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The Secular Ten Commandments of Bialik

The followers of Israeli poet Haim Nahman Bialik were in raptures over his poetry and his innovations but consistently ignored his call for the building of a secular halakha that would define an obligatory ethical foundation for the emerging national entity
A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Ari Elon has 30 years of experience teaching Talmud and Midrash at institutes throughout Israel. Ari is a faculty member in the Bina Center for Jewish Studies at the Efal Seminar Center of the United Kibbutz Movement. He formerly directed the Rabbinic Texts Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. His publications include From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven – Meditations on the Soul of Israel

The followers of Israeli poet Haim Nahman Bialik were in raptures over his poetry and his innovations but consistently ignored his call for the building of a secular halakha that would define an obligatory ethical foundation for the emerging national entity. Ari Elon directs our attention to a speech the national poet gave a year before his death in which he coined two historic Jewish terms. Alongside his warning of the coming Holocaust, Bialik asked that his audience make known to the world a new set of Ten Commandments – a secular Ten Commandments that will be kept between nations.
 
By ARI ELON
 
In the spring of 1933, a year before his untimely death, Haim Nahman Bialik, who was then 60 years old, gave a speech that included a request from his listeners. “We must,” said Bialik “make known to the world a new Ten Commandments that will be based on the old foundation but with a small difference: it will be kept not between individuals but between nations.”
 
This request was the climax of the secular interpretation of halakha that can be found in all of Bialik’s works. At the foundation of this request lie two timeless assertions. The first states that all the “old” Ten Commandment have left the realm of man and God never to return and have become commandments to be kept between man and man. Bialik’s god was totally human. Even the right side of the tablets (the first five commandments) which were once the side that concerned matters between man and God, were now between man and man, and the Ten Commandments had become nothing but a secular demand for a system of social relations between the divine man and the human God. It would no longer be a threatening covenant that is forced upon us by a jealous and vengeful God but a human covenant that is equal and balanced. To fulfill what is said: "What is above and what is below? Just myself, myself and you. Both of us equal on the scale between heaven and earth."
 

Bialik lecturing at an Oneg Shabbat at the Tent of Shem. A drawing in ink by Nahum Gutman circa 1930. Generously provided by the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art

Bialik lecturing at an Oneg Shabbat at the Tent of Shem. A drawing in ink by Nahum Gutman circa 1930. Generously provided by the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art
The other assertion is related not only to the introduction of the new Ten Commandments but their revolutionary and reformist content. First of all, since this assertion aspires to a situation in which the new Ten Commandment will apply to the relations between nations, then, a nation will not steal from another nation, a nation will not murder another nation, and so on.   

 
In addition, this assertion is to be applied to the relations between the men and women of all nations regardless of religion, race, or gender. In this way, it becomes the keystone of the new secular halakha, which is meant to correct the distortions of the old halakha, which based the Ten Commandment in the Torah on open and explicit discrimination between one people and another, between one religion and another and between one gender and another.
 
A close examination of Bialik’s request and the fact that it was ignored reveals the depth of his loneliness as a man of halakha. All his life he lived like a Sisyphean rebbe who in his sermons warns his hundreds of thousands of followers that if they do not – here and now – start a deep and systematic process of secularizing halakha, the whole Zionist enterprise will fail and will leave behind only a beautiful and sad legend – a folk legend. His follows viewed him – justifiably – as a great poet and a legendary storyteller but did not understand to what extent he was a lonely giant in his halakhic garden.
 
His followers, like all other mindless followers, swallowed his sermons without digesting them in order that they could thirstily drink in his tunes: "I have a garden and a well." They were so enraptured that again and again they repressed the fact that their rebbe does not only play them breathtaking tunes in the form of legends but is also interpreting obligatory halakha out of them.
 
Bialik was pained that his followers ignored this aspect of him and criticized them as enjoying only the pleasures and avoiding the obligations. "Behold, a generation is growing up without attachment, that is all sayings and tunes…" he wrote. "All these things hang by a thread from some fondness: fondness for the land, fondness for the language, fondness for the literature…fondness? But where is the obligation?…". "Where is this generation’s ‘in every generation a man is obligated’?" asked Bialik again and again during his talks on "Halakha and Aggada," in addition to others. "Come, place commandments on us!" For any critics who, Heaven forbid, would view him as neo-Orthodox, he added: "Should we appoint a leader and return to the Shulhan Arukh? Whoever views my words in this way understands nothing. We need a new halakha to live by – not the Shulhan Arukh!"
 
The speech in which Bialik called for a new Ten Commandments to be made heard to the world was given three months after Hitler came to power. Bialik mentioned this at the core of his speech: "Hitlerism," he told his listeners "brings to mind a surprising similarity to the time of the destruction of the Temple. At a time when we were being exiled from our land and through what hidden pipelines did Judaism capture much of the idolatrous world…and penetrate the ancient world and achieve greatness in art, in economic endeavors, in politics, in heroism and in sin. Into this massive world, a small and weak people penetrated. Shepherd, traders, craftsmen (Jesus was, of course, a carpenter). During this period, the Jews went out in the big wide world. And what came of it in the end? Large parts of Judaism were assimilated into the cultures of the world that existed during that period and became mixed in with their idolatrous foundations and Christianity was born."
 
Bialik described Hitlerism in this speech in 1933 using a term that would define the most awful period in Jewish history: Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew). "The Holocaust is arriving so suddenly!" he said. "But for us this is no surprise. We knew about it ahead of time and Judaism decided that if they expel us from all the positions of influence, if they uproot our intelligence and our influence from the world by dispersing us, we will have no choice but to walk in the opposite direction, to return from the big wide world to this corner, to our land and to concentrate here to again connect our intelligence to the land and to place it into real vessels – concentrated and organized in one place, to preserve what already exists and to nurture and develop it and add to it."
 
Then, against the background of the Holocaust, the destruction of the Temple and the Judaism of ancient Christianity, Bialik threw out a bombshell: the new Ten Commandments. "And here, from this place, we must renew our attempts, over the course of our history, to fulfill them here and to again make known to the world a new Ten Commandments that will be based on the old foundation but with a small difference: they will be kept not only between men but between nations as well. This will be our new addition to the old foundations. We will again create here our modest lives that will serve as an example for great lives, for real greatness."
 
In the same paragraph, in which Bialik coined the term Holocaust, apparently for the first time, as a description of what had begun to happen in Germany (a few months later, he again spoke of "the Holocaust that has been visited on the Jews of Germany"), he again mentioned the concept of a new Ten Commandments.
 
Bialik died a year later. The horror of the Holocaust to which he referred became real in monstrous proportions. The idea of a new Ten Commandments, which he spoke of in the same speech, was repressed, forgotten, and finally disappeared. Bialik himself did not get around to spelling out how the new Ten Commandments would look – a secular Ten Commandments that would be brought forth from Zion by a persecuted people who would return to their homeland and would again apply its intelligence to the ground of reality.
 
Ari Elon teaches Talmud and Midrash, among other things, at the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and at the Bina Center in Ephal. His book, Coming to the Temple, was published as part of the Judaism Here and Now library by Yediot Books. Bialik’s call for the creation of a new Ten Commandments is the source of inspiration for a secular personal Talmud that Alon is writing on the Ten Commandments.

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