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An Open Letter (Ahad Ha'am)

What we lack above all is a fixed spot to serve as a ‘national, spiritual center’, a ‘safe retreat’, not for the Jews, but for Judaism… (Ahad Ha’am, An Open letter to My brethren in the Spirit, 1891)


Explanation of text:

Ahad Ha’am (the literary name of Asher Ginsburg) is known as the father of cultural Zionism. Unlike Herzl who was focused on saving the Jews through the creation of Israel as a national center recognized by the nations Ah’ad Ha’am was focused on saving Judaism as a civilization and national spirit.  He saw in the creation of the Jewish State,  the establishment of a national spiritual center.

Ahad Ha’am was concerned that modernity and the difficult situation in the diaspora will threaten the continuity of Judaism. He did not see how Jews at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th will gather the energy, creativity and innovation to revitalize the Jewish collective enterprise. In his article “the Jewish State and Jewish problem” he writes:

"And now Judaism finds that it can no longer tolerate the galuth from which it had to take on, in obedience to its will-to-live, when it was exiled from its own country, and that if it loses that form its life is in danger. So it seeks to return to its historic centre, in order to live there a life of natural development, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to develop and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living according to its own spirit. For this purpose Judaism needs at present but little. … a good-sized settlement of Jews … Then from this centre the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity; and when our national culture in Palestine has attained that level, we may be confident that it will produce men in the country who will be able, on a favourable opportunity, to establish a State which will be a Jewish State, and not merely a State of Jews.

Ahad Ha’am saw the Jewish State as a  ‘safe retreat’ for the purpose of regenerating and reinvigorating Judaism and having an impact on “all the communities of the Diaspora”. His vision of Palestine was that it would serve as a  fresh start which seemed like the only  viable option for the Jews. It is important to note that he did not think all Jews needed to immigrate there. The national center was the instrument for the rejuvenation of Judaism which is why Wertheimer challenges the authenticity of the Tikun Olam commandment – “a commandment unknown to Jews for most of their history”. He refers to its preeminence as a “hot trend” promoted by “preachers  in every corner of the Jewish community” who in the process ask Jews to drop their “parochial concerns”.  While this may be a somewhat exaggerated and not totally accurate depiction of the situation, it raises an important question: What is the right balance between addressing local and internal needs and thinking globally?

There is no doubt that the current global paradigm has become much more intimate. The world has become a global village and its disasters seem to hit home wherever they occur.  The Jews are also in a different place. They are better off and are in a position to help others more, which pulls them toward helping those in more dire difficulty, than how they understand the needs of their own Jewish bretheren. This accounts for the desire to contribute to repairing the world beyond just taking care of particular Jewish interests. The answer may be found in  the  realization that it is not a zero sum game and both issues need to be addressed responsibly.

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