Commentary Magazine

The Inner Eye: Selected Essays, Volume II, by Hayim Greenberg, edited by Shlomo Katz

Hayim Greenberg's Legacy

The Inner Eye: Selected Essays, Volume II.
by Hayim Greenberg.
Edited by Shlomo Katz. Jewish Frontier Association. 317 pp. $4.95.

This second volume of Hayim Greenberg's essays in English (three volumes have also appeared in Yiddish), ranges in time from 1922 until 1952, the year before his death, and in subject from problems of Jewish identity and the related question of Zionism to reflections on religion, history, philosophy, and politics; and to reminiscences of writers and events in Russia, Germany, France, and America over a period of about forty years. Greenberg was born a Russian Jew, and was already a Zionist and Hebraist of note in pre-revolutionary Russia. He belonged to that great generation of Russian Jewish intellectuals who, while deeply rooted in Jewish knowledge and Jewish tradition, were at the same time full and free participants in modern Western culture and were also much involved in their native Russia. One cannot fail to miss, in reading these remarkable essays, the profound feeling for Russia, the deep sense of disillusion and sorrow at the failure of the Russian Revolution to put into practice the humane socialism that Greenberg and his contemporaries had believed in as young men. In 1925, on the death in the Soviet Union of the octogenarian Hebrew poet Yehudah Leib Levin (who wrote under the pen name of Yahalal), Greenberg wrote an article describing his encounter with Yahalal in Kiev in the late autumn of 1920, shortly after the Red Army had occupied the city. The old, sick, and half-starving poet had shouted to Greenberg his anger at the betrayal by the Bolsheviks of his socialist dreams—his Jewish socialist dreams:

I never became a socialist because I was born one. All the socialist literature which I read in my youth only provided a name for what I thought before. I always thought that the world doesn't deserve to exist without socialism. . . . All my life I prayed for the Final Conflict which will usher in the redemption of mankind. . . . And let me tell you, when I became a lover of Zion, a Zionist if you wish, even then in my bed at night I dreamed that the Return to Zion will hasten the “End,” that it will help socialism. And now the hoped for “End” is here—the end of socialism. . . . Go through the streets of Moscow and of Kiev, go and look and see if you will find a man doing justice there. . . . Go, and you will not find one. The country is in the hands of the wicked. This I understand. Let them do their evil. But let them not bear the sacred name of socialism on their unclean lips.

This is prophetic speech. As recalled and reproduced by Greenberg it also helps to recreate that Russian Jewish world of high cultural endeavor, of Zionist speech-making, Hebrew verse-writing, intense Jewish consciousness, and universalist political optimism which first nourished him and which enabled him, when much later he settled in America, to introduce into his articles, speeches, and conversation a larger human dimension than most Jewish publicists were even aware of. Greenberg did not sink into nostalgia and lamentation at the failure of this Russian Jewish vision. His alert intelligence, his remarkable breadth of reading, his perpetual curiosity, and continuous testing of general ideas by new examples, his passion for history both past and in the making, and above all his deep moral sensibility, combined to keep his gaze on the world remarkably luminous—to turn the commentator into the sage.

I say his “deep moral sensibility” advisedly, rather than “religious feeling.” Even though Greenberg himself frequently uses the term “religious,” his sense of moral values as having some significant relation to poetic feeling, combined with his belief that “true religion is agnostic when it is true to its own nature,” leads him far from what is conventionally described as religious thinking. He did not believe that religion provided answers even to such questions as “the existence of God, free will, immortality, etc.,” and he asserted that “religion is neither able nor called upon to explain the mystery of life.” “The role of religion is althogether different: it arouses and cultivates a specific ethic-poetic orientation toward the world, life, and destiny, and it cultivates an attitude of confidence in the basis of existence and its intentions.” It is an attitude, not a belief; and on that attitude a culture can rest; and on that culture a people can thrive. Without this attitude and this culture, survival, outside of the conditions of political and geographical separateness, is neither possible nor indeed desirable.

This is of course a gross oversimplification of Greenberg's arguments for Zionism, which are set out in the earliest of the essays in this collection (“The Meaning of Zionism,” 1922). A minority outside ghetto walls, he argues, is inevitably threatened by social and other pressures of the majority. Ghetto Jews were never a minority; they formed their own closed society and lived in their own world. Thus they survived, though at a cost. (In an essay on Sabbatai Zevi, Greenberg explained messianism as “the absolute negation of the galut and all its manifestations, the revulsion against continued passive waiting for redemption, the stubborn refusal to be reconciled to the hobbled reality of Jewish life.”) But a Jewish minority in a free society can only keep their identity if they keep their full religious culture (in Greenberg's sense of the word “religious,” which, it must be emphasized, is not the usual sense), and this becomes less and less possible as the process of what he calls “reciprocal imitation” goes on and “the depersonalization of the territorial minority” results. The minority will attempt to draw strength “from the reservoir of the hypnotic influences of its own past.” But “however rich the past of a national minority, whatever force of resistance that past may give it, it offers no more than the possibility of stretching out over a greater or lesser period the process of its own denationalization, and in the last analysis this inherited store is never capable of equalling through its own power the vital fountain of mesmerizing forces daily imposing their influence on the national minority that finds itself in direct physical, material, spiritual, vocal, and visual contact with the territorial majority.”

One might say that Greenberg begs some central questions by the use in this context of the word “national,” and one might say also that his notion of minority cultures being absorbed into that of the majority ignores the possibility that the absorbed culture may change the complexion of the absorbing culture, or that the majority culture itself may consist of a multiple pattern of minorities making up a “cultural pluralism.” Still, his point in general can surely be conceded, as we must concede the truth of what he wrote nearly thirty years later in discussing the future of American Jewry. In this essay he pleads for a Guide to the Non-Perplexed. The modern American Jew, he says, “is shockingly untroubled and finds himself, at least consciously, in no spiritual dilemma.” He continues: “I am not therefore overwhelmed when I read that, statistically, synagogue attendance has increased here or there, or that new congregations are established. Among Jews, as also among some American Christians where Protestant family traditions persist, belonging to a congregation is conventionally approved as a sign of social solidity and respectability. Among Jews there operates the added incentive to express in some way one's belonging to the community, a measure of nostalgia and pious respect for parents and a dim fear of making the total break.” He pleads for a revitalization of the “religious” impulse, as being necessary both for modern man in general and for Jewish survival in the Diaspora. But in the light of his diagnosis of the forces of assimilation in his essay on Zionism, this program would seem to offer little help. A general revival of an “ethic-poetic moral sense” without any specific theology or sense of historical tradition would surely make the separate position of the Jews in a non-Jewish society even more precarious.


Is there then something special about the kind of ethic-poetic orientation that the Jewish experience fits Jews to develop? Faith in the Jews as a- chosen people, says Greenberg, is not central, and Maimonides was right to exclude this item from his thirteen principles. But the Jews, he goes on, have in a sense always played the part of ‘conspirators’ against the forces of darkness and uncleanness in the world.” The habit of looking at themselves as conspirators in this sense—the conspiracy being part of Providence's plan leading to the “end of days”—is deep-seatedly Jewish, and ought to be reacquired, he argues. The Jews were not chosen: they chose. If they chose to be “conspirators” against what one might call the materialist secular culture of the majority, then—so the argument runs—that stamped their character and marked their contribution. By so choosing again they might, in spite of the almost irresistible cumulative forces of assimilation, survive even outside the ghetto in the galut. If they don't so choose, it doesn't really matter whether they survive or not.

Greenberg develops this thought further in his essay on “The Eternity of Israel” written in 1941. Should we, he asks, really trust the old Hebrew saying: netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker, “the eternity of Israel will not deceive.” Many Jewish communities have disappeared in the past; whole generations assimilated and were lost to the Jewish people at different times all over Europe. Jewish survival is not automatic. The only thing that can help Jewish survival—and make it worthwhile-is “that special mentality which alone transforms a minority into a kind of exclusive club.” Jews, to survive in the galut, must be different, must be “conspirators,” must choose to challenge all the shallow, materialist assumptions which inevitably predominate in any large and flourishing society. This role of the Jews as the Eternal Protestant is in many ways attractive. Imagine the American Jew, because he is a Jew, saying “no” to all facile glorifications of the American Way of Life, to all self-flattering national formulas, to all the images of the good life put out by advertisers and public relations men. It would be a heroic way of life—and a life of martyrdom. The Jew as the Eternal Protestant is the Jew as eternal martyr. But there is another side to Greenberg's thought which is illustrated at the very end of “The Eternity of Israel.” He quotes a Jewish friend who argued that he should not worry about the continued existence of the Jews, for the continued hatred of the non-Jewish world will keep them alive. Greenberg concludes his essay:

I did not answer this man. But if this is to be the face of netzach Israel, the eternity of Israel, then I am prepared to renounce it for myself and for my posterity and—without authorization—also for all Jews.

But this will be “the face [sic; did Greenberg or his translator really write “fate”?] of netzach Yisrael” if the Jew survives only as the perpetual conspirator, the Eternal Protestant. At this stage of human history do we need one people, scattered among the nations, to be a moral gadfly? Will that make the future of mankind any rosier and hasten the “end of days”? And if they are not morally justified in surviving by assuming any lesser role—and if, in any case the forces of assimilation will be too much for them—what do we really want our Jews outside Israel to be and do? Greenberg himself had no use for the imitative, half-assimilated, socially respectable, temple-going American Jews of our own time. Better, much better, he felt, the genuinely old-fashioned Orthodox who observed every one of the mitzvot, prayed thrice daily, and lived in a self-made ghetto: he disagreed with them, he thought that their way of life was sterile, but he respected and even admired them.

The two questions: under what conditions can Jews survive in the galut?; and, under what conditions should Jews survive in the galut?—wind in and out of these fascinating essays. When we talk of the dangers of assimilation, we would do well to examine from what and to what the assimilator is moving. Jewishness is now so often a matter merely of a mixture of weak nostalgia and strong cliché. While Greenberg's essays brought me vividly and movingly back to that world of Jewish cultural diagnosis and speculation in which I myself was brought up, I confess I sometimes get weary of all this discussion about what Jewishness is and should be and I want to exclaim with Shelley:

Oh, cease! must hate and death
  Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to the dregs the
  Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past,
Oh, might it die or rest at last!

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