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  • Cultural Zionism’s Image of the Educated Jew: Reflections on Creating A Secular Jewish Culture *
  • Paul Mendes-Flohr (bio)


My thesis, I fear, is rather trivial. I take solace in Franz Rosenzweig’s counsel that from time to time it is necessary that we review trivialities lest we forget them. Indeed, it is my intention to capture what I fear is a nigh-forgotten dimension of the Zionist vision, or at least a founding principle of Zionism, that is threatened by contemporary Israeli passions and ideological inclinations. There is, thus, I must admit, a polemical moment to my paper. Both my ulterior motive and my thesis can be conflated into one statement: The Zionist affirmation of Israel’s national and cultural integrity did not envision the re-ghettoization of the Jews, neither politically nor culturally. 1

Herzl conceived of the territorial reconcentration of the Jews in their own homeland and their eventual reconstitution as a politically sovereign nation to be a dialectical springboard for their return to history and the family of nations. Similarly, cultural Zionism held that the transformation of Judaism into a national and secular culture would allow Jewry to enter into a free and creative discourse with other cultures. Accordingly, Ahan Ha’am, the spiritus rector of cultural Zionism, observed that “when the Jews left the ghetto, so did Judaism.” He meant this both descriptively and prescriptively. Beyond the walls of the ghetto—which had segregated them politically and culturally—Jews were perforce exposed to alien cultures, to new, often exceedingly compelling systems of knowledge and value. Noting that the custodians of Jewish tradition were able to offer but defensive and intellectually tepid responses to the challenge posed by the modern enlightened world, Ahad Ha’am urged the radical restructuring of Judaism to accommodate the regnant scientific perceptions and humanistic values. The continued [End Page 227] denial of the modern world, borne as it is by an exuberant faith in the advancement of knowledge and human well-being, he reasoned, would lead either to the spiritual suffocation of the Jews or to their estrangement from their ancestral community. Judaism was at a “crossroad.” Either it languished in the grips of a rabbinic obscurantism or it renewed itself as a modern secular, national—Hebrew—culture.

Ahad Ha’am, of course, had also cast a wary eye at the efforts of Western Jews to introduce religious reform. He argued that because of the politics of emancipation, these efforts were befuddled with intellectually compromising and morally humiliating positions. The constant need to garner the approval of the powers granting emancipation thrust the Western Jews into a swirl of apologetic gyrations that in effect rendered them (albeit politically free) spiritual slaves. At the conclusion of an essay on the predicament of Western Jewry, duly entitled, “Slavery in Freedom,” he (a disenfranchised subject of Tsarist Russia) thus concluded:

Do I envy these fellow Jews of mine their emancipation? I answer in all truth and sincerity: No! A thousand times No. . . . I have at least not sold my soul for emancipation. . . . I at least know “why I remain a Jew”—or, rather, I can find no meaning in such a question, any more than if I were asked why I remain my father’s son. I at least can speak my mind concerning the beliefs and the opinions which I have inherited from my ancestors, without fearing to snap the branch that unites me to my people, I can even adopt that “scientific heresy which bears the name of Darwin,” without any danger to my Judaism. In a word, I am my own, and my opinions are my own. . . . 2

This statement was recurrently enjoined by cultural Zionists as their guiding credo. Intellectual integrity, even if it should lay unyielding criticism before Judaism and its traditions, need not compromise one’s loyalty to the Jewish people. Yet the actual pursuit of this principle of unbounded, open and critical intellect was fraught with inconsistencies. These inconsistencies, I shall argue, stem from some inevitable ambiguities, if not antinomies, in the project of creating a secular—and thus an open and pluralistic—national culture. I should hasten to add that these ambiguities do not necessarily...