Ahad Ha’am and His Dream for Israel’s Soul
On December 21, 2014, the second night of Hanukkah, Project 929, an online initiative committed to studying one chapter of Tanakh each day, was launched. The goal of the site is to “help Israelis from all walks of life understand how the biblical text is relevant to them from a social perspective. One in which the Bible is a shared text that belongs to everyone.[i]” Though Bible study is far from new for both the religious and secular sectors of Israeli society, the joining of the two is unique. As part of secular Israeli society’s original efforts to recreate Jewish culture, it drew upon Tanakh’s stories of heroism. However, an important part of this process was also rejecting the traditional and religious interpretations of Tanakh that the religious clung to. In contrast, on the Project 929 website one finds a mixture of these two worlds as artists, writers, rabbis, and politicians offer insights regarding the daily chapter. There one can find traditional Rabbinic midrashim alongside feminist interpretations of the biblical text. This development is a far cry from earlier models of Israeli culture, which focused on creating a new, liberated Jew, divorcing themselves from the past and performing anti-religious activities such as eating pork on Yom Kippur.
Yet upon closer examination, this movement to build an Israeli culture that is not specifically religious but steeped in traditional Jewish texts and values is not entirely new. “What is national freedom if not a people’s inner freedom to cultivate its abilities along the beaten path of its history?” wrote Ahad Ha’am, father of cultural Zionism[ii]. Asher Ginsberg, who later adopted the pen name of Ahad Ha’am, devoted his life to defining and nurturing “true” national Jewish freedom though the creation of an Israeli culture rooted in Jewish tradition.
In 1856 Ahad Ha’am was born to a Hasidic family in the small village of Skvyra, Ukraine. Like all Hassidic boys Ahad Ha’am attended heder; however, he also secretly self-taught himself to read Russian. At the age of twelve his family moved to the city of Kiev, where his father finally agreed to hire a secular studies tutor. [iii] Slowly Ahad Ha’am shed his traditional Jewish beliefs, yet he never fully aligned himself with the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which pushed for complete integration of Jews within secular society.
In an essay titled “Slavery in Freedom,” Ahad Ha’am describes the emancipated Jews of France[iv]. He explains that their attainment of political freedom came at the price of moral and intellectual slavery. In the process of becoming full French citizens, they denied the existence of Jewish nationality. They stripped themselves of their natural bonds with their brothers, entering into what Ahad Ha’am considered a form of moral slavery. Similarly, for the first time in history, Jews had to explain to both others and themselves why they still identified as Jews even after becoming French citizens. However, their feelings of debt towards France for their newly gained rights prevented them from honestly relating to their Jewish identity, thrusting them into a sort of intellectual slavery. While these Jews were free to vote and take part in the country, they had lost the freedom to be themselves. Instead of advancing Jewish culture, they now constantly measured themselves against other cultures. Ahad Ha’am believed that even when not trying to assimilate, emancipated Jews could no longer produce true original work. “Even what is good in our literature is good only in that it resembles more or less the good products of other literatures[v]” he wrote. For these reason Ahad Ha’am believed that “it is only in the latest period, that of emancipation and assimilation that Jewish culture has become sterile and ceased to bear new fruit.[vi]”
Of course Ahad Ha’am also acknowledged that Eastern European Jews, denied of Emancipation, were not fully free. He extolled their spiritual freedom, one which Ahad Ha’am claimed he would never sacrifice for emancipation of any form. Yet he also recognized how the physical cruelty of anti-Semitism stifled their cultural creativity. Thus Ahad Ha’am turned to Zionism in his search for Jewish freedom. However, he was quickly disenchanted with the Zionist vision of his day. Hovevei Zion, a nineteenth century study group movement, and later on Theodor Herzl, advocated for political Zionism. They envisioned a state filled with Jews from across the diaspora. There the Jews would rule themselves, become a powerful people, and at long last put an end to the anti-Semitism. But Ahad Ha’am found the goals of political Zionism to be impractical and misguided.[vii] He believed that an ingathering of all the Jews to the land of Israel was an impossible dream. Even more importantly, he believed that the primary challenge facing the Jewish nation was one other than physical harm.
Ahad Ha’am’s concern was the dying spiritual life force of Judaism. [viii] Though Ahad Ha’am was not observant, he held a deep respect for Jewish culture and ethics. “The love for Torah is a basis of our language’s existence,” he wrote, using the word language broadly to represent all of Jewish culture. He believed that at one time faith was the source of this love, but that in the new state the source would be nationalism[ix]. Ahad Ha’am asserted that a Jewish national culture revival must precede any political activity; that before a state could be established, Jews needed to settle in Palestine and allow a Jewish culture to flourish. Therefore, Ahad Ha’am envisioned a small Jewish state which did not necessarily need to be governed by Jews. In his eyes, the essential factor was that it be a place devoid of intellectual and physical constraints, allowing Jewish culture to organically develop there. He believed that the minority of Jews living in Israel would form a spiritual center and an exemplary model for the many Jews dispersed throughout the world. “Palestine will be the national, spiritual center for Judaism, a center beloved of all the people and dear to it, serving to unify the nation and fuse it into one body; a center for the law and the science, for language and literature, for physical labor and spiritual elevation; a miniature representation of what the Jewish people ought to be,” said Ahad Ha’am[x]. He desired a home of refuge not just for Jewish wanderers but also for the national spirit; he dreamed of a Jewish State and not just a state for the Jews,[xi].
What happened to Ahad Ha’am’s dream? Did it ever ripen to fruition? Like with many thinkers, the influence Ahad Ha’am’s thought and philosophy had upon Israeli society is debatable. From a political standpoint his impact was limited. In 1889 Ahad Ha’am established the Bnei Moshe Association to promote Jewish cultural nationalism, but the organization dissolved within eight years[xii]. In 1901, inspired by Ahad Ha’am, Chaim Weizmann began the “Democratic Faction,” an opposition faction within the Zionist Organization that called for the organization of cultural activities by the Zionist Organization. By 1904, however, due to weak leadership, the faction ceased to exist. Though Ahad Ha’am’s philosophy originally found followers in the members of the first Aliyah, as European ant-Semitism worsened, Zionists focused more on creating a political state as quickly as possible, instead of slowly first creating a Jewish culture. Furthermore, his belief that mass immigration to the Jewish homeland of Zion was impossible proved wrong. [xiii] From Herzl onward, the primary concern of Israeli politicians has not been the cultivation of a unique Jewish culture, but rather the physical development of the state, from establishing a political system to ensuring its security. [xiv]
However, the Jewish political state that was established in 1948 was not free of Ahad Ha’am’s influence. In the few years that Bnei Moshe operated, it managed to pass a resolution at the Second Zionist Congress to establish educational and cultural activities of national character in Israel and the Diaspora, such as distributing Hebrew literature to both communities. The organization also set up a network of Hebraic schools that promoted the significance of Jewish texts and the Hebrew language from a cultural perspective[xv]. But Ahad Ha’am’s greatest victory is probably felt through the revival of the Hebrew language.
Herzl wrote that “the language which proves itself to be of greatest utility for general intercourse will be adopted as our national tongue.[xvi]” Herzl associated Yiddish with the weak diaspora Jew and saw no particular value in revitalizing the Hebrew language which most Jews could not speak at his time. Instead he believed that the European language determined to be most convenient for communication should be the language of the State of Israel. Ahad Ha’am believed that bringing the biblical Hebrew language back to life was a crucial step in creating a national Jewish culture. Use of the Hebrew Language would build a culture rooted in the history and wisdom of the Jewish people, allowing the Jewish Bible to be at the cultural core of the Jewish people. It would give the people of Israel access to the rich intellectual texts of Jewish History[xvii] and a unique voice rooted in their past. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda read an article of Ahad Ha’am’s containing these ideas and was persuaded that the success of the Zionist movement was dependent on the Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda then dedicated his entire life to codifying a modernized Hebrew language. Since its revitalization, the Hebrew Language has come to represent the Zionist spirit and life force in many ways. Hebraizing one’s name has come to be a strong symbol of nationality. In fact, David Ben-Gurion, who Hebraized his name from David Greene, required all the members of his cabinet to do so as well[xviii]. The ultimate use of Hebrew, through literary expression, also plays a key role in Israel’s cultural development. It is often said that Zionist thoughts and movements are best gauged through studying Hebrew poetry and prose[xix]. Furthermore, the literature does not only reflect developments and trends, it also casts a remarkably strong influence on Israeli society. The revived Hebrew language is not just a medium for connecting to past texts and communicating; the language itself is an integral part of Israeli culture.
For much of Zionist History Ahad Ha’am’s voice regarding Israeli culture seemed all but forgotten. Israeli culture focused on creating a new Jew, liberated from traditional Judaism. However, as Israel faces the twenty-first century, one can sense a shift towards the dream of Ahad Ha’am. Whether it is directly related to the revival of the Hebrew language and Ahad Ha’am vision, or a result of the breakdown of Oslo and post-Zionist thinking which vilifies political Zionism, is hard to determine. But what is clear is that Israeli culture is shifting. Song writers are referencing Jewish texts and values[xx]. Meir Banai’s “Hear My Cry,” an album whose lyrics quote heavily from the Yom Kippur liturgy, and hard rocker Berry Sakharof “Red Lips,” whose lyrics are taken from the writings of 11th-century Spanish Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, are only two such examples[xxi]. Moreover, Project 929 is far from the only initiative to bring Jewish textual learning into common Israeli culture. Jerusalem based Beit Avi Chai and Tel Aviv based ALMA both engage a diverse spectrum of Israeli society in Jewish learning. Similarly, the Beit Midrash is no longer only an Orthodox institution which serves a religious purpose. Study halls devoted to analyzing the Bible and the Talmud as a national and cultural source of wisdom are spreading throughout Israel. Michal Goodman, founder of Ein Prat, a Beit Midrash where religious and secular students come together to study both Jewish and Western texts, writes, “Ahad Ha’am is in. A new-old paradigm is taking hold: a secularism based not on the repudiation of Judaism but on the willingness, and the desire, to be influenced by it[xxii].”
[i] Beth Kisseleff, “Secuar Bible Study for the Ineternet Age,” The Tower, June 2015, available at http://www.thetower.org/article/secular-bible-study-for-the-internet-age/
[ii] Ahad Ha’am, HaShiloah, 1902
[iii] Ahad Ha’am, Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, vol. 1, New York, 1971, 13-14
[iv] Ahad Ha’am, Slavery in Freedom, transl. by Leon Simon, (Kessinger Publishing Rare Reprints, 2010)
[v] Ahad Ha’am, “The Spiritual Revival” in Selected Essays of Ahad Haam, transl. by Leon Simon (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1962). 265
[vi] Ahad Ha’am, “The Spiritual Revival” in Selected Essays of Ahad Haam, transl. by Leon Simon (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1962). 265
[vii] Yaakov Shavit, “Ahad Ha-‘Am and Hebrew National Culture: Realist or Utopianist?,” Jewish History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall, 1990). 71-87
[viii] Ofir Haivry, “On Zion: A Reality That Fashions Imagination” in New Essays on Zionism (Shalem Press, Jerusalem, 2007). 83
[ix] Ahad Haam, Igrot Ahad Haam, 1923
[x] Ahad Haam, “An Open Letter to my Brethren in the Spirit”, 1891
[xi] Yoram Hazony, “The Guardian of the Jews” in, in New Essays on Zionism (Shalem Press, Jerusalem, 2007). 58
[xii] Ahad Haam (1856-1927) available at http://www.knesset.gov.il/lexicon/eng/echad_haam_eng.htm
[xiii] Yaakov Shavit, “Ahad Ha-‘Am and Hebrew National Culture: Realist or Utopianist?,” Jewish History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall, 1990). 71-87
[xiv] Steven J. Zipperstein, Ahad Haam, available at http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Ahad_Ha-Am
[xv] Encyclopedia Judaica: Bnei Moshe available at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0003_0_02449.html
[xvi] Herzl, The Jewish State, 146
[xvii] Yoram Hazony, “The Guardian of the Jews” in New Essays on Zionism (Shalem Press, Jerusalem, 2007). 60
[xviii] Israel By Jill DuBois, Mair Rosh, 97
[xix] Haim Bresheeth, “Self and other in Zionism: Palestine and Israel in recent Hebrew literature,” Libcom.org, September 2014, available at https://libcom.org/library/self-other-zionism-palestine-israel-recent-hebrew-literature-haim-bresheeth
[xx] Though the Bible was a common source for early Zionist folk songs, the spirit was anti-traditional, often using biblical quotations in subversive ways. The music of today revisits the Bible from a more traditional standpoint and will for instance cite prayers, something early Israeli music never did. (Daniel Gordis Tikva Seminar Lecture, August 2015).
[xxi] Yossi Klein Halevi, “Israeli Rock Music’s Spiritual New Sound,” Wall Street Journal, June 2015, available at http://www.wsj.com/articles/israeli-rock-musics-spiritual-new-sound-1434122493
[xxii] Micha Goodman, “Making Jews out of Zionists,” Mosaic Magazine, November 2013, available at http://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2013/11/making-jews-out-of-zionists/
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