Jewish Thought and History

Aspects of My Father’s Philosophy of Jewish History

Jonah overboard (Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
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Aaron Zeitlin

Translated by Daniel Kraft

Translator’s Note: This essay, written in Yiddish by Aaron Zeitlin (1898-1973), was first published in 1967. In it, Zeitlin—one of the twentieth century’s great Yiddish poets and playwrights—introduces his father’s philosophical and theological understanding of Jewish history and of the Jewish people’s unique national identity. His father, Hillel Zeitlin (1872-1942), was a highly influential Yiddish and Hebrew writer and mystic. Hillel Zeitlin was raised in a Hasidic home in what is now Belarus, but left the traditional yeshiva world as a teenager, and became enamored with secular Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers like Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. After World War I, he returned to an Orthodox lifestyle, but with ideas enlivened by his secular studies. In his writing, he articulated a dynamic Jewish mystical theology animated by hasidic sources and by contemporary philosophy. Zeitlin was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942; his sole surviving family member was his son Aaron, who was already a respected poet and playwright, and who worked to republish and to disseminate his father’s ideas in New York, after the war.

 Here, Aaron Zeitlin both quotes extensively from, and paraphrases, his father’s writings on the nature of Jewish history. The essay is divided into four parts. In the first, Aaron Zeitlin introduces his father’s general philosophy of modern history and of anti-semitism. The second section consists of his father’s retelling of the first chapter of Jonah, excerpted from a 1938 essay. Part three presents Hillel Zeitlin’s understanding of Jonah as a parable for the relationship between the Jewish people and the broader world. In the concluding section, Aaron Zeitlin outlines his, and his father’s, general thesis: that the fulfillment of the Jewish historical mission demands the synthesis of seemingly opposite ideas, the paradoxical unity of Jewish particularism, and Jewish universality.

My thanks to the Congress for Jewish Culture for granting me permission to translate this essay, which was taken from Aaron Zeitlin’s posthumous collection of Literarishe un Filosofishe Esayen (Literary and Philosophical Essays).

1. The Other Side of Anti-Semitism

In an essay titled “Jacob and Esau,” published 56 years ago [in 1911], my father wrote that, alongside the terrible darkness and misfortune that anti-semitism has brought into being, anti-semitism has also had the effect of making “Europe begin to consider Jewry a global problem.” Through this, anti-semitism expressed, in hidden terms, “the concept of Jews and gentiles”; it emphasized Jewish particularity, although it did this, of course, with its own aims. Independent of anti-semitism’s intentions, this differentiation of Jews, when considered through the philosophy of history, is a positive thing.

That essay by my father is based on the idea that the past is never past: “What once has been is brought to life countless times.” If we understand this in the sense of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” then the past returns “precisely as it was,” and if we understand it in the sense of “typical,” that is, Darwinian evolution, then the past, when it returns, is “improved, beautified, and deepened.” Before I go further I will permit myself, as a digression, to remark that the concept of evolution is a bit misleading here. By “typical evolution,” my father really had in mind something closer to the idea of tikkun, rectification.

I return to the argument in my father’s essay. The eighteenth century either did not see the past, or avoided seeing it, or fought against it tooth and nail. The result was that “the earth became full of altars to the God of revolution; hundreds of thousands of human sacrifices were laid at its feet, and it was not satisfied. This God demanded seas of blood, in order to drown the past in them.”

But, through this, the nineteenth century was born, and it was born “smiling at the past: with idealist philosophers on one side, romantics on the other, and learned, serious, non-partisan historical thinkers in the middle.”

The future came to this new century with its own claims: “The newborn nineteenth century, however, conceived of the future as a child of the past.” In truth, this century too, when it came of age, shattered and destroyed so much, with even “more strength and power than its predecessor.” But it did not grow intoxicated by idolizing itself, and did not blind itself with rationalism as the eighteenth century had.

The main thing: that initial smile towards the past became, over time, much more than a passing smile. In its old age, the past that was at first glance shattered began to return to the nineteenth century completely in earnest. In the beginning, this return was chaotic and spectral, jumbled and confused, a wild dance of the dead. But, beginning around the 1890s, signs of continuity and recurrence appeared. Ur-Christendom returned, preached by Tolstoy; medieval Catholicism acquired a “neo”; modern pagans appeared; spirituality took on new forms; old philosophical systems returned to life, old beliefs, and ideas; Europe grew interested in the teachings of Buddha and in the world of Brahmanism. The past wanted to be experienced in a new way. The new pagan, for example, began to understand his own intentions. The same thing for the new Christian.

And the new Jew? He “also wants to know what to do with himself, what is the purpose of his history, what is the purpose of his suffering, what is he in his deepest essence, what is his God, what is his soul, what is his eternity?”

That old hatred of Israel, which was simply a specter from the past, was also reanimated (my father believed this then) with the pulse of an idea that hides, along with calamity and darkness, a will to truly recognize the Jew, if only in order to fight against him. This is, again, according to my father’s understanding at that time. But this will forces the modern Jew to recognize himself (“with deep consideration of anti-semitism, there also comes consideration of Jewish thought”), and the honest non-Jewish scholar is compelled to seek the Jew’s particular essence in order to arrive at the secret of the Jew’s eternity.

These ideas were expressed almost sixty years ago, but the older the young twentieth century grew, the clearer it became that anti-semitism did not intend to recognize the Jew, even if only in order to fight him. The opposite was true: anti-semitism wanted precisely not to recognize the Jew, but rather to surround him with lies and false accusations in order to invent a pretext to physically exterminate him. “Intellectual” anti-semitism, again, although it had the pretense of “spirituality,” in the final analysis only poured gasoline on the fire of anti-Jewish bloodlust and the ultra-Cainism of which Nazism was the terrible expression.

The truth is that my father, who had warned the masses and the intelligentsia, calling loudly for a new “Exodus from Egypt” years before he wrote the essay under discussion, was exceptionally far from illusions concerning the Jewish situation in the world, just as he had no illusions concerning humanity in general. If he nevertheless sought, as we see, “a second side” to the gentile’s relationship to the Jews, beyond the biological, it was because such seeking was directly bound to his philosophy of the history of Judaism: aside from the empirical Jew, there is the archetypal Jew, who is the center of world history. All world-historical events revolve around the archetypal Jew and his passage through the generations. The superior gentile feels that there lies a secret, a secret he wants to understand. The extent to which he opposes Jews consists precisely in the hidden particularity of the historical Jewish manifestation, which the gentile is not capable of understanding.

Even as late as 1938, in an essay published in the Paris anthology At the Crossroads, my father returned to that other side of anti-semitism, which he mentioned in the short essay from 1911. The tone in 1938 is different than in “Jacob and Esau,” but again he points out the hatred towards Jews felt even by those who are “serious, thoughtful, courageous, and fair,” and he raises the question: what is the source of their hatred?

Of course, the great majority of anti-semites hate Jews because of an innate cruelty. We have known from time immemorial that the human heart contains tremendous cruelty, “since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth.” This cruelty is not impeded or moderated by the will to do good, as much as it is by the fear that the weak have of the strong, and the strong of those who are even stronger. This cruelty, this malignant energy, that accumulates both in individuals and in nations, seeks an outlet. Without any other mode of expression, it is unloaded on the weakest of the weak, on the Jews.

In addition to this cruel majority is a minority that hates us not because of cruelty but because of inherited prejudices and ignorance. A portion of this minority consists of those people who could better understand the archetypal Jew’s world historical role, if not for an error. What is that error?

We have come here to a second aspect that is, in order of importance, in fact the first: the national-universal mission of the Jewish people that consists, or must consist, in a synthesis of two things – “a covenant people” and “a light of nations.” But before we come to this synthesis, we need to dwell on a parable with which the essay in At the Crossroads opens, and around which it is built. It is an analogy comparing the people Israel, which neglects to pursue the “light of the nations” component of its mission, with the prophet Jonah, who did not want to travel to Nineveh (the world), and because of his flight a storm erupted that should have sunk the ship (humanity).

Given that a paraphrase in my own words would be no more than a shadow of the original source, I quote here (with minor abridgements and, occasionally, small word changes) the text itself.

2. The Parable

A ship swims over the sea. All is peaceful and calm. The sky above: cloudless. The song of the waves below: a hymn to the creator, and a hymn to the sailor, and a hymn to the captain who steers the ship.

Where does this ship go? To Tarshish. It goes there, where the hustle and bustle of global commerce takes place. The ship overflows with travelers from various nations and lands, with various gods.

A gentle wind escorts the ship. The sun’s rays shine on the flat sea. The ship’s captain bursts into song, and the travelers join in.

There is only one among these travelers for whom the sun does not shine, for whom the waves do not rhythmically murmur, for whom the angel of the sea does not sing to the creator, for whom the captain does not burst into song, for whom there is no joy in this journey.

They are traveling to Tarshish. There they will buy gold, silver, iron, tin, lead. They will bring it to Tzur and Sidon and every nearby nation. They will acquire treasures and bring them home. Oh, the wives, the children! They wait for their gifts. Before the eyes of their wives there appear: strings of pearls, earrings, nose rings, necklaces, bracelets, shawls, headscarves, spices, and jewels that will gleam in the dark and embellish their eastern beauty. The children imagine: boats with seafaring captains, with bells, with banners, with ponies, with swords, with soldiers, with coral, with driftwood, with toys brought from across the world.

Ah, how happy the fathers will be with the mothers! How happy the beloveds will be; they imagine their lovers, who will return from Tarshish to throw every treasure at their feet. Each heart is filled with joy and sweet hope.

But the one who knows no joy has nothing to find in Tarshish. He has nothing at all to do there, nothing to buy or to sell. He is a fugitive. He came to Yaffo, found a ship to Tarshish, and climbed on board.

What drives him? What hurries him? He cannot remain in his Hebrew land. There he received a divine commandment: “Go to the great city Nineveh, and call on it, that their wickedness has arisen before me.” Nineveh? What are Nineveh and its inhabitants to him? Why should he run to some distant land, to people he does not know, and cry out before them that their wickedness overflows every measure, and God’s wrath will soon pour over them? Will they hear him, will they understand? Will they throw stones at him? Won’t their children run after him, shouting, “lunatic, lunatic!” Won’t the jokers in the street spit in his face, grab him, throw him around, put a crown of thorns on his head, set him on a horse, and shout, “Long live this prophet!”

But he cannot remain in his Hebrew land. The divine voice orders him with wind and storm and fire and a still small voice: To Nineveh! Go to Nineveh!

He flees from that land of prophecy. There, in the Hebrew land, the One who created heaven and earth, dry land and sea, is so near, so near. He will travel somewhere foreign, where the divine voice is not so powerfully heard and does not appear so clearly. Perhaps his spirit will find peace.

The Hebrew is lost in his heavy thoughts. Suddenly – boom! Out of nowhere, a vicious storm spreads over the sea. The waves threaten to split the ship to splinters.

Sailors! Where are you? Captain! Where are you? Every traveler cries out to his own god. They throw all their luggage overboard, in order to lighten the ship. Only one of them does not tremble. While all the sailors run, screaming and throwing their belongings into the sea, he lowers himself into a corner of the ship – and falls asleep.

The ship’s captain comes: What is the matter with you? How are you sleeping? Go, call upon your God, because He will have pity on us; perhaps He will help us, and save us from drowning. The desperate travelers wring their hands and raise their eyes to heaven: A sinner is among us! A sinner! Let us cast lots. Who among us is the sinner?

The lot falls on him. Jonah Ben Amittai.

And everybody asks him: Tell us, how has this catastrophe befallen us because of you? What do you do? Where are you from? What is your homeland? Who are your people?

I am a Hebrew and I serve the God of the heavens, who created the sea and the dry land.

And why does He persecute you?

Because I wanted to flee from Him.

And a dread falls upon these men, and they say to the fugitive: what have you done?

And the storm rages, rages, and is not calm for a single moment. And the men say to the fugitive messenger: what should we do to you in order to calm the sea?

Throw me overboard, into the sea, and the sea will grow calm.

They try to fight their way back to land, and cannot, because the sea rages.

And they call to God: We beg you, Hashem, do not let us drown on account of this man, and do not punish us, please, Hashem. What You have wanted—You have done.

And they take the prophet Jonah and throw him into the sea.

And the raging of the sea is stilled.

3. The Parable’s Meaning

From this parable the essay goes, little by little, to the parable’s meaning. Let us imagine that this story takes place in our era of air travel. A traveler by air, above the ocean, has an apparatus that allows him to see everything occurring on the ship and on the sea, so that the smallest detail is not lost, although he cannot grasp the essence of the whole. What would someone like this think when he looks down from above at the events around Jonah the prophet? I quote further:

“He sees: a ship is sailing peacefully and calmly. He sees clearly that in the calm atmosphere is not the slightest omen of a coming storm. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a terrible tempest over part of the sea. He sees further, how everybody on the ship, the sailors, the captain, and the passengers, run frantically, in terror. He sees how one man separates himself from the group, and in the moment of the greatest danger lies down to sleep in a corner. What kind of man is this? How can a man go to sleep when death hovers before his eyes? And even more, he sees: everything on the ship is being thrown overboard.

“He sees later how a group of sailors, together with the captain and with the passengers, surround the strange man. They have a conversation with him. And afterwards they take him and throw him into the sea.

“‘Murderers! What are you doing?!’ our air passenger will call out.

“But afterwards he sees that the sea grows still as soon as this strange man is cast away. He thinks:

‘What can this be? The man was probably a terrible sinner. And those who threw him into the sea are pure and upright men.’

“Let us consider how much truth and how much falsehood there is in the judgment of this clear-sighted, clear-thinking observer.

“It is true that the man who was thrown overboard had committed a transgression. It is true that because of him the sea had grown stormy. And it is true that, afterwards, when he was cast into the sea, it grew calm. But the verdict is not true that the man thrown overboard was a sinner and that those who threw him were upright and pure. In truth they were typical creatures of flesh and blood: the sea did not seethe, and was not calmed, because of them. Only the one who was thrown in the water was a holy prophet. He bore the sole transgression: he wanted to flee from God’s mission.

“The air passenger clearly saw everything that occurred, and made logical deductions, but he could not see that which was invisible to the physical eye. He could not see the holy life of the one who was thrown into the sea like a sinner, and he could not know that God was revealed precisely to him, that precisely through him was God’s word to the sinner expressed, that precisely because he was God’s messenger was he punished: from those to whom much is given, much is demanded.”


No more. We are already near the parable’s meaning. The prophet, who does not go on his mission to Nineveh, is the Jewish people. The airplane passenger is even more symbolic. What does he mean? He is that non-Jewish minority, the best of the non-Jews, those who, despite their thoughtfulness and virtue, do not know the truth about Jews and Judaism. The people from this group

see the entire Jewish people just as this flier sees the catastrophe on the ship carrying the prophet… This observer would be distraught to see how the ship totters, and almost sinks, because of one person… This is also what this category of anti-semites remarks, that many great events take place around the Jewish people. But just as this observer from above, who sees only the surface and not the essence, judges falsely that Jonah is the sinner before those who throw him into the sea, while the truth is that Jonah is higher and holier than these people, so too does this category of anti-semite judge falsely in regard to the sinfulness or sinlessness of the Jewish people. They see only the fact that in almost every generation, in almost every land, Jews are persecuted, and they do not grasp that, precisely because the Jewish people is – in its deepest being – holier than other people, it is chosen by supernal providence to carry out a great mission in the world, and because it always has enough strength and will to carry its mission out, the Jewish people suffers more than others.

The key to the essence of the Jewish people is found in Tanakh. Everything we need to know about this people’s role is expressed there. In my father’s essay, “Have We Accomplished Our Mission?” he analyzes the biblical passages that make clear the link between the Jewish people’s essence and its history.

Tanakh, especially in the prophets, outlines the ultimate goal of the Jewish path. “The sense of a journey can be recognized in its culmination… When we find, then, in Tanakh, the final point on Israel’s path, its end goal, it becomes clear that Israel needs to aspire to that point in every epoch of its history.”

This raises the question: what does that ultimate goal consist of? My father’s answer: a synthesis of universalism and particularity.

4. The Path to the Synthesis

When one learns Tanakh with a clear head and an open heart, free of the exegesis and interpretations that have been constructed over countless generations, and all the more so free of the various stupidities, distortions, and complications of the so-called “bible critics,” one sees that Israel is chosen to be a distinct nation, distinct and distinguished, a sacred people, different from all other peoples on the earth. And one sees that, at the exact same time, this people has an explicit role: a mission to the world.

Israel, the nation, needs to be – if I may use my own terminology here – both closed and open. Those who preach closedness are only half correct, just as are those who preach openness alone.

When the prophet (Isaiah 42:6) says: “I God, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations,” this is addressed (just like many other sayings of the prophets are) to the entire nation of Israel, with whom the prophet identifies himself during the act of prophecy. If these words were intended to the prophet alone, the expression “covenant people” would be entirely incomprehensible. How can the individual, a prophet, become a “covenant people?”

In both this passage, and elsewhere in Tanakh, it is clear that Israel was created to bring about the synthesis of “covenant people” and “light of nations,”[1] of total particularity and total universalism. We could say that Israel must be distinct in order to be universal, or, to use the earlier metaphor, that this is a nation that must be closed off in order to be open.

We must not flee from our, so to speak, Nineveh mission. But in order not to flee from precisely this mission, in order to fulfill it, we must accept the command which only a prophetic nation can do, a holy people, not a people like all others.If we consider Jewish history, we see that for various reasons (my father’s essay lists them) we have not yet arrived at this synthesis, either because we were forced to lock ourselves away within the borders of an enclosed “covenant people,” or because we went (in Eastern Europe – from the Emancipation on) “to Nineveh,” and thereby lost our particularity, our prophetic essence, our national covenant.

Both the idea of a global Jewish mission and the idea of a particular Jewish nationalism rooted in national holiness draw, or must draw, spiritual nourishment from each other. But they have been incorrectly understood, and this hinders the progress towards the Jewish people’s world-historical, ultimate goal.

Assimilation took people “to Nineveh,” but without being a “covenant people,” they did not and could not have access to “Nineveh.” Likewise, every form of Jewish nationalism that inscribed secularism on its banners did not understand how close it was to the very assimilation against which it struggled.

The culminating prophecy of Isaiah, “And I appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations,” will never be fulfilled as long as we do not understand that, in the historical existence of the Jewish people, there cannot and must not be a distinction between separateness and world-mission, between particularity and universalism. These two apparent antitheses need to fulfill each other. Jonah the prophet was not permitted to say: what does Nineveh have to do with me? The Jewish people must go to the world, but not in order to be like the world, not for the sake of becoming equivalent, not in order to spiritually sink and disappear. We must go to the world as a holy nation, as a people that purifies itself in order to have both the right and the possibility to purify others. Only then can the tempest that threatens to drown both the ship and the prophet be stilled.

[1] I do not accept “light unto the nations” as it is commonly expressed, but “light of nations,” because in the text the lamed is connected not to “light,” but to “nations.”

Aaron Zeitlin (1898-1973) was a Yiddish poet and playwright. He was born in Russia, but settled in New York shortly before World War II.