From Honolulu via Mt. Gilboa to Tel-Aviv: the Rise and Fall of Shlonsky’s Messianic Halutz

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rabbi Haim O. Rechnitzer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, will present a paper at the 27th Annual International Conference of the Association for Israel Studies at Brandeis University on June 13-15, 2011.  The paper title is “From Honolulu via Mt. Gilboa to Tel-Aviv: the Rise and Fall of Shlonsky’s Messianic Halutz.”  His abstract is below.

This paper focuses on the theo-political aspects of Abraham Shlonsky's first poetry book Bagalgal (1927), and specifically on its messianic narrative. Shlonsky's poetry is steeped in theology and creates an intricate and critical dialogue with the Jewish tradition and God. Aligned with the Zionist spirit of the Third Aliyah, his poetry reflects the idea that Zionism is first and foremost a spiritual movement. Zionism's political manifestations are a natural extension of this spiritualism but not its guiding force.  The new Hebrew poetry was expected to fulfill the task of becoming the national prophetic poetry and the new ideal of the Hebrew poet was interwoven with that of the Biblical prophet. As D. Miron and H. Bar-Yosef note; the new Hebrew poet was expected to perceive the eternal laws that govern the national history, to warn against dangerous deviations from the correct path and guide the political leaders.  The poet has the capacity to understand and express and therefore to create the sacred goals of the nation. In this paper I demonstrate that Shlonsky took his protagonist-poet to another level, that of a Tzaddic and a potential messiah.  Alas, the messianic hopes are crushed against the harsh personal and social realities that mark the period of the Third Alyia.  At the backdrop of this paper is the claim that Modern Hebrew poetry, which is normally categorized as "secular poetry," should be read under the discipline of Jewish thought as well and become an integral part of the "traditional" Jewish thought canon. Reading Shlonsky's poetry by applying hermeneutical methods taken from the field of Jewish thought brings to the surface the array of references and allusions to Jewish traditional texts ranging from the Bible through the Talmud and Midrash to Hassidism. This method yields two important contributions; first, it highlights the unique contribution of Shlonsky's poetry in the wider Jewish discourse.  Second, the reconstruction of the theo-political elements of early Shlonsky's poetry deepens our understanding of the theological undercurrents of what is considered "secular Zionist culture" and demonstrates the trajectories and potential of the corpus of Jewish thought in its encounter with modernity and especially with the "secular" Zionist culture.


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