Friday, January 16, 2009

Vayehi (Supplement - Rawidowicz)

Simon Rawidowicz's Babylon and Jerusalem: Then and Now (PART I)

The following essay, in two parts, has been many years in its germination. It was originally intended as commemoration of the fiftieth Yahrzeit of its subject, Simon Rawidowicz, who died on 22 Tamuz 5717 (July 1957)— a relatively little-known figure in modern Jewish thought, whose thought deserves being more widely known—and the implications of his thought to today’s Jewish world. Many years ago I considered writing a doctoral dissertation on his thought, but it was not meant to be. This essay is a modest attempt to articulate some of those ideas that first attracted me to his thought.

A verbal presentation of the ideas in this paper was given in the summer of 2006 at Kehillat Yedidyah, to honor the centennial birthday of my father, Avigdor (William) Chipman, who was born in Lomza, Poland, on 21 Tammuz 5666 (Gregorian: July 14 1906; Julian: July 25 1906), and died on 10 Elul 5744 (September 6 1984) , as well as to mark the third anniversary of the tragic and untimely death of my friend and colleague, Jonathan (Buzzy) Levin. A shorter version of this paper also formed the basis for an informal talk-discussion at Congregation Adas Yeshurun of Rockland, Maine, June 17th 2007.

The present series of Torah portions are a particularly apt time to present it, as the readings from Miketz through Yitro bring out both the unity and the inner stresses and tensions within the people Israel. The days of Hanukkah, recently past, also represent a kind of turning point from the world of the “First House” to that of the “Second House,” central concepts in Rawidowicz’s thought that will be explained presently.

“’Hear, O Israel’ our father. Just as there is no quarrel in our heart with the Holy One blessed be He, so is there is quarrel among us.”—Genesis Rabbah (Parashat Vayehi) 98.3

“These are the names of the children of Israel…” (Exod 1:1)

“And Israel encamped there opposite the mountain”—as one man, with one heart. (Exod 19:2, and Rashi ad loc.)

I. Simon Rawidowicz's Thought: Some Major Themes

Who was Simon Rawidowicz, and why ought Jews living today to be interested in his thought? Rawidowicz (1896-1957) was a scholar, an editor, a champion of the Hebrew language, whose life path led him, like so many others of his generation, from a small town in Poland to the centers of Jewish life in the West—first to one of the urban centers of Poland, and from there to Germany, to England, and finally to the United States. In all these different places, he was deeply and passionately involved in activities involving Jewish and Hebrew culture—teaching, scholarly research, writing, editing, and the organization and administration of various publishing and periodical projects.

More than anything else, Rawidowicz was concerned with the Jewish people and the nature of Jewish existence. Hence, the motto that opens this essay may be said to epitomize his philosophy and life-work: he saw the unity of the Jewish people, wherever they are, and whatever their beliefs or observances, as a single living organic entity—albeit one whose life was marked by dialectics. Perhaps for that reason, one of the more striking aspects of his work was his involvement simultaneously in both the ideological and scholarly aspects of Jewish thought (so much so that one prominent Israeli scholar dismissed him as a “publicist”).

He belonged to that generation of Eastern European Jews who were steeped in the Jewish and Hebrew intellectual tradition, who experienced the transition from the traditional way of life of the shteitl to the open, cosmopolitan environment in which Jewry reestablished itself in the Western world, and who contributed there to the creation of a new Jewish synthesis—and who were so deeply and organically steeped in the Jewish tradition that it hardly seemed relevant to ask if they were “secularist” or “religionist.” Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash, the Siddur, the great medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics, were all part of his daily bread. I don’t know whether he donned tefillin every morning or observed the Shabbat, whether he considered himself “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” or “secularist”; for him, these questions were in a sense irrelevant. He was a Jew—period.

A few salient biographical facts. Rawidowicz was born in the Lithuanian town of Grayevo. His father, Hayyim Yitzhak, was a pious Jew, a Zionist, and a lover of the Hebrew language, who imbued him with the basic belief in the compatibility of world and Jewish culture, and taught him in both the traditional and the new way. His life path took him from Grayevo to Bialystok (1914-19); and from there to Berlin (1921-33); London (1933-39); Devonshire and Leeds (1941-48); Chicago (1948-50); and finally to Boston (1950-57). Although for years he dreamed of moving to Palestine, he was unable to find suitable work, and only sojourned here briefly in 1933.

During the course of his life he taught at Jews College and the school of African and Oriental Studies in London, at the University of Leeds, at the University of Chicago and at Brandeis; he was involved in the creation of two Hebrew publishing companies, Ayanot in Berlin and Ararat in Leeds; he served on the editorial board of three Hebrew journals, Ha-Tekufah (Bialystock), Ha-Olam (Berlin) and Metzudah (Leeds). He was a champion of the Hebrew language in the “Language War” during the early years of the revival of the Hebrew language, was among the central figures in Hovevei Sefat Ever, in Berit Ivrit Olamit, and in establishing the Keren Tarbut of the World Zionist Organization. At Brandeis he was instrumental in the creation and shaping of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, which was destined to become one of the major programs of its type in the Western hemisphere. His scholarly interests spanned the gamut of medieval and early modern Jewish thought—Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Saadya Gaon, Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, and Nahman Krochmal. He died relatively young, barely past his sixtieth birthday, leaving many of his plans and projects unrealized. He is survived by his only one son, Benjamin, today a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis.

1. On Interpretation

The words darosh darash [Lev 10:26] mark the exact center of the Torah, counting its words. This teaches us that without darash [that is, the activity of exegesis] one has only half, that is, a part, a fragment, of the entire Torah. (R. Ephraim of Sudylkow, Degel Mahaneh Efraim, Parshat Shemini)

One of the central concepts in Rawidowicz’s cultural historiography is the nature of exegesis. In a seminal essay entitled “On Interpretation,” he describes interpretation itself an creative act. He draws a basic distinction between explicatio or commentario—that is to say, explanation of the literal meaning of the text as given, one that dares not go beyond the text—and interpretatio, through which a new entity, based upon the text, is created. Interpretation in this sense involves an input of creative imagination, such that the result is at once authentic, a continuation of the original, and something new. A classic example of this is the midrashic method which, using the biblical text as its point of departure, creates a new entity, likened to a “hammer striking a rock, bringing forth seventy sparks.” This is not at all artificial, but the manner in which cultures grow, while sustaining continuity with the past. Interpretatio is thus a profoundly creative act—indeed, the essence of all creation is in some sense interpretation.

In a sense, one could say that he anticipates certain themes in “post-modern” literary theory: the idea of inter-textuality, of cultural history being written through the constant interaction of an almost infinite variety of texts and strata in the author’s conscious and unconscious mind; that all texts are at once pure originality and pure interpretation of other texts. His approach was one that championed the utterly open-ended, free interpretation of texts, as an endless, ever-changing cultural act. Indeed, he might well have supported the axiom, often advanced today, that once an author has set his words down in writing he has no more authority to interpret or elucidate his text than anyone else. (The sub-text of this was his defense of post-biblical Jewish literature against the accusation from certain Zionist quarters of it being “derivative” and not “creative”; see below)

2. First House and Second House: Towards a History of Jewry

His central life project was the creation of a philosophy of Jewish history, which was at once an attempt to create a historical synthesis and interpretation of the major themes of Jewish existence, and an identification of the basic conflicts and motifs of Jewish life in the modern world. Rawidowicz lived in an age when it was still possible for people to believe that one could create a great synthesis of history generally, or of Jewish history in particular, that would identify the underlying themes and place them within a coherent whole. This was doubtless one of the roots of his interest in Nachman Krochmal (whose Guide for the Perplexed of Our Time he edited and republished, with copious notes), a 19th century Galician-Jewish thinker who attempted to create an overarching historiography of Jewry in the world—in a certain sense taking up the gauntlet laid down by Hegel, albeit in a very different direction.

The title of his major work, Babylon and Jerusalem, exemplifies one of the central insights in his interpretation of Jewish history, and life—namely, the dialectical or bi-polar approach to Jewish life and thought. In the major essay in that work, “Israel’s Two Beginnings: The First and Second ‘Houses,’’’ he saw the Land of Israel and the Diaspora (symbolized by Babylon, locus of the creation of the Babylonian Talmud, and by Jerusalem) as both equally essential for Jewish existence: two archetypes which he epitomizes in the concept of the two “Houses” of Jewry. These two houses are not only, or primarily, geographical or chronological, but express two different modes of existence, of being, of cultural creativity, as expressed in the great works created by each of these houses: the Bible, on the one hand; and the Rabbinic corpus, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, on the other. These two archetypes likewise reflect the two modes of thinking discussed in his essay “On Interpretation”: original creativity and commentary.

3. Babylon and Jerusalem: The Negation of the Negation

The typology of Babylon and Jerusalem also implied a certain critique of Zionism, and of the direction taken by the new “House” created in 1948. He saw this as a watershed, as a seminal moment in Jewish life—but one which he hoped to see develop in a different direction than that fostered by official Zionism. Thus, the final section of his book Babylon and Jerusalem—entitled Sha’ar TSh”H, “The Gate of 1948”—is devoted to essays, polemics and correspondence concerning the new situation engendered by the creation of the State of Israel. Moreover, it seems plausible that these issues and concerns also form the subtext of the more theoretical discussions in his essays “Israel’s Two Beginnings” and “On Interpretation.” Thus, one can speak in Rawidowicz of a kind of seamless unity among the different levels of his thought, in which his writings on current events, his broad historiographical schema, and his approach to philosophical-cultural problems, such as those involved in exegesis, all support and reinforce one another.

The new culture created in the Land of Israel by the earliest Zionist settlers of the late 19th and early 20th century was an innovation in Jewish history, an attempt to create a Jewish life rooted in the soil, in the land rather than in the book. Some of its founders spoke about creating “a New Jew,” bypassing millennia of Exilic history to revive a spirit, a mentality, that had existed in ancient times, when the people had last lived on their own land, but that had long been forgotten (this spirit was symbolically represented in the title of Theodor Herzl’s programmatic book, Altneuland, “The Old-New Land”): a culture speaking an old-new language, that had lay dormant for centuries; a culture that rejected the immediate past of the Galut, of the shteitl, of the ghetto, of the Yiddish language, of Rabbinic Judaism with its seemingly endless Talmudic pilpul of the mystical fantasies of the Kabbalah, in favor of the fresh, open expanses of the Jezreel Valley and the life of hard, honest work of the agricultural settler. In this early Zionist myth, the works created in the Diaspora were seen as artificial, serpentine, convoluted, almost Byzantine in their convoluted logic; drawing, it seemed, entirely upon the written word and “commentaries upon commentaries” rather than upon direct, immediate, living experience. The Zionist movement thus saw itself as leaving behind two thousand years of excessively bookish exile to return to the pristine, pure, “healthy,” “natural” roots of the Hebrew people on their own soil.

For many circles in Israel during those early years, the only truly “creative” or “original” Jewish book was the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Ben-Gurion celebrated and studied the entire Bible, even creating a weekly Bible Study Group at the Prime Minister’s home. Others limited their interest in the Tanakh to its role as a model for the creation of the first Hebrew state in the Land. Assyriologist Israel Eph’al, in an unpublished lecture on ”Moshe Dayan’s Bible” delivered on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Dayan’s death, noted that for several major cultural and political figures—he mentioned specifically Moshe Dayan, Shaul Tchernichowsky, and Natan Alterman—that part of the Bible which they found meaningful and wished to adopt for their own use ended with the death of King Saul at the end of 1 Samuel.

This spirit is also found, in somewhat softened form, among other figures, perhaps half-a-generation younger, of the first generation of those born in the Land, many of whom have passed away in recent years: novelist S. Yizhar, whose stories are set against the hard, sun-baked rocks of the Negev, who wrote about King David’s battles and family intrigues in real, concrete term; Moshe Shamir, a novelist who wrote of the battles of the Palmah, and of the political struggles and other events of the Second Commonwealth from a realpolitik view rather than from that of Rabbinic aggadah (and who later in life turned from Mapam-nik to right wing ideologue); Naomi Shemer, poetess and song-writer, who celebrated the gentle atmosphere of the Kinneret, the verdant Jezreel valley, the mountains of Gilboa, and the ubiquitous rows of eucalyptus trees.

Rawidowicz, with his affirmation of the equal legitimacy of both ”houses” in Jewish life, strongly rejected that movement, known as shelilat ha-golah (“Negation of the Exile/Diaspora”); indeed, at times he was rather a voice crying in the wilderness. He took issue, for example, with Ahad Haam’s model of “spiritual Zionism” (which was itself largely rejected both by “Practical Zionism,” which saw the concrete work of settling the Land as all-important, and by “Political Zionism,” whose main concern was with international lobbying and diplomacy to gain a Jewish state). Ahad Ha-am saw the continuation of the Golah as valid, but only within the context of a model for Israel-Diaspora relations of center and periphery. For him, all creativity, all interpretation of Jewishness, or such things as the creation of a Jewish university, the renewal of the Hebrew language, the study of Jewish history, scholarly archives, etc., were to be centered entirely in the Land of Israel, while the Diaspora, without inspiration or real cultural vitality of its own, would draw upon those living in the Land as purveyors of their Jewish culture.

It was in this spirit, for example, that Chaim Weizmann objected to establishing a Jewish university in the Golah (e.g., such as that which eventually became Brandeis), as threatening such cultural hegemony. Rawidowicz, in an essay entitled “Only From Zion: A Chapter in the Prehistory of Brandeis University,” takes strong issue on this point. His alternative to the Ahad Haam model of center and periphery was that of two intersecting circles, continuing the age-old interplay between First House and Second House, between original creativity and interpretatio, etc.

An interesting polemic with which Rawidowicz engaged Ben-Gurion concerned the name of the new state. He argued that Israel has historically been the name of the entire Jewish people; referring to the new state simply as “Israel” is an affront to the unity of both parts of the people, implying that Jews who live in the Diaspora are somehow less part of “Israel” than are the citizens of the State—who, indeed, have come to be known as “Israelis.” He insisted (a battle that he lost) that the state be referred to as Medinat Yisrael, so as to distinguish it from the People (Knesset Yisrael or Klal Yisrael), which transcends boundaries and citizenship.

As we conclude this section of the essay, it should be emphasized in this context that Rawidowicz was far from being an Orthodox Rabbinic Jew. He did not champion a return to the “Second House” in opposition to the “biblocentrism” of Ben-Gurion et al because of the centrality of the works of that “house”—Mishnah, Talmud, halakhic Codes, Siddur, commentaries, works of religious philosophy, Kabbalah, Mussar, and Hasidism—for religious life. For him, the bottom line was national and cultural, not religious. Indeed, in one of his essays, he reduces the Jewish credo of Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) to Shema Yisrael Ehad—“Hear Ye, Israel is One!”—a sentence which, if not downright blasphemy, is surely grating to religious ears. He was a Jew who loved Jewish culture and affirmed it in all of its multifarious forms. He belonged to a generation that took the fact of Jewish identity for granted, but that in its own way reshaped its contents for what might be described as a post-religious, or in any event post-Orthoprax, milieu. He wanted all stages of Judaism—biblical, Rabbinic, philosophical, Kabbalistic, and modern Jewish cultures, including also the new Hebrew culture created in the Land of Israel and, say, the cosmopolitan, secular, humanist culture of a certain kind of Western Jewish intellectual—to be part of the kaleidoscope of Jewish life, rather than a one-dimensional nationalism of land and language. As such, his thought is of particular relevance to contemporary Jews, not only in the Diaspora, but also in the State of Israel.

I will discuss some of these issues in the second part of this essay, devoted to a critique of contemporary Jewish life in the spirit of Rawidowicz, to be distributed next week.

A Brief Bibliography of Simon Rawidowcz's Wrtings


Bavel ve-Yerushalayim. 2 vol. London-Waltham, Mass. 1957.

Iyyunim be-Mahshevet Yisrael. 2 vol. Jerusalem, 1967.

Kitvei R. Nahman Krochmal, edited & with introductions by Rawidowicz. Berlin: Ayanot, 1924; 2nd revised edition: London-Waltham, Mass.: Ararat, 1961.

Three collections of his essays are available in English, all edited by his son Benjamin C. I. Ravid, and including his biographical introduction:

Studies in Jewish Thought. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1974.

Israel: The Ever-Dying People and Other Essays. (Rutherfird, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986)

State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the “Ever-Dying People, with a forward by Michael A. Meyer. Hanover, NH & London: Brandeis University Press – University Press of New England, 1986 (Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry Series, 26)

Essays & Studies

The following three essays, referred to above, particularly exemplify his thought:

“On Interpretation.” Studies in Jewish Thought, 45-80.

“Israel’s Two Beginnings: On the First and Second Houses in Israel” (Chapters From an Unfinished Introduction to a Philosophy of Jewish History). Studies in Jewish Thought, 81-209. Translated from the Hebrew, published in Bavel ve-Yerusahalyim.

“Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” Studies in Jewish Thought, 210-226. Originally published in Judaism 16 (1967), 423-433.


Post a Comment

<< Home