Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Av 5761 - July 25, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Observations: The True Face of the "National Poet," Chaim Nachman Bialik
by S. Yisraeli

On the anniversary of the death of the "national poet," Chaim Nachman Bialik, Ha'aretz decided to continue debunking the myths that have been circulating in Israel during recent years, and revealed problematic aspects of the character of this national hero.

In keeping with this tradition, the newspaper published an article in which Professor Ziva Shamir of Tel Aviv University says that in recent years she has been interested in what she calls "false identities of writers and poets." This is also the subject of her upcoming book, which she is busy writing at the Mercaz Shalom Research Institute.

Shamir presents Bialik as an enigma, far from the authoritative and revered figure the public education system maintains so vigilantly. She claims, for instance, that his life story is largely an invention based on his own imaginative fabrications. Bialik's mother was never a peddler in the marketplace, as he writes in one of his poems, and his father was a respected lumber trader throughout most of his life, not a barman at a banquet hall (a job he held for just a few months). Neither did he have seven brothers and sisters. In fact Bialik came from an established family of merchants, not from the lower-class origins he tried to depict to his readers. In addition to his literary pursuits, he sold coal at the coal warehouse he ran and had a printing shop, which together provided him a good living.

"Bialik was a part of the Zionist revolution. He wanted to establish an image his impoverished, uprooted readers could identify with, and to portray himself in the likeness of Echad Ha'am. And he succeeded in doing so," explains Shamir. "This seems to be the reason why he became a national symbol. But whether he was happy with this, that's another question."

Says Shamir, "Bialik was ambivalent by nature, at times even reticent. The human dimension of Bialik's personality, its complexity and internal conflict, is not presented to elementary and high-school students."

These traits can be detected in some of his letters found several years ago, tucked away at the Bialik House in order to preserve the poet's image intact and to spare his admirers from embarrassment. Shamir recommends that at high schools, "instead of learning his poems on a superficial level, the masks should be removed from the poet's face."

A second article published in Ha'aretz exposed other problematic aspects of the "national poet," who the national religious camp has venerated and often quoted on the topic of keeping Shabbos. The newspaper printed a previously unpublished list written by Aharon Litai that recounts an interesting conversation he held with Bialik, "who constantly preached about keeping Shabbos."

He recounts how Bialik told him about the "Sefer HaShabbos" the Ohel Shem Committee was about to publish, and once he had touched on the subject, he got excited and revealed heartfelt secrets. "I know it can be said about me that I speak loftily on the subject of Shabbos while my actions are less than lofty. Particularly in terms of smoking. (True, not befarhesia.) And I know I will eventually have to answer for my deeds. But listen to what I have to say anyway. I underwent what might fit into the category of `me'uvas lo yochol liskon . . . ' "

At this point the poet launched on a long confession, including an account of his departure from religion, providing his listener with an extended prologue in which he explains his warped approach, according to which he views smoking on Shabbos as a particularly grave transgression, worse than all of the rest of the lamed tes melochos.

He then said, "This approach regarding the subject of Shabbos has been forged in me since my youth, and even after I underwent a complete change in my value system I still made a point of not smoking on Shabbos, even in total seclusion. I considered this mitzvah to be a matter of importance for the Nation and for the People, a way of connecting to the Jewish people, to the masses who carry the yoke of Judaism and do not demand much in return. Once, while traveling from Volozhin back to Zitomir via Odessa, I got terribly distraught when I went for a walk on Shabbos with a childhood friend who was also a ben Torah who had glanced outside and been led astray. When we had entered the thick of the forest my friend lit a cigarette and offered me one, too, and when I declined he asked me, `What? Do you keep all of the lamed tes melochos?' I said no, but told him I place smoking on Shabbos in a separate category. I explained my reasoning, and I stuck to my rule for the next several years, until I came to Odessa for the second time and settled there."

At this point he describes how he went through one failure after another until eventually meeting another "national writer" whom he blindly held in high esteem, who caused him to abandon his rule against smoking on Shabbos. "You know, I used to revere Achad Ha'am. I expressed my feelings towards him in two poems that came straight from the heart. Everything I wrote about him was honest and true. When I began to visit him at his home on Friday nights and I would see him smoke, I felt insignificant beside him, thinking, `Who am I to follow in the king's footsteps?' After standing in his shadow for several years, I realized that Achad Ha'am was a bit too much of a rationalist for me, that he was a bit too aristocratic, and even though he had been raised among Chassidim and had absorbed many of the teachings and profound ideas of the great Chassidic thinkers, somehow the populist foundation of the their doctrines had remained entirely foreign to him. I began to feel strong regret for the years during which I had remained silent on the topic of smoking on Shabbos while in his presence, and how many times I had made a firm resolution to quit doing this. But this proved to be one of my great weaknesses, perhaps reflecting a defect in my character. `Me'uvas lo yochol liskon . . . '" (The writer, Aharon Litai, ends the article, "These were the last words I heard him say.")

Shmuel Avneri, the archive director at Beit Bialik who chose not to reveal this documentation of Bialik's split personality until now, says the letters demonstrate Bialik's distorted attitude toward religion and toward Shabbos in particular. He says that Aharon Litai, who was one of the poet's old friends from his Odessa period and a member of the Ha'aretz staff since 1921, decided to consign Bialik's confessions to the back room of the archive to protect Bialik's image from harm (along with the image of his mentor, Achad Ha'am). However, says Avneri, Bialik had already been made a target for harsh critics who pointed to this open contradiction between his elevated pronouncements about Shabbos and the fact that he was known not to keep Shabbos himself.

Writer and researcher Shimon Ravidovich says, "Bialik does not have the right to don the mantle of high-minded morality and extol the virtues of keeping Shabbos."

Bialik's reply to such criticism can be found in his conversation with S. Shalom: "I make a complete distinction between a man's conduct in public and his conduct in the privacy of his own home. If someone takes away my `oneg Shabbos' and smokes a cigarette in public view, he will be taken by the arm and escorted away. In the privacy of his own home, inside his private chambers, he must be allowed the liberty to act as he pleases."

This heretical approach, which permits transgressing the mitzvos of Shabbos in secret while sanctifying it in its "public dimension," was already expressed by Bialik in a speech whose highlights were printed in Ha'aretz on January 23, 1927 under the headline, "Oneg Shabbos." Citing this article, Shmuel Avneri writes, "At the time, its publication brought a large number of responses and objections. Among the protestors was the Rav of Yavniel, who wrote to Bialik: "If proclamations delivered to audiences restrict themselves to keeping Shabbos in public, then the Shabbos remains with us like a body without a soul. What kind of wretched reply would we be able to give our children when they ask us, `What change has taken place in hilchos Shabbos, in the marketplace and in the streets?' Is this not a scene from the theater of the absurd?"

Yet not all religious Jews have found fault in Bialik, writes Avneri. Whether because in their innocence they perceived Bialik as a member of the Orthodox ranks, or whether because they preferred to ignore his heretical foundations, certain rabbinical and partisan circles wanted to connect with Bialik and use him as a means of returning lost souls to Ovinu she'beshomayim. He says letters that have been preserved in the Beit Bialik Archive attest to the warm ties between the poet and HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Eretz Yisroel at the time, and to efforts by the World Council of Shabbos Observers (Berlin), the Tel Aviv Rabbinate and the Mizrachi Movement to recruit Bialik to join their campaign to preserve kodshei Yisroel. This campaign included activities against sporting events on Shabbos and eating treif foods in public, and in favor of giving newly settled areas a Jewish character. Bialik responded to the call and fought against chilul Shabbos in his hometown of Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

In Jerusalem, for example, Bialik tried to have a photographer by the name of Arushkas keep his downtown store closed on Shabbos and apparently his efforts were met with success. Neither did Bialik spare the kibbutzim and moshavim, which he held in high regard, from his criticism. "Shabbos, and not the orange or potato culture, is what protected our people throughout their long wanderings, and now that we have returned to the land of our forefathers, shall we discard it like a unwanted vessel?" he writes in a letter to M. Koshnir of Kibbutz Geva and adds, "Eretz Yisroel cannot be built up without Shabbos, but rather will be laid waste, and all of your labors will be for naught. Am Yisroel will never give up the Shabbos, which is not only the foundation of Israeli existence, but is also the foundation of human existence. Without Shabbos the world remains devoid of the image of G-d and the image of man."

Therefore, writes Avneri, despite his forceful remarks against chilul kodshei Yisroel befarhesia, Bialik himself did not always stand up to the standard he set for others. Hapoal Hamizrachi activist S. Z. Shragai, later mayor of Jerusalem, who was among the passengers aboard the Washington when Bialik sailed to Austria for special medical treatment, was surprised to find that "the national poet, the warrior for Shabbos and kodshei Yisroel, was sitting bareheaded and eating treif."

Avneri writes that Shabbos was indeed just one revelation of Bialik's complex and twisted attitude toward religion. S. Y. Agnon says, for example, that Bialik confessed to him about his painful efforts to carry out his decision to put on tefillin and daven every day.

The director of the Beit Bialik Archive offers a solution for all of these blatant discrepancies. Perhaps Bialik suffered from the pangs of guilt occasionally felt by those who were porek ol. But in terms of establishing a "public Shabbos heritage" he presents a whole theory that stands as a sharp departure from the understanding of the Jew who believes in the mitzvos of Shabbos. The national- religious circles that clung onto the "national poet" refused to discern the wide gap separating Bialik's "national Shabbos" and the Shabbos delineated in the Torah which stands as a testimony of faith, and thus were captivated by his proclamations, which they failed to interpret and analyze correctly.

Like many of his generation's intellectuals, Bialik also discarded his ties with traditional Judaism, which is entirely rooted in the Shulchan Oruch. Therefore he developed a vision of a "new Judaism," which Avneri describes as "a heritage and culture based on creating the new out of the ruins of the old," adding, "This is the essence of Bialik's approach to Shabbos, sifrei kodesh, the values espoused in the Torah and values in general: expropriating them from religious sanctification and re- establishing them on literary, cultural and national foundations that show respect for tradition."

He says the "conference" programs set up by Bialik and his projects in the areas of mikro, aggodoh and halacha were all executed in this spirit, "which were established as secular emblems, but aimed to build a bridge to the age-old tradition." This is what Bialik planned to do and also served as the outline for Sefer HaShabbos, in which he wanted to survey "the meaning of Shabbos, its value, its revelations and its impact on the lives of Am Yisroel and literature, from time immemorial to the present." This is the book he mentioned in his conversation with Litai and which only appeared after his death.

He would often quote the famous saying of his mentor, Achad Ha'am, "More than Yisroel kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos kept Yisroel." (Ironically the director of Beit Bialik says that many people in his circles who quote this saying assume that it was originally said by Chazal.) Achad Ha'am emphasized the national, historical side of Shabbos rather than its religious foundations, and Bialik later sought Shabbos "as the most refined symbol of the social ideal and the equality of human value, etc."

This was Bialik's true perspective on Shabbos. A "national symbol" or a "social ideal" that does not obligate the individual, but serves only as a popular symbol.


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