Page 135 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 28

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W
iner
— M
ich a
J
o seph
B
erdichevsky
129
dictated the people’s mode of life in the present, stifling any
creative originality. It was not only the conventionalists who were
chained to the past; the modernists, too, were bound to its spirit.
To Berdichevsky the history of the Jews in exile presented a de-
pressing view of enslavement to yesterday and estrangement from
today, all subject to a self-imposed predetermination of behavior
and events by an age that had long since passed. The individual
is helpless in such a setting. His desires and yearnings, his very
problems are suppressed and ignored. The past has become a
prison. And Berdichevsky cries out, in anger and anguish, “We’ve
had enough of it!”
He strikes out at the Book, from the Bible to the vast literature
of legalistic and pietistic commentaries which commanded exclu-
sive loyalty down through the centuries. The result has been an
over-intellectualization and over-spiritualization at the expense of
observing, enjoying and experiencing life in its fullness. The
emphasis has always been upon ideas rather than on people, and
“Jews were replaced by Judaism.”
Berdichevsky sees no reason for continuing in that state of ser-
vility. “New needs and desires awaken within us.” It is not neces-
sary for us to be heirs; we can seek and make our own fortunes.
We can refuse to remain the People of the Book and return to
the Land of the Living. A total break with the past is both possible
and desirable. He takes delight in the things of which Jews have
usually been ashamed; he is ashamed of what Jews have pointed
to with pride. Do the Jews boast of their compassion? Berdichevsky
is not impressed. He rejects entirely the existence of or the need
for a separate Jewish morality that warrants our continued loyalty.
He reminds us that physical courage and reliance upon the sword
occupy a most respectable position in Biblical tales.
This calls for a reappraisal of Jewish history. To Berdichevsky
our ancestors were not heroes but cowards. The inspired acts of
martyrdom in defense of religious convictions were futile gestures.
Spiritual fortitude in face of danger was a subterfuge for physical
and psychological weakness. And the brave odyssey of centuries
in exile was a tragic error of a crushed people, paralyzed into
hopeless immobility, unable to take a last but noble stand to
recover the lost ground, or else make a dramatic exit.
Berdichevsky takes up the cudgels against the Bible itself. Mono-
theism, with its philosophic monistic ramifications, he regarded
as a delimiting concept, inferior to the Greek pluralistic view of
the world. Ethics in its prophetic uncompromising aspect was
barren, consisting of negations imposed to police human relations.
Heathen aesthetics, on the other hand, was affirmative, produc-
tively receptive to life. Judaism as a religion was an historical
error, and Jewish existence a catastrophe, reprehensible in its