Yosef Chaim Brenner’s view of Jewish Culture and the Zionist Revolution

Wise Old Men and Rebellious Youth:  Yosef Chaim Brenner’s view of Jewish Culture and the Zionist Revolution; A proposal for a revised conception of Brenner’s world-view through a Jungian reexamination of his work

A.  Suppose we were to compare the appearance of the Zionist Revolution on the stage of the Jewish world, with a familial inter-generational conflict: Yosef Chaim Brenner would undoubtedly be considered the wildest, most vocal child in this torn family.

But why suppose this comparison?  Conceptualizing Zionism as a familial struggle of “sons” against “fathers” or youth against old men is in fact one of the most widespread cliches of publicists and Jewish belles lettres in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century.  It was at this point- whether or not by chance – that the central European Jew, Freud, was laboring over the development of his Oedipal model.

Within this struggle between “sons” and “fathers” Brenner was the enfant terrible who rebelled not only against his own parents, but against his forbears and the entire Jewish tradition. He didn’t rebel just against the post-Biblical tradition, as did another impudent son of this despairing family, M.Y. Berdichevsky, but his torrential criticism reached back to include even its misty Biblical dawn.  The actual “fathers” and all of Judaism, are old, too old, charges Brenner time and again in his writings, and they must die to clear the way for their alienated children.

In Brenner’s most  acerbic text on this subject, in the essay “Evaluating ourselves in the three volumes,” Brenner judges all of Jewish reality as weak and anemic, garrulous and noisy, mediating but unproductive, hypocritical and self-righteous, materialistic and filled with moldy, insincere spirituality, isolationist but filled with lust for assimilation.  In this gloomy essay Brenner also discusses the antiquity of the Jewish people, expressing his opposition to the importance some attach to it:

            “This person, for example, reached a ripe old age – that’s good.  But if his old age is not the result of powerful character and exalted life, we will not rise before him, nor shall we honor his presence just because of his old age.  Jews are one of the ancient peoples who survived and continued to exist, … but this fact still doesn’t teach us anything.

B. Conceptualizing the Jewish people as “old” aroused such enmity in Brenner that it lacks almost any parallel among other Zionist thinkers, due to a combination of several unique psychological and theoretical elements.  First, as a thinker who was decisively influenced by Nietzsche,  Brenner loathed the “Judaeo-Christian” ethic nearly as much Nietzsche.  But Brenner went one step beyond Nietzsche, who had explained the circumstances in which the Judaeo-Christian “slave ethic” was created, and by contrast viewed the European Jew of his generation as a powerful race.  Brenner, as oppposed to the latter, held that both the longevity of Jewish existence and its current fragile nature are both a terrible weakness.  Therefore, Brenner created a conglomerate not found in Nietzsche, between  the “biological” longevity of the Jewish people, and its culture and “slave” ethic. Furthermore, in Brenner’s personal mythology,  a connection was formed between the Jewish people’s old age and the erotic weakness of the aged, a weakness which torments most of Brenner’s heroes.  The contempt which his heroes hold for the “weak” in erotic terms, and thereby for themselves, becomes in the public sphere hatred for Judaism and hatred for the Jewish people, the “eldest” and the weakest of the nations.

Given the hatred and these reasons, we could apparently summarize with relative simplicity Brenner’s existential and Zionist thought according to the Freudian family model:  the “young” Jewish Zionist must rebel against both the contemporary fathers and the “aged” Jewish heritage.

One of the leading reasons for the dark magic of his writings until the present, could be explained with similar simplicity in that Brenner, just like Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint, illustrates just how difficult it is for the “sons” to separate from the heritage of  the “elderly fathers’” ethic, to carry off the Oedipal rebellion and to live free, amoral lives.

But there’s more.  The Freudian model for interpreting Brenner’s thought as “Oedipal”, can also help us to understand another central phenomenon of his literary and public activity – Brenner’s opposition to any sort of authority.  Our intention here is not to the authority of Jewish tradition, but rather to the authority claimed by thinkers who shared Brenner’s understanding of the split between “the old men” and the “youth” as revealed in modern Jewish history, and who sought to fill the void created in the Jewish world with an alternative ethical-nationalist ideology.  For the most part the approach of these thinkers was an attempt to mediate between the way of the “old men” and that of the “youth.”

These thinkers – personalities such as Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, A.D. Gordon, Rav Kook and Buber – who were outstanding in the field of Jewish thought at the end of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, embody the rise of a spiritual leadership aware of a renewed mission, which adopted as its model the image of the Biblical prophet.  Underlying their mission was the certain knowledge that an historical catastrophe of world-wide proportions was either brewing or already underway, which would involve a profound spiritual upheaval. The leader-prophet, therefore, “forsees for his people a comprehensive social-national vision of exalted moral content, which contains the promise of redemption.”

We can discern in Brenner’s life and works his sharp opposition to these figures, who  proclaimed that they held a complete and harmonious solution for the distress of the individual Jew.  Best known are Brenner’s disputations with Ahad Ha’Am and with Gordon, but Brenner confronted Rav Kook and Buber as well.  When we   consider the motives for this confrontation,  with  those “prophetic” and “harmonious” figures, we can see that at the foundation of opposition to the latter are identical causes, some of which I have already discussed before.  Some may be termed “ideological” (cf. Nietzsche’s comprehensive contempt for “ethical” concepts), and some may be termed “emotional” (indifference that reflects the indifference of these  “ethical” circles to the problem of Eros) and some that may be termed “realistic.”  But beneath these reasons stands the Oedipal factor: Brenner’s rebellion against any authority whatsoever, in any representation of the “father’s” authority.


One of the earliest to identify the “Freudian” character of Brenner’s work was literary critic,  Dov Sadan, who in a series of pioneering articles during the 1930’s analyzed central phenomena in Brenner’s works according to the recent theory that had reached the shores of Tel Aviv’s port from Vienna.  Sadan, however, did not connect the Oedipal complex of Brenner’s heroes with their creator’s attitude toward Jewish Tradition or to that generation’s teachers, but he did relate to the Oedipus complex as a very important factor in analyzing Brenner’s work.  Furthermore, Sadan in his Freudian analysis dealt with Brenner’s publicistic, essayist personality and literary works as a single block, moving freely and with virtuosity from one part to the other in order to prove his distinctions.

But alongside Sadan’s “Freudian” interpretation of the father figure in Brenner’s stories and of his heroes’ attitude towards women and mothers, Sadan’s hawk’s-eye perception discovered another central phenomenon in Brenner’s life and works.  In a brilliant article, “Toward the Meek of the World”, Sadan indicates a central line in the typology of Brenner’s heroes.  He discovered that the central character in Brenner’s stories is:” The figure of a young person in Israel (…) that contained the horror of reality and its distress (…) a soul that struggles in its own web within the tragic thicket of its generation, that is composed entirely of fragments of a cry for redemption and wholeness”.

The counter-image of these heroes, adds Sadan, would only appear to be “in those others, whose path in life is successful, whose soul is tranquil and who enjoy good spirits, who are unacquainted with any sense of inferiority or self-denigration, whose position is of self-adulation for their worth and importance.”  However, Sadan notes, it would be mistaken to view this figure as the “counter-image” in Brenner’s stories, for the simple reason that these images are not thoroughly developed by their creator.

     Another type of character that does enjoy this full treatment, is the “counter-image.”  This is the image that “is undeterred by a courageous, cruel introspection, is undeterred by the intense agony of self-exposure, but rather descends into the inferno, reaching the final levels of descent, deriving from that place the beginning of his ascent and the strength of his rising toward wholeness and reconciliation (….)  These images stand before us as though shrouded in mysterious light, (…) hinting at the image of the hidden Zaddik whose light shines , illuminating the crowd of little, afflicted men”.

Sadan then notes that Brenner’s “central-figure” aspires to reach the harmonious, resolved situation of the”counter-image,” but fails to do so.  He ascribes this to Brenner’s “psychology,” which drags far behind the  “ideology” which created that same wondrous image.

Toward the Meek of the World is an outstanding essay by Sadan about Freudian interpretation of Brenner.  Not only isn’t the phenomenon identified by Sadan unexplained by Freudian tools, it actually contradicts the “Freudian” principles in Brenner’s thought.  Brenner’s attraction to the mysterious “counter-image”, as outlined by Sadan, collides head-on with the “Oedipal” rebellion of Brenner’s heroes.  Of course, the Freudian model is sufficiently flexible to include ambivalence toward that same authority figure, but these images that Sadan terms “counter-images” are not the same as the weak “fathers” whom the Brennerian hero scorns or fears.  Even the figures’ influence on Brenner’s hero appears to be of a different, more mysterious sort.  It seems that Sadan was satisfied with the glamorous discovery of the phenomenon, and did not examine the broader implications for understanding Y. H. Brenner’s personality, thought and work.


As we have seen, Brenner’s “Oedipal” rebellion against the “old” Jewish heritage, stems from both ideological (original development of Nietzschean revulsion against the Judaeo-Christian ethic) and emotional motives (the connection between Jewish weakness and erotic infirmity; rebellion against any type of authority).  However, Brenner’s “Oedipal” rebellion is not limited to the world of Jewish culture.  The very same arguments that brought Brenner to rebel against the heritage of the “old” Jewish people, brought him to rebel against Tolstoy’s ethical thought.  Here, too, Tolstoy’s “oldness” stands at the center of Brenner’s criticism of pacifism and Tolstoian moralism.

Brenner emphasizes the “genealogy” of Tolstoian morality.  Vacillation between nihilism, morality and faith accompanied Tolstoy throughout his life, Brenner argues.  Tolstoy, as the man of morality, the prophet, became this only in his mature years, when his “instincts weakened.”  The erotic infirmity of  Tolstoy the “old man” also leads to doubts about his teaching.

But Brenner’s attitude toward Tolstoy the Man of Morality had not always been like that:  in his work “One Year” Brenner sketches out the sobering up process of Hanina Mintz, Brenner’s double, from Tolstoyism.  The work focuses on a description of the process of Hanina Mintz’ moral corruption in his first year in the Russian army.  The decadent process that happens to Mintz is extremely closely tied to his estrangement from Tolstoy’s moral positions.

The young Brenner, like Hanina Mintz, his hero prior to his army experience, is profoundly influenced by Tolstoy.  Brenner’s first novel, In Winter, describes it as follows:  “At that time…. Tolstoy was the prophet of the Man within me.  His plain, logical sayings, the feelings welling up from the heart, the excited attacks upon the decadence of civilization, on egotistic science, upon illusory art, on the degeneracy of life with money – all this made a great impression upon me. I was then an other-wordly young man, seeking truth.  I had few acquaintances, chance acquaintances; …and in this world the Russian writer ruled.

If we pay attention to the formulation chosen by Fiermann, the young Brenner’s double and hero in “In the Winter,” describing Tolstoy and himself as “prophet” versus “young man”, it will be hard for us not to see the similarity between this position and Brenner’s “main hero” and the “counter-hero” identified by Sadan:

            These characters  stand before us as though enshrouded in a mysterious light, (…) hinting at the figure of the hidden Zaddik whose light shones, illuminating the crowd of little, afflicted men.”


Sadan did not include historical figures such as Tolstoy as an example of a “counter-image.”  His essay deals only with literary figures.  But if we take a moment with one of the examples that Sadan enumerates, we can see the similarity between its influence on the “main-hero” and Tolstoy’s influence on the young Fiermann.  One of the figures enumerated by Sadan as an example of the “counter-image”, is the figure of Avraham Menuhin in “Out of the Straits.”

The work “Out of the Straits” is told by a narrator and written like diary entries, which are called “scrolls.”  In these “scrolls” the narrator describes the world of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, who had settled in the White Chapel neighborhood in London.  With meticulous detail he describes the life style of people around the publishing house of a ‘yellow’ Yiddish newspaper, for which the narrator himself works as a distributor.

But this way of life only constitutes the background for the exceptional appearance of Avraham Menuhin, who also works at the publishing house as a typesetter.  In the past Menuhin had been a revolutionist and member of the Bund; he belonged to the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, even though he differentiates himself from the latter and from the “new winds” – from the hedonistic anarchists.

Menuhin fulfills a moral function in the narrator’s life similar to that filled by Tolstoy in the life of Fiermann.  Menuhin, relates the nameless narrator of “Out of the Straits” – is not “scared of the word ‘morality’, and he does not view rebels as the choicest of men (….) but rather he views good deeds and desirable relationships as the sole thing without which there is nothing.”

But the similarity of influence is not only in content but in form.  Precisely as Tolstoy was revealed to the confused young man, Fiermann, as a prophet, Menuhin is revealed to the narrator as an ancient, very majestic figure.  Menuhin’s rise from the London darkness – to his first encounter with the narrator –  is described as revelation.  Menuhin is conceived of by the narrator as a representative of earlier generations, high above the crowd, and “a creature not frequently encountered.”

The narrator declares that Menuhin “arises and illuminates” in his presence.  He hesitates  whether to verify in his heart what his eyes behold, since the apparition’s nature is so charged and strange.  His uncertainty makes him like someone who undergoes a religious experience, but whose rationalism makes him doubt this. In brief, as the critic, Fishel Lachover noted:  “In “Out of the Straits” the main Brennerian hero listens to “a voice from without, as though from another world (…) he meets a sort of “wonder” outside, a wonderful person.”


How can we explain Brenner’s attraction to characters like Menuhin or Tolstoy?  Is the Freudian world sufficiently broad to contain “religious” wonder like the narrator’s toward Menuhin, or that of Fiermann toward Tolstoy?  It seems unlikely. Yet if we distance ourselves a bit from the Freudian world, in a short detour from Vienna to Switzerland, we will encounter a psycho-philosophical system that fits such an unusual emotional phenomenon – Jungian psychology.

In Jung we will find what we seek: a father figure that is not just a “father-figure” but “larger than life”, with moral weight and religious attraction, whose foundations we will not find in concrete, personal experience, but which come rather from the depths of the collective unconscious.  In Jung and his archetypal “Wise Old Man” we will find the solution to Brenner’s attraction to the moral characters of Tolstoy and Menuhin.

In several places in his writings Jung counts the “Wise Old Man” as one of the central archetypes of the collective unconscious.  According to Jung, the appearance of the “Wise Old Man” occurs whenever people need insight, understanding, good advice, determination, planning, etc., but the one in need lacks strength to reach them on his own.  The archetype arises in a dream, a vision, in cultural works and in the actual field of culture, compensating the individual in a state of confusion, and everyone during periods of crisis.  On the one hand, “the Wise Old Man” represents:  knowledge, thought, insight, wisdom, cleverness and intuition, and on the other hand – moral qualities which express his “spiritual” aspect.

The figure of the “Wise Old Man” is connected to the figure of the “god”, on one hand, and to the figure of the “father” on the other.  The appearance of the archetype has an explicitly numinous character, defined by Jung as religious experience.  A mystical halo accompanies the archetype’s appearances, who directly and deeply influences the emotions of the subject to whom he reveals himself.

The figures of Menuhin and Tolstoy do fit all these characteristics.  If  the “counter-image” found by Sadan is actually identical with the Jungian figure of “the Wise Old Man”, we can apparently define the battle taking place in Brenner’s work and thought as the battlefield between Freud and Jung.  The Freudian Brenner rejects the “fathers,” but the Jungian Brenner yearns for the “old men.”

An example which will demonstrate that Freud and Jung are struggling on the battlefield of Brenner’s soul, may be found in one of Brenner’s articles, which begins with the following passage:

            “It seems that someone already said:  I don’t like my Jewish father, but ‘touch not our children and our elders’… the Jewish children with their live, pure eyes, and the elderly Jews bathed in the glory of nobility – not nobility of much property, but rather the nobility of a higher inner culture – from the latter we can be consoled a bit, to find a little comfort…our children and our elders show us that our national body “is fashioned from beautiful material”, since the leaven in our dough has great importance.”

Here Brenner adopts an overall positive approach towards the”elderly Jews,” who carry with them “a higher inner culture.”  This inclusive approach (not regarding a specific old person) , and the coupling of elders with children, support the claim that the figure of the “Wise Old Man” constituted an archetypal, ideological-emotional focal point for Brenner; a focal point that collided with the “fathers.”

But it appears that for Brenner, matters were more complex.  It seems that within the soul of Brenner’s central hero there was not only a battle between the Jungian “Wise Old Man” and the Freudian father.  Brenner himself analyzes the Jungian archetype, finds it flawed, and relates to it ambivalently.



The Zionist Revolution and its attraction toward the figure of the young “New Hebrew” shares several surprising similarities with the cultural revolution that occurred in the ‘60’s in the West.  Opposition to authority, the accentuated rift between parents and children, the vision of the new culture and admiration for youth are shared by both revolutions.  It’s no wonder, therefore, that during the ‘60’s a “negative” revision in Jungian theory was made regarding the “Wise Old Man” archetype, by a thinker who was spiritually close to the counter-culture that developed then – a revision very reminiscent of Brenner’s doubts in the “Counter-image.”

James Hillman, a central and original post-Jungian, deals very comprehensively with the “Wise Old Man” archetype of the Jungian school.  In a series of articles from the 60’s and 70’s, Hillman discusses the “senex” archetype, and particularly its negative aspects.

Senex in Latin means an “old man” (we find this connotation in words like “senile” and “senator.”  In Hillman’s view the senex archetype is connected with the concept of “God”, and is a symbol of old age that appeared in Greek mythology  in the figure of Chronos (in Latin, Saturn).  On the one hand, Saturn is the personification of the “Wise Old Man,” the wise seclusive man, with “positive” intellectual and moral capabilities, the “Old King”, father of all; but on the other hand, he is also the father who nourishes himself insatiably from his children’s flesh. Thus Saturn constitutes a key example of the positive and negative aspects of the symbol of old age, the Senex.

Hillman talks about the Senex-Puer archetype, an archetype of old age-youth, as one archetype with two poles.  The break exposed within this archetype, the gap between Senex and Puer is a very charged topic since it reflects a series of key problems in culture:  The oldness of the deity and civilization and the possibility of their renewal, the gap between generations, father-son relations, master-pupil relations – this is due to the archetype Senex. (when on his own) being the creator of the generation gap and intergenerational conflict.

This polarity which splits between the symbol of old age, the Senex, and the symbol of youth, Puer, causes another split in each of the poles, a value split for the symbol of “good” and the symbol of “bad”, whereby the “judge” of each symbol is its opposite symbol.  To affirm the claim regarding the split between the evil Senex and the good Senex, Hillman notes that of all the gods (meaning the archetypes) Saturn, symbol of the Senex in Greek and Roman mythology, is the most polarized of them all: the dualism of “good” and “bad” that splits this symbol-as-deity is the sharpest of them all.  Since according to Hillman’s conception the ideal emotional situation is that in which the Senex-Puer archetype becomes united, he brings examples from various mythologies to show that this archetype is in fact one.

Healing the rift between the Senex and the Puer is the central goal of therapeutic analysis.  During our lives, we search for the transformation that will lead us from the conflict between the two extremes, the Senex and the Puer, to unity.  Unification of  the sexes, male and female, is not the sole desired unity for healing the soul.  Emotional healing may only be found through unification of the Puer and the Senex, between the “arrangement” of the latter and the dynamics of the former.


What are the characteristics of the Senex archetype that turn it into a negative archetype when separated from the Puer, from the symbol of youth? Hillman enumerates a series of negative characteristics which he discovered by means of the typical Jungian cultural investigation technique, termed “amplification.”

The old age archetype is characterized as having a cold temperament. Cold also implies remoteness.  Saturn, isolated and wandering, stands apart.  He observes the world from without; he contemplates the world from the depths, and the world seems to him abstract and structural.  His other characteristics are: slowness, heavyness, colorlessness, dryness, sadness, depression and melancholia.

The Senex is the archetypal principle that expresses “exile from life.”  The Senex as archetype expresses penetration of insight into the illusions of existence, which belong to the sense of vitality associated with the Puer archetype.  The Senex expresses the “bitter truth,” discloses “naked reality,”  and the perspective of death through which the human complexes seem ludicrous.  The Senex is connected to awareness; and awareness, Hillman argues, means absence of contact with life and proximity to death. Therefore, the Senex is reflected in the wisdom of philosophers, as well as in the prophecies of Jeremiah and the cynicism of Diogenes.

Saturn’s relations with women are limited.  Saturn – according to Hillman, the Old Age archetype, the Senex, is not interested in women and thus his name is associated with widowhood, childlessness, and eating children(!).  According to Hesiod in the “Golden Age,” at the time Chronos ruled (the Roman Saturn), women had not yet been created.  In astrological writings the tradition is also maintained that points to the alienation existing between Senex-Saturn and women.

Hillman interprets the mythological motif of the Senex-Saturn’s “eating children” as the ability to suppress infantile urges.  Eating children implies suppression of these urges, which is not always positive.  When we cling to a position that may be described as anti-erotic or anti-emotional, that is the Senex archetype speaking from within us.

Saturn-Senex is very demanding, and can manifest himself in the images of Moses and Abraham; a patriarchal mentor who demands uncompromising obedience.

The negative Senex complex, Hillman emphasizes, is liable to appear in a person’s dreams long before he is considered an old man.  The young dreamer personifies the Senex as father, as spiritual teacher, as a wise old man, before whom the dreamer stands as does a student before his master. Those same authoritative figures, through their counsel, provide wisdom to the dreamer that is beyond his personal experience.  But in the case of an encounter with the “negative Senex,” the advice of these figures is “bad,” causing the patient to be “wise beyond his years” and impatient toward his youth.  Wise, significant  sayings, or even spiritual truths may be “bad advice” in certain situations.  Seclusion, contemplation and “wisdom” are not necessarily positive conditions and characteristics.  The soul needs involvement and emotion; Hillman cites La Rochefoucauld, who wrote:  “This is a great folly, to wish to be wise by oneself.”


In summary, Hillman’s discussion of the Wise Old Man and the Senex archetype emphasizes the following points:

a.       The central content and character of the archetype: wisdom, rationalism, dryness, awareness, imposing “order,” giving “meaning,” separation from women, isolation from the world and from Eros generally, melancholia, the moral quality influenced by it..

b.      The archetype is “negative” as long as it is not connected with the archetype Puer, which expresses Eros, searching, vitality and youth.

c.       The modern era may be described as a time that places the problem of the Senex at its center, as the old moral values decay (implying the rise of the Puer archetype).

In such a modern reality, precisely like that just described, a reality of declining old norms of Jewish Tradition, Brenner’s works and world-view were created, the works and world-view in whose heart there existed that same ambivalent attitude toward the figure of the Wise Old Man, cut off from his youth, the “negative Senex” in the words of Hillman.


Hillel Zeitlin, thinker and boyhood friend of Brenner, wrote in his essay in Hatekufa, after Brenner was murdered:  HaM’orer (a newspaper edited by Brenner in London, 1905-1907) ceased to awaken and together with it the true spirit of HaM’orer ceased to be – the spirit of freedom of thought that does not bow to party principles.  In the Erez Israel Brenner was influenced by the Poel HaZa’ir and Po’alei Zion parties, and although in the recesses of his heart there remained the same deep hatred of socialist parties in Erez Israel when he was there, his heart went out to the workers and the builders of life in Erez Israel, as he would accept from time to time their  “programs” (….) In his Erez Israel articles Brenner frequently forgot his own identity and will, and would repeat the radical rhetoric of his friends; in brief, he wasn’t Brenner, but a socialist.”

Even if we don’t accept Zeitlin’s judgemental view of this “late” Brenner, it seems that Zeitlin has correctly identified a break in Brenner’s emotional-intellectual biography.  Before Brenner made aliyah (1909), to our surprise we find in Brenner’s writings a hostile attitude toward socialist materialism along with prophetic pathos, a religious tone and yearning for the age-old Jewish tradition.

The “early” Brenner, especially Brenner as editor of HaM’orer, is a most surprising Brenner, given the description sketched out at the beginning of this lecture (which is the very description of his character that has become firmly fixed to this day).  Brenner of HaM’orer is actually not so very far from Ehad Ha’am’s attitude toward the spiritual, cultural heritage of the Jewish people, and he even goes beyond Ehad Ha’am in the pathos with which his words are said.  For example, this is how Brenner writes in HaM’orer:

“They come to us questioningly, in the name of Life:  What connection is there between the language of the past and Life? Or rather not! They don’t come to question, they come with assurance, they come in raging fury: Fetish! There’s no need for this dead language! (…) Yet what shall we do, if we have in this dead language three thousand years of literature which is not dead?  What shall we do, for if we come to totally delete this dead language from the book of our lives, we ourselves will be destroying everything that our spirit has acquired throughout all the generations? What shall we do with this dead thing that has this strange trait, that Arabic and Spanish speakers like R. Shlomo ibn Gabirol and R. Yehuda HaLevi (…) write and create with it, and sometimes just with it.”

Without discussing here the question of what happened to Brenner, who changed his view, it’s clear that in his spiritual-ideological underpinnings Brenner held in esteem – and almost a religious attraction – toward the values of Jewish culture throughout its generations.  Brenner’s restraint, as presented in this lecture, stemmed from the fear that the cultural and moral tradition of Judaism was a tradition of old-age and weakness, enfolding within it the same negative traits enumerated by Hillman in “The Wise Old Man”:  Isolation from Eros, over-awareness and rationality, morality as a substitute for emotion, melancholia in lieu of the joy of living.

In order for Brenner to accept the values of Jewish culture that attract him so powerfully, it is necessary to combine, in Hillman’s words, the Senex with the Puer.  The connection between the insight and the morality of the old man to Eros and youth is that which can save Jewish culture.

Only through this connection could Brenner find a foundation for Jewish culture, and this connection seemed, in his era, and admittedly in our era, difficult to achieve. It is precisely this connection, between the “Wise Old Man” Lapidot, the main  character of the most significant work of Brenner, and his grandson, Amram, which provides the famous concluding scene of “From Here and from There” with its religious, archetypal power.

“Little Amram’s head was still resting on Aryeh Lapidot’s chest, and there was something sad, simple, pitiful and at the same time secret, important and infinitely precious, in this devotion. (…) The old man and the child stood guard over Life, adorned with thorns.  The sun shone as before rain.  The existence was an existence of thorns. The whole account has not yet been settled.”


In conclusion, if we can descend for a moment – or possible ascend – from the national sphere that engaged Brenner in the context of the figure of the Wise Old Man, to the area of individual psychology, we will understand that the question about the valid authority of the Wise Old Man had become extremely pressing for Brenner, the more his public influence became established.  For as time passed Brenner himself became a Wise Old Man, who served as a spiritual compass for his contemporaries.  Despite all of Brenner’s opposition to the position of “spiritual leadership,” it’s hard to assume that over the years Brenner didn’t feel that he himself had become that figure.

And indeed, in his last works we see, between the lines, that Brenner was occupied with the figure of the “Wise Old Man” in a new way, that reflects on his own authority.  In “From Here and from There” Oved Etzot is already aware that he is comparable to the moral paragon figure of Lapidot.

In Brenner’s last great work, “Bereavement and Failure,” the figure of the Wise Old Man is depicted as a caricature by the elderly uncle of the work’s hero, Yosef Hefetz.  Hefetz is the “Wise Man, the Considerer”, who reads Spinoza and seeks the “true good” in his books.  He is portrayed as a wholly spiritual scholar, who admires Spinoza for his disdain of concrete bodily pleasures, who maintains his distance from women, all of whose wisdom and asceticism are nullified by the distress of physical existence.  This caricaturistic portrayal does not deviate from what has been presented until now in this lecture.

But what is divergent in “Bereavement and Failure” relates to the names of the heroes.  Various commentators have noted that Yosef Hefetz, the pathetic wise man, and his brother, Hayyim Hefetz, the innocent, bear together the full name of their author, Yosef Hayyim Brenner.  Brenner hints to us, so it appears, that he is aware that his own personality contains much of the character he is so involved with and so rejects – the figure of the “Wise Old Man.”

A tone of conciliation with this position, of the moral person, is found only in Brenner’s last, unfinished work:  the story “From the Beginning.”  The story revolves around the world of young people who are observed by an “elderly man, whom a serious neurological illness has prevented from doing anything, and has left him only to observe and to feel emotions.”  This same older man (40 years old, as was Brenner when it was written…) fears and wishes that the young people will turn to him asking for guidance:

“What if (…) she should fall suddenly at his feet and begin to weep: ‘Father! Tell me what to do!”  What would he answer her, this forty-year-old, this man of experience? (…) What warnings is it possible to caution them? What should he say:  That healthy, ideal, content-giving love is better (…) and that the empty, weakening, caressing, flesh consuming, soul stealing flirt is very bad (….) Can the cry “Watch out children” be of any use to them? (…) Is the disaster not deeper than that?”

This indecision of the 40 year old observer, concerning the extent of involvement appropriate for him in the lives of young people and about the guidance he should give them, may be interpreted as Brenner’s own indecision concerning his consolidating position as a leader with spiritual authority, who is charged with “the right to cry out”, in the developing Settlement in Erez Israel.


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