On Twitter we have been discussing rediscovered Jewish authors, and it’s time to bring those discussions to the blog as well – let’s find out about Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares and his work!
He was one of the early Zionists, got disillusioned and became an anti-Zionist, but he also disagreed with most of the other anti-Zionists…
Hopefully the above indicates that controversial content is going to follow. Really, he disagreed with almost everyone. In the process, he said some things that still read as eerily timely and present-day.
(He also liked trees)
He wrote several books of essays and sermons. Some of them pseudonymously, as “One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis” – because of the political content of his work.
We also know quite a lot about his life and inspirations, because he composed a lengthy autobiographic essay, upon request from a lexicon (!) of Jewish literature – and this essay, while unpublished during his life, can be found in the
YIVO Institute Archives. It has also been translated into English, so you can read it – alongside a selection of his sermons and his political work.
We published a kind of best-of: A PASSIONATE PACIFIST: ESSENTIAL WRITINGS OF AARON SAMUEL TAMARES. Edited, translated and introduced by Everett Gendler, with contributions by Ri J. Turner (who translated the autobiographic essay) and Tzemah Yoreh.
So let’s see how he lived (among trees!) and thought and what he meant by pacifism. It’s going to be surprising!
He was born in 1869 “just outside the town of Maltsh” (today in Belarus) in a rural area. His great-grandfather was known as a tzadik and “the Maltsher Maggid”. Even as a child, he really liked nature – in his own words (he wrote his autobiography in the third person):
“Outdoors, he became so enchanted by a beautiful tree or a grassy hillock that he could not tear himself away.”
This went on to influence his life considerably, because he refused to live in a big city.
He had a formative experience as a child. He spent a lot of time studying Talmud in a neighbor’s courtyard while the neighbor did various tasks around the house. (He wasn’t a Jewish neighbor and there were few Jews in the village.) The neighbor’s son was a soldier in the Russo-Turkish War. One day, as Tamares was in the courtyard, news arrived that the son had fallen in battle. Tamares sat with the mother who was desperately weeping and mourning her son, and cried with her. At that point he decided that war was “the epitome of evil”. He also came to understand that not only Jews were oppressed in the world.
He grew up and at 19, went to study in Kovno. He determined he would “fight against slavery and evil”, which are both manifested in war. He thought about how to do this, and determined that he would fight war by educating people.
He also studied in Volozhin, where he first became exposed to secular ideas. He became a rabbi in 1893 in the village of Milejczyce (today in Poland), inheriting the job of his father-in-law. He didn’t make any effort to get this job and he was somewhat at a loss what to do as a rabbi. He gave sermons to the villagers, but soon determined that he’d need to write to reach a larger audience. So he started to write for the newspapers.
This also proved difficult. He wanted to write in Hebrew. He didn’t know how to do that… He had no training, never studied Hebrew formally, but he really wanted to get his ideas out, so he persevered.
He ended up studying these topics and also got more secular education. He wrote the autobiographic essay the lexicon requested in Yiddish, so he could clearly write in Yiddish too, but he wanted to write in Hebrew. (This is important – some people like to conflate Hebrew revival with Zionism, and he ended up writing anti-Zionist work in Hebrew.)
When Zionism started to appear in the late 19th century as a movement, he was enthused at first. The Zionists called for justice, surely that has to be good, he thought.
“Unfortunately, he was not yet equipped to appraise the value of these antics” he wrote about himself. He described what he liked about Zionism:
- The calls for freedom and justice.
- The style of early Zionist writers, who were very eloquent.
- The fact that “the old guard of Orthodoxy” was opposed to Zionism (YES, REALLY, that was a plus for him, as an Orthodox rabbi himself…!)
He felt that what we would now call the right wing of Orthodoxy was obsessed with finding sins in other people. He called them “God’s policemen”, because they were excessively policing people’s behavior. So if they were opposed to Zionism, that made him all the more interested.
He started to write a series of articles about Zionism, in which he enthused about it. This led to the Zionists inviting him to a large Zionist convention in Vilna. He went and had a very confusing experience.
First of all, everything was in Russian, even though many of the present (especially the rabbis) only spoke Yiddish. (Tamares did speak Russian too.) He thought, OK, probably the authorities only allowed this conference to go forward on the condition of it being in Russian… He was also surprised about the content of the discussion.
“They were honing their bureaucratization skills, preparing to lord it over their constituents in the future Zionist state…”
he wrote about this convention later. Then a policeman randomly showed up and everyone fled! Tamares was perplexed. The entire gathering had been illegal after all. But then why have it in Russian? Let alone with all the bureaucratic phrasing…
He went home. He was starting to have doubts about the Zionist enterprise, but decided to give it one more chance. He went to the Fourth Zionist Congress in London as a delegate. This was in the summer of 1900 and he found it more of the same:
“emptiness, bureaucracy and officiousness.”
He went home again. A Zionist group was already asking him to reprint his articles, and he mailed them a no. He said in his autobiography that he was “devastated”.
He wrote himself into a corner! He had loudly decried the Orthodox opposition to Zionism in his essays. Maybe those rabbis were right after all???? And now he’d gone ahead and alienated them. (Gevalt)
This is a great cliffhanger to stop on, and next time we can continue with Rabbi Tamares’ adventures with hardline Orthodoxy, entirely secular Socialism, and more… Also we’ll eventually, G-d willing, get to what he thought about nation-states.
We are further ahead on Twitter, so you can take a peek:
(You might start to suspect what views he developed about nation-states.)
In the meanwhile, if this is beginning to sound interesting, you can get the book: