The Brenner School and the Agnon School in Hebrew Literature of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

The centrality of Brenner and Agnon in the formation of the Hebrew literature of the twentieth century from its beginning, can be termed here in short: The debate between the "Brenner School" and the "Agnon School." The Brenner School casts doubt on the social values of Judaism and of Zionism, which sprang up in response to Judaism's modern needs. The Brenner School uses contemporary revolutionary concepts to conduct a debate about the Jewish, secular, Zionist person. It does not hesitate to express its conclusions, even if that involves a lack of confidence in the human potential, especially in the Jewish human potential, and also in secular-Zionist moves. The Agnon School entails staying within the boundaries of methodical doubt. It assumes that early Judaism exists and is strong, and will eventually win out in establishing the identity of the Jew, both within and without, both in the debate conducted in Agnon's time, as well as in future debates. These two schools are not populated equally. The Brenner School won an uncontested victory in twentieth-century Hebrew literature. The Agnon School remained largely an empty school--a symbol and not a place of action. The attitude toward these two schools in twentieth-century Hebrew literature involves, before all else, taking a stand on the basic question of the right or obligation of Judaism to continue to exist as a national and collective identity.

This paper presents the outlines of a charged and complex discussion. After defining in detail the notion of the "school," the relations between the two artists will be presented in brief. Then their works will be presented, their literary positions and what they symbolize in Israeli Hebrew literature in the 1960s, the first generation of the State of Israel.


The status of Hebrew literature within the Hebrew-speaking cultural milieu at the beginning of the twentieth century is very different from its status at the century's end. At the beginning of the century, Hebrew literature had helped define the character of this cultural milieu and its various debates. This includes the debates surrounding the then emerging Zionist identity, which was only one possibility facing the Hebrew-speaking cultural communities in the Western world. This character defining status of literature is central, as literature was the stage for cultural debates, from the most personal aspects to the most clearly political, and because literature was seen simultaneously as a personal, lyrical medium, and as a propagandist tool.

At the century's start, the literature within the Hebrew-speaking milieu was very powerful for a number of reasons: First, toward the end of the nineteenth century, Hebrew literature grew closer to the perception of what constituted great European literatures than it had at any time during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hebrew literature then reflected the superior Western literature. Second, the literature was the product of a people for whom being the "People of the Book" was an important part of its self-image. When this people shifted from a milieu dominated by the "Book of Books" to a secular milieu, its cultural leaders needed to mend the crack in its image as the "People of the Book." A third reason is the growth of political streams--among them the Zionist movement--from the literature, in the absence of other public forums in the nineteenth century available to Jewish, national secular philosophers. The Hebrew, Zionist, literature of Eretz-Israel became the only Hebrew literature for historical reasons--the Holocaust that decimated European Jewry and its culture, the establishment of the State of Israel, and American Jewry's lack of a need for a Hebrew identity to continue its existence. When Modern Hebrew literature established itself, its foundations and heritage took on a mythic character, and within that myth a place of symbolic honor is reserved for the Eretz-Israel literature of the beginning of the twentieth century. …