This article details how the ideas of nihilism challenged the incipient sphere of Hebrew literature in nineteenth-century Russia. In the 1860s, Russian nihilist critics Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobroliubov, and Dmitrii Pisarev argued that the value of literary works lies in their social utility. For young Jewish writers emerging from rabbinic milieus where the engagement with sacred texts was valued for its own sake, discovery of the utilitarian view of literature threatened to undermine their own literary aspirations and the project of Hebrew literature as a whole. I show that, in the wake of the nihilist critique in the 1860s, yeshivaeducated writers began to turn against the newly formed sphere of Hebrew letters with the accusation that a "useless" textual engagement characteristic of Talmud study pervaded the Hebrew literary production of their day. I track the development of this idea in the debates of pioneering Hebrew writers and literary critics such as Abraham Uri Kovner, his lesser-known brother Isaac Kovner, and the writer Abraham Ber Gottlober. Reading early Jewish writers and critics alongside their Russian contemporaries, this article illuminates the struggle of modern Hebrew writers with the Jewish religious textual tradition, while situating it in the context of larger Russian debates about literature's value and function in the world.


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pp. 433-452
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