Commentary Magazine

Halicha Ladror: The History of the Liberation of Mankind, by Reuven Arje-Lev

Last of the Maskilim
Halicha Ladror: The History of the Liberation of Mankind.
by Reuven Arje-Lev.
Milah Books (Tel Aviv).


This book conveys the special flavor of the political thinking produced in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the late 19th century, when Jewish youths whose studies had been confined to the Talmud suddenly discovered the world of secular learning. As “externes,” who taught themselves enough at home to take the final examination at the gymnasium, they approached secular knowledge avidly—and with the same mental habits engendered by intensive Talmudic study at the yeshiva. Their boldness in passing judgment on the world was usually untrammeled by the intellectual discipline imposed by the organized studies of the gymnasium. Their writings were vivid, unfettered, and dynamic. They were men of their own self-made renaissance.

Without an understanding of their background and psychology, one cannot appreciate the attitudes, virtues, and shortcomings of that generation of self-taught Pale intellectuals which left its mark not only on Jewish life, but also on the labor and revolutionary movements in many parts of the world, including Russia and America. Their influence still lingers in the press and politics of Israel.

The type of the East European yeshiva intellectual survives today in the Israeli yeshivas. Most yeshiva graduates, now as then, remain Orthodox; others are still being drawn into various secular movements of rebellion; still others find a synthesis of some sort between religion and revolution, either in the National Religious party, in Herut (which has quite a following among Orthodox youth), or elsewhere—like Mr. Arje-Lev.

The main characteristics of his book are a sense of mission, unlimited self-confidence, and a complete disregard for the canons of scholarship. Although Mr. Arje-Lev modestly refrains from providing us with any biographical data, his frequent denigrations of universities lead one to suppose that he did not receive a university education. “Subject index and bibliography are not given, due to vast scope of book and enormous volume of recent material used,” the author informs us. “Furthermore, main ideas were drawn preferably from raw facts or directly from life and experience, and were tested by application. The book is a unity, and should be read from beginning to end, slowly. . . .” Since the book does not reach the 20th century until its last few pages, it is difficult to see what “raw facts” or “experience” could have been involved.

In any event, the author offers us a history of man’s drive for freedom from the days of Abraham to the present day, bestowing blame and praise lavishly on the participants and enjoying full emotional involvement in every period. Judging from his early chapters, the “vast scope and enormous volume” of his study did not encompass ancient history, since he relies almost exclusively on Biblical sources: “The first empire was Sumeria, founded by Nimrod, a great hunter and warrior. Next came Egypt, a most fertile land . . . created the beginning of arts and knowledge and buried them under a vast pile of incredibly stupid animal-worshiping religion.” He denounces the Greeks, of all people, for being “devoid of the liberating spirit.”

Throughout, he gives us “teach-yourself-history” generalizations in the turgid style familiar to readers of the less civilized Hebrew press. Here, for example, is his picture of the United States at the end of the last century:

A horde of demagogic politicians . . . sold it to the robber barons, a group of young men who had stayed at home to get rich selling bad meat and defective rifles to the idealists who went to fight for freedom. With the help of ‘Darwinist’ preachers who glorified them and the corrupt ‘Veteran politicians’ they soon controlled the government and rising industry . . . sent ships and agents to Europe to drag over millions of the most unresisting and passive poor . . . began cutting wages and increasing hours and soon produced financial collapses . . . police and troops shot down hungry strikers who resisted wage-cutting . . . the American Republic fell and the Roman American Empire began to take its place.

Mr. Arje-Lev’s panacea is a return to the Torah, which, he claims, is the sole source of man’s drive toward freedom. The role of the Hebrew Bible in European politics has already been the subject of considerable study, and he adds nothing to our ideas on this question. His claim that a return to the Torah will solve all social, economic, and political problems is no novelty to Israelis—all the clerical parties say the same thing, though none of them have yet explained Why they fight each other so bitterly. Like the clerical parties, Mr. Arje-Lev urges the Torah on Israel as the answer to all her problems, and then leaves it to others to work out the details. But then, as already suggested, the main interest in his book lies not in its intrinsic merits but rather in its quality as a period piece, a glimpse at one of the last of the maskilim.



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