Commentary Magazine


Simon Dubnow--A Revaluation

There is a widespread notion in American Jewish thought that the philosophies and ideologies of Jewish existence which developed in East Europe toward the end of the 19th century have become irrelevant and obsolete. These ideologies, it is said, were born, flourished, and died together with the Jewish community that produced them. In particular, the various brands of Jewish secularism and nationalism have either been forgotten or ignored, perhaps because the exponents of a religious point of view have come to dominate the discussion of Jewishness and the problem of Jewish survival. Yet it may be worthwhile, as the centennial of the birth of Simon Dubnow (1860—1941) draws to a close, to take a fresh look at the philosophy of Jewish existence promulgated by this, the greatest, advocate of Diaspora nationalism. Dubnow’s basic ideas—contrary to any general impression—are very much in tune with the realities of Jewish life in America, and they may offer us, particularly the secular and intellectual segment of the American Jewish community, some help in confronting the dilemma of living as an integrated minority within the general majority culture.

Simon Dubnow was born in White Russia on September 10, 1860, the last in a line of rabbis and scholars. He received a traditional Jewish education, but in his early youth became absorbed in the literature of the Haskalah as well as in general European culture. Like many of his contemporaries, the young Dubnow stood upon a platform of assimilation for the Russian Jews according to the Western European (or German) model, but the wave of pogroms that swept over the Jews in the wake of the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 smashed all the hopes they had placed in emancipation and Russification. The deep ideological crisis that shook the Russian Jewish intelligentsia in this period led to a revision of views and the eventual flowering of new positions on the question of Jewish survival. In Dubnow’s case, the trauma of the 80′s provoked him into beginning a lifelong study of Jewish history which resulted in a three-volume History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, a monumental ten-volume World History of the Jewish People, a three-volume study of Hasidism, and a systematic philosophy of Jewish existence which was developed in a series of “Letters on Old and New Judaism.”1

Dubnow was the pioneer historian of the East European Jewish community—a community almost completely overlooked by the other great Jewish historians of the 19th century (Jost, Geiger, and Graetz). Apart from that, however, Dubnow was also the first to apply the methods of the “New History” (in America espoused by James Harvey Robinson, Charles Beard, and Carl Becker) to the writing of Jewish history. Whereas Graetz, in the tradition of heroic historiography, primarily concentrated on Geistes and Leidensgeschichte (intellectual developments and martyrology), Dubnow stressed cultural, social, and economic factors. The hero of his World History is not the Martyr or the Book, but the Jewish people (which has “at all times and in all countries . . . been the subject, the creator of its own history, not only in the intellectual sphere, but also in the general sphere of its social life”), and the theme of Dubnow’s work is the eternal struggle of this people for survival as an “autonomous” entity. The World History, moreover, was the first such work written from a secular, liberal point of view and therefore represents the beginning of the modern attempt to make sense of Jewish history without recourse to theology or metaphysical absolutes.

From 1890 until 1903—the most productive years of his long life—Dubnow lived in Odessa, where he associated with such Jewish luminaries as Mendele, Ahad Ha-am, Simon Frug, Sholem Aleichem, and Bialik. It was in Odessa that the “National Committee”—whose main purpose was to fight assimilation among the Russian Jewish intelligentsia and of which Dubnow became chairman—was founded.

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Dubnow’s philosophy of Jewish existence grew directly out of his historical studies and what he had to say about the problem of Jewish survival was shaped by his evolutionist bias as a historian. There were, he believed, three stages in the growth of nationality—race, territory (which involved political sovereignty), and culture. The progress of a people could be measured by the degree to which it depended for survival on each of these elements. Thus, a people held together mainly by race was at the lowest stage of national development; a people held together mainly by territory was at the intermediate stage; and a people held together by culture—like the Jews of the Diaspora—was “the very archetype of a nation, a nation in the purest and loftiest sense.” In the ancient victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees, Dubnow saw the triumph of the principle of spiritual and cultural nationalism over the principle of political and military nationalism—from which he concluded that the Jewish nation was essentially defined by spirit rather than territory even before it was driven into exile and scattered over the face of the earth.

By spirit Dubnow did not mean religion alone; his conception of the spiritual included attitudes, values, and folkways. Thus he refused to grant that religion was responsible for the survival of the Jews in the Diaspora. What had kept them together, he believed, was a collective will to live—a will nourished by a common historical destiny: “We are welded together by our glorious past. We are encircled by a mighty chain of similar historical impressions suffered by our ancestors, century after century pressing in upon the Jewish soul and leaving behind a substantial deposit. . . . The Jewish national idea is based chiefly upon the historical consciousness.” This collective will to live expressed itself concretely in the creation of an “autonomous” community which was separated from the general community by the spiritual “fences” of religion, ethics, and folkways; in East Europe, Jews were even able to achieve self-government through the Kehillah. For Jews to surrender their autonomous existence—that is, to assimilate—would be tantamount to destroying the unique and therefore precious values which Dubnow—like many other 19th-century thinkers—believed to inhere not only in the Jewish nation but in any highly developed national collectivity.

In espousing the idea of the nation as the source of creativity, Dubnow did not ignore the existence of aggressive nationalism; indeed, he often laid stress on the distinction between the several varieties of nationalism. However, there was obviously no danger of Jewish Diaspora nationalism becoming aggressive, and in any case it was derived from and justified by the basic principles of social ethics as proclaimed by the Prophets. For “the descendants of the Prophets it is fitting to maintain in its purity that national idea which in prophecy was blended with the grandiose visions of universal brotherhood.”

In common with all the other great 19th-century historians, Dubnow freely applied the central currents of contemporary thought to the writing of history. From Comte and Spencer he learned to think of history as moving progressively along a line of inevitable evolutionary development (though being a student of Jewish history, he was bound to become more cautious in his optimism than his mentors). From Ernest Renan he adopted the idea of nationality as determined by subjective will and national awareness rather than the external characteristics of state, territory, and language. And finally, from Hegel he borrowed the dialectic (while taking care to distinguish his “naturalistic” use of the evolutionary triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis from Hegel’s), In Dubnow’s scheme of Jewish historical development, the thesis is represented by the Orthodox Jewish masses, the antithesis by the assimilationists, and the synthesis by the new Jewish intelligentsia—presumably men like himself and Ahad Ha-am—who harmoniously combined ancestral and European culture.

This intelligentsia, he believed, would emerge as the guiding class of Jewry in the 20th century and would create a new mode of autonomous Jewish life. Just as Jewish life once revolved around the synagogue, so in the 20th century it would be centered in an all-embracing secular community, democratically organized and responsible for educational, religious, and social functions. Every Jew (except one who had converted to another religion) would be a member of this Kehillah.2

On the question of language, Dubnow was a pluralist favoring the vernacular Yiddish as well as Hebrew and Russian. He encouraged the then emerging Yiddish literature and believed that Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian should be the instruments of the autonomous Jewish Kehillah. There was no hope, he thought, of reviving Hebrew as a living tongue in the Diaspora. At the same time, however, he considered that Chaim Zhitlowsky—the exponent of Yiddishism—had overrated the nationalizing value of Yiddish. In his polemics against Zhitlowsky, he asked: “About one-third of the Jewish people does not speak Yiddish today and several generations later another third may disregard it (especially in America); should we abandon them to complete assimilation? History shows us that had the Jewish people rested only on the foundation of language, no trace of it would have remained by now. . . .”

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The main question raised by Dubnow’s position, of course, was whether autonomy could be achieved by Jews living in countries that they themselves did not dominate politically. What guarantee was there that the “host nation” would grant self-government? Would not an independent state offer better opportunities for creative survival? To this question Dubnow answered that, like it or not, the Diaspora was a permanent feature of Jewish life. He rejected the grandiose dreams of Theodor Herzl, who spoke of an “Ingathering of the Exiles,” and moreover differed with political Zionism in its belief that Jewish life must be “normalized” in accordance with the pattern of other nations. For Dubnow the Jews were a supra-normal rather than an “abnormal” people, and he tended therefore to regard the upsurge of “aggressive nationalism” with disfavor—as a regression to a lower stage of historical development.

The political Zionists, however, were not the only group who based their program on a thoroughly pessimistic attitude toward the possibilities of a decent Jewish life in the Diaspora. While themselves accepting the Diaspora as inevitable and permanent, the cultural Zionists—led by Dubnow’s friend Ahad Ha-am—were also convinced that the fallacy of Dubnowism was to suppose that the Jews could ever gain “national” rights within the countries of the Diaspora. In Ahad Ha-am’s view, moreover, even if such rights were achieved, this would still not be enough in a secularized age to assure Jewish cultural continuity. The meaningful survival of Jewish communities throughout the world depended on the existence of a Jewish center in Palestine where a culture true to the national ethos could be developed, both for its own sake and for the sake of providing inspiration and nourishment to the Diaspora. Dubnow did not oppose the idea of a cultural center in Palestine, and he agreed that Palestine could become “a model nursery of pure national culture . . . whose quality will be more authentically Jewish than Diaspora culture.” There is, then, no fundamental divergence between the theories of Ahad Ha-am and Dubnow. Indeed, my impression is that the thinking of the American Jewish community today can be characterized as a synthesis of the philosophies fashioned by these two “obsolete” East Europeans. They differ rather in points of emphasis and nuance, as one can see from the following remarks Dubnow made shortly before the First World War: “The difference between the land of Israel and the Diaspora will be qualitative and quantitative; in Palestine there will be a none too numerous people that will be distinguished by a richer and more complete national culture while the Diaspora will be weaker, but will make up in quantity for what it lacks in quality. The reciprocal influence of the two centers will create the mean for the national development of Judaism.”

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To assert the relevance of Dubnow to Jewish life in America today it is not necessary to overlook his inconsistencies and the ephemeral character of certain aspects of his philosophy. Much of his thinking was conditioned by 19th-century assumptions that no longer seem tenable—the faith in inevitable progress, the belief in evolutionary development, and the mystique of nationality. Moreover, some of his key predictions have turned out to be false. The Jewish intelligentsia of Western Europe has, if anything, moved toward the “antithesis” of assimilationism rather than toward the “synthesis” of Jewish and general culture. Nor is the kind of autonomy he advocated for East Europe either possible or desirable in this country. Here the organized Jewish community is made up of numerous voluntary associations which have no legal status and desire none (some do not even desire unification into a single body). The Jews in America are not a separate nationality, in the East European connotation; they are a religious or an ethnic group among many other such groups, and their nationality is unambiguously American.

In spite of all this, however, it can still be argued that autonomism—suitably modified by present conditions—is actually a potent force and a prevailing mode of Jewish group life in the United States. Basically what we have here in the many religious, philanthropic, educational, cultural, social, and civic Jewish organizations is a form of cultural self-government. It is voluntary, rather than legally recognized; decentralized and bureaucratically dominated, rather than unified and democratically elected—but it is self-government nevertheless. Dubnow himself understood that communal autonomy must be sought “in a form that is appropriate to the conditions of the times,” and he even recognized that the particular form he advocated for Russia would be unsuitable to America.

Thus, Diaspora nationalism requires modifications and revisions in the America of 1960. But so do all the other traditional Jewish ideologies, including political Zionism. Let me cite one illustration. A central doctrine in Ahad Ha-am’s philosophy was that in Palestine the Jewish people would create a genuine Jewish culture, in the true spirit of the ancient Prophets, which would act as a bulwark against assimilation within the Diaspora. In the light of our present experience, how unshakable does this idea seem? Could a true Jewish culture in Israel really counteract the tendency toward assimilation among American Jews, which is itself an aspect of the leveling of group differences in America? And what would national distinctiveness mean, in the end, for a small people living in its own land? Indeed, the history of the ancient Israelites testifies that a small people is always in danger of being swallowed up culturally by the dominant tendencies of the surrounding world, just as today the youth of Israel finds itself, in part, attracted to the idea of Levantinization. Even such an extreme opponent of Diaspora nationalism as David Ben Gurion recently admitted the possibility that Israeli society might eventually be shaped in the image of the surrounding nations.

What then was Dubnow’s contribution to the problem of strategies for Jewish survival, and what can we learn from him today? First of all, in secularizing the idea of Jewishness, and in giving meaning to Jewish history without benefit of theology, he provided a rationale—and one that remains convincing, in spite of some inconsistencies—for the free-thinking Jew’s impulse to remain Jewish and to transmit the heritage of Jewishness to future generations. Those who assert that a creative Jewish culture is impossible without a firm religious commitment on the part of the Jewish community might reflect on Dubnow’s analysis of how the Jews maintained their spiritual character in various periods of history. “If we understand the law of our survival,” he said, “and we know the conditions on which it depends, then the faith in our continuity will be tied to action, to practical commandments, although not those derived from the Shulchan Aruch. The principles of the national commandments are known: perennial struggle for communal autonomy—in a form that is appropriate to the conditions of the time; a struggle for national education at home and in schools established for this purpose; education in the ancient national language, and the vernacular languages developed in the Diaspora; a struggle for the cultivation of all basic national possessions and their adaptation to universal culture. . . .”

Is it, however, at all likely that American Jews will remain committed to Jewishness in a broad cultural sense? My own feeling is that the signs point in this direction. Surely the much heralded religious revival of recent years has less to do with religion (as many observers agree) than with cultural identification. If we adapt Dubnow’s conception of the three national types to the American Jewish community, we might say that it has passed through the first two stages of Americanization and integration and is now entering into the third stage—the search for its ancestral roots and its authentic “self.” And in this search, Dubnow deserves to be considered one of the best and most helpful guides.

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Footnotes

1 Dubnow's books were originally written in Russian, Hebrew, or Yiddish. Available in English are the 3-volume History (Jewish Publication Society, 1920, tr. from the Russian by Israel Friedlander) and the “Letters” (in Nationalism and History, JPS, 1958). The World History has been translated into German, Hebrew, and Spanish as well as Yiddish; Dubnow added an epilogue on the events of 1914—1938 to the Yiddish edition.

2 Though Dubnow refused to grant the primacy of Judaism (as sheer religion) in Jewish culture, he also felt that conversion to any other faith destroyed Jewish nationality. This is perfectly consistent with his view that the Jewish religion is an important element in the Jewish heritage. On the other hand, he was inconsistent in maintaining that a Jew could not become a member of another nationality except through mingling of blood (marriage) over the course of several generations. Here Dubnow slipped into thinking of nationality as biological, perhaps because he was convinced of the folly of assimilationism for the individual Jew.

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