The sermon’ is a classic of Zionist and modern Hebrew literature — one that most Israelis and Jews have never heard of. The story was published in the Land of Israel in 1942 at what may have been the most desperate moment in the history of the Jewish people. Palestine was under the British Mandate, which forbade Jewish immigration to the country even as the Nazis were exterminating the Jews of Europe. Jews of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, had formed their own secret defense force — the Haganah — knowing that they would have to fight the Arabs and possibly also the British to win sovereignty over their land.
Yet Zionism was a movement of ideas conceived, nurtured, and propelled by some of the finest minds of a highly contentious people. Among many contemporary national movements, the one returning the Jews to their national homeland required more than usual persuasion and met with more than the usual resistance. Hazaz voices all the pent-up frustration of centuries of delayed independence without ultimately requiring the break from the Jewish Diaspora that others felt the new country required.
The story’s Hebrew title, HaDrasha, evokes a rabbi before a congregation, and at that moment in Jewish life, one might have awaited an address worthy of Churchill.
Instead (here in the translation of Hillel Halkin), we read:
Through a string of negatives apparently designed to confound any hope of inspiration, we learn that our preacher is the unlikeliest of orators. For synagogue, substitute an Israeli kibbutz, for the Sabbath, an impromptu meeting to hear the disjointed thoughts of an unhappy member. We would have been better prepared for what follows had Haim Hazaz called his story “The Protest,” since it consists, after a brief introduction, entirely of Yudka’s dissenting views to the committee that evening, punctuated by some occasional interruptions.
Haim Hazaz, born in Russia in 1898, wrote this story when he was already a well-known Hebrew novelist. As a young man, he had been deeply shaken by the Bolshevik Revolution, and — unlike many of his contemporaries who welcomed the Soviet promise — he feared for the Jewish world that he saw the revolution was bent on destroying. In 1921, he left Russia, never to return. He lived for 10 years in Istanbul, Berlin, and Paris, making Aliyah in 1931. Most of his writing before and after his arrival in Palestine was about life in Russia, about the effects of the revolution on the community he had left behind. This story was among the first situated in his actual time and place.
Yudka, the only named character in Hazaz’s story, works as a stonemason “who could smash a rock with one blow” and “who was not afraid to encounter the enemy singlehandedly on dangerous night patrols.” But when it comes to the meeting he requested, he is nervous about getting started. The chairman of the meeting and his comrades around the table are all men of action, impatient to know why they are there. When Yudka finally blurts out his purpose, we can understand the laughter that greets his words: “I wish to announce,” he said in a low voice, “that I object to Jewish history.”
The man who laughs loudest turns out to be the one who took Yudka’s wife away from him, which adds humiliation to this portrait of a misfit. All in all, one can hardly imagine a less impressive speaker. Nevertheless, he is a Haganah member, and as the men have gathered to hear him out, so do we.
Yudka’s first objection to what he calls Jewish history is its passivity. To make his point, he cites the custom of hiring Gentiles to perform tasks that were forbidden to Jews on Sabbath and holidays and uses this as a metaphor for Jewish national dependency, insisting, “Here’s the Zagvosdka — I don’t know how to say it in Hebrew. Here’s where the dog lies buried.” I have deviated here from Halkin’s translation in order to keep Yudka’s Russian word: his use of Gentile language reinforces his insistence that Jews have been dependent on others. He speaks as a product of the Diaspora whose history he now wants to erase. The case against the Diaspora is being made by the person who best represents it.
The Hebrew of these men is new; their native languages are Russian and Yiddish. Everything about this scene is new and improvised—the country they are reclaiming, the agricultural collective called the kibbutz, Jews forming their own army—all this is radically different from the way they were raised. Yudka wants to ensure that there is no going back.
Hazaz was hardly the first to air these ideas. In 1882 another Russian Jew, Leon Pinsker, had argued in very similar terms that although Jews once stood on equal footing with other nations, they lost the essential defining attributes of a nation when they lost their land and went to live in the Diaspora. To end this ghostlike nature of the Jews, Pinsker issued a call for auto-emancipation that 15 years later became the Zionist movement. Yudka echoes Pinsker, but in the past tense, from the perspective of those who have corrected the problem by moving to Israel and resettling their homeland.
Why then is he not triumphant? Why doesn’t he just declare “mission accomplished”?
In 1942, when Hazaz wrote this story, the establishment of the Jewish state was by no means assured. Theodor Herzl and fellow Zionists may have dreamed of peaceful coexistence with their fellow Semites, but Arab aggression had only hardened, the Mufti of Jerusalem was actively encouraging Hitler to complete the Final Solution, and the British were “staying neutral” by preventing Jews from reaching Palestine. It would take an incalculable effort to reclaim Jewish sovereignty when millions of defenseless Jews were being hounded to death.
Meanwhile, some Jews themselves needed convincing. Two thousand years of Talmudic civilization had persuaded many of them that they could continue to survive in exile waiting for the divine promise of being returned to Zion. Jewish bravery had meant maintaining the Jewish way of life among hostile nations. If salvation were to come from some divine intervention, why bother with kibbutz pioneering?
Yudka anticipates and shoots down these objections. Jews may say they manifested great courage through centuries of suffering, but this “heroism of despair” deserves no respect. Reacting to conditions that you are forced to endure is a function not of choice but of necessity, and there is nothing heroic about it. Suffering is even worse if you make a virtue of martyrdom, and “sorrow replaces happiness as an ideal, pain becomes the norm rather than pleasure, tearing down rather than building up, slavery rather than redemption, dream rather than reality, vague hope rather than real plans, faith rather than common sense . . . ”
From this “psychology of the night,” Yudka turns his contempt on theology: Jewish national character has been fatally misshapen. Rabbis say that the passage in Ecclesiastes — Vehakhut hameshulash lo bimeheyro yenatek, the threefold cord is not readily broken — refers to “exile, martyrdom, the Messiah.” Well, that’s it then! As long as Jews valued exile and martyrdom, they could never bring the Messiah they claimed to wish for! Belief in the Messiah, eternal expectation, meant that Jews never actually had to return to the Land of Israel to do whatever was necessary to reclaim it. It was the perfect excuse for inertia.
Jews say they persisted for 2,000 years because of their faith in the Messiah — an ingenious legend, but false. The longing for Jerusalem did not lead to the eventual recovery of Jerusalem; it was intended to prevent return to the Land of Israel. If you are waiting for the Messiah, you do not have to move to dirty, malaria-ridden Palestine. Yudka is sick and tired of turning to the east in prayer instead of sailing to the east in ships. Had it not been for the myth, he thinks, “we would either have had to return to Palestine right away or to disappear from the world.” The myth is what sustained the lie. Jews were not being hypocritical in affirming their faith and trust in the Messiah, but the longer they did it, the less they were inclined to get up and actually redeem the land.
But wait! Yudka’s attack is so effective that he suddenly seems to realize where his line of thinking has brought him. If his Zionism denies so much of Jewish history, might it not be rejecting Judaism as well?
If those generations of patient dreamers represent what it has meant to be Jewish, then the kibbutzniks of the Haganah may embody not the fulfillment of Judaism but its repudiation. In his fumbling way, Yudka sees that the none of the Zionist leaders really addressed the questions he is raising. Herzl took up the problem of acquiring a Jewish state, while Ahad Ha’am believed that the regeneration of a national Jewish culture — “set up a Jewish study circle, or build a school” — would have to precede the physical return to Zion.
At the mention of Jewish culture, the kibbutzniks break the tension to poke fun at the German-Jewish professors they (and author Haim Hazaz) disdained — members of Brit Shalom such as Ernst Simon and Martin Buber, who were dedicated to the cause of Arab–Jewish reconciliation and promoted a binational rather than a national state. The contempt of these practical kibbutz and Haganah members for the European intelligentsia was another kind of protest against the unwelcome carryover from the Diaspora. While Yudka denounces the messianism of the ultra-Orthodox, the kibbutzniks mock the political messianism of those who think they can have a country without fighting for it.
When Yudka is given the floor again, he admits that in forcing the distinction between Judaism and Zionism, he had not really known where his logic would take him. Let’s face it, he says, we’ve already proven what I’ve been saying. Isn’t that why we switched from speaking Yiddish to speaking Hebrew, and why we speak Hebrew according to the Sephardi pronunciation instead of how we used to pronounce it? Here in our country, we have no one to hide from, and yet we’re ashamed of our past — hiding our identity from ourselves. You think that what I’m saying is radical, but what have we been doing other than rejecting Jewish history itself?
There was a term for the ideas that Yudka was propounding: Shlilat hagolah — Negation of the Diaspora. A local group calling itself the Canaanites aspired to return Hebrew language and culture to their pre-Talmudic past. David Ben-Gurion as head of the Jewish government-in-formation was implementing some of Yudka’s ideas by insisting that the new country’s generals adopt Hebraic names and that the population phase out Yiddish. The literary scholar Robert Alter writing about this story reminds us that since fiction allows an author to attribute ideas to a character without taking full responsibility for them, Yudka’s point of view does not necessarily represent that of the author. But first we should see how this “sermon” ends.
Yudka is not ambivalent. He and his colleagues have done something more revolutionary and momentous than the Bolsheviks in Russia, and done it in a wholesome spirit of self-liberation. Without waiting for the diplomatic resolution that Herzl had sought or the cultural transformation Ahad Ha’am deemed necessary, they simply went and did it. Commentators have always paused on the seemingly inverted sequence of the Jews’ response when receiving the Torah at Sinai — Na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen, and though Yudka does not cite this biblical passage, the pioneering movement of which he forms part likewise acted first, leaving him to spell out the implications: Now that we have left the Diaspora, here is the philosophical logic behind our actions.
But because Hazaz has not given us a Churchillian orator or a sermonic pronouncement, the story can hold together what is in danger of being torn apart. Yudka is indeed the “new Jew” of the Yishuv, the builder-defender of the old-new Land of Israel, yet he is still enough of the Diaspora “Yid-ke” to worry about rejecting the Judaism that brought them there. The actuality belies the theoretical dichotomy, and the altered names and pronunciation do not change the fact that they are all functioning in the language of the Bible.
Accordingly, the story does not really conclude. The listeners are relieved that, having brought them to the edge of a cliff, Yudka pulls back a little. Maybe they will not have to accept the “either-or” choice between past and future. The denier of Jewish history points out that they themselves are undeniably its product. As Yudka gathers his thoughts, the chairman urges him to say what he wants, “Just go easy on the philosophy…” And indeed, we thank God that the actual Haganah men did not wait for a resolution to Yudka’s reflections before continuing to build and defend their recovered homeland! The rabbis of the Talmud would have designated the ellipsis that ends the story with the Hebrew acronym Teku—to be resolved with the coming of the Messiah. The Talmud has many problems that remain philosophically unresolved.
Had Yudka asked to speak at a kibbutz meeting, there would also have been women around the table. The Haganah leaders of whom Yudka is one, representing the toughest part of the Yishuv, prove that his negative version of “Jewish history” is done with: A paramilitary command post has replaced the rabbinic conclave. Yudka charts the straight road from the Tanach to the Palmach, from the Bible to the strike units of the Haganah, but then, like a husband suing for divorce, regrets what he stands to lose in dissolving the marriage. Zionism could never be a triumphalist movement precisely because centuries of loss had preceded this reconquest, and because of how much had to be left behind. Yudka, the prototypical “little Jew” of earlier Hebrew and Yiddish literature, could not declare victory over the civilization that brought him home.
Hazaz had witnessed a revolution that was ruthlessly determined to eliminate the past: But that was not the Jewish way.
There is much else to consider in this story — the human hierarchy that breaks through the egalitarian ideology of the kibbutz; the improbable orator as the only trustworthy Jewish speaker since Moses; the brittle humorlessness of then-emergent Hebrew culture — and in the distance, the simultaneous meeting in 1942 in Wannsee, Germany, of the German high command, to seal the Final Solution to the “Jewish problem.” It should not surprise us that so modest a Zionist work should be one of the very best.
“The Sermon” used to figure prominently in discussions of Zionism and in Israeli education. None of the Israelis I’ve recently asked had ever read it, and none had been taught it in school. Where in Diaspora Jewish culture will it now appear? Maybe Sapir can help get important works like this one back into circulation. When I once taught this story, at the point that Yudka says, “A man becomes a Zionist when he can’t be a Jew anymore,” a student responded, “And maybe a man becomes a Jew when he can’t be a Zionist anymore.” She was thinking of fellow Americans who tire of defending the Jewish polity and who retreat into increased religiosity and spirituality as a way of avoiding political engagement.
Yudka embodies the age-old Jewish civilization that part of him wants to reject. Hazaz exposes the paradox. May the story hold together what is still at risk of being torn apart.