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Yosefa Raz





Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism: Moses in the Shadow of Jeremiah and Muhammad





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Yosefa Raz





Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism: Moses in the Shadow of Jeremiah and Muhammad








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Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism: Moses in the Shadow of Jeremiah and Muhammad

In his famous essay on Moses, Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’am 1856–1927), an influential Zionist thinker, recasts the revelation at the burning bush as Moses encountering his internal voice. His heroic Moses is shadowed by other, more melancholic figures, such as Jeremiah, and even Muhammad, as imagined by Thomas Carlyle. Rather than a figure of strength and power, Ahad Ha’am’s Moses comes to express the anxieties and ambivalences of early Zionism.


Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism: Moses in the Shadow of Jeremiah and Muhammad

Ahad Ha’am on a visit to Israel 1911. Wikimedia

Asher Ginsberg (1856–1927), better known as Ahad Ha’am, “one of the people,”[1] was a principal intellectual figure of Russian Zionism, and was most known for his pithy and authoritative essays.[2] A reclusive, self-taught scholar, he was active in a small circle of elite male Hebraists in early twentieth-century Odessa. His essays detailed an ambitious program to revive the Hebrew language and found a “spiritual center” in Palestine that would radiate outward, educating and inspiring world Jewry. At the heart of his work was his belief in a Jewish prophetic-national spirit with the potential to awaken European Jews, curing them both of exilic woes and the seductions of Emancipation.

In contrast to Theodore Herzl’s political Zionism, Ahad Ha’am’s plans emphasized education and cultural rather than what he criticized as political machinations and intrigues. Unusually clear-eyed, he acknowledged that Ottoman Palestine was not desolate land, empty for the taking, but already contained an Arab national collectivity.[3] Most Eastern European Jews, he believed, would have to immigrate to America, so his ultimate goal was not political statehood in Israel but cultural transformation for Judaism at large.

His writings, as well as his imposing and elusive personality, left a profound impression on key Jewish figures of the twentieth century from Hayim Nahman Bialik to Martin Buber to Mordechai Kaplan. His essays shaped the possibility of a secular, cultural Zionism for generations to come, guiding intellectuals, politicians, and poets into a synthesis of tradition and modernity.

For decades, Ahad Ha’am’s political and intellectual life was formed through a deep admiration and identification with the Hebrew prophets. Ahad Ha’am’s prophetic ideal was Moses. His emulation of Moses was first reflected in the secret, Masonic-type society he founded in Odessa in 1886, Bnei Moshe, “the Sons of Moses,” which had its own rituals and initiation rites, and was meant to influence and control branches of the mainstream Zionist association Chovevei Zion (“The Lovers of Zion”), centered in Russia and Romania.

In its heyday, Bnei Moshe included close to 160 secret members scattered through Chovevei Zion organizations in Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa, and Jaffa.[4] As the organization petered into inaction and finally dissolved in 1897, Ahad Ha’am used the figure of a prophet to reflect on his political aspirations and failures in his polemical essays.

Ahad Ha’am’s Prophetic Spirit

An 1893 essay, כהן ונביא “Prophet and Priest,” reads as an expression of bitterness regarding his political struggles, coded through the figure of a biblical prophet, a man of unwavering truth and extremity of belief, who is unafraid to go against the grain of his society. In this essay, prophet and priest become allegories for the political conflict between himself and Herzl. The prophet, like Ahad Ha’am, is a man of ideals, principles, absolute sincerity. He is willing to sacrifice everything for the principle of universal justice, but at the same time, embodies the national spirit of the Jewish people, which calls him to his task and drives him onward.

Ahad Ha’am continued to develop his identification with Moses throughout his life. But “Prophet and Priest,” painting the picture of the much-beleaguered prophet, contributes a few sour notes from Jeremiah: the prophet is always full of anger and pain, אִישׁ רִיב וְאִישׁ מָדוֹן לְכָל הָאָרֶץ “a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth” (Jer 15:10). In his pursuit of absolute justice, he retains a painful Jeremiac contradiction in his heart, which can only be resolved at the end of days.

His famous essay on Moses, published in Odessa in 1904, focuses on the bright figure of Moses in Jewish tradition, who embodied the “national spirit” of the Jewish people, shining in the darkness. However, the essay actually reveals a complex and ambiguous portrait drawn with many shadows, such as the melancholic oracles of the prophet Jeremiah, and a secularized Victorian version of the prophet Muhammad. These shadows tell us something about the ambivalences and anxieties under which Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism was formed, and with which it still contends today.

The Spirit of Moses at the Seder

Early on in his essay on Moses, Ahad Ha’am describes his experience of a Passover Seder:

כשאני קורא את ההגדה בליל פסח ורוחו של משה בן עמרם – זה גבּור הגבּורים, הנצב כעמוּד אור על מפתן ההיסטוריא שלנו – מרחפת לפני ומרוממת אותי ל’עולם העליון‘, – איני חש כלל באותה שעה לכל אותן השאלות והספקות, שחכמי אוה"ע מונים אותנו בהם:[5]
When I read the Haggadah on the Eve of Passover and the spirit of Moses son of Amram, that supremest of heroes, who stands like a pillar of light on the threshold of our history, hovers before me and lifts me into “the upper regions,” at that moment, I am quite oblivious of all the doubts and questions propounded by non-Jewish critics.[6]

Ahad Ha’am discusses the importance of legend or myth—what he calls “historical truth” because of the impact of these stories on history. He contrasts this with the nitpicky findings of academic study—what he calls “archeological truth.” The latter, of which he is highly critical, he associates with (the largely Protestant) nineteenth-century biblical scholarship.[7] As for himself, Ahad Ha’am declares he is no scholar in a dusty citadel, trying to reconstruct obscure historical facts, but rather a simple Jew sitting down to a holiday meal.

However, Ahad Ha’am’s seemingly unsophisticated summoning of Moses from out of the pages of the Haggadah is actually a highly self-conscious performance by a master of rhetoric. His first “proof” for the importance of Moses in Jewish life is, paradoxically, a text that works hard to exclude him. Moses barely appears in the Haggadah, since the rabbis who composed the Haggadah wished to establish God as the sole hero of the exodus.[8]

So in these first paragraphs of the essay, Ahad Ha’am teasingly establishes the conjuring trick necessary to make “his” Moses nearly out of thin air. On one hand, he puts forth:

משה שלנו, זה שצורתו קבועה בלב עמנו מדור דור והשפעתו על חיינו הלאומיים לא פסקה מימי קדם ועד עתה.
Our Moses [is one] whose image has been enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations, and whose influence on our national life hasn’t waned from ancient times until the present.

On the other hand, while Ahad Ha’am’s Moses seems to appear as a grand form, rather like a monolithic statue, unchanging throughout Jewish history, his Moses actually diverges significantly from the biblical text.

The Burning Bush in Moses’ Heart

The key event in Ahad Ha’am’s retelling of Moses’ life is his encounter with the burning bush. It marks his prophetic drive for justice, and ties this prophet-leader to his nation, who is made in their fiery image.

באמת ניצוץ של 'משה' הולך ומאיר מתוך החשכה בחיי עמנו בכל הדורות.
Some hint of Moses has illumined the dark life of our people, like a spark, in every generation.

While Moses’ life seems to be a reflection of the life of the Jewish people throughout history, it is particularly in the story of the burning bush that Ahad Ha’am’s strange deviation from tradition is most noticeable.

Moses is living in the wilderness, an 80-year-old man, tired of his eternal war for justice, as Ahad Ha’am imagines Moses’ life to have been. He would like to live peacefully, as a shepherd, away from human society. However, he cannot quiet his prophetic drive for justice. Rather than experiencing an actual divine revelation, he is pushed by a force within him to his prophetic task.

He encounters this inner force in the desert, on Horeb, “the Mountain of God”:

אבל גם שם מנוחה רחוקה ממנו. חש הוא בנפשו, שעדיין לא מלא את תעודתו, וכוח נסתר בעומק לבו דוחפהו ואומר לו: מה לך פה? לך עבוד, לך הלחם, כי לכך נוצרת! [9]
But even there rest is unavailable to him. He feels that he has not yet fulfilled his destiny; a secret force deep in his heart urges him on, saying, “What are you doing here? Go to work! Go fight! For this is why you were created!”

This secret, internal voice echoes the voice of 1 Kings 19, which describes Jezebel’s pursuit of Elijah and his flight to the desert, where he despairs of his mission and his life. At Horeb, the Mountain of God, Elijah hears a revelation:

מלכים א יט:ט וַיָּבֹא שָׁם אֶל הַמְּעָרָה וַיָּלֶן שָׁם וְהִנֵּה דְבַר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ.
1 Kgs 19:9 There he went into a cave, and there he spent the night. Then the word of YHWH came to him. He said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?”I

This same question is put to Ahad Ha’am’s Moses.

In grafting the story of Elijah on the story of Moses’ burning bush, both of which occur at Horeb, Ahad Ha’am emphasizes the internal quality of the “still small voice” of revelation, which is not, as God tells Elijah, in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire (1 Kings 19:11–12). The allusion to Elijah’s epiphany, then, seems to go against the spirit of the biblical Moses, by claiming that God is precisely not in the fire.

Ahad Ha’am further describes the inner struggle Moses faces on the mountain that day:

הוא רוצה להסיח דעתו מן הקול הזה – ואינו יכול. הנביא שומע 'קול אלהים' בקרבו, אם יחפוץ ואם ימאן:
He would like to disregard this voice, but cannot. The prophet hears “the voice of God” in his heart, whether he wants to or not:
וְאָמַרְתִּי לֹא אֶזְכְּרֶנּוּ... וְהָיָה בְלִבִּי כְּאֵשׁ בֹּעֶרֶת עָצֻר בְּעַצְמֹתָי וְנִלְאֵיתִי כַּלְכֵל וְלֹא אוּכָל. (ירמיה כ:ט)
I thought, “I will not mention Him…” But [His word] was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones. I could not hold it in; I was helpless. (Jer 20:9)

The quote Ahad Ha’am gives to express Moses’ inner thoughts comes not from Exodus but the book of Jeremiah, when the prophet describes why he feels forced to prophecy even though it brings him enemies and hardship. Ahad Ha’am uses this verse to describe Moses in psychological terms, as a figure in the throes of an internal drama, powerless to withstand the pressure of the prophetic force, despite being mocked and pursued by everyone around him.

We see that it is precisely in the fraught moment of trying to create a paradoxical secular revelation to inspire Ahad Ha’am’s own world that a fissure or wound opens in the text. This must be covered over by other biblical intertexts, almost as skin-grafts, on the wound of his secular reading.[10]

Moses’ Youthful Fire in an Old Body

Jeremiah’s prophetic fire replaces the miraculous burning bush. This internal, metaphorical fire, as a sign of prophetic pain, comes to dominate the rest of Ahad Ha’am’s narrative of Moses’ life. Ahad Ha’am applies this metaphorical fire to Moses’ reminiscence over his youth:

וזוכר הנביא, כי עוד בימי נעוריו, בראשית פגישתו עם החיים, היתה ה’אש' בוערת בלבו ולא נתנה לו מנוח. מני אז עשׂה כל מה שבכוחו להשליט את הצדק בעולם – והאש לא שקטה. את מיטב שנותיו וכוחותיו אכלה המלחמה – והוא לא נצח.
And the prophet remembers that in his youth, at his first encounter with life, the same fire burnt in his heart and gave him no rest. Since then, he has done all in his power to make justice supreme in the world: and the fire hadn’t quieted. The best of his years, the flower of his strength, were consumed in the battle; and victory was not his.
עתה הגיע כבר לימי זקנה, עוד מעט וינוס לחו ויהיה כאילן־סרק שאינו עושׂה פירות, כסנה הזה שנגד עיניו.
Now old age has come upon him; yet a little, and his sap will flee and he will be as a withered tree that bears no fruit—even like this bush before him.

Ahad Ha’am here invents sixty-odd years of struggle for justice that Moses apparently fought—unrecorded in the Bible. And he compares the withering desert bush to Moses’ withering body.

How can we explain the switch between Moses’ bright fire and Jeremiah’s dark fire? In the earlier literature of the haskalah, such as the work of Judah Leib Gordon (1830–1892), Jeremiah is viewed as a coward, who gave defeatist advice to the last King of Judah, Zedekiah, and helped bring about the end of Jewish sovereignty. For Ahad Ha’am, however, Jeremiah marks the impossibility of overcoming exile.

Even when he works to construct a heroic version of Moses as a kind of proto-Zionist leader, Ahad Ha’am draws on the figure of Jeremiah—who is tied to mourning, catastrophe, the end of prophecy, the end of national sovereignty, and to diasporic weakness. In other words, Ahad Ha’am’s monolithic Moses carries with him, like a demonic force that he can’t shake, Jeremiah’s passive witnessing of national catastrophe—even his return, together with his people, to Egypt.

Between Moses and Jeremiah

The movement between Moses and Jeremiah is not unique to Ahad Ha’am—it is already in the biblical text. This dynamic flares up again in Ahad Ha’am’s texts. In a sense, the biblical Moses and Jeremiah mirror each other. The Book of Jeremiah, more so than any other “classical” prophetic text, alludes to Moses and Mosaic convention.[11]

Jeremiah, as presented in the book, models himself after Moses.[12] Even if we take a more critical stance to the book’s composition, its literary structure parallels the Mosaic narrative. Indeed, according to Luis Alonso Shöckel (1920–1998) of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, “Jeremiah is presented in the book as an anti-Moses.”[13]

While the exodus story is a narrative of liberation from both the physical and symbolic Egypt, the book of Jeremiah ends with the people’s return to Egypt, and with the exile of Jeremiah to Egypt against his will.[14] God reveals his true name to Moses, but tells Jeremiah to forget God’s true name.[15] Moses rewrites the ten commandments after he breaks the first ones, while Jeremiah dictates a new scroll of prophecy to his scribe, after King Jehoiakim burns the first version.[16]

In the most explicit allusion to Moses in the book of Jeremiah, YHWH is a “negative reproduction” of the God of Exodus:

ירמיהו טו:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי אִם יַעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה וּשְׁמוּאֵל לְפָנַי אֵין נַפְשִׁי אֶל הָעָם הַזֶּה שַׁלַּח מֵעַל פָּנַי וְיֵצֵאוּ.
Jer 15:1 YHWH said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel were to intercede with Me, I would not be won over to that people. Dismiss them from My presence, and let them go forth![17]

Jeremiah fails precisely where Moses was successful. But Jeremiah’s God too seems like a “negative reproduction” of the God of Exodus. Here, God is not cast as the redeemer of Israel but as the oppressive, unforgiving, pharaoh.[18] Letting the people go does not mean sending them to liberty, but off to their terrible fate: pestilence, sword, famine, and captivity.

The Two Voices of Zionism

As Moses becomes Ahad Ha’am’s key figure of Zionist revival, the presence of fragments of Jeremiah and other, more “demonic” prophets familiar from Russian Romanticism (such as Pushkin’s portrait of Isaiah in his famous poem “The Prophet”) in his writings may suggest a less optimistic, more melancholic side of Zionism. Nitzan Lebovic of Lehigh University differentiates between two “voices” in pre-state yishuv Zionism (ca. 1930s and 1940s), which I believe can already be identified, in embryonic form, in Ahad Ha’am’s turn-of-the-century essays:

Idealistic—This voice synthesizes the qualities of the European maskil, the modern European Jew, with those of the halutz, the tough pioneer in Palestine. This euphoric voice expresses the desire to leave European roots behind, to “end exilic existence” through immigration as self-realization.[19] This voice is an aggressive, male voice, negating the past, looking toward the future, suggesting militant masculine action.[20]

Melancholic—This voice is unable to recover from losses, among them the loss of Jewish life in the diaspora. As Lebovic writes: “Melancholy was the deep, minor organ point sounding under the major and loud harmonies of idealism and the tehia [revival].”[21]

The melancholic voice looks to the past rather than the future, and is associated with feminine lament rather than euphoria. This is the voice, for example, of Rachel, who weeps over her lost children and refuses to be comforted (Jer 31:11),[22] whose voice echoes through the poetry and songs of early Zionism. We can read the “shadows” of Ahad Ha’am’s Moses as representative of the melancholic voice of early Zionism—a voice of exilic sorrow and bitter disappointment.

On a personal level, Ahad Ha’am turns to writing essays after his political career turned out to be a bitter disappointment. If his essay is veiled autobiography, the figure of Jeremiah may come closer than the figure of Moses to embodying the experiences of Asher Ginsberg.

A Zionist Muhammad

Ahad Ha’am’s scene of Moses’ desert encounter with his inner voice at the burning bush bears striking similarity to Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 portrait of Muhammad in a public lecture which later became a chapter in Carlyle’s best-seller On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. [23] Ahad Ha’am’s retelling of the burning bush is a key scene in his essay, but also contains a moment of potential “wobble,”[24] or weakness, where the edifice of a strong, national prophecy threatens to collapse into itself. This is precisely where Ahad Ha’am draws most extensively on Carlyle’s portrait of Muhammad, even as he argues for an authentic Jewish Moses.

The essence of Muhammad’s “heroism,” Carlyle tells his rapt audience, is his revelation in the desert, in which all his previous knowledge, tradition, and idolatry falls away. As opposed to traditional Muslim accounts of Muhammad’s commission—in which he meets with the angel Gabriel, who commands him, “Read!”— Carlyle asks his audience to picture Muhammad completely alone, encountering the existential void: “[T]he great Mystery of Existence … glared in upon him; with its terrors, with its splendours.”[25]

Muhammad faces the grim rocks, sandy solitudes, and the silent heavens on his own, in a literal and metaphorical desert, and must hew out belief from the emptiness.

What am I to believe? What am I to do?... There was no answer. The man’s own soul, and what of God’s inspiration dwelt there, had to answer![26]

As opposed to a biblical prophet, who hears an external voice, the modern prophet-hero must contend with external silence. Like their “Mahomet,” Carlyle and his audience must face the void and create their own system of belief.

The mark of a hero, according to Carlyle, is his ability to summon truth and meaning in the face of this secular void; the prophetic Great Man, as exemplified by Muhammad, must heroically discover his own truth. Carlyle’s “Mohamet” is not waiting to encounter Allah, but rather his own authentic self in the wilderness. Ahad Ha’am’s Moses does not meet God, but his own younger self, who dreamt a dream of burning justice, at the burning bush.

Both scenes become paradigmatic not of religious revelation but of inner transformation and secular heroism. Like Carlyle, Ahad Ha’am paradoxically returns to a scene of divine revelation in order to heal the agony of nineteenth-century secularism, in which belief and certainty has disappeared.[27] In Ahad Ha’am’s essay, terms like “the higher world,” “the voice of God, “and “prophecy,” are now put in brackets; they are religions terms that imply the divine, but can now only be accessed as metaphors, through a suspension of our modern, secular disbelief.

Can the Spark of Moses Cure the Jewish Soul?

Carlyle’s lecture on Muhammad describes the prophet of Islam as a spark igniting a flame:

To the Arab Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light… is it not as if a spark had fallen, one spark, on a world of what seemed black unnoticeable sand… the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.[28]

This imagery is taken up towards the end of Ahad Ha’am’s essay, where he fuses it with a depiction of Moses from the Jewish mystical tradition:

יפה אמרו המקובלים: 'אתערותא דמשה בכל דרא ודרא'. באמת ניצוץ של 'משה' הולך ומאיר מתוך החשכה בחיי עמנו בכל הדורות
The Kabbalists have spoken properly when they said that “Moses is awakened in every age.” Some hint of Moses has illumined the dark life of our people, like a spark, in every generation.

The quote from the Tikkunei Zohar (114a)—which actually has the word אתפשטותיה “reincarnated” not אתערותא “awakened”—explains how Moses was a reincarnation of the biblical Seth, who was himself a reincarnation of his deceased brother Abel. In this case, Ahad Ha’am is not interested in reincarnation, but in the archetype of a timeless potential that arises in each generation, ready to lead Jews out of every Egypt, every diaspora.

Ahad Ha’am’s prophetic vision, especially his idealization of the figure of Moses, has been both celebrated and derided as monolithic, heroic, and elitist.[29] However, his authoritative persona, together with his construction of a heroic, prophetic ideal is the result of an effort to shore up an invented tradition constantly in danger of fissure, weakness, and disintegration. His pedagogy is an attempt to repair the “rents” of modern Jewish identity, between enlightened universalism and a particularist Jewish nationalism.

In a late essay, published in 1912, Ahad Ha’am speaks of an attempt to create a new kind of Jew:

יהודי משכיל, שיתאחדו ברוחו היסוד הלאומי העברי עם היסוד האנושי הכללי אחדות מוחלטת והיו ליציר אחד שלם, בלי נגודים פנימיים, בלי אותו "הקרע שבלב" שעושה את היהודי המשכיל שבגולה, בעל "שתי רשויות", ל"נפש רצוצה" שאין בה מתום.
The enlightened (maskil) Jew, whose spirit combines the elements of Hebrew nationalism with the elements of general humanism into a complete unity without internal contradictions, without that “rent in the heart” which makes the maskilic [enlightened] Jew in the diaspora, one with “two authorities” (i.e., the traditional and modern world) into “a shattered soul,” lacking innocence.[30]

While at first glance Ahad Ha’am’s retelling of Moses’ life seems to heal this Jewish “rent in the heart,” in fact, it lays it bare.


April 19, 2024


Last Updated

June 3, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Yosefa Raz is a senior lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Haifa. She holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Poetics of Prophecy: Modern Afterlives of a Biblical Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2024), which examines the way poets and scholars since the mid-1700s have been deeply entangled in the project of reinventing prophecy.