Perez Smolenskin - National Progressive Movement
( Originally Published 1909 )
Perez Smolenskin was born, in 1842, at Monas tryshchina, a little market town near Mohilew. His father, a poor and an unfortunate man, who was not able to support his wife and six children successfully, was forced to leave his family on account of a slanderous accusation brought against him by a Polish priest. The mother, a plucky woman of the people, supported herself by hard work, in spite of which it was her ambition to make Rabbis of her boys. At length the father joined his family again, and a period of comparative prosperity set in.
The first care of the returned father was to look to the education of his two sons, Leon and Perez. The latter showed unusual ability. At the age of four he began the study of the Pentateuch, at five he had been introduced to the Talmud. These studies absorbed him until his eleventh year. Then, like all the sons of the ghetto desirous of an education, he left his father and mother, and betook himself to the Yeshibah at Shklow. The journey was made on foot, and his only escort was the blessing of his mother. The lad's youth proved no obstacle to his entering the Talmud academy, nor to his acquiring celebrity for industry and attainments. His brother Leon, who had preceded him to Shklow, initiated him in the Russian language, and supplied him with modern Hebrew writings. Openhearted and lively, he set prejudice at defiance, and maintained friendly relations with a certain intellectual who was reputed a heretic, an acquaintanceship that contributed greatly to the mental development of young Perez. The dignified burghers who were taking turns in supplying him with his meals, alarmed at his aberration from the straight path, one after another withdrew their protection from him. Black misery clutched him. He was but fourteen years old, and already he had entered upon a life of disquiet and adventure. His story is the Odyssey of an erring son of the ghetto. Repulsed by the Mitnaggedim, he sought help with the Hasidim. He was equally illfitted for their life. Their uncouth mystical exaltation, the absurdity of their superstitions, and their hypocrisy drove him to exasperation. He cast himself into the whirl of life, became assistant to a cantor at a synagogue, and then teacher of Hebrew and Talmud. The whole gamut of pre-carious employments open to a scholar of the ghetto he ran up and down again. His restless spirit and the desire to complete his education carried him to Odessa. There he established himself, and there years of work and endeavor were passed. He acquired the modern languages, his mind grew broader, and he gave up religious practices once for all, always remaining attached to Judaism, however.
In 1867 appeared his first literary production, the article against Letteris, who at that time occupied the position of an incontestable authority, in which Smolenskin permits himself to pass severe and independent criticism upon his Hebrew adaptation of Goethe's Faust. In the Odessa period falls also the writing of the first few chapters of his great novel, Ha-To'eh be-Darke ha-Hayyim (" A Wanderer Astray on the Path of Life "). But his free spirit could not adapt itself to the narrowness and meanness of the literary folk and the editors of periodicals. He determined to leave Russia for the civilized Occident, the promised land in the dreams of the Russian Maskilim, beautified by the presence of Rapoport and Luzzatto. His first destination was Prague, the residence of Rapoport, then Vienna, and later he pushed his way to Paris and London. Everywhere he studied and made notes. A sharp-eyed observer, he sought to probe European affairs as well as Occidental Judaism to their depths. He established relations with Rabbis, scholars, and Jewish notables, and finally he was in a position to appraise at close range the liberty he had heard vaunted so loudly, and the religious reforms wished for so eagerly by the intelligent of his own country. He soon had occasion to see the reverse of the medal, and his disenchantment was complete. Regretfully he came to the conclusion that the modern emancipation movement had brought the Jewish spirit in the Occident to the point at which the Western Jew was turned away from the essence of Judaism. Form had taken the place of substance, ceremonial the place of religious and national sentiment. Heartsick over such disregard of the past, indignant at the indifference displayed by modern Jews toward all he held dear, young Smolenskin resolved to break the silence that was observed in the great capitals of Europe respecting all things Jewish and carry the gospel of the ghetto to the neo-Gentiles ".
The first shaft was delivered in Vienna, where he began the publication of his review Ha-Shahar (" Daybreak "). Almost without means, but fired by the wish to work for the national and moral elevation of his people, the young writer laid down the articles of his faith :
"The purpose of Ha-Shahar is to shed the light of knowledge upon the paths of the sons of Jacob, to open the eyes of those who either have not beheld knowledge, or, beholding, have not understood its value, to regenerate the beauty of the Hebrew language, and increase the number of its devotees.
But when the eyes of the blind begin to open slowly, and they shake off the sluggish slumber in which they have been sunk since many years, then there is still another class to be dealt with those who, having tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, intentionally close their eyes to our language, the only possession left to us that can bring together the hearts of Israel and make one nation of it all over the earth.... Let them take warning! If my hand is against the bigots and the hypocrites who hide themselves under the mantle of the truth, .... it will be equally unsparing of the enlightened hypocrites who seek with honeyed words to alienate the sons of Israel from their ancestral heritage."
War to mediaeval obscurantism, war to modern indifference, was the plan of his campaign. Ha-Shahar soon became the organ of all in the ghetto who thought, felt, and fought, the spokesman of the nationalist Maskilim, setting forth their demands as culture bearers and patriots.
At a time when Hebrew literature consisted mainly of translations or works of minor significance, Smolenskin had the boldness to announce that the columns of his periodical would be open to writers of original articles only. The era of the translator and the vapid imitator had come to a close. A new school of original writers stepped upon the boards, and little by little the reading public accustomed itself to give preference to them.
And at a time when disparagement of the national element in Judaism had been carried to the furthest excess, Smolenskin asserted Judaism's right to exist, in such words as these :
[The wilfully blind] "bid us to be like all the other nations, and I repeat after them: Let us be like all the other nations, pursuing and attaining knowledge, leaving off from wickedness and folly, and dwelling as loyal citizens in the lands whither we have been scattered. Yes, let us be like all the other nations, unashamed of the rock whence we have been hewn, like the rest in holding dear our language and the glory of our people. It is not a disgrace for us to believe that our exile will once come to an end, .... and we need not blush for clinging to the ancient language with which we wandered from people to people, in which our poets sang and our seers prophesied when we lived at ease in our own land, and in which our fathers poured out their hearts when their blood flowed like water in the sight of all . . . . They who thrust us away from the Hebrew language meditate evil against our people and against its glory!"
The reputation of Ha-Shahar was firmly established by the publication of Smolenskin's great novel Ha-To'eh be-Darke ha-Hayyim in its columns. In this as in the rest of his works, he is the prophet denouncing the crimes and the depravity of the ghetto, and proclaiming the revival of national dignity.
Smolenskin permitted himself to be thwarted by nothing in the execution of his bold designs, neither by the meagreness of his material resources nor by the animosities which his fearless course did not fail to arouse among literary men.
In 1872, Smolenskin published, at Vienna, his masterpiece Am `Olam ("The Eternal People"), which became the platform of the movement for national emancipation. Noteworthy from every point of view, this work shows him to have been an original thinker and an inspired poet, a humanist and at the same time a patriot. He is full of love for his people, and his faith in its future knows no limits. He demonstrates convincingly that true nationalism is not incompatible with the final realization of the ideal of the universal brotherhood of men. National devotion is but a higher aspect of devotion to family. In nature we see that, in the measure in which the individuality of a being is distinct, its superiority and its independence are increased. Differentiation is the law of progress. Why not apply the law to human groups, or nations?
The sum total of the qualities peculiar to the various nations, and the various ways in which they respond to concepts presented to them from with-out, these constitute the life and the culture of mankind as a whole. While admitting that the historical past of a people is an essential part of its existence, he believes it to be a still more urgent necessity for every people to possess a present ideal, and entertain national hopes for a better future. Judaism cherishes the Messianic ideal, which at bottom is nothing but the hope 0f its national re-birth. Unfortunately, the modern, unreligious Jew denies the ideal, and the orthodox Jew envelops it in the obscurity of mysticism.
The last chapter of " The Eternal People ", called " The Hope of Israel ", is pervaded by magnificent enthusiasm. For the first time in Hebrew, Messianism is detached from its religious element. For the first time, a Hebrew writer asserts that Messianism is the political and moral resurrection of Israel, the return to the prophetic tradition.
Why should the Greeks, the Roumanians, desire a national emancipation, and Israel, the people of the Bible, not? . . . The only obstacle is the fact that the Jews have lost the notion of their national unity and the feeling of their solidarity.
This conviction as to the existence of a Jewish nationality, the national emancipation dreamed by Salvador, Hess, and Luzzatto, considered a heresy by the orthodox and a dangerous theory by the liberals, had at last found its prophet. In Smolenskin's enthusiastic formulation of it, the ideal was carried to the masses in Russia and Galicia, superseding the mystical Messianism they had cherished before.
Smolenskin's combative spirit did not allow him to rest at that. The idea of national regeneration was in collision with the theory, raised to a commanding position by Mendelssohn and his school, that Judaism constitutes a religious confession. In a series of articles (" A Time to Plant, and a Time to Pluck up that which is Planted "), he deals with the Mendelssohnian theory.
Proceeding from history and his knowledge of Judaism, he proves that the Jewish religion is not a rigid block of unalterable notions,but rather a body of ethical and philosophical teachings constantly undergoing a process of evolution, and changing its aspect according to the times and the environment. If this doctrine is the quintessence of the national genius of the Jew, it is nevertheless accessible, in theory and in practice, to whosoever de-sires access. It is not the dogmatic and exclusive privilege of a sacerdotal caste.
This is the rationale of Smolenskin's opposition to the religious dogmatism of Mendelssohn, who had wished to confine Judaism inside of the circle of Rabbinic law without recognizing its essentially evolutionary character. Maimonides himself is not spared by Smolenskin, for it was Maimonides who had set the seal of consecration upon logical dogmatism. The less does he spare the modern school of reformers. Religious reforms, he freely admits, are necessary, but they ought to be spontaneous developments, emanations from the heart of the believers themselves, in response to changes in the times and social relations. They ought not to be the artificial product of a few intellectuals who have long broken away from the masses of the people, sharing neither their suffering nor their hopes. If Luther succeeded, it was because he had faith himself. But the modern Jewish reformers are not believers, therefore their work does not abide. It is only the study of the Hebrew language, of the religion of the Jew, his culture, and his spirit that is capable of replacing the dead letter and soulless regulations by a keen national and religious sentiment in harmony with the exigencies of life. The next century, he predicted, would see a renewed, unified Judaism.
This is a summing up of the ideas which brought him approval and endorsement from all sides, but also, and to a greater degree, opposition and animosity, the latter from the old followers of the German humanist movement. One of them, the poet Gottlober, founded, in 1876, a rival review, Ha-Boker Or, in which he pleaded the cause of the school of Mendelssohn. But the new periodical, which continued to appear until 1881, could neither supplant Ha-Shahar, nor diminish Smolenskin's ardor. Other obstacles of all sorts, and the difficulties raised by the Russian censor, were equally ineffectual in halting the efforts of the valiant apostle of Jewish nationalism. He was assured the co-operation of all independent literary men, for Smolenskin had never posed as a believer in dogmatic religion or as its defender. On the contrary, he waged constant war with Rabbinism. He was persuaded that an untrammelled propaganda, bold speech issuing from a knowledge of the heart of the masses and their urgent needs, would bring about a natural and peaceable revolution, restoring to the Jewish people its free spirit, its creative genius, and its lofty morality. It mattered little to him that the young had ceased to be orthodox : in case of need, national feeling would suffice to maintain Israel. At this point, it appears, Smolenskin excelled Samuel David Luzzatto and his school as a free-thinker. The Jewish people is to him the eternal people personifying the prophetic idea, realizable in the Jewish land and not in exile. The liberalism displayed by Europe toward the Jews during a part of the nineteenth century is in his opinion but a transient phenomenon, and as early as 1872 he foresaw the recrudescence of anti-Semitism.
This conception of Jewish life was welcomed by the educated as a revelation. The distinction of the editor of Ha-Shahar is that he knew how to develop the ideas enunciated by the masters pre-ceding him, how to carry them to completion, and render them accessible to the people at large. He revealed a new formula to them, thanks to which their claims as Jews were no longer in contradiction with the demands of modern times. It was the revenge taken by the people speaking through the mouth of the writer. It was the echo of the cry of the throbbing soul of the ghetto.