Page 132 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 28

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M I CHA J OS E PH B E R D I C H E V S K Y
On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of His Death
B
y
G
e r sh o n
W
in er
B
erdichevsky
appeared on the Jewish scene in the role of dis-
senter against the prevailing consensus. Herzl had begun to
understand the importance of “a return to Judaism even prior to
a return to a Jewish land.” Ahad Ha’am was not prepared to
accept the Zionist formula without priority to a “spiritual center”
furthering the teachings of Judaism. To Jewish historical values
in their traditional forms or modern reformulations, Berdichevsky
responded with a resounding nay, injecting a revolutionary in-
gredient into the proposed Zionist solution. Small wonder that
Berdichevsky’s novels and essays, rejecting all that was accepted
as valid and valuable to Jewish life and thought, have been for
the most part confined within the domain of Hebrew letters. Yet
no adequate appreciation of the character of modern Israel is
possible without an understanding of Berdichevsky, who pleaded
so passionately for a new Jewishness without Judaism.
The voice of Micha Yosef Berdichevsky was responsible for the
note of discord in the chorus that heralded Jewish nationalism.
His was the cry for individualism in an age echoing slogans of
national purpose and collective solidarity. As a Zionist who rebelled
against classical Judaism and normative Zionism, he was a major
participant in the Zionist debate and a chief contributor to the
emerging Zionist synthesis. Paradoxically, this brilliant, sensitive
Polish-born soul who spent his creative years in Germany was
inexorably opposed to the spiritual, cultural, religious and his-
torical foundations for Jewish national revival. After his death,
his nonconformist negations reappeared as outspoken assertions of
small but articulate elements in Israel society and literature.
Berdichevsky was born into a rabbinic family in 1865 in Miedzy-
boz, the town of the Baal Shem Tov. The Hasidic atmosphere
with its unleashed religious emotions, the stifling, hemmed-in
ghetto which fostered within him an insatiable hunger for nature
and beauty, and the unhappy childhood years of physical and
emotional deprivation as an orphan, are the foundations for the
three pillars of Berdichevsky’s philosophical and artistic structure:
Emotion, Aesthetics and Individualism. His illustrious adver-
sary, Ahad Ha’am, had established his system on Reason, Ethics
and Nationhood. Berdichevsky acquired extensive Jewish learning
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