Esor Ben-Sorek

Israel’s pagan poet

A question is awaiting a response. Is paganism such a bad thing? A pagan is not constrained or restricted by laws. He can choose from many gods to worship or even none at all. He can eat whatever pleases him at any time. He knows no day of rest. He obeys only his own laws and scoffs at laws made by societies of non-pagans. He owes allegiance to no one but himself and his family. He has no obligation to care for or support others. He has no holidays to observe other than known pagan festivals celebrated in fire. He takes immense pleasure in all of nature, its streams and rivers and lakes, its forests and mountains. In short, he enjoys his life unbound to anyone or anything.

In an earlier century, the Chasidim of Eastern Europe were considered like pagans by the followers of the Lithuanian Gaon of Vilna. These new kind of Jews chose to worship on mountains, in forests and by streams or babbling brooks. They prayed through song and dance. They eliminated sadness and morose and cultivated lives of rejoicing. They rejected sorrow and chose joy. Quite a world apart from the mitnagdim, their opponents, who worshipped in small synagogues or prayer-rooms, swaying back and forth as they recited their prayers and while bent over tomes of ancient Talmudic texts.

In the late nineteenth century with the rise of the Enlightenment and the Jewish renaissance in eastern and central Europe, new voices began to appear. This was the age of haskalah…an awakening to a new Judaism, the Zionist movement and the rebirth of the Hebrew language.
During this period, great Hebrew writers appeared on the scene whose works were in the Hebrew language rather than in Yiddish. Poems, books and plays were now written in Hebrew and the desire to return spiritually and physically to the ancient homeland in Palestine burned in their hearts.

Among the many names, only two stand out as being the greatest among the great. One was Chayim Nachman Bialik who became the first Poet Laureate of the reborn Jewish nation on its reborn soil. Bialik published hundreds of poems and has been called “the poet of Jewish nature”. When he died on July 4, 1934, ten thousand mourners escorted the coffin to his grave in Tel-Aviv.

Bialik’s contemporary was Shaul Tchernichovsky. Like Bialik, both had been born in Russia, both were highly educated, both were devoted to Zionism and the Hebrew revival, both were products of fine Jewish education, and both published immense volumes of Hebrew poetry. But unlike Bialik, the poet of Jewish nature, Tchernichovsky was renowned as the poet of nature. He was a pan-theist who found meaning and inspiration in flowers, trees, birds, lakes, mountains and all of nature.

Tchernichovsky studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He settled in Palestine in 1931 and served as the doctor for Tel-Aviv’s prestigious Herzliya Hebrew High School. Sometime later he was appointed chief physician for all the Tel-Aviv schools. Although he had a strong Jewish upbringing, he married a Christian woman in Russia who converted to Judaism and settled with him in a beautiful home in Tel-Aviv.

Prior to his early death in 1943, Tchernichovsky had published 20 books, mainly essays, more than one thousand poems, and medical texts. He was famed as a translator of foreign authors into modern Hebrew, among them the works of Pushkin, Heine, Goethe, Shakespeare, Burns, Byron and Longfellow, including “Hiawatha”, “Land of Evangeline”, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and the ancient Finnish sagas, “Kalevallas.”

He read and wrote Russian, German, French, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Italian and some Finnish. Tchernichovsky was perhaps the most educated and most prolific of the modern Hebrew poets.

Tchernichovsky did not know the life of his fellow Jews of the ghettos. He was a free and unrestricted, often unconventional, individual and he was to sing Zion’s song in a new idiom. His background had neither strict Jewish legalism nor adherence to Talmudic doctrine. His home was liberal and observed the ceremonials of Jewish tradition, investing them with beauty and richness.

Shaul Tchernichovsky was the first great rebel in modern Hebrew literature. He abandoned those elements which could be marked peculiarly Jewish and he sought secular and universal themes. His poems in praise of nature and of paganism called for a re-evaluation of traditional Jewish values. They are often strong and militant and reflect his right-wing tendencies concerning the political life of Jews in Palestine.

He was attracted to neo-Hellenism and continually reverted to the encounter between Judaism and paganism. His great ode “Before the Statue of Apollo” was severely criticized by more conservative poets and theologians. In it, he begins “To thee I come, O long abandoned god….. I am the Jew. Dost thou remember me?…. And I come to thee and here before thy pedestal I kneel…. I kneel to thee, the noble and the true…. I kneel to life, to beauty and to strength, I kneel to all the passionate desires, which they, the dead-in-life, the bloodless ones, the sick, have stifled in the living God, the God of wonders of the wilderness, the God of gods. who Canaan took with storm, before they bound Him in phylacteries”.

Tchernichovsky’s attack on ritual piety was brutal. He saw religion in all of nature, in all of God’s creation, not only in prayer books and repetitive ritual. He was a poet of pantheism. His ode to Apollo is his criticism of the God of Israel who “strangled His people in the leather straps of their prayer boxes”, the tefillin or, as the Greeks called them, the phylacteries.

No poet of the period made a greater contribution to modern Hebrew literature by arousing in the youth of Israel to an awareness of the beauties of nature. His poetry is nationalistic and is a hymn of praise to the god of nature, inspired largely by the pagan mythology of ancient Greece.

Tchernichovsky was a pagan but for him paganism is not the antithesis of deism but rather a passionate call symbolizing the return to the soil from which the Jew had been uprooted. His neo-Hellenism cries out for a return to the bountiful beauties of the earth. But his tendency toward paganism made an enormous influence upon the Hebrew poets of Israel who were to follow him.

There is, however, a dichotomy in Tchernichovsky’s writing, for underneath the romance of the pagan lover lies the spirit of the Jew and the central place of the Jew, the house of prayer. He expressed his love for that special place in one of his famous sonnets, “The Old Synagogue of Theodosia”.

Tchernichovsky’s reverence for nature inspired the generation of the reborn State of Israel to create new hymns of glory to the landscape, to the face of the Jewish nation from the top of snow-capped Mt. Hermon in the north to the barreness of the southern Negev. He is the father-god image who proclaims the sanctity of heaven and earth.

Professor Eisig Silberschlag, the 20th century greatest American scholar of modern Hebrew poetry, in his book published in 1968 called Tchernichovsky “the poet of revolt”. Yet, in spite of his critics, he continued to believe in the beauties of friendship and self-redemption and held these virtues to be Zion’s ideal.

Many of his one thousand poems have been set to music and are sung by Israeli schoolchildren to this day. In one of his short and melodic poems set to music, he expresses the conviction of his life. “All the world may laugh at me and my dreams”, he proclaims defiantly. But “I believe now and shall ever continue to believe and to dream”. It has always been my favorite of his poems. It begins in Hebrew, “Sachki sachki al ha chalomot…”

Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest; laugh, and I repeat anew
That I still believe in mankind as I still believe in you.
For my soul is not yet unsold to the golden calf of scorn
And I still believe in man and the spirit in him born.
By the passion of his spirit shall his ancient bonds be shed
Let the soul be given freedom, let the body have its bread!
Laugh, for I believe in friendship, and in one I still believe,
One whose heart shall beat with my heart and with mine rejoice and grieve.

Let the time be dark with hatred, I believe in years beyond.
Love at last shall bind the peoples in an everlasting bond.
In that day shall my own people rooted in its soil arise,
Shake the yoke from off its shoulders and the darkness from its eyes.
Life and love and strength and action in their heart and blood shall beat
And their hopes shall be both heaven and the earth beneath their feet.
Then a new song shall be lifted to the young, the free, the brave
And the wreath to crown the singer shall be gathered from my grave”.

It is this “Credo”, this expression of universal love, peace, friendship and goodwill that has transformed Tchernichovsky’s paganism into poetry of hope and faith.

Shaul Tchernichovsky died in Tel-Aviv in 1943 and is buried in the poet’s corner of the Trumpeldor cemetery.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.