…for I may be the sole Jew now amongst the generation who, following many years wandering the pathways of thought and life, following frightful torments and restlessness, has acquired the faith which they call “primitive”…
The following brief excerpts are taken from Hillel Zeitlin’s apocalyptic work Silence and Voice, published in 1936 as the threatening shadow of Nazi Germany loomed over European Jewry. Interweaving prophetic calls for repentance alongside practical solutions for the organization and resettlement of European Jewry, Zeitlin’s thunderous and at times exasperated voice expresses great frustration with the religious corruption and spiritual apathy of his peers. Indeed, at times it sounds as though he stands utterly alone in confronting an impending doom which only he perceives.
I have chosen to translate three short selections from the book which provide a glimpse into Zeitlin’s soul. The first is a stirring description of Zeitlin’s existential loneliness as he takes account of his isolation, a loneliness brought about by the utterly unique course he has charted in his life. The lengthy sentence which forms the body of the selection is a paean to the ideal type of faithful with whom Zeitilin identifies himself, devoted to repentance, absolute identification with the pain of the world, and selfless prayer on behalf of their generation.
In the the second selection, Zeitlin proudly acknowledges the contradictory nature of his personality. Those who appear to be consistent or whole, he asserts, are merely out of touch with themselves. Zeitlin’s task is to attempt to draw his fragmented ends together into a synthesis. This synthesis is achieved through the reduction of all “goodness and beauty” to the One from whom they emerged and to whom they shall ultimately return.
In the third selection, Zeitlin pays tribute to the books of Ḥasidic teachings so dear to his heart. While Zeitlin is a man of the world, involved in the public affairs of the broader Jewish community, he finds refuge in retreating to the works of the early Ḥasidic masters. This tension between two worlds—the “impure” world of petty politics and religious degeneracy which occupied Zeitlin’s days in his journalistic work, and the purifying “mikvah” of Ḥasidic thought—encapsulates Zeitlin’s life, as he sought to occupy the liminal space in the threshold between new and old, individual and communal, holy and profane.
For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here.
I live now, as before, with nation and family, amidst numerous acquaintances, and perhaps a few friends as well, as I take the pulse of the day as a journalist. Despite this — I am alone amidst all of the generation.
Alone and a stranger —
A stranger amidst so many close acquaintances —
A stranger, for I may be the sole Jew now amongst the generation who, following many years wandering the pathways of thought and life, following frightful torments and restlessness, has acquired the faith which they call “primitive”, the very truth itself, the faith of the ancient ones, the faith of the forefathers, the faith which declares that it is possible to sweeten the many evils of the world through absolute, perfect, and pure repentance, a repentance the likes of Nineveh, through the unified prayer of people, who, through the raising up of their souls, the power of their pure thoughts, the clarity of their vision, the sanctity of their lives, the humility of their spirit, the submission of their hearts, a love towards every creature devoid of even the slightest falsehood, absolute solidarity with all of the pain and suffering in the world — hear from within their souls the voice of God who reveals His secret to His servants; consulting, as it were, with them, desiring that they appeal to Him on behalf of their generation (and at times on behalf of future generations), listening to their cries and paying heed to their murmuring voices.
(Silence and Voice, pg. 9, bolded text in original)
Behold I am a man filled with contradictions. Any man who does not shrink and contract himself into an isolated point, but rather enjoys a whole and replete personal and social life — it is impossible that all of his thoughts and deeds should always be in alignment, bound and fastened together without any cracks of contradiction in between them.
The difference between myself and those “reliable” and “consistent” ones is that they do not perceive the contradictions which riddle all of their thoughts and actions, and consequently do not attend to them, do not restore them, and do not elevate them; while I, who recognizes the contradictions within myself, labor with all of my strength to equate between them; and not through mere compromise and “daubing plaster on the fallen wall” [cf. Ezekiel 13:12], but rather through a supreme equation, within the single deep point in which opposites unite, for this point displays and demonstrates that all goodness and beauty in their essence emerge from the One and return to the One…
(Silence and Voice pg. 33)
When my soul is bothered, at the time when I seek rescue and refuge from all the falsehoods and travails which I see around me, as I flee from all of the political parties amongst us, whether they lean right, whether they lean left, whether they are centrist; as I flee too from their “doctrines”, their leaders who head them, their deeds, and their writers who abet them—I always open the visionary works of the Ḥasidic masters and find within them spiritual salvation, communal consolation, an understanding of the past, a proper look at the present, and a true vision of the future. For myself, these books are like a purifying mikveh [ritual bath] in which I immerse myself after coming into contact with so much impurity in my necessary involvement with all sorts of “enlightened” individuals, “free-thinkers”, and “internationalists”, not to mention after I step outside and breathe the air of the city so suffused with foolish thoughts and every “falsehood committed under the sun”. The impurity of life is sanctified by the Kedushat Levi , the darkness of life is illumined by the Meor Einayim , superficial wisdom is cast aside by the holy wisdom of the Tanya , and all thoughts of bitterness and hardship are vaporized like smoke before wind by the Likutei Moharan …
(Silence and Voice, pg. 74)
 “Sanctification of Levi”, a collection of Ḥasidic sermons by R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdychiv (1740-1809).
 “The Light of the Eyes”, a collection of Ḥasidic sermons by R. Menaḥem Noḥum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797).
 Foundational work of Chabad-Lubavitch Ḥasidut, written by R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812).
 Collected teachings of R. Nachman of Bratslov (1772-1810).