'The religious dimension in modern Hebrew literature'

David Patterson, Professor, Honorary Research Fellow, and Emeritus President, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

Mon 10 - Thurs 14 May 1999

1. Monday 10 May: 'Divinely in the Mire" (From Mapu to Mendele)'

The social, economic and religious upheavals affecting Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement in Russia from the middle of the 19th Century until the First World War are faithfully reflected in the vibrant Hebrew literature of that period. The major themes of romantic nationalism and social realism both stem from the novels of Abraham Mapu who regarded literature as a means of promoting self-awareness by contrasting an idealised past with a less than satisfactory present. Far from being a source of heresy as portrayed by his orthodox opponents, Mapu remained loyal to the fundamental tenets of Judaism while advocating the virtues of reason and good taste. His depiction of the in-gathering of the exiles to the Holy Land and the revival of the Hebrew tongue borders on the prophetic and remains impressive to this day. For his great successor, Mendele, the contrast between Jewish religious aspiration and social degradation is irresistible. His portrait of a God-intoxicated people wallowing in mire is delineated with humour and irony wherein the bitter satire is mitigated by affection. His didacticism eschews the heavy-handed tub-thumping quality of his predecessors and resorts to artistry for maximum effect.


2. Tuesday 11 May: 'Religion and Life" (Through the eyes of Smolenskin and Braudes)'

The abject poverty and harsh oppression of Jewish life in Czarist Russia in the 19th-Century provide the background for a series of powerful novels by Peretz Smolenskin and Reuben Asher Braudes. Both authors are concerned to portray the evils besetting Jewish life both externally and internally. Smolenskin is keenly aware of the importance of religious tradition and devotion to study for the preservation and continuity of the Jewish people. He is equally concerned, however, to portray what he considered to be the deleterious consequences of too stringent, indeed fanatical beliefs and practices preventing the spread of secular education and amelioration of social and economic conditions. Braudes is equally aware of the hardships arising from what he considered the clash of extreme orthodoxy and the demands of life. In his novels entitle Religion and Life and The Two Extremes he vividly portrays the clash of opposing ideologies and personalities, before finally suggesting a possible resolution of the problem in the combination of respect for tradition with an appreciation of enlightenment.

3. Wednesday 12 May: 'The Crisis of Faith" (Feierberg and Brenner)'

Toward the end of the 19th-Century an explosion of population increasing pauperisation and ruthless Czarist oppression led to the further deterioration of a situation already desperate. The crumbling of the great institutions of Jewish life together with the westward flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews produced a crisis of faith and a numbing erosion in self-esteem. Of the many writers who reflect this psychological trauma, two in particular represent the general malaise. Feierberg's novel Whither portrays the gradual disillusionment of the pious and orthodox young man with the validity of his intellectual tradition leading ultimately to heresy and madness. Brenner represents the disaffected intellectual reluctantly compelled to face a world without God. Both Zionism and literature replace religion as the driving force of creativity.

4. Thursday 13 May: 'Ambivalent Attitudes" (Bialik and Tschernichowsky)'

In the first decades of the 20th-Century Hebrew literature is enriched by the works of two poets of outstanding talent, namely Bialik and Tschernichowsky. But whereas the former derived his inspiration from an unrivalled understanding of the tradition and the whole range of its texts, the latter drew upon the variegated splendour of Western culture for his creativity. Both writers demonstrate deep loyalty and emotional affinity to their Jewish heritage and history, but both depict a diminished sense of deity and the apparent powerlessness of God in the face of growing brutality and man's inhumanity to man. Yet each poet expresses the magic and beauty of the world and the mysterious powers of nature. The crisis of faith appears to have unleashed a remarkable source of poetic creativy.