When the first letter was written in a book, the second face of the world was bom. God was worried about Destruction; therefore, He created the word.
--The Notes of Micah Yosef Berditschewski
English-speaking intellectuals continue to seek clarity about Hebrew within the life of the Jewish people, because an entire century hasn't satisfied the quest. (1) The struggle for Hebrew was at its peak at the beginning of our century, but it remains high on the agenda of academics, ideologues and practitioners. It seems appropriate to take another look at old arguments through new material, in this instance the language essays of Micah Yosef Berditschewski-Bin Gurion. The Berditschewski Archive in Holon, under the remarkable leadership of Avner Holtzman, has remedied inattention to Berditschewski's academic work and intellectual reflections. The scholars who have produced material for the series known as Ginzei Micah Yosef have paid attention to the four areas of Berditschewski's considerable oeuvre: belles lettres, research into Jewish sources, anthologies, and the scholarly and intellectual essay. Yet his thinking about language remains relatively distant from the general ideological discourse around the large body of his work. I suggest in this essay that Berditschewski's better-known positions on history and ideology were an intrinsic part of his understanding of the place of the Hebrew language within the Jewish future.
Language as an expression of human experience was, for Berditschewski, a concrete manifestation of the fact that culture found continuity through a measure of assimilation. Cultures established some stability through their interaction with other cultures and through their ability to be fluid ("MiLashon el Lashon"). While the idea was hardly new in the anthropology of his own day, that notion was not often discussed among the early ideologues in the Hebrew language revival, and few as early as Berditschewski grasped the relationship between cultural and linguistic assimilation. (2) Beyond the importance of Hebrew for the Jewish people as a collective ("Davar miDavar"), Hebrew was the personal vehicle for expression that simultaneously freed the individual from what Berditschewski saw as the sinking Jewish collective, even as it attached that individual to a past and to an anticipated future. Indeed, it was the new "Hebrew" person whom Berditschewski sought in the adoption of the language for the future ("Ivrit veAramit," among other essays). While his linguistic ideas had importance at various points within the early history of Zionism and while many of them are fresh even in 1998, these ideas are not adequately attributed to him, in either scholarly or popular circles. Berditschewski is better known for his influence on some of the rebellious passions of early Zionist thinkers. Avner Holtzman's splendid management of Berditschewski's internal conflicts over language priorities (as between German and Hebrew, Yiddish and Hebrew, etc.) cannot quite capture the intense ambiguities of Berditschewski's claims in this regard. (3)
In the Diaspora, Berditschewski's thought is known best because of his disagreement with Ahad Ha'am about the demands of history and due to his alleged "Nietzscheanism," and for the imposition of Nietzsche's thought and personal anguish in some of the literary characters he created. The essays I have translated could place Berditschewski's perspectives on language within his overall oeuvre and within the English speaking academic community. They certainly speak to some of our own conflicted commitments as intellectuals, whose discourse about Hebrew occurs amidst one of the most powerful language communities the world has ever known.
The language essays in "Inyenei Lashon" (Language Questions) are collected in the Devir edition of Berditschewski-Bin Gurion's intellectual and ideological writings, and make occasional reference to early essays in German. (4) I have considered a few additional essays on language and culture which were composed between 1900-1909. This was a period of Berditschewski's great reflections on Hebrew, and by this time he had already established himself as a major force within Hebrew letters, though he insisted on a measure of loneliness and personal disengagement from the organized life of his colleagues and correspondents. During this time he carried on extensive correspondence with critical figures like Buber, Brenner, David Neumark, Shai Ish Hurwitz, and Shmuel Abba Horodetzky, and he was constantly probing the possibilities of new anthologies and new research interests. He lived in Breslau and fretted about economic survival and about the lack of attention to his vast research and ideological writing. He also continued research on Hasidism and the Jewish mystical tradition (5) He had extensive plans for publishing materials on Hasidism, about which he corresponded with Buber and Horodetzky.
By the time the language essays appeared, Berditschewski had established his identity within the fragile community of Hebrew writers. He was passionate about the importance of Hebrew literature, and he shared with many friends a sense of dread about its decline ("LiTebiyat haSafah"). (6) His stories of individual tragedy, Urbah Parah and Maonayim, had been published, along with a number of shorter stories in which young men had been exiled-or, as Alan Mintz put it, citing the rabbinic source: "banished from their fathers' tables." (7) He had already published his letter-response to Ahad Ha'am, which argued that Jews had to concentrate increasingly on the fulfillment of the individual's life in the "lived present" rather than on the indivdual's obligation to history. This was the most publicly known of Berditschewski's attacks on the idea of an "essence" within Jewish life. (8) His attachment to Hebrew had this ambivalence about it: he loved the power of Hebrew to express the individuality of the Jew, but he understood the inevitable attachment of any language-and Hebrew especially-to fixed meanings, communal traditions, and classic associations. He contrasted Hebrew in this regard with Aramaic, in order to illustrate the unique place of Hebrew within Jewish tradition ("Ivrit veAramit"). Here, too, was an idea which seems routine at first, but which in its day carried a unique complexity: the ancient and modern struggling within one language. Scholem, twenty years later, was to express a concern about both the retention of classic religious fixities, and the effect of having a language function in the day-to-day life of people. (9) And Scholem's was only the most vigorous of the alerts. A decade and more earlier, it seemed as if Hebrew would not take hold enough in Eretz Israel for there to be such a problem.
By the early part of the twentieth century, Berditschewski was uttering appreciations for immediate experience in essays on a variety of subjects, and he saw Hebrew and Yiddish as important, though different, instances of achieving that immediacy. He …