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Der Yiddisher Gedank in der Neier Tzeit (Jewish Thought in Modern Times), edited by Abraham Menes

Exile and Redemption
Der Yiddisher Gedank in der Neier Tzeit (Jewish Thought in Modern Times)
Edited By Abraham Menes
Congress for Jewish Culture. 428 pp. $6.00.


This volume, the first of a projected series, contains some eighty pieces in Yiddish—essays, articles, documents by many different writers—which reflect the diversity of views and factions that prevailed in the Jewish community of Eastern Europe at about the turn of the century. Appending a title like Jewish Thought in Modern Times to a book that contains almost nothing about religion or theology and concentrates entirely on “secular” matters is bound to strike the American reader as anomalous, indeed as self-contradictory. But this limitation may also help to dislodge the notion that Jewish thought has operated exclusively in the domain of theology and cognate subjects.

By the middle of the 19th century the spiritual and social impact of Hasidism had well-nigh exhausted itself in Eastern Europe; it ceased to be a refreshing and deepening source of Jewish piety. The winds of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, had reached the lands of the Czars, and with it came the belief that the Western Emancipation would not be far behind. Above all, the Industrial Revolution (after the liberation of the serfs in 1861) was slowly but surely making inroads into Russia and dislocating the precarious economic position of the Jew as petty middleman by absorbing the peasants into the factories and keeping the Jew out. Inevitably the entire tone and quality of Jewish life underwent a change. The ancient mode of conduct, guided by Rabbinic Judaism, was losing its firm hold, and there was danger of confusion, of a “lost generation.” The “organic” community of Eastern Europe (with its eight million souls) was caught in a process of differentiation, of basic modification—economically, culturally, spiritually.

It was in response to the challenge of these new conditions and out of the resources of a millennial heritage that the “secular” movements—Zionism, Socialism, territorialism, cultural autonomy—of the late 19th and early 20th centuries emerged. As types of action they marked a radical departure from what had been customary in the tight, rooted Jewish community; as aspirations they were in continuity with hallowed tradition. In tracing the career of these movements, the year 1897 is especially memorable. In that year the first Zionist Congress convened in Switzerland, the first conference of the Bund (the Jewish Socialist Party of Greater Russia) met in Vilna, and Simeon Dubnow’s Letters on Old and New Jewishness appeared, pleading for national-cultural autonomy within the “Diaspora.”



Only against this background is it possible to understand the pseudo-Marxist obsession of such proponents of Socialist Zionism as Borochov and Nachman Syrkin, both represented in this book. They were convinced, especially Borochov, that only in Palestine, as a new state, could the Jewish proletariat enjoy “economic accessibility” and find its legitimate place in the structure of production. And it is in the same context that one must weigh the insistence of both Zionists and Socialists, including the non-Marxist Socialist, Chaim Zhitlovsky, that the basic cause of anti-Semitism lay in the “parasitic” economic role of the Jew as a non-creative go-between, as a middleman. Earlier, in the 19th century, Leo Pinsker had ascribed the genesis and viciousness of European anti-Semitism to the Jew’s homelessness, to his intrusion into the houses of other nations. The remedy he offered (in his Auto-Emancipation) was along the lines of territorialism—an independent state. Opposite to Pinsker’s (as well as Herzl’s) analysis was that of the Bund, which defined anti-Semitism as a function of capitalism and associated the full enfranchisement of the Jew with the liberation of the working classes under the banner of Socialism.

There were of course men before and after 1897 who were affected no less intensely by the crisis of Jewishness (or Judaism) than by the predicament of the Jew. These men were fearful that the break from Orthodoxy might cut off the younger generation altogether from Jewishness. Pre-eminent among them were Ahad Ha-am and Simeon Dubnow, both of whom sought modern equivalents for classical Judaism. Ahad Ha-am became the father of cultural or spiritual—as contrasted with Herzl’s political—Zionism and looked to Palestine not primarily as a physical gathering place for Jews but as a haven for the Jewish spirit. Dubnow went beyond Ahad Ha-am in affirming the non-geographical nature of Jewish history and acclaiming the Jewish people as a spiritual nation not dependent on a state for its viability and for its destiny. Dubnow felt that since the Jews constituted a spiritual rather than a political unit in the countries of their habitation, they should ask for—and were entitled to—cultural autonomy. The Zionists and Socialists were also troubled by the gradual disappearance of a Jewish nusach—a style of living and a system of values—and were inclined to believe that emphasis must shift from the religious components of Jewish tradition and distinctiveness to the secular-cultural elements. Zionism, besides striving for statehood, wedded its hopes to a renascence of the Hebrew language; while the Socialists championed Yiddish as the language of the people, and Yiddish literature as a revelation of the life and experience of the common folk.

Today much of this sounds strange and distant, like a voice from another world. And, alas, it is a voice from another world—the world that was before the sacred martyrdom of the six million. Many of the selections in this book are now irrelevant, archaic—but only because of Maidanek, Treblinka, and a hundred other infernos; and only because in the former empire of the Czars, Stalin decreed, and Khrushchev concurs, that Jewish culture, traditional or secular, be extirpated—root, trunk, and branch.

Partly also the book is dated because of America (and of the Jewish community in America) where the concept of pluralism is real and valid, though not in terms that the Bund nor yet Dubnow would acknowledge; and partly because of the formal fulfillment of Zionism, the establishment of the State of Israel.

For this reason, the last section of the book may seem more interesting. Here are issues that still confront and baffle Jews today, that are genuinely significant and even poignant. There is sadness and moral indignation in the confession of one of Israel’s outstanding poets, the late David Shimoni, that Israel erred in setting up a wall between itself and the t’futzot, the Jewish communities throughout the world, by its sh’lilat ha-galut, its negation of the Diaspora and its suspicion of the legacy of the Diaspora. There is great tenderness in the late Hayim Greenberg’s and the late Samuel Niger’s “defense” of the Diaspora—in Greenberg’s remonstrance that galut must not be identified exhaustively with misfortune, that it is more truly described in the language of heroism and tragedy. There is a note of grandeur in Einstein’s conception of Judaism, and there is wisdom in Buber’s essays. Regrettably, Dr. Menes includes nothing here from the pen of Judah L. Magnes.

In a brief but excellent preface to the book as a whole, and in succinct introductions to each of its seven sections, Dr. Menes suggests that all these movements (call them secular or religious) are variations upon an enduring theme in Jewish history—exile and redemption. Traditionally in Judaism, exile was not conceived narrowly as national dispersion. Israel was not alone in exile, the whole world was really in exile, and the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was in exile too. It therefore seems appropriate that the first section of this book should take us back several centuries to the Lurianic Cabala with its doctrine of tikkun—that each individual must aim for perfection in himself so as to bring about the perfection of the world, the speedy realization of the Messianic Age.

Perhaps this is the niggun, the melody, the final meaning of a book like Der Yiddisher Gedank—to remind us that Jewishness in all its transformations and “disguises” is still a “thirst for the future,” for the coming of the Messiah. The Maggid—the preacher—of Kosnitz was wont to observe, probably not without a twinkle in his eye: “Dear God, if you do not wish to redeem your people Israel, why then redeem at least the Gentiles.” Whatever else it means to be a Jew, this is certain: that it means to live with and to live by the great expectancy of b’acharit ha-yamim, the “end of days,” as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and the fruition of human history.

This “thirst for the future,” for the “end of days,” as the termination of mankind’s exile, has been—by one of the sublime ironies of history—the guarantee of Jewish existence, while the Babylons and Ninevehs of the earth are dust and ashes. And the heresy that faces us in the present is not so much the glib assurance that all lands outside the State of Israel are exile, galut. It is that the concept of exile is no longer comprehensive enough, that it has been given a spatial designation and an impoverished nationalistic content.


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