Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon are the two masters of Modern Hebrew Literature--Bialik in verse and Agnon in prose. The distinctive and unrivaled artistry of each, notwithstanding, an examination of some shared aspects of their literary activity places their accomplishments in sharp focus.
The works of Bialik and Agnon give strong testimony to their remarkable command of the rich Jewish textual tradition. The thematic richness, no less than the linguistic richness, of their oeuvres owes much to their mastery of the literature. Both men were obsessed with the old world of Jewish piety and drew extensively from it. The poet and prose master alike also cultivated some of the same literary motifs. Despite their shared orientation to the Jewish past, the writings of each reflect well the times in which they lived--the transition from the old world to the new--and the tension arising from that transition. These personal themes and the many variations on them in the writings of Bialik and Agnon represent a greater malaise in the modern world, as well. Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon alike exerted a profound influence on their literary contemporaries and successors to the present day.
To fully appreciate the work of these two giants of modern Hebrew literature, it is important to understand the historical and cultural force that produced them.
I. Haskalah and Renewal
Russia and Poland of 1881 to 1920 were the scene of a new stage in Modern Hebrew literature called "The Literature of Renewal," which grew out of the Haskalah literature of Western Europe that flowered during the preceding century. The Haskalah was an enlightenment movement advocating the modernization of Jewish thought and culture. The movement was a deliberate effort on the part of Jewish intellectuals (maskilim) to "enlighten" the masses of European Jews and spread modern Western culture among them. The maskilim believed that acceptance into the wider culture demanded intellectual and social adherence to the models of the non-Jewish world and adoption of their aesthetic values. These changes, they maintained, would also lead to the elimination of the antisemitism in Eastern Europe.
The didactic Haskalah literature was an organ encouraging change. With sharp, realistic, and naturalistic tendencies, the writers/social critics employed strong satire as they argued for change. The Haskalah cultivated Hebrew as their literary medium and conveyed secular materials to the Jews in Hebrew translation. This choice of language was made to a great extent because the gentile world held Hebrew, the language of the Bible, in much higher esteem than Yiddish, the "Jewish ghetto jargon." The literary use of the language of the Bible also spurred a national and linguistic romanticism and neoclassicism. The style of the Hebrew creations, however, was, all too often, an artificial, belabored Hebrew pastiche of Biblical phrases removed from their ancient context and forced to convey a new message.
The didacticism notwithstanding, the achievements of the Haskalah were considerable. The Jewish Enlightenment revivified the Hebrew language and made it serve a new secular literature; it translated into Hebrew major works of Western literature, philosophy, and science; and it planted in the minds and hearts of the young Jewish intelligentsia a strong interest in secular study. By the 1870s, the maskilim had succeeded in winning a good many adherents, but despite significant attainments, the movement was coming to an end.
The Haskalah had proven that the old norms in life, education, and religion were wanting. But it had failed to provide in their stead an enlightened Judaism for the newly edified. The young Russian maskil, who had gained a modicum of sophistication, now yearned for a fuller secular education, but the tsarist government would not open the doors of the universities to the Jews. The …