It was long believed that Hebrew had no place among the modern languages as a literary vehicle. The circumstance that the Jews of Western countries had given up the use of their national language outside of the synagogue was not calculated to discredit the belief. The Hebrew, it was generally held, had once been alive, but now it belonged among the dead languages, in the same sense as the Greek and the Latin. And when from time to time some new work in Hebrew, or even a periodical publication, reached a library, the cataloguer classified it with theologic and Rabbinic treatises, without taking the trouble to obtain information as to the subject of the book or the purpose of the journal. In point of fact, in the large majority of cases they were far enough removed from Rabbinic controversy.
Sometimes it happened that one or another Hebraist was overcome with astonishment at the sight of a Hebrew translation of a modern author. And he stopped at that. He never went so far as to enable himself to pass judgment upon it from the critical or the literary point of view. To what purpose? he would ask himself. Hebrew has been dead these many centuries, and to use it is an anachronism. He considered it only a curiosity of literature, literary sleight of hand, nothing more.
The bare possibility of the existence of a modern literature in Hebrew seemed so strange, so improbable, that the best-informed circles refused to entertain the notion seriously—perhaps not without some semblance of a reason for their incredulity.
The history of the development of modern Hebrew literature, its character, the extraordinary conditions fostering it, its very existence, are of a sort to surprise one who has not kept in touch with the internal struggles, the intellectual currents that have agitated the Judaism of Eastern Europe in the course of the past century.
So far from deserving a reputation for casuistry, modern Hebrew literature is, if anything, distinctly rationalistic in character. It is anti-dogmatic and anti-Rabbinic. Its avowed aim is to enlighten the Jewish masses that have remained faithful to religious tradition, and to interpenetrate the Jewish communities with the conceptions of modern life.
Since the French Revolution the ghetto has produced valiant champions of every good cause, politicians, legislators, poets, who have taken part in all the movements of their day. But it has also given birth to a legion of men of action sprung from the people and remaining with the people, who, in the name of liberty of conscience and in the name of science, fought the same battles upon the field of traditional Judaism that the others were fighting outside.
A whole school of literary humanists undertook the work of emancipating the Jewish masses, and pursued it for several generations with admirable zeal. Hebrew became an excellent instrument of propaganda in their hands. Thanks to their efforts, the language of the prophets, inarticulate for nearly two thousand years, was developed to a striking degree of perfection. It was shown to be a flexible medium, varied enough to serve as the vehicle for any modern idea.
The great wonder is that this modern literature in Hebrew made itself without teachers, without patrons, without academies and literary salons, without encouragement in any shape or form. Nor is that all. It was impeded by inconceivable obstacles, ranging from the fraudulence of an absurd censorship to the persecution of fanatics. In such circumstances, only the purest idealism, and the most disinterested, could have ventured to enter the lists, and could have come off the victor.
While the emancipated Jew of the Occident replaced Hebrew by the vernacular of his adopted country; while the Rabbis were distrustful of whatever is not religion; and rich patrons refused to support a literature that had not the entrée of good society,—while these held aloof, the Maskil (“the intellectual") of the small provincial town, the Polish vagabond Mehabber (“author"), despised and unknown, often a martyr to his conviction, who devoted himself heart, soul, and might to maintaining honorably the literary traditions of Hebrew,—he alone remained faithful to what has been the true mission of the Bible language since its beginnings.
It is a renewal of the ancient literary impulse of the humble, the disinherited, whence first sprang the Bible. It is a repetition of the phenomenon of the popular prophet-orators, reappearing in modern Hebrew garb.
The return to the language and the ideas of an eventful past marks a decisive stage in the perturbed career of the Jewish people. It indicates the re-awakening of national feeling.
The history of modern Hebrew literature thus forms an extremely instructive page in the history of the Jewish people. It is especially interesting from the point of view of social psychology, furnishing, as it does, valuable documents upon the course taken by new ideas in impregnating surroundings that are characteristically obdurate toward intellectual suggestions from without. The century-long struggle between free-thinking and blind faith, between common sense and absurdity consecrated by age and exalted by suffering, reveals an intense social life, a continual clashing of ideas and sentiments.
It is a literature that offers us the grievous spectacle of poets and writers who are constantly expressing their anxiety lest it disappear with them, and yet devote themselves unremittingly to its cultivation, with all the ardor of despair. At their side, however, we see optimistic dreamers, worthy disciples of the prophets. In the midst of the ruin of all that made the past glorious, and in the face of the downfall of cherished hopes, they lose not an iota of their faith in the future of their people, in its speedy regeneration.
What we have before us is the issue of the supreme internal struggle that engaged the great masses of the Jews torn from their moorings by the disquietude of modern existence. A fervent desire for a better social life took possession of all minds. The conviction that the eternal people cannot disappear seems to have regained ground and to have been stronger than ever, and the current again set in the direction of auto-emancipation.
It is the true literature of the Jewish people that we are called upon to examine, the product of the ghetto, the reflex of its psychic states, the expression of its misery, its suffering, and also its hope. The people of the Bible is not dead, and in its very own language we must seek the true Jewish spirit, the national soul.
Let not the reader expect to find perfection of form, pure art, in its often monotonous lyric poetry, or its prolix, didactic novels. The authors of the ghetto felt too much, suffered too much, were too much under the dominance of a life of misery, a semi-Asiatic, semi-mediaeval régime, to have had heart for the cultivation of mere form. Does the Song of Songs fall short of being a literary document of the first order because it does not equal the dramas of Euripides in artistic completeness? It is conceded that the proper aim of the artist is art, finished and perfect art, but to the philosopher, the social investigator, the important thing is the advance of ideas.
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The object of the writer in presenting this essay to the public was not to presume to give a detailed exposition of the development of modern Hebrew literature, accomplishing itself under the most complex of social and political conditions and in a social milieu totally unknown to the public at large. That would have led too far. It was not even possible to give an adequate idea of all the authors requiring mention within the limited frame adopted perforce. Besides, nothing or almost nothing existed in the way of monographs that might have facilitated the task. [Footnote: In point of fact, all that can be cited are the following: the admirable biographical essays on Mapu, Smolenskin, etc., by Reuben Brainin; those of S. Bernfeld on Rapoport, etc., these two critics writing in Hebrew; and the sketch of our subject by M. Klausner, in the Russian language. Besides, mention may be made of an article in the Revue des Revues, by M. Ludvipol, of Paris. In spite of the diversity of schools and the conditions giving rise to them, which are here to be treated for the first time from the point of view of a modern history of literature, the reader will readily convince himself that the subject lacks neither coherence nor unity. It is superfluous to say that in this first attempt at a history of modern Hebrew literature, the grouping of movements and schools borrowed from the Occidental literatures is bound to have only relative value.]
The aim set up by the present writer is merely to follow up the various stages through which modern Hebrew literature has passed, to deduce and specify the general principles that have moulded it, and analyze the literary and social value of the works produced by the representative writers of the epoch embraced.
In a word, the object is to show how Hebrew poetry was emancipated from the tradition of the Middle Ages under the influence of the Italian humanists, how it underwent a process of modernization, and served as the model for a literary renascence in Germany and Austria. [Footnote: Especially Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, in his “Glory to the Righteous", published in 1743, which has been made the point of departure in the present inquiry.] In these two countries Hebrew letters were enriched and perfected from the point of view of form as well as content. Finally, due to favorable circumstances, the Hebrew language captured its place as the literary and national language among the Jews of Poland, and particularly of Lithuania.
In this progress eastward, Hebrew literature has never been faithless to its mission. Two currents of ideas, more or less distinct, characterize it. On the one hand is the intellectual emancipation of the Jewish masses, which had fallen into ignorance, and, as a consequence, the conflict with prejudice and Rabbinic dogmatism; and, on the other hand, the awakening of national sentiment and Jewish solidarity. These two currents of ideas finally flow together in contemporaneous literature, in the creation of the national Jewish movement in its various modifications. During a period of about twenty years, since 1882, the course of events has forced the national emancipation of the Jewish masses upon their educated leaders. By the same token, Hebrew has been assigned a dominating position in all vital questions agitating Judaism, and there has been brought about a literary development that is truly significant.
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