Ahad Ha'am

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The Prophet ... remains always a man apart, a narrow-minded extremist, zealous for his own ideal, and intolerant of every other. And since he cannot have all that he would, he is in a perpetual state of anger and grief; he remains all his life "a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth." [Jeremiah 15:10] Not only this: the other members of society, those many-sided dwarfs, creatures of the general harmony, cry out after him, "The Prophet is a fool, the spiritual man is mad" [Hosea 9:7]; and they look with lofty contempt on his narrowness and extremeness.
When the Prophet saw injustice, either on the part of men or on the part of Providence, he did not inquire closely into its causes, nor bend the knee to necessity, and judge the evil-doers leniently; nor again did he give himself up to despair, or doubt the strength of Righteousness, or the possibility of its victory. He simply complained, pouring out his soul in words of fire; then went his way again, fighting for his ideal, and full of hope that in time—perhaps even "at the end of time"—Righteousness would be lord over all the earth.

Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (18 August 18562 January 1927), primarily known by his Hebrew name and pen name, Ahad Ha'am (lit. one of the people, Genesis 26:10), was a Hebrew essayist, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers. He is known as the founder of cultural Zionism.

Quotes[edit]

Selected Essays (1904)[edit]

Al Parashat Derahim (1904), as translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon (1912) Full text online

"Sacred and Profane" (1891)[edit]

  • Between things sacred and profane there is this difference among others. In profane matters the instrument derives its worth from the end, and is valued for the most part only in so far as it is a means to that end; and consequently we change the instruments as the end demands, and finally, when the end is no longer pursued, the instruments automatically fall into disuse. But in sacred matters the end invests the instrument with a sanctity of its own. Consequently, there is no changing or varying of the instrument; and when the end has ceased to be pursued, the instrument does not fall out of use, but is directed towards another end. In other words: in the one case we preserve the shell for the sake of the kernel, and discard the shell when we have eaten the kernel; in the other case we raise the shell to the dignity of the kernel, and do not rob it of that dignity even if the kernel withers, but make a new kernel for it.
    • p. 41

"Priest and Prophet" (1893)[edit]

  • There are ... two ways of doing service in the cause of an idea; and the difference between them is that which in ancient days distinguished the Priest from the Prophet.
    • p. 130
  • The Prophet is essentially a one-sided man. A certain moral idea fills his whole being, masters his every feeling and sensation, engrosses his whole attention. He can only see the world through the mirror of his idea; he desires nothing, strives for nothing, except to make every phase of the life around him an embodiment of that idea in its perfect form. His whole life is spent in fighting for this ideal with all his strength; for its sake he lays waste his powers, unsparing of himself, regardless of the conditions of life and the demands of the general harmony. His gaze is fixed always on what ought to be in accordance with his own convictions; never on what can be consistently with the general condition of things outside himself.
    • p. 130
  • The Prophet is thus a primal force. His action affects the character of the general harmony, while he him self does not become a part of that harmony, but remains always a man apart, a narrow-minded extremist, zealous for his own ideal, and intolerant of every other. And since he cannot have all that he would, he is in a perpetual state of anger and grief; he remains all his life "a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth." [Jeremiah 15:10] Not only this: the other members of society, those many-sided dwarfs, creatures of the general harmony, cry out after him, "The Prophet is a fool, the spiritual man is mad" [Hosea 9:7]; and they look with lofty contempt on his narrowness and extremeness.
    • pp. 130-131
  • The Priest ... appears on the scene at a time when Prophecy has already succeeded in hewing out a path for its Idea; when that Idea has already had a certain effect on the trend of society, and has brought about a new harmony or balance be tween the different forces at work. The Priest also fosters the Idea, and desires to perpetuate it; but he is not of the race of giants. He has not the strength to fight continually against necessity and actuality; his tendency is rather to bow to the one and come to terms with the other. Instead of clinging to the narrowness of the Prophet, and demanding of reality what it cannot give, he broadens his outlook, and takes a wider view of the relation between his Idea and the facts of life. Not what ought to be, but what can be, is what he seeks. His watchword is not the Idea, the whole Idea, and nothing but the Idea; he accepts the complex "harmony" which has resulted from the conflict of that Idea with other forces. His battle is no longer a battle against actuality, but a battle in the name of actuality against its enemies.
    • pp. 131-132
  • The Idea of the Priest is not, therefore, a primal force; it is an accidental complex of various forces, among which there is no essential connection. Their temporary union is due simply to the fact that they have happened to come into conflict in actual life, and have been compelled to compromise and join hands. The living, absolute Idea, which strove to make itself all-powerful, and changed the external form of life while remaining itself unchanged—this elemental Idea has died and passed away together with its Prophets. Nothing remains but its effects—the superficial impress that it has been able to leave on the complex form of life. It is this form of life, already outworn, that the Priests strive to perpetuate, for the sake of the Prophetic impress that it bears.
    • p. 132
  • It is pre-eminently among the ancient Hebrews that Prophecy is found, not as an accidental or temporary phenomenon, but continuously through many generations. Prophecy is, as it were, the hall-mark of the Hebrew national spirit.
    • p. 132
  • When the Prophet saw injustice, either on the part of men or on the part of Providence, he did not inquire closely into its causes, nor bend the knee to necessity, and judge the evil-doers leniently; nor again did he give himself up to despair, or doubt the strength of Righteousness, or the possibility of its victory. He simply complained, pouring out his soul in words of fire; then went his way again, fighting for his ideal, and full of hope that in time—perhaps even "at the end of time"—Righteousness would be lord over all the earth.
    • p. 133
  • The Prophet ... feels it as a moral necessity to set Righteousness on the throne.
    • p. 133
  • These Prophets of Righteousness ... believed in the victory of absolute Righteousness, yet the fact that they turn their gaze time after time to "the end of days "proves that they knew—as by a whisper from the "spirit of holiness" within them—how great and how arduous was the work that mankind must do before that consummation could be reached. They knew, also, that such work as this could not be done by scattered individuals, approaching it sporadically, each man for himself, at different times and in different places; but that it needed a whole community, which should be continuously, throughout all generations, the standard-bearer of the force of Righteousness against all the other forces that rule the world: which should assume of its own freewill the yoke of eternal obedience to the absolute dominion of a single Idea, and for the sake of that Idea should wage incessant war against the way of the world.
    • pp. 134-135

Essay on Moses[edit]

from Selected Essays by Ahad Ha'am (2005)
  • This Moses, I say, this man of old time, whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you.
  • Historical truth is that, and that alone, which reveals the forces that go to mould the social life of mankind.

Wrestling with Zion[edit]

  • We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Yisrael is now uninhabited desert and whoever wishes can buy land there as he pleases. But this is not true. It is very difficult to find in the land [ha'aretz] cultivated fields that are not used for planting. Only those sand fields or stone mountains that would require the investment of hard labor and great expense to make them good for planting remain uncultivated and that's because the Arabs do not like working too much in the present for a distant future. Therefore, it is very difficult to find good land for cattle. And not only peasants, but also rich landowners, are not selling good land so easily...

    We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. The Arab, like all the Semites, is sharp minded and shrewd. All the townships of Syria and Eretz Yisrael are full of Arab merchants who know how to exploit the masses and keep track of everyone with whom they deal – the same as in Europe. The Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything. For now, they do not consider our actions as presenting a future danger to them. … But, if the time comes that our people's life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily.

    • pp. 14-15.
  • We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their Diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only a country like Turkey [the Ottoman Empire] can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves ['eved ki yimlokh – when a slave becomes king – Proverbs 30:22]. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and dangerous tendency. Our brothers indeed were right when they said that the Arab only respects he who exhibits bravery and courage. But when these people feel that the law is on their rival's side and, even more so, if they are right to think their rival's actions are unjust and oppressive, then, even if they are silent and endlessly reserved, they keep their anger in their hearts. And these people will be revengeful like no other.
    • p. 15.
  • We can't ignore the fact that ahead of us is a great war and this war is going to need significant preparation.
    • p. 15.
  • [But if things continue the way they are] ...the society that I envision, if my dream is not just a false notion, this society will have to begin to create itself in the midst of fuss, noisiness and panic, and will have to face the prospects of both internal and external war...
    • p. 16.

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