Far From Reality

Why is A. D. Gordon, who enjoyed mythic status in his lifetime, so foreign to Israelis today? This book offers some of the answers, but not all.

"Hayim hadashim: Dat, imahut ve'ahava eliona behaguto shel Aharon David Gordon" ("New Life: Religion, Motherhood and Supreme Love in the Work of A.D. Gordon") by Einat Ramon, Carmel Books, 268 pages, NIS 88

In the small room of my parents' house on the kibbutz, a large cabinet stood against the wall. The two upper shelves were closed with sliding glass panels. Behind the glass, almost like the curtain covering the Holy Ark, were the household's most prized possessions: photographs of family members who perished in the Holocaust and a three-volume set of the writings of A.D. Gordon.

The love letters my parents wrote to one another before immigrating to Israel quoted Gordon's philosophy almost word for word, on the infiniteness of nature, the human soul as part of the cosmos, and the gradual disappearance of love in big cities cut off from nature. But life on the kibbutz was tough, and Gordon's books were purchased for the shelf, not for leisurely reading.

Luckily, the principal of the local school believed that his students could not be good citizens, let alone members of a kibbutz, without knowing something about Kant, Schopenhauer and Freud. To my surprise, Schopenhauer and Freud knew exactly what went on in the kibbutz children's house, during the day as well as at night, and understood the social dynamics, overt and covert, in the dining room. They became the great idols of my youth.

In the ideological lectures I enthusiastically attended in those days, the "doctrines" of A.D. Gordon were often discussed, but my humble efforts to read his writings behind the glass partition were not successful. Nothing he wrote connected to the reality around me in the kibbutz that bore his name (the full name being "Gordonia Hulda"). Later, when my mother was trying to clear out the art books my father had amassed over the years (and actually anything that collected dust) she threw a pleading glance at the nook where the Gordon trilogy stood. My brother and sister did not respond to her distress, so having no choice, I added them to my own pile.

I remember the look that passed between us well: She, with the pleading eyes of a person who is giving up something very dear and worried that the recipient does not sufficiently appreciate its worth; and me, responding with a reassuring look, as if to say "it's okay, you know I'm interested," along with another look that said "come on, you know you haven't opened these books in 30-40 years."

Einat Ramon's book is a good opportunity to return to the philosophy of A.D. Gordon (1856-1922) and explore why this man, who enjoyed mythic status in his lifetime, is so foreign to Israelis today. Based on the author's doctoral dissertation, the book opens with a broad overview of the life and work of A.D. Gordon, and his standing in the eyes of the pioneers of the Second Aliyah. The first chapter offers a plethora of biographical information, mainly to shed light on his complex personality and the biographical-historical context of his writing. His famous essay "Man and Nature," for example, was written after the death of his wife and serious illness of his beloved daughter. The great suffering he experienced cleansed his soul and prepared him emotionally, he told his daughter.

The following chapters present Gordon's major theories, and convincingly show how these theories evolved from the concept of "expansion" that he developed through his polemic, direct and indirect, with Nietzsche. Expansion, characterized by a strong desire to live and unite with others (and ultimately, nature and the entire cosmos), is the basis of Gordon's moral psychology. This is the springboard for his view of morality as an outpouring of love, his criticism of the pursuit of power and dominion, and also his approach to religion, in which "experience" or a "life of expansion" confronts the reality of the infinite being unattainable.

The desirable relationship between the Jews and their homeland, and also between Jews and Arabs, was an outgrowth of this concept of "expansion." Gordon held that national culture was the product of an ongoing relationship between a specific landscape and the people living in it. He sincerely believed that the Jews' renewed encounter with their historic land would trigger a change of mindset that would return the Jews to their natural roots. Gordon's vision of a new bond between man and nature, and between man and man, also colored his approach to the Arabs. Despite his traumatic personal experiences - he was shot and robbed by Arabs on his way to Jaffa, and his good friend, Yosef Haim Brenner, was murdered - Gordon continued to believe that Jews and Arabs could live side by side in peace.

The book breaks new ground in comparing Gordon's ideas to various schools of feminist thought. Ramon, the first Israeli woman to be ordained as a rabbi, teaches women's studies and Jewish philosophy at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. She emphasizes the maternal aspects of Gordon's expansion theory and finds sources for it in all his writings. Gordonian morality, based on the mother-child relationship, is characterized by caring, identification and love that is not founded on pity. Ramon sees a strong similarity to the feminist approach to morality as an intuitive sense of caring and love, or sensitivity to others expressed in interpersonal communication that avoids offending either side.

Ramon does not hesitate to point out weaknesses she finds in Gordon's writings, such as inconsistencies in his discussion of "consciousness" and "experience," and his failure to address such matters as how self-defense could be practiced without a military organization, and where one drew the line on violence for the sake of self-defense. Gordon's solution for tension between secular and religious Jews was for them to "work together." But such an approach was not realistic, she writes. This kind of "wishful thinking" and utopian escapism charmed the people of his day, but it was also one of his great weaknesses.

Ramon does a fine job of exploring the maternal elements in Gordon's thought, but she does not dwell sufficiently on his analogy between femininity and mothering (which is supposedly the woman's sole mission in life) and his idealized portrait of motherhood - an idealization that is flatly rejected by feminist scholars (Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, Shulamit Firestone, Nancy Friday and Nancy Chodorow, to name a few).

In her epilogue, Ramon discusses the significance of Gordon's ideas in our life today. She sees his work as important for three reasons: One, he helped to lay the foundations for non-Orthodox Jewish thought in the 20th century and his ideas can serve as a bridge between secular Zionist thinking and non-Orthodox religious Zionism. Two, Gordon portrayed Zionism as a "feminine" project, emphasizing "productive daily work and rejection of the idealization of military and political power." Implicit here, among other things, is an urgent call to stop the ecological disasters generated by man's alienation from nature, and a vote of support for the morality of allowing two national entities to develop in the Land of Israel.

And finally, on a philosophical level, Gordon's contribution lies in analyzing the essence of power and presenting a pre-feminist theory of morality that approves of strength and empowerment but rejects aggression, hunger for political power and hierarchies of rule. In her discussion of these three aspects, however, which are worthy of attention, the author, like Gordon in his time, tends to get carried away in "flights of fancy." There is no question that a re-examination of Gordon's philosophy is valuable, all the more so explained with the clarity and perceptive analysis that Ramon brings to the task, but one must also face up to the fact that his ideas did not mesh with reality.

Gordon's vision failed miserably. The Jews' return to their historic homeland did not produce the hoped for change in outlook, and contemporary Israeli reality (capitalistic, post-modern, concerned with image and impressions, looking outward rather than inward, to use Gordonian terminology) is the complete opposite of the vision of this "seer" of the Second Aliyah.

Prof. Avraham Balaban is a poet, author and literary critic. His novel "Omrim Ahava" was published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad (in Hebrew).