Commentary Magazine


Tomorrow's Jew in the Making:
New Forces Reshape a Centuries-Old Ideal

For centuries the personality type which Jewish teaching held up as an ideal was that of the life-long student (and practitioner) of the Torah, Israel’s code for moral living. In recent decades, under the impact of the emancipation and of the evolving life of Palestine, a new ideal arose to challenge the traditional mold—the pioneer. And now war and catastrophe have flung up still another, perhaps an ominous, folk model—the militant partisan. Today an image of the ideal Jew is being forged which will deeply affect not only the future culture of Palestine, but also the ideals projected by Jewish educational institutions in the United States. ERNST SIMON here attempts to give us the perspective for understanding and controlling what may lie ahead as Jews seek to shape the aims of Jewish life in the contemporary world; and Dr. Simon suggests the possibility of a new Jewish ideal of the “whole man” which will harmonize past and present.

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If one traces Jewish educational ideals back to the source documents of the Tannaitic period at the beginning of the Christian era, one inevitably meets many statements stressing the value of manual labor. Some of these formulations, through the Sayings of the Fathers, have penetrated deep into Jewish national consciousness: e.g., the warning not to busy oneself with the Torah without at the same time engaging in manual work, and the praise of a life synthesizing both forms of activity. Stories about great teachers of the Mishnah like Rabbi Johanan, who was a shoemaker, and Rabbi Joshua, who seems to have been a blacksmith, have reinforced this point. In popular works on the subject, especially those with an apologetic purpose, such stories are often represented as irrefutable proof of a generally accepted personality ideal embodying a harmonious compromise between manual labor and study. Modern Zionism, with its stress on “normalizing” Jewish life and reestablishing an almost mystical “relationship with the soil,” has laid great stress on this element of the tradition.

Yet these same aphorisms and stories can be explained with at least equal plausibility as arguments against the prevailing aristocratic monopoly in the educational field enjoyed by the ruling group that constituted the court of the Nasi, the “prince” of the Law. Many of the scholars of his circle are represented as men of independent means; and we find also the general advice to a scholar to choose a “clean and easy trade.” Statements of this sort, which are harder to use for apologetic purposes, seem more compatible with a Hellenistic environment.

The Talmudic Jews of the Hellenistic period, it is true, did not, like the Greeks, regard manual labor as a positive disgrace, but neither did the Talmudic Jews make work an end in itself, a “profession” or a “calling” in the Lutheran-Calvinist sense, which would have been too much of an anachronism; they seem to have observed a peculiar middle road between the two. Indeed, no concept could have been more incomprehensible to the Talmudic and medieval talmid hacham (“the disciple of the wise,” which is the traditional title of a Talmudic scholar—the Hebrew plural is talmidei hachamim) than the modem Palestinian “religion of labor.” The reverse, the “labor of religion,” would have been more intelligible to him, from the ancient until the most modem times, and he would have expressed it in a single Hebrew word: avodah. The profound secularization of Jewish life that is taking place today can be read in the history of this Hebrew word, which formerly meant “divine worship” and now means “labor.”

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The fact is that for nearly two thousand years the Talmudic scholars in varying roles and shapes have represented a kind of Jewish spiritual aristocracy that was usually identical with the ruling group within the Jewish community, or at least in close contact with that group. The authoritative exegesis of Torah—law—which in general provided the practical basis for the internal life of the Jewish community, gave the talmid hacham a position of power whose primacy, although sometimes partially and temporarily infringed upon by more worldly offices—such as that of Jewish fiscal agent in the Spanish period—remained intact up to the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment.

But his position of power was only part of the role and image of the talmid hacham. It may account for the hard traits in his profile: his severe, and sometimes even ruthless determination to arrive at a legally valid decision, his sharpness in discussion (for it was a question of applying God’s law on earth), and his disregard and sometimes even contempt of the unlearned, with whom intermarriage or even companionship at table was considered inadvisable—but, as we have said, this was only one element in him, although an organic and indispensable one. Another and no less essential trait was the talmid hacham’s devotion to the study of Holy Scripture for its own sake, immersion in its dialectical ecstasies, delight in the abundance of threads uniting the seemingly separate topics discussed in the Talmudic tracts.

His main characteristic is the unique concept that the study of Divine Law is in itself the highest of all religious duties because it leads the Jew on God’s ways and teaches him how to fulfill God’s commandments. Therefore, this theory is not only a theory of practice—like the wisdom of the Stoics—but a practice itself, similar to the contemporary Gnosis, though of a more rational and less mystical tincture: he who has always studied the laws governing Temple offerings, for instance, will know how to put them into practice when the Redeemer comes and reestablishes the Temple; and he who occupies himself with the laws of martyrdom, even in times of peace, will know how to die as a Jew in the hour of persecution and self-sacrifice.

The two attitudes—the legal—political one and the studious one—were not necessarily combined in one and the same person, but as a rule they were. At any rate, the synthesis of the two produced the complete, ideal type: an active life constantly drawing its justification from the contemplative life; a contemplative life always concerned with its relationship to active life. At all times in Jewish history when the domination of the Torah remained unbroken in principle, the representatives of the “learning for the sake of fulfillment” were at least always assured of a living: this in more recent times was indicated by the relatively good dowries that the best yeshiva students could count on, and the support they received at the tables of their fathers-in-law for two or three years after marriage.

Yet this very example, with its connotations of the poverty and musty pettiness of the East European small town of the 19th century, is a symptom of the processes that put an end to the position of the talmid hacham as the bearer of the highest pedagogic ideal and made possible the emergence of a new ideal type of Jew. After the Enlightenment had begun its work of liberation and destruction, the talmid hacham, along with other elements of specifically Jewish culture, was secularized and transferred into the sphere of the Central European bourgeoisie that was the actual focus of Jewish emancipation in the age of capitalism. The former Talmudic student became now a member of the free professions and, at the top of the intellectual hierarchy, a university teacher. The sociological index for this “transfer” is the high price that the young Jewish university teacher (the Privatdozent) could soon command in the rich middle-class “marriage market.”

And so one element of reality after another slipped from the enfeebled hands of the old talmid hacham: in the East he was thrust back into a wretched existence, restricted to a theoretical life whose practical implications had become meaningless both to the expanding middle class and the proletarian masses; in the West he had undergone a metamorphosis and been divested of all Jewish content, to become a teacher of foreign ideas. Thus it was that the Zionist movement and even its non-political precursor, the Russian Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), were able to realize their aims only by creating a new type of man that at first sight seemed to stand in complete and conscious contrast to the talmid hacham: the halutz, the pioneer of labor on the hard and stony soil of Palestine.

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The halutz is a secular man. He places his confidence in his own activity, the work of his own hands. His pathos is twofold and unified, human and Jewish. Seen from the human point of view, he is the young Jew who takes a deep breath of the free air of concrete reality and, shaking off the dust of books and the burden of traditions, sets to work. From the Jewish point of view, he is the man who does not regard the liberation and redemption of his own people as a mere by-product of the emancipation of the proletariat—as did another new type of Jew, the Jewish non-Zionist socialist—but looks to winning freedom by collective national effort.

The halutz becomes the chief embodiment of the reconstruction of Palestine, the volunteer in the “legion of labor,” a settler in workers’ cooperatives and community settlements, which he learns to defend, rifle in hand; he builds the city of Tel Aviv, Jewish quarters in other cities, and the various forms of agricultural colonies. Although, like any ideal type, he constitutes only a minority, if a rather considerable one, he becomes for almost half a century the central figure in Jewish pedagogic effort in Palestine itself and, to an even greater degree, in Zionist propaganda in the Diaspora. In this almost monopolistic position there are great opportunities and considerable danger: the opportunity of an elite to realize a revolution in the personal lives of its members, and the danger that all who fall short of this high aim may remain for the rest of their lives without a guiding ideal. The opportunity may be greater in Palestine and the danger greater in the Diaspora—especially in the United States, where the various halutz movements have so far reached only a small minority of Jewish and Zionist youth, while the vast majority of the inactive are unfortunately ready to boast of “what we have accomplished” in speaking of the deeds of others, and so to neglect their own Jewish education and learning.

We have said that “at first sight” this new type is directly opposed to the talmid hacham. On closer examination, however, one finds remarkable similarities in the structure of the two ideal types, perhaps the only original types that the Jewish people has produced in the course of its long history.

The martyred Josef Carlebach, late Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, once characterized the Talmud as “a world without pathos.” Though this is hardly true of its purely literary content—consider, for example, the “flower garden of the Aggadah,” as Heine called it—it does apply to the very process of Talmudic learning, at least in the last centuries. The talmid hacham of the old type attached little value to the unsystematic and unformulated philosophy of religion to be found in the Aggadah or to its poetry; he immersed himself solely in the “dry” dialectic and juridical casuistry of the Law. His world was indeed a world of prose with all the seriousness and obligations it imposes. The Law was law and not symbol; the dogma was not an object of a formulated catechism or of religious instruction, but the almost secret, chastely concealed fundament and source of daily and hourly obedience.

From a formal point of view, the world of the halutz is actually very similar. The present enormous misunderstanding between Jewish Orthodoxy and its rabbinical representatives on the one hand, and the great majority of the young Palestinian pioneers on the other, arises from the fact that the rabbis regard only that sphere of public, common life which is regulated by religious law as authentically Jewish, and look on all those who withdraw from it as renegades. Applied to the lands of the Diaspora, there may be a limited truth in such an interpretation; but for Palestine it is certainly false.

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In Palestine the Jewish worker has created his own acknowledged and legitimate common life; or, in Talmudic terms, he possesses his own parhessia (public life) with its own legal structure. The Jew in Palestine who has turned away from the religious law is not simply a “slave who is happy in a state of lawlessness,” as he is still occasionally called in rabbinical polemics. Most frequently he is a man who has exchanged religious legality for a legality of another sort, for social and national laws that he carries out with the same exactitude (and when necessary evades by the same sophistical arguments). Precisely these occasional evasions—as, for example, the evasion of the regulation against outsiders’ working in a moshav ovdim (cooperative workers’ settlement) or against the possession of private funds in a kibbutz (communal workers’ settlement)—show that there is a new law. Not mere customs, but a new law—for mere customs are not binding and there is no need to “evade” them. Thus, both spheres of Palestinian life are legalistic—“halachic”—in structure: the religious, with the talmid hacham as its basic ideal, and the profane, with the halutz as its center.

This formal similarity, which is certainly not accidental, makes understanding between the two spheres particularly difficult and postpones any synthesis between their two ideal types to the indefinite future. The non-Orthodox Jew of the Diaspora will even today sometimes feel a certain regret at having to deviate from the norm of religious law; he will occasionally look on his secular Jewishness as a mere fraction of the full tradition; and he will have a certain bad conscience that can be appealed to. The new Jew in Palestine does not have this bad conscience; he meets his own norm, at least when he lives up to the ideal of the halutz; he lives for his own law, which he regards as equal, if not superior, to the law of the Torah. The lawgiver has changed, to be sure; he is no longer God but the new national community. And here, again, lies a danger and an opportunity.

This process of secularization was, as we have seen, a historical necessity, because only through its instrumentality could the fullness of the “world,” which had been steadily slipping away from Orthodox Jewry for two centuries, be regained. As profound a religious thinker as the late Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, Abraham Kuk, had the force and courage to recognize this interconnection, which he formulated by saying: “The more worldly life there is, the more holiness there can be.”

Indeed, the hallowing of everyday life, so characteristic of Judaism, is not possible if there is no longer any Jewish everyday life. Here, in and next to the national and social meaning of Zionism, and particularly profane Zionism, lies Zionism’s religious meaning; it has given back to the Jewish people their everyday life. Today, the religious Jew and Zionist—from whose standpoint this essay is written—faces the task of once more hallowing this newly regained everyday life. If he is successful, it will be the beginning of a synthesis, in which, as in every synthesis, the two elements will not remain unchanged but will mutually transform one another.

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The halutz is a dynamic ideal; he cannot 1 exist without continuous movement, he is a pioneer and must always have new tasks. The talmid hacham, on the other hand, has a certain static quality: his immersion in the Law, whose highest commandment is to study, is impossible without inner tranquillity. In the Diaspora, this relatively static attitude has filled a sociological function and helped preserve the threatened Jewish minority. It induced among many Jews, even those without actual religious convictions, a far—reaching traditionalism, which they experienced and justified in national terms, as a means for safeguarding continuity and survival.

In Palestine this kind of nationalist traditionalism has become unnecessary (except, perhaps, from the point of view of relations with Jews living in the Diaspora); the existence of the Jewish community in Palestine is assured by far more substantial needs and accomplishments. Precisely for this reason, one can be a religious Jew in Eretz Israel only if one—is religious.

And one can be religious only if one defines the premises of one’s faith dogmatically—yes, theologically—rather than nationalistically or sociologically, as has been the case with so much religious writing and thinking in the Diaspora in recent years, when national cohesion has been such a burning concern.

What the old talmid hacham could accept as self-evident and therefore did not have to formulate, his future successor in Palestine must now place at the center of his argument with himself and others. This argument, if successful, will lead to a renewal of the prophetic impulses and content of biblical Judaism, to a religious attitude of social responsibility and national self-criticism combined with the rabbinical hallowing of everyday life. These two elements establish two points of convergence between the ideal of the talmid hacham and the best representatives of the ideal of the halutz.

But the ideal of the halutz will also incur changes through its contact with the new talmid hacham. When the need for a continuous dynamism will have weakened, the need for a more stable Jewish and spiritual content—a need that even today makes its appearance in certain moments of emptiness—will become more and more urgent. The renewal of the Hebrew language and literature will no longer suffice as content; nor will participation in the aesthetic and social molding of modern civilization, though this is necessary and fully justified. An era of inner peace, which we cannot confidently expect but can at least hope for, will perhaps bring a deeper contemplation of the human and Jewish foundations of our existence. Whether we take advantage of this moment, or pass it by, depends on how the carriers of Jewish tradition and Jewish faith prepare for it; here lies their great responsibility, and their great opportunity.

All this is music for the future, but one of its motifs is already distinctly audible today. I refer to the social and religious constructive effort of the religious workers of Palestine, particularly those of the religious kibbutzim. Most of these are of the religious Zionist Hapoel Hamizrachi workers’ movement, but a few have been established even by the extremely Orthodox—and so-called non-Zionist—Poale Agudath Israel. Historically speaking, these kibbutzim are latecomers, springing from the desire of Jewish Orthodoxy to participate in that pioneering way of life which was originally the creation of non-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox Jews. But in a deeper sense, the religious kibbutzim represent a new Jewish type, which may foreshadow a fulfillment of the ancient yearning for a Jewish religious socialism.

Despite all the justified criticism that may be made of this fragment of reality, it is a fragment of reality, and it points in the right direction. Even here, talmid hacham and halutz have not fused into a new personality, but they have at least met one another.

Meanwhile, however, both types have encountered a new competitor in the heart of the Jewish youth; an entirely new ideal seems to be forming, equally removed from the talmid hacham and the halutz: the partisan.

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The Jew who was for so long—or was at Least regarded and represented as—defenseless, has learned again to bear arms. The halutz had already added this trait to the Jewish pedagogic ideal, and in the last few years, Jewish education in Palestine has increasingly taken it into account, ideologically as well as practically. The Jewish fighters of the Warsaw ghetto and those within the French Resistance have corrected the image of the Jew in his own eyes and in the eyes of the non-Jewish world. The new Jew no longer allows himself to be dragged unresisting to slaughter. And that is good.

But, as is generally known, this development has not stopped at the point of mere and pure self-defense. In Palestine a “resistance movement” has arisen whose extremist sections have engaged in individual terror and in some cases even in mass terror and reprisals. I cannot go here and now into the political origins and consequences of this phenomenon, although I have very considered opinions on both these aspects; I can only discuss its educational implications, which are far more extensive and important than generally supposed. Even among those sections of the youth that are organizationally far removed from the terroristic “dissidents” and that, bound by a military discipline of their own, may even be prepared to combat them, the image of the young Jew, fighting with all the weapons at his disposal for an immediate and definitive political solution, has begun in part to replace the ideal of the halutz.

The concept of slow, arduous building, the “revolution with a long breath,” as Kurt Blumenfeld once called Zionism, has in part been replaced by the messianic—or pseudo-messianic—mood and the conviction that, since a brief historical moment can determine the life or death of the nation, this end justifies all and any means. The profound despair of a part of our nation, which has lost a third of its people; the attraction exercised by a combination of conspiracy and strict military discipline on so many of the young people, including Jews, of our time; the magical rapport that has always existed between the idea of a “beautiful death” and youth with its pressing unfulfilled energies—all these factors are at work. And this new type presents an even stronger contrast to the old Jewish student ideal than the halutz did.

There are today in Palestine several kinds of youth groups that desire to create a conscious separation between the old “Jew” and the new “Hebrew.” Initiated by the poetry of Tschernichowsky, with its prayers to the statue of Apollo and the Baal gods of Canaan, as well as by the inconsistent ideology of Berdichevsky, with its rejection of any “spirit of Judaism,” a tendency has emerged that sees the developing Jewish nation in Palestine only in an episodic context, but in no essential connection with the Jewish people in the Diaspora and its historical epochs. The most radical words and acts of this whole group, which is still a small one, can and must be regarded as expressions of a kind of Hebrew heathenism.

This frightening perspective should not be concealed from the reader, particularly since it is known to everyone seriously interested in the life of Palestinian youth. For the most part, of course, Palestine’s educational forces, parents, schools, youth movements, and military organizations—to list them in order of increasing influence—are far from such extreme attitudes and try to combat them, though not always with much understanding of their real underlying causes. These, as always, are to be found, not in the realm of pedagogy, but in politics. Political developments and not educators will, of course, mold the future type of Jew. Education can only formulate analytical predictions, utter wamings, and take certain modest precautions.

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If The Jewish community in Palestine becomes a kind of “Sparta” obliged to stand guard against a sea of “Messenians,” this political and military reality will have a far more profound effect than any pedagogic theory and educational practice, even if, contrary to expectation, the educational system should for a time preserve a relative independence. Sparta carried out her pan-Hellenic obligations only very incompletely, and rot infrequently betrayed Greece to the Persian king. Sparta’s share in the Persian war was not historically decisive, despite Plataea and Thermopylae—the prototype of Massada. Marathon and Salamis were Athenian victories, the accomplishments of that Athens which, while fully preserving and developing its military might, knew how to place itself in a political situation that permitted it to make its immortal contribution to the Greek present and the Greek future, to the Near Eastern Greek diaspora and the spirit of Hellas.

If Jewish policy and world policy rescue our new Jewish community from the fate of becoming a “Sparta,” the type of the Jew as partisan will characterize only an episode, one that our history and educational policy will transcend. And then the struggle for a new personality ideal in Palestine may lead at last to a synthesis of talmid hacham and halutz.

But any attempt at this moment to describe in detail the specific contents of that synthesis would be a presumptuous and futile interference with the lord of history, who changes the tides of time, and men within them.

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