Ginzberg, Asher

views updated May 14 2018


GINZBERG, ASHER . Asher Ginzberg (18561927), best known by his pen-name Ahad Ha˒am (meaning, literally, "One of the People") was the most influential intellectual in the Zionist movement in its formative years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He produced, in the form of many highly influential Hebrew-language essays, a thorough-going reassessment of Judaism that deemphasized the centrality of religion and saw culture, writ large, as the true basis for Jewish life in the past and present. Born in Skvira, Ukraine, he was raised on a rural estate as a Hasidic prodigy, but by his early thirties he was able to read Russian, English, French, and German and was a Jewish nationalist devotee of Herbert Spencer and John Locke. His life was spent mostly in Odessa, London, and Tel Aviv (where he died), and he worked as a businessman, an editor, and, eventually, as a tea company manager. He served on the executive committee of the proto-Zionist Hovevei Zion, founded in the mid-1880s. He was also the founding editor of the influential Hebrew-language journal Ha-Shiloach and a close advisor to Chaim Weizmann (18741952) in the negotiations leading to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. He vigorously denied an interest in political leadership, insisting that his public activityeven his extensive journalistic workhad been thrust upon him unwillingly. But his aspirations were considerable, and at their core was the desire to reconstruct the spiritual and political foundations of contemporary Jewish life.

For several decades after the publication in 1889 of his first significant published article, "Lo zeh ha-derekh" (This is not the way), Ginzberg was Hebrew's most important essayist. His spare, ironic prose set new standards, and his Jewish nationalist teachings were vigorously promoted and debated, lacerated, and celebrated. He communicated a program that drew at one and the same time on the modernist presumptions of the Jewish enlightenment and the social optimism of European liberalism, and that managed to promise Jewish authenticity shorn of theology but inspired by aspects still more basic and enduring as taught, as he saw it, by history. At its core his was an extended, if eclectic philosophy of history.

It was culture, he argued, that had held the Jews together, with their faith in the paramount importance of intellect and an uncompromising belief in justice. These features of Jewish culture permitted it to accommodate itself to outside influences without losing itself. Hence, Jewish history was a tale of principled, dexterous accommodation to cultures that Jews made their own, but this ability was, increasingly, lost to them in modernity.

Overwhelmed already in the West by political emancipation and concomitant assimilation (which, he believed, was beginning to make substantial inroads in Eastern Europe, too), Jews had to deflect this onslaught without rejecting modernity. Hence, a Jewish homecoming was essential, with Jews returning to their original, creative site in the land of Israel. There, in a Hebrew-speaking milieu they would build a "spiritual center" (as he came to call it) that would grow into a self-sufficient economic and political entity. Its influence would recast Judaism elsewhere, transforming it from an increasingly moribund faith into a vibrant national culture.

Zionism as promoted by Theodor Herzl (its leaderand Ahad Ha˒am's chief nemesisfrom 1896 to his death in 1904) was shortsighted in its stress on diplomacy and tone deaf to Jewry's paramount cultural needs. Not anti-Semitism, as Herzl argued, but the prospect of Jewish cultural absorption in a larger, dangerously open society was the most critical prospect facing the Jewish people.

A key to Ginzberg's abiding reputation is his having been the first Zionist of stature to highlight the darker side of Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine. He insisted that what others saw at the time as merely skirmishes between Jews and Arabs were, in fact, threats to the Jewish nationalist enterprise and that this resistance must dampen Jewry's more ambitious and unrealistic claims. As early as his 1891 essay "Emet me-eretz yisarel" (Truth from the land of israel), he argued that the brutal treatment of Arabs by some Jews was itself a tragic, potentially disastrous response to Jewish subjugation; if left unchecked, such behavior could devastate Zionism. The weight he gave to this issueespecially in the last decade of his lifeplaced it, albeit tenuously, on the Zionist agenda.

Ginzberg's impact was extensive but also equivocal. He sought at first to build a political movement in the form of a semi-secret group called the Bnei Moshe (The Sons of Moses) that would recast the priorities of Jewish nationalism as a whole. This exercise failed in its political aspirations but left a considerable imprint on the thinking of many of Zionism's most influential figures, including Chaim Weizmann and Martin Buber.

Ahad Ha˒am had a major impact on others, too, especially on those who shaped modern Judaism's cultural priorities. Devotees included Hayyim Nahman Bialik (18731934), the most important Hebrew poet in Zionism's classical period; the founder of Qabbalah studies, Gershom Scholem (18971982); and the first chancellor of Hebrew University, Judah Magnes. Ahad Ha'am was embraced as a primary inspiration by prestate bi-nationalists (who at their most radical phase eschewed the prospect of Jewish majority rule for Jews), and the American Reconstructionist religious movement of Mordecai Kaplan (18811983). In Israel, Ginzberg became best known, arguably, as an exemplary craftsman of Hebrew whose prime clientele, for many years, was schoolchildren taught to emulate his style.

Ginzberg raised many more questions than he answered. He was best as a critic, and while he sought to write a full-length book encapsulating his understanding of Jewish ethics, it was never written. Still, his many essays provide a framework for an ethically informed, self-consciously Jewish, modern political terminology. His insights continue to influence political debates over Zionism, Jewish theology, and conceptions of Jewish culture, its boundaries, and its prospects.

See Also

Jewish Studies; Zionism.


Goldstein, Yosef. Ahad Ha'am: Biografiah. Tel Aviv, 1992.

Gorny, Yosef. Zionism and the Arabs, 18821948. Oxford, 1987.

Hertzberg, Arthur, ed. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. New York, 1997.

Zipperstein, Steven J. Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'am and the Origins of Zionism. Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Steven J. Zipperstein (2005)

Asher Ginzberg

views updated Jun 27 2018

Asher Ginzberg

Asher Ginzberg (1856-1927), better known by his pen name Ahad Ha-Am (one of the people), was an intellectual leader whose impression on the writers, politicians, and culture of modern Judaism was profound. His view of cultural Zionism was the inspiration for a rebirth of Hebrew literature and for a renewed interest in the history of Jewish philosophy and ethics.

Ahad Ha-Am was born in a small Ukranian town to a Hasidic family. (Hasidism is a Jewish pietistic sect begun in the 18th century.) He became disillusioned with Hasidism at the age of 13 (the age of Bar Mitzvah, Jewish maturity). For a time he was attracted to the Jewish Enlightenment that advocated integrating Judaism and modern thought. He rejected this thinking because it scorned the traditional forms of Judaism and its cultural tradition, which he considered important. While joining the early Zionists (called "Hovvevi Zion" or "Lovers of Zion"), he looked beyond their political program to its cultural innovations. In Odessa, the center of Jewish life in the Ukraine, he found kindred souls whom he influenced even as they influenced him.

This early experience of moving from one world of thought to another taught him to look skeptically at "causes." He wrote that Jewish intellectuals were advancing and retreating without any sense of order. At one moment they called upon the Jewish people to abandon the tradition; at another they summoned them to reaffirm national culture; at still other times they looked to modern educational systems. He suggested that Jewish intellectuals look to their past, find a continuity with the heart of Judaism, and become not a people "of the book" but a "literary people" whose intellectuals write as a reflection of a vivid cultural life rather than as a substitution for it.

A Spiritual Mentor

Ahad Ha-Am became a mentor for an entire generation of Jewish intellectuals through his writings, which expressed these ideas. In 1889 he published his first essay, "Lo Zo Ha Derech" (This Is Not the Way). From then until his reflective "Sakh Ha-Kol" (Summing Up) he wrote on topical issues correcting and chastising the Jewish intellectual. His collection of essays At the Crossroads demonstrates his responsive creativity: he investigated the meaning of Jewish ethics as an answer to an English Reform rabbi's essay on Christianity. Essays on Jewish ritual, the Sabbath, and the meaning of tradition came in response to criticisms by Reform and Enlightened Jewish leaders. His view of Zion as a cultural center rather than as merely a political or practical reality was advanced in dialogue with Zionist congresses, speeches, and books.

In 1896 he founded a new type of Hebrew periodical— Hashiloah. The name is that of the river mentioned by Isaiah as one that flows slowly, a symbol of Ahad Ha-Am's Zionism. In that journal the leading Jewish intellectuals— Chaim Nahman Bialik, later Israel's poet laureate; Chaim Weizmann; and others—published their views. In 1899 Ahad Ha-Am founded a secret society, the B'nai Moshe (Sons of Moses). The name reflected his view of the prophetic role. Moses, unlike Aaron the priest, stood as a prophet to chastise and rebuke the people. Priests serve the people and give them what they need. Prophets are a creative opposition party. Although the secret society soon disbanded, Ahad Ha-Am's model of creative opposition was influential among Jewish leaders.

A Zionist Leader

Not only did Ahad Ha-Am act as a spiritual mentor to Jewish thinkers and writers, but he was also an involved activist. He visited the land of Israel (then Palestine) four times—in 1891, 1896, 1899, and 1911—and finally settled there in 1921 until his death on January 2, 1927. Each of these visits occasioned a critical essay. He became more convinced of the possibility of a Jewish cultural revival in the land, but he clearly saw problems others neglected. He recognized the ethical question raised by the Muslim population, but few listened to him. He was also active in the Zionist congresses, although he counted himself as a "mourner at the wedding" at the first congress in 1897. He was an influential force acting against Theodor Herzl's territorialism in the famous Sixth (or Uganda) Congress in 1903, holding out for Israel as the only land in which the Jews could have a homeland. From 1903 to 1921 he lived in London. He was active working against the rabid anti-Zionist faction among assimilated British Jews. He had close ties with Chaim Weizmann and was involved in the negotiations that led to the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, although he was cautious about its real importance.

When Ahad Ha-Am died he was honored by Jews around the world. He was a force that moderated the practical elements of Zionism so that the spiritual and cultural concerns could be given primacy. His revival of Jewish literature and a study of Jewish ethics made him a leader in Jewish thought, and his work for Zionism won him recognition.

Further Reading

There is a fascinating biography of Ahad Ha-Am which reveals the life experience behind his thought: Leon Simon, Ahad Haam: A Biography (1960). A study of his ideas and their importance in Zionism can be found in Norman Bentwich, Ahad Ha-am and His Philosophy (Jerusalem, 1927). A good selection of his essays and a fine analysis of his work is found in Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader (1959). The continuing relevance of Ahad Ha-Am is expressed in the critical and insightful collection of essays At the Crossroads: Essays on Ahad Ha-Am, edited by Jacques Kornberg (1983). This volume contains chapters on Ahad Ha-Am as editor of Hashiloah, on the B'nai Moshe, and on his relationship with disciples and colleagues in the Zionist movement. □