Yosef Klausner, during the period when he was editor of the monthly Ha-Shiloaḥ, Odessa (?), 1911. (The Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

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Literary Criticism and Scholarship

Hebrew Criticism and Scholarship

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The stirrings of Hebrew literature in Galicia and Lithuania in the first half of the nineteenth century were accompanied by early critical appraisals. In the periodicals Bikure ha-‘itim (The First Fruits of the Times; 1831) and Kerem ḥemed (Vineyard of Delight; 1839), Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (Shir), one of the outstanding intellectuals of Galicia, published articles about Yosef Perl’s satire Megaleh temirin (Revealer of Secrets; 1819) and about its roots in the European satirical tradition. In the journal Pirḥe tsafon (Flowers of the North; 1844), editor Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn published a detailed discussion of Adam ha-Kohen’s Shire sefat kodesh (Poems in the Holy Tongue), and Fuenn’s editorial colleague Eli‘ezer Lipman Horovitz wrote a historical survey of Hebrew poetry from the biblical period to modern times. However, these and others were isolated and rare publications.

The true birth of Hebrew literary criticism in Eastern Europe occurred in the 1860s, when three parallel events prepared the ground for its appearance. One was the establishment of the maskilic weeklies Ha-Magid (1856), Ha-Melits (1860), Ha-Karmel (1860), and Ha-Tsefirah (1862), which made space available to critics. The second was the appearance of Avraham Mapu’s novels in Hebrew in the 1850s: Ahavat Tsiyon (The Love of Zion) and ‘Ayit tsavu‘a (The Hypocrite) provoked a lively and principled controversy between admirers and detractors. The third event was the consolidation of the realist-positivist school of criticism in Russia, represented by Dmitrii Pisarev (1840–1868) and Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828–1889), a factor that influenced young Hebrew authors, providing them with an ideological thrust and a theoretical system.

The significant point of departure was an article by Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), “Kilkul ha-minim” (The Spoiling of [the word] minim; minim having multiple denotations, among them genres, genders, heretics, and stringed instruments), which was included in his book, Mishpat shalom (1860). In that article, he attacked a work by Eli‘ezer Zweifel called Minim ve-‘ugav (Stringed Instruments and Organ; 1858). Abramovitsh’s critique, written in a radical maskilic spirit, condemns Zweifel’s tendency to compromise between Haskalah and religious orthodoxy, but its main innovation is not ideological but literary. The article condemns the “amateurish” character of the book, which, as was common at the time, was in his view a heap of pointless rhetorical ornaments, barren rhymes, quotations, and wordplay. Abramovitsh accordingly formulated a principled argument stating the obligation of Hebrew literature to relate to concrete social and national reality and to reflect its atmosphere and tensions. He continued to develop this argument in other articles in that decade, as well as in his novel Limdu hetev (Learn to Do Good; 1862).

Abramovitsh’s critique, inspired by Russian criticism, was carried out vehemently and impressively in the work of Avraham Uri Kovner. In the latter’s first book, Ḥeker davar (An Inquiry; 1865), Kovner passed severe judgment on the Hebrew literature and journalism of his time, arguing that it lacked direct connection with life and floated in a world of abstract rhetoric. On the basis of detailed analyses, he demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew literature, with the exception of Mapu, to European, and praised the way Mapu focused on contemporary life in ‘Ayit tsavu‘a. Kovner’s book aroused a stormy response, in reaction to which he published Tseror peraḥim (A Bouquet of Flowers; 1868), mocking the insults of his critics and reinforcing his argument for the creation of literature that reflected life. The second prominent critic of that generation was Avraham Ya‘akov Paperna, who expressed similar views, but more moderately, in Kankan ḥadash male yashan (A New Jug Filled with the Old; 1867). He wrote a second work as well, Ha-Dramah bi-khelal veha-‘ivrit bi-ferat (Drama in General and Hebrew [Drama] in Particular; 1867), central to which was his critique of the artificiality of the allegorical play Emet ve-emunah (Truth and Faith) by Adam ha-Kohen. An extension of these materialistic-utilitarian views is found in articles by Mosheh Leib Lilienblum beginning in the 1870s. Lilienblum condemned love poetry, for example, as idle words, foreign to the spirit of Judaism.

Another, even contrary, direction is evident in the contemporaneous critical work of Perets Smolenskin. He began with a booklet called Bikoret tihyeh (Let There Be Criticism; 1867), disparaging the translation cum adaptation of Goethe’s Faust by Me’ir Letteris. Smolenskin followed his first text with a constant flow of criticism in his monthly, Ha-Shaḥar (The Dawn). His literary views were influenced by his tendency toward idealistic, romantic philosophy, and he shows a conspicuous and conscious affinity to the Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848). The central ideas that Smolenskin drew from him included regarding literature as an expression of a certain national or religious spirit, as well as emphasizing broad aesthetic, ethical, and humanistic values in literature, while rejecting Pisarev’s type of narrow, present-oriented utilitarianism. Against this background, one may understand Smolenskin’s attitude toward the poetry of Yehudah Leib Gordon, for example, in Smolenskin’s article “Ve-zot le-Yehudah” (And This Is for Judah; 1880). While praising Gordon’s artistic achievement and success in expressing the spirit of the Hebrew nation in his early historical long poems, Smolenskin condemned him for writing militant, engaged poetry focused on the present, which he regarded as a falling off from the high status of the “poet for all generations” by assuming rather the rickety and dubious status of a “poet for his own generation” alone. Smolenskin’s complex thinking about literature, which included both national and aesthetic aspects, contained within it seeds of contradictions that were to develop and split Hebrew literary thought in the following generation.

Around 1880 there was considerable expansion of criticism in Hebrew with the rise of a new generation connected to the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement. Debates regarding the nature, situation, and purpose of belles lettres for the Jewish public appeared in literary journals and newspapers, which grew more numerous and expanded in the 1880s in response to a constantly growing readership. Among the critics were Mordekhai ben Hillel ha-Kohen, Shim‘on Bernfeld, Getsl Zelikovitch, Shemu’el Leib Zitron, and Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski. Veteran maskilic authors, who underwent a shift in thinking in the national direction, joined them. Among these were Mosheh Leib Lilienblum, Avraham Shalom Friedberg, Sha’ul Pinḥas Rabbinowitz, Yehudah Leib Levin, and Re’uven Asher Braudes. These theorizers created a nationalist-realist stream in criticism. Among its characteristics were the condemnation of Haskalah literature for being cut off from the needs of the people; the demand for an engaged literature dealing with current situations and advocating national values; the demand to restrict literature to decidedly Jewish subjects; and the fostering of the ideal of the national author or poet as a kind of prophet and guide for the Jewish people.

In contrast to this dominant trend, a tendency also arose toward a West European romantic orientation, rejecting the standards of ideology and the concentration on current events and seeking to sever evaluation of the aesthetic object from standards of national utility or connection with reality. The most important critic to formulate this trend was David Frishman, who began his career as a critic in 1880 with a series of blunt attacks that had wide reverberations upon the chief speakers in the Hebrew literary arena of his day, from Smolenskin to Yehudah Leib Gordon. In 40 years of activity as a critic, editor, and translator, Frishman became the most outstanding and consistent representative of the aesthetic direction of thought in Hebrew literature as well as the most prominent advocate of opening the gates of Hebrew culture to the spirit of the West. Frishman rejected the idea of Zionist renewal, and in its place proposed his own idea of the redemption of the Jewish people, which was anchored in the aesthetic dimension—that is, he advocated the writing of artistic literature as a therapeutic means of rehabilitating the national soul, which was ill and distorted. Among the critics close to Frishman to one degree or another at the beginning of his career were Zalman Epstein, Naḥum Sokolow, Mordekhai Tsevi Mane, Yosef Eliyahu Trivosh, Yehudah Leib Kantor, Y. L. Peretz, and especially Re’uven Brainin. The critical enterprise of Yosef Klausner represents a kind of synthesis between the two trends. His motto was “Judaism and Humanity.”

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the national-realistic trend split into two rival camps. In Odessa, a didactic national literary school arose, inspired by Ahad Ha-Am’s doctrine of spiritual Zionism, and in Warsaw an aesthetic-realistic outlook, not subject to the Zionist goal, took shape around Ben-Avigdor (Avraham Leib Shalkovich) and his Ha-Mahalakh he-Ḥadash (New Movement) school. Moreover, the aesthetic European outlook in the Frishman mode was continued by a group of Jewish students from Eastern Europe who had studied in German universities and were influenced directly by the modernism shaking up European literature at that time. The most prominent representatives of that trend were Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski, Mordekhai Ehrenpreis, and Yehoshu‘a (Osjasz) Thon. The dynamics between these three trends gave rise to a series of literary controversies during that decade. Among these were the controversy over naturalism in the fiction of the New Movement; the controversy over the influence of Nietszsche’s thought on Hebrew culture; the discussion about the heritage of Yehudah Leib Gordon; the “culture controversy” concerning the nature of modern Hebrew culture and its connection with the emerging political Zionism; the dispute over plastic art and its place in the national culture; the dispute over love poetry, following Lilienblum’s article, “Divre zemer” (Words of Song); the debate over the collection of poetry Ḥezyonot u-manginot (Visions and Melodies) by Tchernichowsky; the argument about books by Berdyczewski, which appeared together in 1899–1900; and the argument concerning the expansion of the literary Hebrew language and its renewal along with its severance from traditional sources.

The most important of these debates began in 1896. It pitted Ahad Ha-Am and his supporters against Berdyczewski and his followers and revolved around the program that Ahad Ha-Am proposed at the beginning of his monthly, Ha-Shiloaḥ. Ahad Ha-Am declared that he would limit the place of belles lettres in his journal solely to works dealing with the needs of the nation, and he advised readers interested in aesthetic experiences for their own sake to turn to the rich and developed literatures of Europe. Berdyczewski rebelled against this division, declaring that he and his comrades would seek to expand the boundaries of Hebrew literature along the lines of the best European literature. Extensions and metamorphoses of this debate continued until 1902, though ultimately it should be seen as an internal discussion within the secular Zionist camp; its main importance was its contribution to the definition of the boundaries and contents of emerging Hebrew culture.

Hebrew literature in Eastern Europe, including criticism, reached its peak in richness and variety at the beginning of the twentieth century. Among the outstanding critics then were Menaḥem Mendel Feitelson, Yitsḥak Lubetzky, and Bal-Makhshoves (Isidor Eliashev). First scholarly works were published, treating Hebrew literature from the Haskalah period on. Some of these were monographs on authors (Brainin on Avraham Mapu and Perets Smolenksin; Klausner on Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik; Ben-Avigdor on Yesha‘yahu Bershadsky; Lachower on Ahad Ha-Am and Uri Nisan Gnessin), while others were broad historical surveys: the book by Naḥum Slouschz, Korot ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah (The History of Modern Hebrew Literature; 1906) and the text by Mordekhai Rabinsohn, Sifrutenu ha-ḥadashah (Our Modern Literature; 1913). Some critics continued to draw upon Russian positivism (Feitelson), while others based themselves on the French criticism of Hippolyte Taine and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (Brainin). Yet others turned to the doctrine of realistic literature of the Danish Jewish critic Georg Brandes (Ehrenpreis), and some were attracted by idealistic and romantic German philosophy (Frishman, Berdyczewski). Generally speaking, criticism at that time reflected complex syntheses, depending on the individual sensibilities of each critic, whether the critic’s leanings were nationalist and realistic or West European, in all the varieties and extensions of these tendencies.

The new generation of poets and prose writers in the first decade of the twentieth century was closely followed by critics, and the first efforts to discern its general character were made during the first stages of its formation, as in Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s essay “Shiratenu ha-tse‘irah” (Our Young Poetry; 1906), in Yosef Klausner’s Ha-Zeramim ha-ḥadashim shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-tse‘irah (The New Streams of Young Hebrew Literature; 1907), in Ben-Avigdor’s Ha-Sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-tse‘irah (Young Hebrew Literature; 1910), in Yosef Ḥayim Brenner’s essay “Rishme sifrut” (Literary Impressions; 1912), and in Bal-Makhshoves’s “Ha-Tekufah ha-aḥaronah be-sifrutenu” (The Recent Period in Our Literature; 1913). Along with this came a revision in the estimation of the great writers of the earlier generation, beginning with the general criticism of Mordekhai Ehrenpreis on Haskalah literature in his essay, “Le’an?” (Whither?; 1897) and concluding with the article by Shelomoh Tsemaḥ, “Ba-‘Avotot ha-havai” (In the Ties of Folk Life; 1919), directed against the nusaḥ (prose style) created by Abramovitsh. The works of authors who had died in their youth, such as Mordekhai Ze’ev Feierberg, Eliyahu Meidanik, Mordekhai Tsevi Mane, and Menaḥem Mendel Feitelson, were collected and published along with comprehensive critical evaluations. Yosef Klausner, Ya‘akov Fichmann, and Fishel Lachower devoted themselves especially to that task.

With the dwindling of Hebrew literary life in Eastern Europe after World War I, literary criticism also diminished. Nevertheless, in Russia and Poland a number of scholars continued to create a significant body of scholarship during the period between the wars. Bentsiyon Katz, who taught Hebrew language and literature at the University of Kraków and in the Institute for Jewish Studies in Warsaw, published a monograph in 1935 on the life and work of Uri Nisan Gnessin. Yisroel Tsinberg spent decades in Saint Petersburg writing a multivolume history of Jewish literature in all its languages from the Middle Ages until the end of the Haskalah period (Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn), until he was arrested and exiled in a Stalinist purge. He died in 1938, his work incomplete. Ḥayim Naḥman Shapira, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Kovno, spent the last years of his life writing a comprehensive work on the history of modern Hebrew literature, which was eventually supposed to comprise 12 volumes. He managed to publish the first volume in 1938, containing an original discussion of Haskalah literature in Germany. The second volume, on the literature of Galicia and Lithuania, was finished. However, the manuscript was lost with its author, who was executed in 1943 in the Kovno ghetto.

Suggested Reading

Ornah Golan, “Bikoret ha-sifrut-ha-yafah ha-‘ivrit: Hitpatḥutah ve-giluyeha ba-shanim 1897–1905” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1976); Nurith Govrin, Peles: Meḥkarim be-vikoret ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit (Tel Aviv, 1980); Shalom Kramer, ‘Al bikoret u-mevakrim: Perakim be-toldot ha-bikoret ha-‘ivrit (Tel Aviv, 1980); Dan Miron, “Bereshit ha-roman ha-‘ivri ha-aktuali,” in Ben ḥazon le-emet: Nitsane ha-roman ha-‘ivri veha-yidi ba-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh, pp. 217–334 (Jerusalem, 1979); Dan Miron, Harpayah le-tsorekh negi‘ah: Li-Kera’t ḥashivah ḥadashah ‘al sifruyot ha-yehudim (Tel Aviv, 2005); Iris Parush, Kanon sifruti ve-ide’ologyah le’umit: Bikoret ha-sifrut shel Frishman be-hashva’ah le-vikoret ha-sifrut shel Klozner u-Brener (Jerusalem, 1992); Samuel Werses (Shemu’el Verses), Bikoret ha-bikoret: Ha-‘Arakhot ve-gilgulehen (Tel Aviv, 1982).



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green