from the book
Asher Hirsch Ginzberg, better known by his pseudonym Ahad Ha’am, was born in the Ukraine in 1856, into a rich family of Hassidic merchants. He was introduced to both Jewish and secular subjects by private tutors; he then embarked on the study of philosophy, the sciences and languages. His studies gradually led him to modify his religious stance and to join the circles of the intelligentsia – known as the Maskilim – the advocates of openness to general culture, and of active entry into civil society.
The Jewish world of central and eastern Europe at that time comprised three main trends. Hassidism, steeped in Kabbalah and organized into communities of devotees grouped around masters, preached pious adherence to ancestral traditions and rapture in worship of the divine which would enhance religious intent. Their opponents, the Mitnagdim, were recruited from the intellectual elites of the rabbinic academies. They mocked the religious puerility of the Hassidim and decried the magical significance they attributed to the commandments. The Mitnagdim prescribed study of the texts, particularly the Talmud, as the royal road to knowledge of God. Lastly, the Maskilim were more detached from tradition and determined to find the best way to prepare for life outside the ghetto.
Ahad Ha’am denigrated neither his Hassidic past, nor his Mitnaged inclinations. He willingly assumed the world of both or either in the desire – not devoid of a certain irony of course – to gain the largest possible readership. In his concern to escape from traditional classifications and to rise above the schisms which divided Jewry, he took pleasure in declaring himself “in love with Israel”.
The excerpts in this booklet are translated from:
Ahad Ha’am, Al Parashat Derakhim,
Judischer Verlag G.m.b.v., Berlin, 1921.