There are moments of crisis in Jewish life that call out for renewed thinking and social, cultural, political transformation. Perhaps one of the most important of them—certainly in modern Jewish history—was the all but cataclysmic trauma of the 1880s, with the wave of pogroms that erupted in the Russian Empire following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Of course, part of the background to the transformation that took place in Jewish life then was that even before the outbreak of the pogroms, Jewish society in Russia was in a state of near disintegration, crumbling under the impact of multiple tensions between modernizers and traditionalists, deepening social and class divisions within Jewish society, and more. And then came the trauma of the pogroms.
To be sure, Jewish society was animated by this point by a vibrant discourse on the pages of multiplying Jewish newspapers and journals in Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, German, and other languages, with new ideas beginning to stir. Essays and novels with such titles as “Let Us Search Our Ways” (Peretz Smolenskin), which appeared on the immediate heels of the pogroms, or “Whither” (“Le’an”, by Feierberg), which appeared later, had a profound impact on at least two or three generations of young Jews.
But as much as the pogroms aroused such introspection and searching, they alone were not what led to the renewed search for pathways for Jewish life and ultimately to the birth of Hibbat Zion and Zionism, which would soon revolutionize Jewish life. No less important than the violent attacks against Jews and Jewish life in Russia was the silence of the intellectuals, the “Enlightened”, and the revolutionaries who claimed to be struggling for rights, for justice, and for greater democracy. Tolstoy, the celebrated humanist and pacifist, kept silent in the face of the anti-Jewish violence. The revolutionary socialists often went so far as to praise and celebrate the pogroms as an indication that the masses were beginning to rise.
In response to the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, which turned out to be the opening salvo of another, yet more violent and murderous wave, poet Haim Nachman Bialik could not bear those versions of justice in which the murder of Jews was acceptable:
And if there is justice – let it show
itself at once! But if justice show itself
after I have been blotted out from
beneath the skies – let its throne be
hurled down forever!
As was the case for the Jews of Russia in the nineteenth century, the pogrom of October 7 fell upon an Israeli society that for at least nine months had been in a near-emergency state of discord and disintegration, with division, tribalism and identity crises all but threatening to rend the social fabric apart. The pogrom of October 7 shook us all—in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. But like the Jews of Russia at that transformative moment, almost as shocking as the murderous rampage itself has been the response of would-be allies, the so-called “progressives”, for whom, as it turns out, the murder of Jews is acceptable; for some, even laudable, insofar as it advances some rarified notion of progress or some perverse understanding of “social justice” that includes murder, rape, abduction—at least of Jews. A Cornell historian speaking of feeling “exhilarated” by the Hamas mass murder and torture of men, women, children, babies, elderly Holocaust survivors; progressive “liberationists” coming together on American university campuses to chant in unison “From the river to the sea”, effectively calling for the destruction of the State of Israel—with no mention, of course, of what they expect will happen to its Jews (whose fate, after all, doesn’t matter); accusations by eminent scholars who argue in a facile manner that Israel’s actions constitute, or border on, “genocide”, with little or no mention of the genocidal intent and deeds of Hamas, and without any suggestion as to what Israel might legitimately do in their view to defend itself.
Although I think we are all still reeling from the ongoing events, it seems to me that there are early signs of a recognition of the need for new thinking, for a recalibration, once again, of Jewish life. The trauma of the 1880s led to revolutionary changes in Jewish life, first—on a tangible, material level—by instigating a mass wave of emigration from Eastern Europe generally, and from the Russian Empire in particular. At least as significant, however, was the impact of those events on the new, revolutionary thinking that they helped to evoke and that would lead to what was surely the most important transformation in Jewish life, culture, and thought in the past two millennia.
It seems that we are at another 1880s moment today. I recently re-read a section from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man. Originally published in 1955, in a very different world, on the heels of another moment of profound crisis—and yet also a moment of rebirth—it is striking how contemporary and relevant his words remain: “What is at stake in our lives”, Heschel writes,
is more than the fate of one generation. In this moment we, the living, are Israel. The tasks begun by the patriarchs and the prophets, and carried out by countless Jews of the past, are now entrusted to us. No other group has superseded them. We are the only channel of Jewish tradition, those who must save Judaism from oblivion, those who must hand over the entire past to the generations to come. We are either the last, the dying, Jews or else we are those who will give new life to our tradition. Rarely in our history has so much depended upon one generation. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of the ages.
Our generations’ search for new directions is just beginning. Its guiding principle, however, seems clear: it must be based on a rejection of the politics of “post-truth” and nihilistic opportunism that has become the shared foundation connecting the Trumpian-Netanyahu axis of populist authoritarianism on the right and the totalitarian, death-affirming nihilism of the would-be progressive left. We are, I think, again in an 1880s moment. Smolenskin’s call seems to resonate no less today: Let us search our ways.