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The late 19th century was a time of spiritual and ideological ferment for the Jews of Eastern Europe. For many, traditional Jewish beliefs became untenable and the old observant lifestyle lost much of its appeal. In Russia, thousands of young, educated Jews rejected their religion in favor of new, revolutionary ideologies–in particular socialism and nationalism. These Jews were attracted by the promise of new truths and by the dream of a changed world. Yet the new ideologies were uncompromisingly secular and proved unable to fill the spiritual hole that, for many, had been opened up by the abandonment of traditional Judaism.
Was it possible for young Jews to find spiritual fulfillment, without eschewing their revolutionary beliefs and returning to outmoded Jewish tradition? A.D. Gordon attempted to create just such a synthesis of modernity, radicalism, and spirituality.
From Podolia to Palestine
Aaron David Gordon was born in Podolia–then part of the Russian Empire–in 1856. He worked for wealthy relatives as the manager of a large estate and was a supporter of the nascent Zionist movement. In 1904, having lost his job, Gordon decided to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Gordon was part of the Second Aliyah, the wave of Jewish immigrants who reached Palestine in the years before the First World War. But he was far from typical.
In contrast to the young, secular pioneers, Gordon was middle-aged, physically weak, habituated to white-collar work, and religiously observant (he gradually stopped observing the commandments after arriving in Palestine). Nonetheless, he threw himself into the pioneer lifestyle of hard manual labor in the agricultural settlements, first in Petah Tikva and ultimately at one of the first communal settlements or kvutzot–Degania. Working by day and writing by night, Gordon became a kind of guru for his young counterparts, both articulating and embodying the principles of a new “religion of labor.”
Gordon was different from the mainstream of the Second Aliyah in one other important respect: he was not a socialist Although he emphasized the values of labor, solidarity, and social equality, Gordon was resolutely opposed to Marxism’s view that class struggle was the driving force of history. Rather, the seemingly socialist values in Gordon’s belief system derived from his uncompromisingly nationalist outlook. In “Nationalism and Socialism” Gordon wrote:
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