Reflections on S. Y. Agnon
In order to understand the genius of a contemporary Hebrew writer such as S. Y. Agnon it is necessary first to consider the nature of the Hebrew language before it became, once again, a normal means of communication, a language of children playing in the street. Before the present generation, Hebrew was nourished from a different source entirely; it was the language of a great religious tradition, and almost everything written in it made sense in the context of that tradition. This is not to say that the language was peripheral to the Jewish community as a whole. Even after Hebrew (or for that matter Aramaic, which was so closely related to Hebrew that in the Jewish mind it became almost a kind of younger sibling) was no longer in use as a spoken language, it continued to hold its own as a written language, occupying over the centuries a central place in education and in the study of the Bible, the Talmud, and all writings connected with them. Nor did Hebrew remain the province of a numerically small elite, as was the case with Latin. Everyone was expected to have a working knowledge of Hebrew; the study of the Bible and the Talmud was by no means limited to those who intended to become rabbis or judges. In countries where Jewish intellectual and religious life was particularly vigorous—such as Poland, Italy, and Turkey—Hebrew represented the principal means for expressing the spiritual life of an important segment of the male community. It is true that the spark of vitality, which comes to language when it is used and spoken by women, was lacking, and this lack is indeed significant. What remained, however, was of overwhelming richness. Aside from those books intended for womenfolk that were composed in the vernacular, almost all literary works—chronicles, poetry, and even parody—were written in Hebrew. In these works, biblical and talmudic associations were employed to the hilt; the works abounded in witty and surprising uses of old phrases or in playful variations upon them. Quite often the measure of a Jew’s education was not only his command of Bible and Talmud, but his ingenious ability to use the language of these source materials for secular purposes as well.
Modern Hebrew literature, especially in the 19th and in the early part of the 20th centuries, was from the start built on a paradox: it fed on a language of predominantly religious tradition but strove for avowedly secular goals. Writers of considerable talent and some, indeed, of genius, worked mightily to achieve the metamorphosis of Hebrew into a language of secular literature. In its earlier stages this new literature was directed mainly toward criticizing the petrified state of Jewish tradition and the many shortcomings and basic faults of East European Jewish society. Later, however, with the emergence of the Zionist movement, the renascence of Hebrew gravitated toward a more positive goal. A new life was springing up in the old land of Israel and Hebrew literature was to serve as the connecting link between this new society and the disintegrating communities of the Diaspora. Still, even such outstanding representatives of this literary renascence as Bialik, Tchernichowsky, and Shneur, were limited in the means of expression at their disposal. Hebrew had remained a language of literary tradition; despite the fact that these three writers spent their later years in Israel, the spoken Hebrew of the new generation had no formative influence on their work.
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