of Israel into ethical and humanist directions. While Ahad Ha-Am undoubtedly underestimated the appeal of religion to liberated Westernized Jews, few could deny the validity of his critical remarks about the state of our Jewish religiosity. They still are closer to the truth than our official religious leadership would care to admit.

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It may come as a surprise to some that Ahad Ha-Am’s uncompromising positivist convictions were in conflict with his natural conservatism—a conservatism expressed in an almost filial deference toward Jewish traditions. And Sir Leon gives a poignant picture of that conflict, personified in the hate-love which marked Ahad Ha-Am’s relation to his father. The portrait of the stern father as the image of Jewish religious authoritarianism, familiar in 20th-century Hebrew fiction, is shatteringly real in the biography of Ahad Ha-Am. The father had little sympathy for the son’s ambitions and consistently belittled his abilities. The conflict in Ahad Ha-Am worked at the very roots of his system. It explains a good deal not only of his ideological development but also of the psychological deterrents which inhibited his personal life. Introspective, self-critical, and skeptical regarding his own abilities, Ahad Ha-Am became a leader of men. “A high seriousness and a sense of responsibility” compelled him to speak out forcefully and clearly about the problems of his day. For all his devotion to the Zionist ideal, he saw the pitfalls of nationalist enthusiasms leading to the distortions of expediency. His thinking retains a relevance for contemporary Jews; and contemporary Jewish journalism could use a little more of his high-minded criticism and uncompromising honesty.

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