Could Berdichevski be seen as a failed prophet? - opinion

Berdichevski was a prodigy of Talmudic literature and Kabbalah who failed to reconcile Judaism and modern philosophy in the 1800s.

Marching towards the War Memorial, Birobidzhan, USSR 1987. The banner, in Yiddish reads: "The People and the Party are United" (photo credit: NORMAN GERSHMAN/COURTESY OF OSTER VISUAL DOCUMENTATION CENTER AT BEIT HATFUTSOT)
Marching towards the War Memorial, Birobidzhan, USSR 1987. The banner, in Yiddish reads: "The People and the Party are United"

In Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016), scholar Daniel Gordis looking back over the Jewish state, writes, “There is no one Israel, but many Israels, and religion plays a different role in each of them. Across the country, though, one could sense at least a new openness to the tradition that the Zionist founding fathers had jettisoned, a new spiritual searching that earlier generations had dismissed.”

Upon reading Gordis’s observation now, I can only think of Michah Yoseph Berdichevski, one of the great iconoclasts of Zionism and of Jewish history as a whole. Born in Czarist Russia in 1865, Berdichevski was a prodigy of Talmudic literature and Kabbalah. But after a brief period at the famed Volozhin Yeshivah and a failed attempt to reconcile Judaism and modern philosophy, Berdichevski took a radical turn in his thought when he left for university in Western Europe.

The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche enraptured the young Jew and become his rabbi. Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values that shaped Western culture and urged his followers to pursue a monumental history of great power, cultural creativity and a warrior ethos.

Berdichevski embraced this vision for the Jews. In fact, it seemed as if Berdichevski wanted to end the religion of the Jews – he believed the rabbinic Judaism of the exile had weakened Jewry to the point that it had to be demolished and rebuilt. He wrote more than a century ago, “We are the last Jews or we are the first of a new nation.”

Although he had a running feud with influential cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am – the young iconoclast disagreed with the older master of the Hebrew essay and believed no vestige of Jewish prophetic morality should serve as the basis of Jewish renewal – Berdichevski impacted the generation of the Second Aliyah significantly. This pre-WWI aliyah was so important because many of its immigrants were the founding fathers of Israel.

'Jewry of muscle'

It was not just that these pioneers were socialists critical of religion. They were attracted by the iconoclast’s smashing of the ethos of exile and his envisioning of starting over as free men and women, not shackled by religion. This monumental history was a rejection of the confines of the yeshiva and a new liberation of proud and fit human beings, what Max Nordau called “a Jewry of muscle.”

Berdichevski writes “After the destruction of the Temple our political status declined and our independence came to an end. We ceased to be a people actively adding to its spiritual and material store and living in unbroken continuity with its earlier days. As our creativity diminished, the past – whatever had once been done and said among us, our legacy of thoughts and deeds – became the center of our existence, the main supports of our life. The Jews became secondary to Judaism.”

BUT IS that true? Does a monumental history end with the zealots who fought Rome 2,000 years ago or does a monumental consciousness resume with Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai in internal exile leading the rabbis at Yavne? How can Berdichevski claim that the exile weakened Jews when some of the greatest Hebrew poetry was composed in medieval Muslim Spain and some of the greatest Bible and Talmud commentary was written in Askenaz, as well as many of the classics of Yiddish literature?

While Jewish golden ages often ended after centuries, usually in persecution and exile, are they not examples of Jewish creativity religiously, culturally, and economically within the realm of Judaism. Jews have been self-governing in the pagan, Christian and Muslim realms and have been involved in political life, dealing with the non-Jewish majority of rulers.

Of course, with the onset of modernity, many Jews lost their identity as a national entity, racial antisemitism gained strength and autonomy ended in the disaster of the Shoah and the Judenrate. But does that mean that all the history that preceded it was simply a narrow road to Birkenau and Babyn Yar?

Let us celebrate 2,500 years of creativity in the Diaspora, even as we acknowledge that Israel’s 75th anniversary has been a milestone in our long history. We have learned that sovereignty, borders, a Jewish army and parliament, and a Jewish society are the cornerstones of our people. Without them, we would no longer exist.

In the end, autonomy and self-government have failed. But that does not mean we should deny their centuries of success. I say this as a Diaspora Jew who is watching the end of acculturation among American Jews and a high rate of assimilation. We are living in a new Diaspora, not that of our ancestors.

Daniel Gordis writes, “The ideology of classic Zionism was beginning to crack in our own time.” There is a new search for meaning among young Israelis. This does not mean that Israel is on the road to theocracy led by returnees to Judaism. What it does mean is that Jews are beginning to question the transformation of the Jew.

While I respect Berdichevski’s call for the legitimacy of the individual, the reality that Judaism neglects Jews is false. And Yohanan Ben Zakkai was not a defeatist.

The fact that religious Zionists see it as a mitzvah to fight in the IDF – I saw it myself many years ago as a visiting student in the hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion, where young Israelis both serve in the army and study in the seminary – conflicts with the great iconoclast. Micah Yosef Berdichevski arrived at the right time in Jewish history – the religious opposition to Zionism was widespread and it had to be rejected – but the time has come to move on.

Many Hebrew dreams have been realized in Yisrael. But the Jewish realities have not been forgotten and will not vanish.

The writer is a rabbi, essayist, and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida.