Gordon, Aharon David

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GORDON, AHARON DAVID (1856–1922), Hebrew writer and spiritual mentor of that wing of the Zionist labor movement which emphasized self-realization through settlement on the land (the ḥalutzim); born in Troyanov, Russia. Gordon's grandfather was a noted scholar, and his father worked as a clerk for his famous relative, Baron Joseph *Guenzburg. Gordon studied Talmud, Bible, and Hebrew grammar with private tutors, as well as Russian and secular subjects on his own. As he was the only survivor of five children, his parents were anxious to have him exempted from military service, but he insisted on presenting himself for examination. When he was found medically unfit, he married and was given a responsible post in the financial management of Baron Guenzburg's estate, which he held, with interruptions, for 23 years. He was respected by the workers and junior officials, whose interests he tried to protect, often at the expense of his own. During this period he was active in educational and cultural work, especially among the youth. At first he was antagonistic to the modern Hebrew literature of his time, especially because of the hostility of many writers to Jewish religious tradition. In 1903, the village in which Gordon worked was sold to a new owner, and he had to find other employment. In this crisis, he decided, despite the opposition of his parents and his wife's family, to settle in Ereẓ Israel, and in 1904 he set out alone, bringing his wife and daughter over only five years later.

In Ereẓ Israel

Although he was now 48 and had never done physical work, he insisted on tilling the soil with his own hands. He worked as a manual laborer in the vineyards and orange groves of *Petah Tikvah and *Rishon le-Zion and, after 1912, in various villages in Galilee, suffering all the tribulations of the pioneers: malaria, unemployment, hunger, and insecurity. From 1909 he wrote numerous articles, most of them published in *Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir, embodying his original outlook on labor, Zionism, and the Jewish destiny, which became widely known as "the religion of labor," though he did not use the term. He spent his last years in *Deganyah, where he died in 1922.

Although Gordon was a delegate to the Eleventh Zionist Congress in 1913 and the Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir conference in Prague in 1920, he was never interested in political affairs as such. He believed that salvation for the Jewish people could come about only through the efforts of the individual to change himself. Thus, he was not enthusiastic about the *Balfour Declaration and the World War i*Jewish Legion. He opposed *Po'alei Zion and *Ahdut ha-Avodah because of their ties with international socialism, believing that the Jewish workers in Ereẓ Israel must find their own way to a just, productive society through a life of labor. Although he held no official position, Gordon exercised a profound influence on the Jewish labor movement the world over through his writings and, even more, through his personal example. The *Gordonia youth movement, founded in 1925, was named after him and based largely on his ideas.

Gordon's Philosophy

Gordon's world view is rooted in the conviction that the cosmos has unity, that nature and man are one, and that all men are organic parts of the cosmos. Man is molded by the cosmos in two different ways: through his knowledge of the world and through his intuitive perception of the world, which can never be consciously known, yet can be lived. What we know is merely a fragment of what we are. A man becomes an individual by the way in which he opens himself to the immediacy of the experience of life. The human soul is related to a hidden part of the cosmos. It is in this "hidden" life that each man's individuality is rooted.

Gordon was conscious of the fact that his theory sets up a dichotomy between rational "knowledge" and "life." He compared their dualism with the relationship between the flame and the oil in a burning lamp. Consciousness and knowledge are the flame; life itself is the oil which nourishes it. The intellect achieves clarity by concentrating its light on a single sector of reality. However, the intellect pays a price for this clarity: it cuts off the living relationship between the sector which it investigates and the totality of the cosmos. The more a man penetrates nature with his knowledge, the less he can live it with his whole being. Yet the ultimate source of our deepest certainties is not the knowledge we may accumulate, but life itself. Living intuition speaks where our intellect fails us. The intellect is an important weapon in the struggle for survival. At the same time, however, it tends to isolate and alienate man from the cosmos as a whole.

In this tension Gordon discovers the source of religion. Through religion man begins to feel once again that he is an organic part of creation. God cannot be approached through the intellect, but man can reach God in an immediate living relationship. With the psalmist, Gordon says, "My soul thirsteth for God, the living God." A mystery to the intellect, God cannot be known, but He can be experienced and lived.

Gordon's friends found it difficult to accept his religious notions. For them religion had become ossified, irrelevant, a thing of the past. He attempts to meet their objections by making a distinction between form and content in religion. He concedes that as far as form is concerned, religion has lost much of its vitality. The content of religion originates in the religious individual; it is the expression of his sense of cosmic unity and purpose. But men tend to sanctify religious forms at the expense of religious content. Gordon claims that, though present-day religious thinking may be dead, God Himself can never die. He is a hidden mystery, yet we encounter Him in all we experience. Religion will not die so long as men live and think and feel. Its time has not passed – its time has not yet even come. True religion is of the future.

Man cut himself off from this source of rejuvenation when he left the soil and moved to the city. Nature is no longer the source of his inner renewal; he has reduced nature to a quantity of corn, or grain, or wood, which he buys or sells. Man's relationship with other men, things, and nature have become purely utilitarian. Authentic religion cannot live in such an atmosphere. If man is to rediscover religion, the proper balance between the two powers of the human soul – intellect and intuition – must be restored. The task of the intellect is to be the servant – the shammash – of intuition, not to overpower it. The proper balance between master and servant can be restored only by man's return to a direct relationship with nature.

"Our road leads to nature through the medium of physical labor." The return to nature through labor will enable man to rediscover religion and to regain a sense of cosmic unity and holiness. Gordon's religion has been defined as a "religion of labor." Gordon was strongly influenced by Tolstoy, who preached a similar return to nature; but unlike Tolstoy, Gordon attempted to practice what he preached.

Gordon opposed socialism in its Marxist form. He regarded Marxism as merely another creation of the intellect, a product of a technological and capitalistic civilization. The aim of Marxism is the reorganization of the social order, not the renewal of the human spirit. It seeks to change man by changing the regime, instead of seeking to change the regime by changing man. All attempts to transform human life through the introduction of a new social order are doomed to failure if they do not begin with what must come first: the living human being. A genuine inner renewal of society can be achieved not by an accidentally related mass, but only by an organically united community – the people. Nature has created the people as the connecting link between the cosmos and the individual. Mankind represents the unity not of states but of peoples. A people is a natural community embodying a living cosmic relationship.

For this reason cosmopolitanism must be replaced by what Gordon calls cosmo-nationalism. Cosmopolitanism is based on the assumption that the individual can be a citizen of mankind directly, without being a member of a specific historic people. This assumption is an illusion. Such an individual and such a mankind are mere abstractions. There are only men who are Russians, Germans, Frenchmen.

Gordon uses the phrase am-adam ("people-humanity," "people-incarnating humanity") to express his thinking on the role of the people in the fulfillment of man's destiny. Man was created in the image of God, and Gordon adds that the people has to be created in the image of God too. This "people-incarnating humanity" is the new ideal which Israel, returning to its land, is to exemplify in the eyes of all mankind. Gordon's cosmo-nationalism has genuine universalistic implications. No people must ever be permitted to place itself above morality. A people incarnates humanity only to the extent to which it obeys the moral law.

Here Gordon saw the challenge which the Jew faced in Ereẓ Israel. The recreation of such a nation – its realization – was to be the contribution of the reborn Jewish people to mankind. The creation of a nation which, at the same time, would be an integral part of humanity, is an extension of the original act of creation:

"We were the first to proclaim that man is created in the image of God. We must go farther and say: the nation must be created in the image of God. Not because we are better than others, but because we have borne upon our shoulders and suffered all which calls for this. It is by paying the price of torments the like of which the world has never known that we have won the right to be the first in this work of creation."

He saw the crucial test in the attitude of the Jews toward the Arabs:

"Our attitude toward them must be one of humanity, of moral courage which remains on the highest plane, even if the behavior of the other side is not all that is desired. Indeed their hostility is all the more a reason for our humanity."

Gordon's writings, entitled Ketavim (1951–54), appeared in three volumes, including a bibliography. There is also a selection of his writings in English entitled Selected Essays (1937).


S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1961), 98–120; idem, A.D. Gordon, l'homme et le philosophe (1962); Ẓemaḥ Duran, in: A.D. Gordon, Ha-Ummah ve-ha-Avodah (1952), 11–52; M.M. Buber, Israel and Palestine: The History of an Idea (1952), last chapter; E. Schweid, Ha-Yaḥid: Olamo shel A.D. Gordon (1969); H.H. Rose, The Life and Thought of A.D. Gordon (1964); A. Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea (1960), 368–86; Rose in: Judaism, 10 (1961), 40–48.

[Samuel Hugo Bergman]

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