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Book Notes: Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'Am and the Origins of Zionism, Steven J. Zipperstein

Louis Jacobs

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Elusive Prophet: Ahad HaeAm and the Origins of Zionism, Steven J. Zip perstein (Peter Halban, London 1993) xxv + 386 pp. ?25.00. Asher Hirsch Ginzberg, known to the world of Jewish letters as Ahad HaeAm, was born in the Russian town of Skvire in 1856. His Hasidic father, a follower of the Sadigora Rebbe, was a man of great wealth who arranged for his brilliant son to have private tuition in traditional Jewish studies, which the youth, especially after his marriage at the early age of seventeen, supplemented by teaching himself Russian, German, French, English and Latin, and by familiarizing himself with the literature in these languages. In 1884 Ginzberg settled in Odessa where he won fame with his first essay, written in impeccable Hebrew, entitled Lo Zeh Ha-Derekh ('This is Not the Way'), a severe critique of the Lovers of Zion move? ment, whose followers he castigated for their ill-digested views. In 1896 Ginzberg 279</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes assumed the editorship of the prestigious literary journal Ha-Shiloah, in which many of his essays were published. As a representative of the well-known Wissotzky tea-firm, Ginzberg moved to London in 1907. He settled in Palestine in 1922, dying there in 1927. These bare facts of Ginzberg's life are clear enough. In a well-written, thor? oughly documented biography, Zipperstein addresses himself to the more difficult question of what made the elusive hero tick, although Zipperstein is at pains to point out that he examines Ginzberg's personal life only in relation to his work. Zipperstein seeks to demonstrate that Ginzberg was considerably less priggish and far more complex than most of both his admirers and foes made him out to be; remarking in an intriguing aside, that the sober thinker had for years a passion? ate, though seemingly Platonic, relationship with the wife of one of his friends. This book adequately describes Ginzberg's transformation from a youthful, somewhat lukewarm Hasid into a free-thinking Maskil; his conflict with HerzPs political thrust; his advocacy of Zionism as the means of strengthening Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish spirit; and the way his career influenced Jewish life. A study in greater depth of Ahad HaeAm's ideas might have proved rewarding, but it would be unfair to criticize an expert historian for not departing from his brief to consider philosophical niceties. The basic theme in all Ahad HaeAm's work is the idea of the Land of Israel as a spiritual centre (merkaz ruhant) for world Jewry. In his opinion, Judaism places the emphasis on spirituality (ruhaniyut) above all else. However, the term 'spirituality', as he used it, does not have any religious, still less mystical, connota? tions. In matters of religion he eventually became an agnostic, though without any hostility towards religion. By 'spiritual' Ahad HacAm meant an intense dedica? tion to things of the mind coupled with a passion for justice and righteousness, which he saw as a characteristic of Judaism at its most advanced stage. As Zip? perstein shows, Ahad HacAm kept in broad fashion the dietary laws and the festivals but rarely attended the synagogue. In a typical remark (not mentioned by Zipperstein) he once said that, when in London, he was puzzled by all the heated discussions between Orthodoxy and Reform, since even the Orthodox are guilty of the worst 'reform' of all by having synagogues without an adjacent Bet Ha-Midrash. He could not conceive of a Judaism centred almost entirely on prayer and indifferent to learning. Zipperstein mentions gatherings of Ahad Haeam and his disciples on Friday nights at which they smoked, at first carefully hiding this profanation of the sacred day from Ahad HaeAm's young son. When his daughter married a non-Jewish writer he cut her off completely and refused to acknowledge his son-in-law's conversion to Judaism. For a secular Jew, he remarked, 'a goy remains a goy'. There was nothing contradictory in all this. In a letter, Ahad Hacam advised a practising Jew to persist in his observances even though he no longer believes that the mitzvot were from God. No hypocrisy is involved in such an attitude, he maintained, since the religious observances have served in the past and could serve in the future as the best means of providing 280</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes the rich soil in which Jewish ethical plants can flourish. For religious Jews, to keep the mitzvot is a sublime end in itself and the Jewish way of worshipping God. For a secular but totally committed Jew like Ahad HaeAm, religious observ? ances are the means to the more significant aim of preserving the high ethical and moral content of Judaism; all of which explains his famous maxim: 'More than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews'. An admirer of Ahad HacAm who had never met him in person paid a special visit to London to meet the master and expected to see someone who resembled the conventional picture of a philosopher, shaggy beard, long hair and all. But when he was ushered into the presence he saw, as he described it, 'an ordinary little YiddeP, dressed in a neat business suit. The truth is that Ahad HaeAm posed as both an ordinary Jew and an aristocrat of the spirit. Zipperstein notes the element of self-mystification in Ginzberg's choice of his pen name. Ahad HaeAm (based on Genesis 26:10) can be rendered either as 'one of the people' or as 'the distinguished one of the people'. The ambiguity was intentional. Although most of his literary work was completed before Ahad HaeAm came to London, it was there that he wrote his famous attack on Claude Montefiore, who held that some aspects of the Christian ethic are superior to the Jewish and, unlike the dogmatic elements of Christianity, should be acceptable to Jews. Ahad Hac Am replied that it was not a question of superiority or inferiority but rather that the two ethical systems are contradictory and hence incompatible. The one is based on love, the other on justice. This leads to the highly dubious proposition that Judaism, based on justice, is bound to take issue with the Christian idea that there is no greater love than when a man gives his life for his friends. Judaism, he argues, would oppose such self-sacrifice on the grounds of its injustice. Ethical concerns were always in the forefront of Ahad Ha'Am's mind. Virtually alone among the early Zionists, he anticipated that there would be an Arab problem once Jews had settled in large numbers in the land of Israel, and he pleaded that when the time comes the Jewish dream should take into account the rights of the Arab population. In the Yeshivah of Volozhyn the students, studying Ahad HaeAm's writings sur? reptitiously, and acknowledging that a new voice had been heard in Jewish thought but uncertain of what it was saying, used to ask: Voss vill er ('What does he want?'), i.e. what is he really getting at? If they had been able to read Zipperstein's book they would have come closer to an answer. Lonis Jacobs</page></plain_text>