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Ahad Ha-Am’s life was neither eventful nor fruitful in practical achievement, and it might be thought that his personality and the events of his life are without interest or importance, seeing that his teaching, which is what really matters, can be distilled from his written work. That idea fits in with his own insistence on hiding his individuality behind a very impersonal pseudonym, and on maintaining a rigid separation between opinions and the personalities of their propounders. Without some knowledge of his personal characteristics, background and early education, however, his attitude to the problems of Jewish life and Judaism cannot be fully understood, his philosophy being largely, at least in its omissions and emphases, a projection of his personality. His influence, moreover, is due as much to his character as to his ideas. The presentation of his views is interwoven in this book with a reasonably detailed account of his life, and of his early life in particular. The author endeavored to throw into relief the points of contact between his personal characteristics and his approach to the interpretation of Judaism and the question of the Jewish future.
Jewish life has undergone vast changes during the last half-century, and the problem of the survival of Jewry and Judaism, which was Abad Ha-Am’s chief concern, now wears superficially a different aspect. But the fundamentals of his teaching have not thereby lost their relevance, and his “spiritual Zionism” is still as capable as it was fifty years ago of giving inspiration and guidance to assimilated Jews, especially of the younger generation, who are attached to the Jewish people and are capable of taking a serious interest in its problems. This biography serves to help in some degree to stimulate interest in Ahad Ha-Am and his work among English-speaking Jews.
Sir Leon Simon, C.B. was born at Southampton (England) in 1881 and educated at Manchester Grammar School and Oxford. After graduating in “Greats” in 1904, he entered the British Civil Service and served in the General Post Office until his retirement in 1944 after attaining the rank of Director. After his retirement he was for some years Chairman of the Executive Council of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is still a member of the University’s Board of Governors. His Zionist activity began over half-a-century ago, and he was among the original members of the Zionist Commission to Palestine in 1918; but his main interest has been in the cultural aspect of Jewish nationalism, and particularly in the Hebrew revival. A disciple of Ahad Ha-Am since his student days, and a personal friend from 1908 onwards, he has published three volumes of translations of Ahad Ha-Am’s writings, and is joint author of the Hebrew biography of him published in 1956.
The author’s other publications include Studies in Jewish Nationalism (1920) and a Hebrew volume of Essays on Ancient Greek Literature (1951), as well as translations into Hebrew of John Stuart Mill’s essay on Liberty, and of several of Plato’s Dialogues for which he received the Tchernichowsky prize.
GLOSSARY OF HEBREW WORDS
A high seriousness and sense of responsibility were among his outstanding characteristics. He was the typical talmid hakham, for whom time not spent in study or in some other purposeful pursuit is time wasted. He was entirely innocent of self-importance or pomposity, but had none the less a strong sense of personal dignity, and he expected from others the same respectful treatment which he invariably accorded to them. His sensitiveness on this point showed itself particularly in his dread of ridicule. “I can stand anything with equanimity,” he once wrote to a friend, “insults, abuse, slander or what you will—only not being deservedly laughed at.” To be made a laughingstock would have been an intolerable blow to his self-respect.
Asceticism was contrary to his principles; but if he was no advocate of self-denial, self-indulgence appealed to him even less, except in the matter of cigarette-smoking and teadrinking, to both of which he was excessively addicted. Otherwise he seems to have been a model of abstemiousness; and in his mature years he was, possibly as the result of self-discipline, practically free of all craving for the pleasures or amusements by which men are distracted from their serious concerns. Having no interest in nature, or in any of the arts, he was no lover of the countryside or frequenter of the theater or the concert hall. He had none of the social graces, and did not go to receptions and parties. As a boy he had been fond of swimming and card-playing, and had shed tears over the romances of Kaiman Shulman; but all these diversions, and the reading of poetry, were abandoned when he reached years of discretion, if not before. His last surviving pastime was chess, which he gave up in his fiftieth year, having decided that they were right who pronounced it not serious enough to be worth study, but too serious for a pastime. He had an insatiable appetite for intellectual occupation, and he habitually overdrove himself until his health compelled him to take a rest and a cure. He used to grumble about overwork, but there is no reason to suspect insincerity in his admonition in a letter to Klausner of 1913: “Work, work! What else is worth doing?”
His one relaxation was in the society of his friends, to whom he was deeply attached. He was inhibited by his temperamental reserve from giving rein to his emotions—a disability of which he was regretfully conscious—but they were none the less strong, and his affection for his friends was among the most powerful. It was proof against all differences of opinion, and against their occasionally none too courteous expression of dissent from his views. It often found practical expression when a friend, or a struggling young author, needed help; and his generosity did not distinguish between those who shared his views and those who did not.
As a conversationalist he was not brilliant or forceful, but his measured words carried weight by virtue of the wisdom, integrity and rare objectivity with which they were informed. He talked for the most part on serious topics, but in the company of his friends he could relax and indulge in light conversation, garnished with amusing anecdotes, to which he was very partial. Hearty laughter was not in keeping with his character, and he had not the sense of fun which revels in the sheer absurdity of a comic situation. His was a satirical turn of humor, most readily aroused by the irrationality and the oddities of human behavior, but there was no touch of malice in his satire. He had a great gift for producing an apposite humorous saying or anecdote to drive home a serious point. When, as happened not seldom, a course of action adopted against his advice did not bring about the dire consequences which he had foretold, he would quote in Yiddish an aphorism to the effect that “an act of folly which turns out well is still an act of folly.” An example of his use of anecdote is the story of Abraham the Fool at the end of the Discarded Old Manuscript. Another, not published, is his ruling on the question once submitted to him by some anti-religious teachers of the Tel Aviv Gymnasia, whether they should comply with the demand of the orthodox patrons of the school that the pupils must cover their heads during the Bible lesson. They feared that compliance with this demand might involve a sacrifice of principle. In reply he told them the following story. A Jew brought up in the strictest orthodoxy emigrated from his native Galician village to New York, where in course of time he became a Reform rabbi. A close friend of his boyhood days, who had remained in the village and still conformed to the traditional Jewish way of life, happened once to be in New York on business, and took the opportunity of visiting his old playmate. Calling on the rabbi on a Sabbath afternoon, he was shocked to find him smoking a cigar; and when he too was invited to smoke, his indignation knew no bounds. Whereupon the rabbi said: “What? You won’t smoke? Never mind: one can be a good Jew even if one doesn’t smoke on the Sabbath!” The moral was that the teachers might, without prejudice to their secularist principles, emulate the Reform rabbi’s tolerance of traditional Jewish practice.
He was of a kindly disposition, and his general mood was cheerful, though he was subject to periods of depression, more especially in his later years of ill-health. Essentially he was a lonely man, living much in his own inner world, intensely introspective, and with enormous power of concentration. He seems to have lacked any natural urge for self-expression and generally wrote, when he did write, rather in obedience to his sense of duty than for the joy of creation. Writing for publication was a difficult and painful process and involved a heavy responsibility.
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