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Truth, Zionism and Humanism – In Memory of Prof. Eliezer Schweid

The Humanist-Zionist scholar, Prof. Eliezer Schweid, was an intellect in search of Truth and in furthering Jewish Peoplehood, especially in the State of Israel. His student and friend, Schechter Prof. Yossi Turner, helps us better understand Schweid on his Yahrzeit.

This year, Erev Shabbat Parshat Beshalah, the 17th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is the second anniversary of the passing of my friend and teacher, Prof. Eliezer Schweid, perhaps the most important of all Jewish philosophers in recent decades. When Prof. Schweid passed away, at the age of 93, the Covid virus was still the central story on the evening news, the extreme social polarization in Israel surrounding the governmental attempt at a judicial revolution, and of course the gigantic pogrom that Hamas perpetuated against our people on October 7th had not yet occurred.

Prof. Eliezer Schweid z’l

It would generally not try to surmise what a thinker would say concerning events that took place after his passing. But when we are speaking of a great intellectual whose entire career involved a continuous attempt to understand the problems facing Jewish existence in the past and the present, one cannot but ask this question.  In any event, from my close relationship with Eli Schweid, I am convinced that were he alive today, he would be in the midst of writing a long and deep essay on the state of Jewish existence following these fateful events.

It is, indeed, not possible to know precisely what Schweid would have said in regard to the contemporary state of affairs. Nonetheless, from the character of his work over the years, as a man of truth for whom the constant pursuit of truth is paramount; as a Humanist-Zionist; and as one who demanded looking at reality in the face, particularly in times of hardship, I believe it is possible to know what considerations he would probably take into account in the formation of his positions in the present situation.

Concerning Eli Schweid’s character as a man of truth, I’ll simply recall that though he grew up and was educated in Israel’s pre-State Labor Movement, and fought in the Palmach, Schweid never appeared as the representative of one camp or another, he rather searched consistently for the Truth, even when that search forced him to agree with positions of other camps or to criticize his own.

As for him being a Humanist-Zionist with a particular interest in furthering Jewish peoplehood, it is important to understand what he understood by the term Humanism, and particularly by what we call modern Humanism. “At its start,” he wrote, modern “Humanism” in the West, rested on the biblical viewpoint, according to which man was created in the image of God. For Schweid, this meant that just like the biblical God, man, “is free to form and create, to maintain and guide society.”

The particularist aspect of Schweid’s nationalist and Zionist orientation is expressed, in this context, through his presumption that humanity will never be able to realize the divine image, in which it was created, unless it begins within the particular lives of national or ethnic peoples, including, of course, the Jewish people. Schweid often appears to say that the realization of the divine image is an obligation implicit in Jewish peoplehood.

But in connection with this, he added a severe warning: He maintained that in addition to the freedom to construct and create, for which the human being is at least in some way, considered similar to God, the biblical notion of man having been created in the image of God teaches that, he is only created in the image of God, reminding us that he still not God; and that the human being, therefore, must always be modest in his activities and in the way he presents himself, removing himself from the transgression of  arrogance.

Indeed, one cannot know what exactly Eli Schweid would say on the backdrop of the fateful events of our times. I have no doubt, however, that had he lived to see the great social polarization surrounding the suggested legal reforms, and the slaughter of October 7th, the character of Schweid’s endeavor as a man of truth and the humility of his Humanist Zionism, and interest in the human being as created in the image of God, would be guiding his thought.

This is where his demand that one be willing to face reality as is, especially in times that the difficulty may seem too much to bear, is particularly pertinent. On a number of occasions I heard Eli Schweid express his approach to difficult times by quoting from Aaron David Gordon, pioneer and philosopher from the 2’nd Aliyah, who turned to all those who despaired in the pioneer community of his day, in an attempt to turn their despair into the energy needed for the building of the homeland, and wrote, counter-intuitively:

“Let us be blessed with those who despair … [but] who don’t leave the struggle because of it,” rather – he continued, “Let us be blessed with those who despair and invest their despair into building and creating,” that is – into Life.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

Yossi Turner is professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy (Emeritus). He received his MA and PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is active in a number of academic and public forums interested in the advancement of Jewish education and culture in Israel and around the world. Professor Turner has written dozens of articles and edited a number of works on a variety of topics in the area of Jewish Studies. He has also authored three full-length books: Faith and Humanism – An Examination of Franz Rosenzweig’s Religious Philosophy (Hebrew); Zion and the Diaspora in 20th Century Jewish Thought (Hebrew); and Quest for Life – A Study in Aharon David Gordon’s Philosophy of Man in Nature (English).  Professor Turner is currently writing a book of original philosophical thought concerning the present state of the Jewish people, Israel and humanity, tentatively entitled: Between Desperation and Hope.

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