Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Hidden Confession- A Review of the new edition of Hillel Zeitlin's Tov V'Ra

It is no exaggeration to say that the writings of Hillel Zeitlin have changed my religious life. Since coming across his name in a footnote less than two years ago, and reading Arthur Green’s translation of some of Zeitlin’s writings, my experience of belief, prayer, and religion itself have undergone considerable revision. Like a new convert, I have tried to spread the word. I have also discovered that in addition to Green, there are many people who are writing about Zeitlin, translating his works, and learning and teaching his Torah.

Among those who have helped lead to a revival of Zeitlin’s works are Dr. Jonatan Meir of Ben Gurion University, who has written a number of Hebrew scholarly articles on Zeitlin, Dr. Shraga Bar-On, Rav Oz Bluman, the aforementioned Green and Ariel Mayse, as well as Sam Glauber, a young Torah student, who has recently begun to translate some of Zeitlin’s writing. An academic conference dealing with Zeitlin and his two sons will take place at Tel Aviv University on May 4th. Clearly, Zeitlin has become a topic of great interest in the academic and lay world.

At the same time, it continues to be difficult to acquire most of the prolific Zeitlin’s works and writings. While his son Aaron did republish some of his father’s writing (with a small degree of censorship), until recently it had been many years since one of Zeitlin’s works was republished. In November, Leor Holzer, the owner of Holzer Sefarim (a wonderful used-bookstore in Jerusalem) republished Zeitlin’s Tov V’Ra, more than 100 years after it was first published. In addition to Tov V’Ra, a masterful treatise on the nature of good and evil (which was originally serialized in a journal in 1899, and was published as a book in 1910), Holzer’s new volume contains two important essays by Zeitlin; Mitehomot HaSafek V’Hayeiush (From the Depths of Doubt and Despair) on his teacher and mentor, the Russian literary critic Lev Shestov (published in two parts in 1923-24), and HaTzimaon (The Thirst) a poetic description of Zeitlin’s unquenchable search for God (published in 1909), as well as a biography of Zeitlin, written by Yaakov Fichman, a well-known Hebrew poet who knew Zeitlin personally. While I can’t speak to the reason why the two essays were included in the new edition, it is was through the essay on Shestov that I came to understand Tov V’Ra.

I must admit that it took me a while to appreciate Tov V’ra. Having been familiar with Zeitlin’s poetic and lyrical chassidic, kabbalistic and religious writings, his more somber and even scholarly description of how various Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers thought about the nature of good and evil did not fully grab me at first. It was only as Zeitlin moved into the modern era, having discussed Buddhism, ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and the Middle Ages, as well as other approaches, that I sensed that Zeitlin’s spirit and not just his prodigious mind had gone into producing this volume. As he began to touch on the modern era, and thinkers such as Spinoza, Nietzsche, and, l’havdil, Rebbe Nachman (Zeitlin later wrote separate volumes about each of them), I began to see the Zeitlin that I had come to appreciate. In fact, Zeitlin’s conclusion finishes off with poetry, and poetic thought. Still, it was only in retrospect, after having read the essay on Shestov that I fully grasped why what made Zeitlin unique, had seemed to be missing from the beginning of the book.

As mentioned parenthetically above, the chapters of Tov V’Ra were originally written in 1899. It was during this time that Zeitlin was in the midst of a profound religious crisis which had begun after he studied philosophy and biblical criticism as a teenager (it is worth noting that Zeitlin never attended a formal yeshivah or university and that he was essentially self-taught Jewishly and secularly). While some of his writings during this time period reflect upon religious themes, Zeitlin was struggling mightily to discover what, if anything, he still believed. While his search cannot be seen in the early part of the volume, even implicitly, it is in the writings about the modern era where his search becomes more manifest, and it is here that I return to his essay on Shestov.

After first enumerating the various attempts to ascertain metaphysical and general truth, including Hume, Kant, various Neo-Kantians, Nietszche, positivism and materialism , Zeitlin moves on to Shestov’s approach. Essentially, Shestov argues that objective truth cannot be ascertained, and that any sense of truth cannot be found outside of oneself, and that it is only once one is completely broken, that they can discover in themselves their truth. This truth may or may not be compelling to others, but in one’s brokenness the truth for which you are willing to live your life is found. Shestov’s novel understanding of the great writers and philosophers, including Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, among others, is that hidden within their writings, as in a confession, one can discover the truth they believe in, in their deepest being.

With this understanding, one can return to Tov V’Ra. In the beginning, Zeitlin was sharing philosophical ideas. They were serious and important ideas, but not ones which represent his deepest truth. As he moved into the modern era, consciously or not, his true confession, the one that he was in the midst of figuring out for himself, appears. It is here that the reader who knows how the search will progress, sees glimpses of the Zeitlin who is yet to be. The reader who is familiar with Zeitlin’s later writings, knows how the story will progress, so to speak, even if Zeitlin himself does not. That reader is familiar with the essay HaTzimaon, where Zeitlin will write of his desperate search, as well as his later writings where we are privileged to witness the profound and passionate faith that Zeitlin discovered.

Leor Holzer, who is as fascinating and uniques as his store, has done a tremendous service by publishing this book. He has made available one of the works of a thinker who has so much to offer to the thinking and struggling Jew of today. While there are a few small things which could be improved upon (there are some typos, and there are no footnotes), Holzer has done an incredible job in making this Hebrew work available (uncensored) at a very reasonable price. It is my hope that he and others will continue to republish Zeitlin’s writings, and that others will translate Zeitlin’s other works for the English reading public.

Only 500 copies of Tov V’Ra have been published. The remaining copies can be purchased at Holzer Sefarim which is located at 91 Rechov Yaffo. The book can also be ordered by calling the store 076-543-3800.

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