Ahad Ha-Am: the Agnostic Rabbi
(Asher Zvi Ginsberg) 1856-1927|
Ahad Ha-Am was born as Asher Zvi Ginsberg in Skvira, in the Russian Ukraine on
August 18, 1856. His family belonged to the highest aristocracy of the Jewish
ghetto, being particularly close to the Hasidic rebbe of Sadagura. His formal
education was so strictly pious that his teacher was forbidden to instruct him
even in the letters of the Russian alphabet, lest this might lead to heresy (he
nonetheless taught himself to read Russian at the age of eight from the signs on
the store fronts in his town). By the middle of his adolescence Asher Ginsberg
was already a considerable and even somewhat celebrated scholar of the Talmud and
its literature, as well as of the devotional literature of the Hasidic
movement.In 1868 his family moved to an estate which his wealthy father had
leased. There, locked in his room (then and later he had no interest in nature)
he began on the road toward "enlightenment" by studying the works of the great
medieval Jewish philosophers, especially of Maimonides. By stages he went on to
the "forbidden books" of the modern Hebrew "enlightenment," and eventually, at
the age of twenty, to the wider horizons of literature and philosophy in Russian
and German. Soon, like his contemporary, Lilienblum, Ahad Ha-Am discovered the
works of D.I. Pisarev, one of the founders of Russian positivism, and definitely
lost his religious faith.
The years between 1879 and 1886 were the most painful period of his life, marked
by abortive attempts to go to Vienna, Berlin, Breslau, and Leipzig to study. ...
His first article, "This Is Not the Way," was published in 1889 when he was
thirty-three. Not regarding himself as a writer, he signed it as Ahad Ha-Am,
i.e., "one of the people," the pen name by which he was to be known henceforth.
He always refused to consider himself as man of letters, even when increasing
poverty of his family forced him to take a job in 1896 as the editor of a Hebrew
monthly, Ha-Shiloah , in order to support his wife and, by then, three
children. After six years of editing this literary journal, which he intended as
a platform for the discussion of the contemporary problems of Judaism, he
resigned his post, feeling bitter and depressed but relieved to be free of the
hateful burdens of being a public servant. He became an official of a tea concern
and traveled widely on its behalf throughout Russia for four years. He moved to
London in 1907, when his firm opened a branch there, and remained there for
fourteen years, until 1921, when he settled in Palestine.
Ahad Ha-Am's debut in Hebrew literature occurred in the era which followed after
the pogroms of 1881, in the day of the Hibbat Zion movement. In his first essay
and, within several years, in long pieces of analytical reportage that he wrote
from the recently founded few colonies in Palestine, he appeared as a disturber
of the peace. Comparing the high-flown verbiage of this early Zionism with its
paltry and often ill-conceived practical achievements, Ahad Ha-Am was
uncompromising in his insistence that work in Palestine needed to be done slowly
and with great care. Above all, he suggested that the true meaning of Hibbat Zion
was not to be found, as leaders like Lilienblum thought, in mass action but in
the cultural revival and modernizaton of the Jewish people through the agency of
a carefully chosen few. From the very beginning these views aroused a storm and
his continued reiteration of them after the appearance of Herzl simply continued
the controversy. The agnostic definitions that he was proposing for a new
Jewish spiritual culture involved him in another continuing argument, a debate
with the orthodox. ...
... he failed in this task because his idealism, the deep pessimism of his
nature, and his revulsion as a moralist from imposing his will on others made it
inconceivable that he should succeed. ...
... In his sunset years this agnostic reached his apotheosis as the secular
rabbi--indeed, almost the secular Hasidic rebbe--of a wide circle within the
growing Jewish settlement in Palestine.
The Zionist idea: a historical
analysis and reader ,
edited and with an introduction by Arthur Hertzberg
Atheneum/Macmillan NY 1989) p 249-251
see also Mordecai Kaplan, Sherwin Wine,Graham Greene, Charles Maurras, Miguel de Unamuno
for more info, see Zipperstein's bio of Ahad Ha'am, Elusive Prophet.
[thanks to Nathan West (REFUSE@MUSIC.CC.UGA.EDU)]