A Man of Israel

The crucial role played by Jewish tradition in the thought of leading Labor Zionist thinker Berl Katznelson.


Mural of Berl Katznelson in Givatayim (Dr Avishai Teicher, Wikimedia Commons)

In his eulogy for his friend Berl Katznelson (1887-1944), S.Y. Agnon relates his first encounter with the unassuming thinker,

“I met Berl Katznelson immediately after his arrival to the Land of Israel. Once I came to  [Y. H.] Brenner as he was about to leave his house….I went with him to a young man about my age who was laying on his bed, sick with the diseases of the land that plagued him since his arrival. He was dressed in a black shirt and a black beard rimmed his face and his eyes were energetic, due either to fever or zeal. His voice was quick like someone who feared that they would not be able to finish what they had to say. Since he was not famous – not as an author nor in any other way – it seemed odd that Brenner was attending to him as he was and treated him with honor and affection….

After we left I wanted to ask Brenner what he had seen in that man to attend to him as such. I saw that Brenner was immersed in thought and did not pause. He suddenly gazed at me with his pleasant blue eyes and turned his face toward Berl Katznelson’s lodging and said, “‘He is a Jewish man (ish Yisrael).’ I looked at him to ask and wondered, what distinction is that?… ‘He is Berl Katznelson. He is a Jewish man. Understand what I am saying.’’” For Brenner, Katznelson was the paradigm of an authentic Jew.

Out of all the titles Brenner could have chosen to describe Berl Katznelson (socialist leader, philosopher, labor pioneer), why did he choose “a Jewish man”? Perhaps it was Katznelson’s deep affinity for Jewish tradition and his belief that it had a prominent place in the Zionist-socialist revolution. In this regard, Katznelson differed from many of his contemporaries in that he believed that the creation of a new Hebrew laborer did not mean separation from Jewish tradition. Despite Brenner’s vehement disdain for the image of the backward religious Jew (he once wrote: “Each generation gives nothing of its own to its successor. And what was transmitted – the rabbinical literature – were better never handed down to us.”) his admiration for Katznelson’s unusual weltanschauung and deep thinking took precedence.

Katznelson was born on January 25, 1887, in Bobruisk, White Russia. His views on Jewish tradition were strongly influenced by his fahter, Moshe, a traditionally educated man who worked as a timber merchant and carried with him much of the intellectual ferment of the Russian Socialist movement.

Agnon retold a story Katznelson shared about his late father. “There were two men in the study hall….The first was cold and tense and would constantly pray in a whisper with his face toward the wall and the second was warm-mannered and vibrant and would constantly pray in a loud voice with his face toward the congregation. Every day, the two came together to study a page of Talmud….Once a quarrel fell upon them and for a long time, they did not speak to one another. However, despite this period of rage, they didn’t miss studying the Talmud for a single day.

The second man was Berl’s father. As Berl told me, this is what happened. On the morning after the quarrel broke out, Berl’s father knocked on the other man’s door. The man came out and asked, ‘what do you want?’ He said to him, ‘I came to learn.’”

Although Moshe passed away while Katznelson was an adolescent, he imbued his son with a love for both traditional Jewish learning as well as an interest in both Zionism and Socialism. According to Agnon, “I will say something akin to a paradox, but it is true. As great of a worker, leader, and teacher as Berl Katznelson was in the eyes of the many, he was, in my eyes something that men of action call idle: he loved to ‘waste time’ with conversations of Torah. He was not a Torah scholar in the conventional sense. But the love of Torah and clarity of his thoughts and strong mind allowed him to understand. Out of a love of Torah, he would sit for hours and hours and look at books that were seemingly distant from the center of his operations and his face would light up like one who found a treasure.”

“Tradition and Revolution”

Rather than viewing the socialist Zionist movement as a complete rupture from the past, Katznelson saw the young men and women of the yishuv as continuing the arc of Jewish history. Both tradition and revolution were integral parts of the unfolding of history. In a later article “Destruction and Detachment” (1934) Katznelson wrote: “Would we be capable today of a revival movement if the Jewish people had not protected in their hardened hearts and their holy hinterland the memory of the destruction?” This theme was also articulated in the aptly titled “Tradition and Revolution” (1934):

“Man is endowed with two faculties: memory and forgetting. We cannot live without both. Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed beneath its burden and would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestry…had humanity not preserved the memory of its great achievements, noble aspirations, periods of bloom, heroic efforts, and strivings for liberation, then no revolutionary movement would have been possible. The human race would have stagnated in eternal poverty, ignorance, and slavery.”

“Facing the Days Ahead”

That Katznelson was well-versed in traditional Jewish texts is evident in his speeches. In 1918, he attended the Judean Workers council as a representative from the Unaffiliated Group. In his speech, “Facing the Days Ahead,” he masterfully wove Biblical and rabbinic quotations and allusions into his vision for a socialist Zionist society, relying heavily on the utopian visions of Isaiah, quoting the prophet eight times. Yet, he often overlayed the original verse with contemporary meaning. For example, he likened diplomatic success and international support of the yishuv to divine salvation: “The consent of the mighty of the world, which acts as the shofar of redemption” (Isaiah 27:13).

Further, the builders of the yishuv are characterized as “the wise and intelligent people” (Deut. 4:6), the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is referred to as the holy of holies, the waves of aliyah are likened to the Exodus (Ex. 20:2), and the pioneers on the precipice of building a Jewish society are compared to Moses (Deut. 34:7).

Katznelson refers to key later texts as well. He explicitly referenced other rabbinic sources including “the blood that has been spilled from Zechariah” (TB Sanhedrin 96b) and “where is the ancient national ‘you have chosen us”’” (from the Amida prayer) as well as  Rambam’s “Principles of Faith” and the modern Hebrew poet Hayim Nachman Bialik’s “The Matmid.”

“Cultural Bonfires”

Katznelson’s integration of Jewish motifs was not restricted to his language. He also saw the practical value of traditional events in the modern calendar. Katznelson repeatedly praised Shabbat: “We have a need for Shabbat greater than for anything else – we will uphold it as a miracle and build our lives upon it – we will turn our Shabbats and our holidays into cultural bonfires.” Elsewhere he wrote, “the Sabbath for me is a pillar of Hebrew culture and the first socialist achievement of Adam the first worker in human history…and I am ashamed that we did not succeed to establish an agreement on it.”

Katznelson saw special value in holidays that commemorate both constructive Jewish national events (Passover) and destructive ones (Tisha B’Av). Of Passover Katznelson wrote:“Passover, the nation has preserved over the course of thousands of years the day of our departure from the house of bondage and through all the tunnels of enslavement and the rape and the Inquisition and the destruction and the pogroms, the nation carries in her heart the longing for freedom…what deep and natural yearning for freedom in the heart of the nation could, in the spring of her days, create a genius creation like this and pass it from generation to generation.”

In 1934, a group of Jewish youth embarked on a hike on Tisha B’av rather than observe or even recognize the deep significance of the day. Katznelson vociferously criticized the madrichim in a piece written in Davar the following day. “What is the value and what is the fruit of youth movements that don’t have rootedness, … Had Israel not know to mourn itself over the course of the generations of its destruction on the day of remembrance, with all of the sharpness of feeling of someone who died before him, of someone who had just lost his freedom and his homeland, they would not have risen, not Hess, not Pinsker, not Herzl, and not Nordau, not Sirkin and not Bocharov, not A.D. Gordon and not Y.H Brenner. And Judah HaLevi would not have created ‘Zion will not ask’ and Bialik would not have written ‘scroll of this fire.’”


Throughout his life, Katznelson strove to infuse the nascent Zionist community with deep and rich Jewish content. The views Katznelson espoused in “Facing the Days Ahead” found their realization in the creation of the labor movement’s first paper, Davar, as well as its first publishing house, Am Oved, and his plan for worker educational programs. His premature death in 1942 cut short his work, but his legacy lived on. As Arthur Ruppin said of Katznelson: “This man sees everything with his own eyes. Have you met many people who can see with their own eyes?”

Although the State of Israel and the Jewish people are living in a period of great affluence and relative security, a wide gap has been steadily growing between the pioneering vision for the Jewish home in the land of Israel and the reality on the ground. Increasingly, Jews dissatisfied with the imperfect implementation of the Zionist dream are becoming bitter or leaving it entirely. Perhaps what Jews need today is another Katznelson: someone to simultaneously elevate the practical and realize the visionary. A man to make the Zionist dream not only seem desirable, but possible. As S.Y. Agnon wrote of Katznelson in 1911: “And if our small deeds here in Palestine are more important to me than several vital matters in the world, I have Berl Katznelson to thank; he taught me to see what I had not seen before and to understand what I had not understood.”

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