District heads of the Hit’aḥadut party in Poland, Łódź, 1946. On the wall are portraits of (left to right) Zionist leaders Chaim Arlozoroff, Aharon David Gordon, and Berl Katznelson. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Gordon, Aharon David

(1856–1922), Zionist thinker. Aharon David Gordon was born in Troyanov, a village in Podolia. His father had left Vilna to manage the country estate of Baron Evzel’ Gintsburg. Gordon’s early life in wooded, natural surroundings seems to have informed his later emphasis on the need to bond with nature. Following his marriage at age 19, Gordon lived with his wife’s family in Obodovka, where he seems to have come into contact with Hasidism.

In 1904, at age 48, Gordon made the decision to move to Palestine, where he worked as a manual laborer in orchards and vineyards. There he developed a Zionist philosophy that incorporated a variety of ideological and religious ideas then current in East European Jewish life. His was a unique brand of Zionism that reflected a wide-ranging philosophy of the human condition. According to this belief system, a secularized version of Hasidic pietism was coupled with Tolstoyan naturalism and populist nationalism. Gordon’s emphasis on the primacy of labor and the worker, which was influenced by the socialist revolutionary trends in his surroundings, was framed in his decidedly anti-Marxist understanding of history and human agency. These elements, along with Gordon’s understanding of Palestine’s particular circumstances, combined to create his distinctive vision of a comprehensive reconstruction of Jewish life.

The starting point in Gordon’s thought was a profound sense of Jewish spiritual desolation—both individual and collective—rooted in a view of galut (exile) as a mortal affliction. At the very center of their spiritual disease lay Jews’ alienation from nature and labor. “It is in labor that we have been afflicted,” he wrote, “and it is through labor that we will be healed . . . that we will be able to mend the fissure which has stripped us away from nature” (“Labor,” Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir 4.23–24 [20 September 1911]: 4–6). Transforming the tradition holding that the shekhinah (the divine presence) itself had been exiled along with the people of Israel, Gordon posited a cosmic bond linking the Jewish nation, individual, and land—all, in his version, afflicted by disease and destruction.

A powerful yearning to move from this broken state to one of spiritual wholeness and authenticity was the central motivating force in Gordon’s thought, as it was in his life. As his philosophy held that galut was a state of spiritual exile and alienation, he believed that the Jews’ return to Palestine would entail a dramatic personal and collective transformation. By revitalizing their lapsed relationship with nature—and the constitutive bond with the natural landscape of Palestine in particular—Jews might be reborn. This demanding remedy required of each individual a “shaking off [of old] life . . . starting everything anew, from the very beginning. . . . Not changing, not repairing, but doing everything afresh” (“Pitron Ratsionali: Ve-Ḥalom she-en lo pitron [me-hegyonot shel kitsoni],” Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir 2.10 [1909]: 9–10).

Such individual transformation was the basis and necessary corollary for a national remedy as well: just as individual, nation, and land all shared in exile and desolation, each was essential for the redemption of the other. “Underneath the ruins,” Gordon explained, “there still burns an orphaned, whispering ember . . . and the air of the land blows upon it to bring it back to life. And should you . . . create for yourself a new life here, that ember will return to life and become once again a raging flame. And you will live once again, and your people and your land will live” (ibid.).

Gordon’s impact went beyond his philosophical system. Chaim Weizmann, reporting on a first visit to Palestine in 1907, spoke of the profound impression made upon him by “one worker named Gordon. Every time I saw him . . . he reminded me of the Prophet Elijah.” In his own lifetime Gordon emerged as a mythological figure. Even after Gordon’s death in Degania, his work continued to serve as an inspiration for Zionist youth movements (one of which, Gordonia, was named after him), works of literature, and numerous scholarly studies.

Suggested Reading

Kitve A. D. Gordon, ed. Yosef Aharonowitz, 5 vols. (Tel Aviv 1927/28–1929/30); Eliezer Schweid, Ha-Yaḥid: ‘Olamo shel A. D. Gordon (Tel Aviv, 1970); Avraham Shapira, Or ha-ḥayim be-“yom ketanot” (Tel Aviv, 1996); Muky Tsur, ed., At enekh bodedah ba-marom: Mikhtavim me-A. D. Gordon ve-elav (Tel Aviv, 1998).