The writings of Aharon David Gordon (1856-1922) are currently receiving considerable scholarly attention. A number of works examining the philosophy of perhaps the most important ideologue of Labor Zionism – and a new critical edition of his main philosophic work, Man and Nature (Adam v’Teva) – have been recently published. Unfortunately, there is little available on Gordon for the English reader. This lacuna has been filled by an essential study of Gordon’s philosophy by Yossi Turner, a professor of modern Jewish thought at the Schechter Institute, titled Quest for Life: A Study in Aaron David Gordon’s Philosophy of Man in Nature.
Turner provides a helpful biographic introduction and places Gordon in the historical context of the Second Aliyah (immigration) movement. He also offers a general comparison between Gordon’s conception of the self and the philosophical anthropologies of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Kant. However, the heart of the work is devoted to explicating the philosophical foundation of Gordon’s outlook. Turner argues that “the substance of his [i.e. Gordon’s] philosophic thought is a consideration of human existence as an aspect of nature.” Indeed, Gordon views authentic and healthy human existence and creativity as a continuation of the infinite generative process of the natural cosmos. For Gordon, this type of natural human living is considered a “life of expansion” that allows the human being to be in touch with the cosmic force, which Gordon identifies with God.
Turner explains that this organic conception of the relation of humanity and nature is also at heart of Gordon’s social, cultural and religious philosophy. It also provides the philosophic justification for his unique approach to nationalism in general and Labor Zionism in particular. Gordon conceives labor (avodah) as a spiritual act that connects human beings to nature, and in the case of Zionism, can engender organic Jewish communities in the Land of Israel. Thus, by connecting with the source of life, the pioneers of the Second Aliyah are able to work toward the renewal of the Jewish people.
This search for life is also conceived as a spiritual and cultural act. For Gordon, unlike much of Labor Zionism’s proponents, labor does not stand in necessary opposition to culture or religion. Rather, he argues for the adoption of cultural and religious activity that can serve as additional means of creating individual and national vitality. Gordon’s vision of national revival is such that the creative energies of the Jewish people will be renewed through immersion in family, community, national culture, a Divine cosmic force and nature.
It is crucial to underscore that the strength of Turner’s book is not just in its lucid and accessible presentation of central themes in Gordon’s philosophy. It also examines Gordon’s writings for their relevance to problems that challenge Israeli society and the Jewish world. Thus, in the postscript to the work, Turner brings to the surface the contemporary repercussions of Gordon’s approach.
According to Turner, “The contemporary period suffers from an exacerbation of the same difficulties Gordon confronted in his time.” Turner focuses particularly on the contribution of Gordon to addressing the pernicious impact of a technologically grounded society on the Jewish people and on humanity as a whole. He argues that by examining contemporary society with a Gordonian lens, we can see the extent to which the Jewish and social self have become fragmented. He also suggests that in response, we should adopt Gordon’s outlook and exploit Jewish cultural study as a means of rehabilitating an organic sense of Jewish self, community and peoplehood.
In short, Turner has provided a concise and penetrating account of the philosophy of AD Gordon. Most notably, the philosophic and spiritual outlook of one of the most creative and novel early twentieth-century Jewish philosophers is now available for English readers. Turner’s treatment of Gordon will be of interest to scholars of modern Jewish thought, however, his treatment is relatively free of philosophical jargon and will also be accessible to a general audience. It should also interest anyone who is grappling with current problems of Jewish existence inasmuch as Turner frames Gordon’s philosophy as a possible antidote to the ills of post-modern Jewish society.
The writer is a lecturer on Jewish philosophy and education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and a professor of TALI Jewish Education.
QUEST FOR LIFE: A STUDY IN AHARON DAVID GORDON’S PHILOSOPHY OF MAN IN NATURE
By Dr. Yossi (Joseph) Turner
Academic Studies Press
174 pages; $99