In praise of Brenner
By Be’eri Zimmerman | 08/11/2009
We must not generalize and slander all Jews or all rabbis. Criticism that contains an element of smugness and exultation, self-hatred and an absence of national-individual soul-searching is forbidden criticism. That which Brenner may say, thanks to his self-torment and the sincerity of his reproof, is forbidden to those whose criticism is by its very nature specious. Be'eri Zimmerman on the secular Tzaddik Yosef Haim Brenner
Dror Shaul's extraordinarily moving film, Sweet Mud, ends with two children riding their bicycles over the sweet mud and beyond it, as the camera points upward, capturing the open space of the world-auditorium, with a heavenly choir incanting The Fields in the Valley in the background. This cathedral-like finale might best be called a “Brenner ending,” because some of Brenner's most stirring works end just like that, with the narrator being borne on high, observing himself and his protagonists, and speaking to himself and the world in solemn words, trying to turn a void into consolation, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” as he murmurs: “The account is not yet complete,” at the end of the novel From Here and There.
A similar Brenner-like ending, with the camera pointing upward, can be found in S.Y. Agnon's monumental essay Yosef Haim Brenner in his Life and Death: “So that my comments will not be deficient of commentary on the Torah, I will speak of the Torah. It was told of R. Hanina Ben Tradyon, that he would publicly gather his disciples and, holding a Torah scroll in his bosom, teach them Torah. They brought Rebbe Hanina Ben Tradyon and said to him: Why have you engaged in Torah Study? He said to them: Because the Lord my God commanded me to. They immediately decreed for him to be burned at the stake.”
After Agnon's presents the full version of the Mishnaic story, he continues with a paraphrase of the continuation of that story: “Heaven forbid lest I compare our new literature to the Torah or even similar to a semblance of it, but it should be said of a person who has sanctified his life with his death and his death with his life, and was killed in Eretz Israel by gentiles because he was a Jew amongst Jews living in Eretz Israel, that those that seek to defend the honor of the Torah defend his honor too…” (Yosef Haim Brenner: A Memorial Selection, Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1971, 154).
Because we are talking about Agnon, the bird's-eye view immediately denies the depths he is observing from above: Any similarity between Hanina Ben Tradyon of the Ten Martyrs and Yosef Haim Brenner is denied, along with any connection between the praise of Brenner, which Agnon has just woven in his article, with threads of longing and awe, and the “words of the Torah.” And generally speaking, there can be no comparison between our new literature and the Torah; they are in no way similar. Indeed, in Agnon, as usual, he says one thing but means another, and nevertheless, the camera moves up, up and away, affirming the element of “Torah” in our new literature as well as the element of the Tzaddik in Brenner, of whom Agnon says in the essay: “Satan toiled laboriously on Brenner and distanced him from the Torah and from the commandments between man and God. Otherwise, he would be considered a complete Tzaddik” (ibid. p. 147).
Agnon's remarkable article was first published in the Molad periodical in the spring of 1961 in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Brenner's murder by Arab rioters on May 2, 1921. I learned of its existence when reading the book, Yosef Haim Brenner: A Memorial Selection, an outstanding example of panegyrical writing in an area of Jewish culture that is customarily termed “secular.” The book, which was edited by a member of the second Aliyah, (the wave of immigration in 1904-1914), Mordechai Kushnir (Snir), a student of Brenner, appeared in June 1944 published by Hakibbutz Hameuhad Publishing. The second, expanded edition of the book (which includes the essay by Agnon), was published by Menahem Dorman in 1971 to mark fifty years since Brenner's murder.
Provisions for the journey
The term Hagiographa has its source in the Greek word hagios, which means holy. In Christian culture, this term refers to the third section of the Bible, that part called in Hebrew Ketuvim, or Writings, which lacked the self-evident imprimatur of sanctity of the previous two sections, the Torah and the Prophets. This paved the way for the use of this name to designate the ancient literary genre of stories of the lives of heroes and saints.
At the center of the hagiographic text lies an exemplary character, and from the description of the events and developments of his life, his decisions, responses and the miracles that occurred to him emerges a value-based lesson, one directed at the readers or listeners to serve as a role model for their lives.
The Jewish version of this literary genre is called “literature of praises,” and the most outstanding examples are In Praise of R. Isaac Luria and In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov. In his review of the new edition of In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, Zeev Gries (“The place where legend touches history,” Haaretz, July 31, 1992) underscores the extent to which “the literature of the lives of the Tzadikim was and remains a minor and tiny literature within the entire scope of Jewish writing.” He even makes favorable mention of Martin Buber's collection of Hassidic stories, Tales of the Hasidim [Or Ha-Ganuz] noting Buber's view regarding the way in which the Hassidic Hagiographa expresses the values of the community in which it developed and to whom it is directed, as well as Buber's attempt to present this literature to the modern Jewish public in order to encourage it to build a “model of individual and public life that wants to sanctify their here and now” based on it. “The more I learn about the Hassidic stories,” wrote Gries, “the more I am drawn to the distinctions made by Buber, who considered the backbone of praise literature to be not the material history that it recorded, but rather the emotional reality of its listeners and readers, those whom it seeks to shape” (“The place of praise literature in the history of Hassidism,” Daat, Vol. 44, Winter, 2000, p. 91).
My emotional reality was shaped both by Hassidic stories in the style of Buber as well as by the praise of Brenner in the style of Kushnir and Forman, two faces that – thanks to my parents and teachers – became my spiritual backbone.
“One day, I visited Buber in Heppenheim,” writes Agnon, recalling an event that occurred towards the end of World War I in Germany. “I was on my way to a shop to buy cigars when I saw a wagon without horses standing in the street, and on it lay a soldier warming himself in the sun. And he resembled Brenner in his body and hair, and face and eyes, and especially in the despair that could be seen in his expression and in every aspect of his being. And in addition to all that, he gazed at me with anger and resentment. I was stunned and amazed. I knew that he was not Brenner, but nevertheless, I found myself thinking that perhaps it was him, that perhaps he had been taken prisoner in the war and that his captors had brought him to Germany. I knew that that sight had not come except to torment me, and I decided that when the war was over, I would write to Brenner' (Yosef Haim Brenner: A Memorial Selection, Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1971, pp. 152-153).
This mysterious experience, which sounds like it comes from a book of fables, is a fundamental experience where Brenner is involved, and not only for Agnon. The entire book is replete with Brenner who is not Brenner, but is nevertheless Brenner. Two nightmares hover above the editor and publishers of the first edition. On the one hand, the murder-that-turned-out-to-be-the-Holocaust in Europe, and on the other, all those many places in Brenner's sizeable oeuvre where his bitterness towards his fellow Jews overflowed, many years before they would be murdered, beyond the cup of hemlock. These are the seething drops of venom about which he had already written in his first opinion article in Hebrew (“The Drop,” January 1905) and which continued to drip from his pen over many years, and which enabled – and still do to this day – self-righteous fools to categorize him as part of the large masses of Israel's enemies. In opposition to these come Brenner's writings and the praises collected in this memorial book to show us the hidden Tzaddik, whose ire is awakened by a wagon without horses, gazing at us with scorching anger.
Asher Beilin, the most agitated witness to the London chapter in Brenner's life (1904-1908), the period when he edited a Hebrew publication called HaMe'orer, declared dozens of years before Agnon: “If he were a religious man of faith, he would then be considered a saint in the eyes of the people (ibid. p. 94).
Slivers of mystery fly also from the story told by Haya Rottenberg (1913-1982; a pioneer of the second Aliya) about Brenner in the final year of his life: “I once passed through the old marketplace of Tel Aviv, behind the Gymnasia Herzliya high school. The sun had set and it was almost dark. The marketplace was deserted and the empty tables of the merchants resembled gravestones. At the edge of the market, near the shack that served as the synagogue for the Jews of Neve Shalom, I saw a large black mass of people. In my village, I had grown up next to a synagogue, and now I felt a desire to see the congregation from up close, and I approached them. Brenner was standing in the middle of the crowd and in a subdued voice talked to them of Herzl. Nothing in his external appearance distinguished him from the rest of the crowd (it was the 20th of Tammuz). Among the crowd, there was not a single woman. I hurried away from there, and in my heart I harbored feelings of mystery towards Brenner” (Ibid. p. 242).
Similarly, Shimon Kushnir tells of his days with Brenner in Jerusalem a year before the war broke out: “It was then that I began to gain an in-depth understanding of the ancient trait that would suddenly grab hold of the most noble ones upon seeing the prophet pass near them, casting behind them everything they had as they rose to follow him, with their staff and knapsack, willing to go wherever he told them. Then I felt that we all owed him a great debt” (ibid. p. 198).
The object of the praise – in praise of Brenner as in praise of a Tzaddik – will always be he who himself became a lesson, whose life and teachings are deeply intertwined, and both are so important to the observer that he will seek not to omit even a single detail. Like at the scene of a crime being revealed to Sherlock Holmes, where every little detail has meaning, everything must be collected, even the most elementary item, even if Watson doesn't immediately understand why; ultimately, the eloquent explanation will open his eyes. When I speak of the praises of the teacher, I participate in his life and am present in it; in shaping the image of the “Tzaddik,” I also shape the image of the “Hassid” – the follower, and my action as someone retelling the story turns me too into a spiritual focus in the eyes of my listeners.
The aura of secrecy shrouding Brenner in this book is manifest in many places. The Tzaddik is not a Tzaddik, unless he has a secret aspect, and panegyric is not panegyric, unless you can sense the aura of secrecy hovering above it.
Brenner's tendency to weep inconsolably when deeply moved by emotion is repeatedly described as a sudden revelation of a drama occurring within him all the time, similar to “Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried,” the ancient portrait of the servant of God as portrayed by Isaiah the prophet (53:4). Brenner weeps when the ship in which he immigrated to Israel approaches the shores of Jaffa and the city draws into view. He weeps upon reading the letters of his teacher, Rabbi Heschel Noteh Gnessin (the father of his friend Uri Nissan), that reached him. He weeps while lecturing about Peretz Smolenskin in Petah Tikvah. And in each of these cascades of tears is reflected not only his individual soul, but also the image of the nation imprinted on it.
To the visible weeping is added also a secret, extra merit. For example, the story that Agnon tells about Brenner, the undaunted critic of Judaism and the Jews, who was tormented for his bluntness on these subjects both during his life as well as many years after his death (especially after the Holocaust, by the literary critic Avraham Kariv): “Here I would like to say something against our friend Avraham Kariv, may he live long,” said Agnon. “One Shabbat afternoon, I was walking with Brenner in Kiryat Moshe in Jerusalem, and with us was the late Dov Kimhi of blessed memory and two others, who are also already in the next world. We were talking about Dostoyevsky and about the righteous among the nations. One of them said, what makes our Tzaddikim righteous? That they get fat off the sweat of the poor. Another added, let me tell you a story: A famous rabbi lived in my town and was considered by the world to be a great Tzaddik. When he spoke, Brenner shouted out in anger, and what do you think of the Maharam of Rottenberg? He agreed to remain in prison for six years. He had barely finished saying these words when he burst into sobs” (ibid. p. 133).
It is quite possible that those that attacked the rabbis were prompted to do so due to the presence of Brenner, who was known far and wide for his harsh criticism of the negative aspects of Jewish society. Those in his company were apparently affected by the prevalent superficial view regarding his opinions, and consequently thought that they would please him with comments that they believed coincided with his views. Brenner's dramatic weeping was a response not to the facts noted by the speakers, but rather to the internality of their words, in which Brenner identified a sense of smugness and self-hatred, and a lack of personal-national self-criticism and accountability. And perhaps this weeping also reflected a fear that he, Brenner, was partly responsible for shaping the alienated views of his interlocutors. That, I believe, was Agnon's intent in telling this story. That that which Brenner may say, thanks to his self-torment and the sincerity of his reproof, is forbidden to those whose criticism is by its very nature specious.
Similarly, Boaz Wolfson (the brother of Haya Wolfson, the woman that Brenner loved and who was murdered in the 1905 pogroms in Russia) also notes that Brenner “could not tolerate even the slightest falseness in himself or others. “I recall,” he writes, “that on one occasion, we gathered, a group of fellows, and went a little wild. Within a short time, we were all drunk and burst into song, singing songs of the revolution. It was during the spring of the Russian Revolution. Suddenly Brenner burst out: “Wretches! What does this revolution have to do with you?!” (ibid. p. 319).
Just as it was forbidden to speak ill of Jews in general or rabbis in general, through the stories about Brenner, we learn of his philosophy, according to which one must not, even when drinking with friends and having fun, cast aspersions on the purity of the days of the first revolution, that of 1905. He himself, Brenner, could criticize and burst out in anger, because his passion was fueled by self-torment and love of his people, but those in whom this fire did not burn, or who merely sought to turn the ethical into the aesthetic, ought better remain silent.
The strength of greatness
Nevertheless, even the Tzaddik's intuitive ability to distinguish between good and evil needs a yardstick that can be passed on to the general public. Agnon formulates this Brenner yardstick in his own unique language: “When I look back on those years when I was closer to him than perhaps any other person, I see [...] that he reached the view . I see [...] that he reached the view that anyone whose greatness comes not of his own strength, and who seeks greatness for himself, is wanting"(ibid. p. 132). Indeed, it is exactly based on this view that, in numerous places in his writings, Brenner denies the basic article of faith regarding the “chosenness” of the Jewish people and its special stature in the world, and harshly condemns false Jewish pride and manifestations of corruption and neglect. That is why he earned an undeserved reputation in the Jewish world as someone who seeks out flaws in order to draw pleasure from them. When Agnon, who in 1909, after he himself was already living in Eretz Israel, heard that Brenner had also arrived, recalls his reaction: “On account of myself, I rejoiced; on account of Brenner I did not. I cannot deny that for Brenner, the whole world appeared to be a gloomy valley, and all Jews vanity and desolation. I feared lest he see our settlement as he saw the other Jewish settlements in the exile of the Diaspora, and dishearten us. [...] God be praised that my fear was unfounded. Brenner came and saw the land and its workers and his heart went out to theirs” (ibid. p. 121).
Brenner saw that the greatness of the workers of Eretz Israel came from their own efforts, that there is a truth in the land the like of which exists nowhere else, neither in the heavens nor in any other country, whose strength raises one up and which must be fostered. He who walks on his own land can stand up tall and proud. Throughout all his years in Eretz Israel, until he was murdered, he held onto the tail of this bird of truth, and consequently, took the trouble to pluck its false feathers, remove the traces of filth that stuck to them, to strengthen it in its flight, in its soaring upward. “Sins that you see in me are not sins to me, and virtues that you seek to credit me with are not virtues in my eyes,” Agnon formulates in his memoirs Brenner's answer to Yaakov Malkhov, his Haredi friend who lived in Jaffa, who studied in the same yeshiva and who reminded him of the past, in the hope that in doing so he might cause him to repent (ibid. p. 123). Indeed, the Brenner rebellion was a constant dialogue between virtue and sin, between new and old, between the fear of impurity and the fear of sanctity.
“…I heard your voice walking in the garden, I read your letter and lo I saw that you are naked and wanting,” thus began a postcard that Rabbi Gnessin sent to Brenner, his student who had become a heretic, a postcard that was preserved for many years among Brenner's meager belongings, as testified to by Agnon (ibid. p. 133): “When Brenner showed me the words of his rabbi,” relates Agnon, “he laughed good-heartedly.” There you have everything. The awareness of rebellion out of a closeness of hearts, cultural sharing out of disagreement, a thorny dialogue combining love and awe and respect and esteem, goodness of heart and laughter.
The camera points upwards, higher and higher, stretching the lines of similarity and identification between opposites, making peace, erasing injustices and lies. “The Jewish people, rationally speaking, has no future,” says Brenner's protagonist in From Here and There. “Nevertheless, we must work,” he added.
One hundred years later, inside an irrational future, on this sweet mud, nevertheless, we must work. “Long live human Jewish work!” cries Brenner's hero. “The fields in the valleys greeted me tonight…” sings the choir. “The account is not yet complete.”
Translated by Ruchie Avital