Hillel Zeitlin

For my translations of Hillel Zeitlin’s writings, click here.


Who was Hillel Zeitlin?

Hillel Zeitlin, at once a journalist, poet, social critic, Torah scholar, mystic and philosopher, was one of the preeminent literary personalities of Eastern European Jewry in the first part of the 20th century. Deeply mystical, yet an intellectually driven skeptic, Zeitlin wrestled with matters of faith and doubt for many years of his life. At home both in the contemporary intellectual milieu of the Hebrew Renaissance and the traditional world of the Kabbalah and Ḥasidut, Zeitlin’s life was one of a relentless search for God in the modern world as he sought an answer to the longings of his soul.

Born in 1871 in Korma in White Russia, Zeitlin grew up in an observant family descended from Chabad Ḥasidim. As a youth he earned a reputation as a prodigy, mastering the corpus of traditional Judaic texts, with a focus on Ḥasidic and philosophical works. It was at this time that Zeitlin enjoyed a unique period of religious ecstasy whose memory would remain with him throughout his life. In a short biographical essay written in 1928, Zeitlin recalled:

[…]I found myself consumed by divine fire. For more than half a year, when I was about thirteen, I was totally given over to Infinity. No one knew what was happening to me, since I was by nature a shy loner. Yet even today I recall with secret joy that time when I was almost able to see the “power of the Maker within the made” and to penetrate beyond the “physical, corporeal nature of things,” constantly seeing “the divine power flowing through them in each moment, without which they are naught.” [1] I found myself in a state of ecstasy that I had not known previously and have never yet attained again. Usually people are in such states for minutes or hours in the course of a day. But I remained in that ecstatic state all day and night. My thought was attached to God with hardly a moment’s interruption. (Green and Rosenberg, 2)

However, as Zeitlin continued, “To my great sorrow, this state did not last for long. As winter passed, the material world and its demands came upon me. Youthful lusts and various inner stirrings, including that of haskalah [enlightenment], overwhelmed me.” (ibid, 2) Exposed to the emergent haskalah movement, Zeitlin began studying contemporary works of Hebrew literature, leading him to regard his religious upbringing with suspicion. Economic hardships drove him to leave home as a teenager, and he spent seven years wandering, supporting himself by working as an itinerant tutor. Describing this time, he wrote “…I also learned languages and various sciences…I studied intensely the writings of Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph Albo, and also such moderns as Mendelsohn, Salomon Maimon, Krochmal, and others. I devoted even closer attention to the works of Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and above all to the positivists: August Comte, Spencer, Darwin, Bokal, Draper, and several others. On top of all these were the works of those destructive critics Pisarev, Chernishevslky, Dobrulyubov, Mikhailovsky, and others.” (ibid, 3)

As Zeitlin autodidactically mastered the canon of Western thought, his faith continued to suffer and he abandoned the traditional religious lifestyle of his upbringing. Settling in Homel, Zeitlin joined a circle of aspiring writers which included Yosef Haim Brenner and Uri Gnessin. At this time he began to intensively study the works of Schopenhauer, Hartmann, and Nietzsche. Nietzsche in particular had a strong impact upon Zeitlin, influencing much of his later writings.

Finding employment as a journalist, Zeitlin settled in Warsaw in 1907, following a brief stop in Vilna. Slowly returning to the traditional observant life of his youth, Zeitlin wrote, “From the day I settled in Warsaw, I began to order and renew my Torah studies. I use all my spare time to study the two Talmuds, Midrashic works, books of ethics and philosophy, but most particularly books of Kabbalah and Hasidism. The more I study, the more I see how few there are among us who truly comprehend these sources.” (ibid, 5).

Zeitlin won renown over the next 35 years as one of the premier columnists in the Hebrew and Yiddish press, weighing in on all the major questions of his day. Having initially been involved in the Zionist movement, attending the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, Zeitlin became disillusioned with the movement, instead identifying as a Territorialist, the movement which advocated for locating an immediate safe haven for the Jews anywhere in the world.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Zeitlin’s writings adopted an increasingly messianic and apocalyptic tone, as he warned of the impending doom of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, his calls for repentance went unheeded, and Zeitlin fell victim to the destruction that he himself had predicted. Imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, on Erev Rosh Hashana 1942 Zeitlin was brought out to the Umschlagplatz for transportation to Treblinka. Eyewitness accounts relate that Zeitlin arrived for his final departure wearing his Talit and Tefillin and holding a copy of the Zohar.

Zeitlin’s literary output spans a range of genres. His earliest works were philosophical monographs on the nature of good and evil (1899), Spinoza (1900), and Nietzsche (1905). In the period between 1906 and 1909, Zeitlin wrote several lyrical works expressing spiritual themes, the beauty of nature, and the longings of the soul (Shekhina, Yofi Shel Ma’ala, and Ha’Tzimaon). As he furthered his return to traditional observance, he published in 1910 an introductory essay to Ḥasidic thought (HaḤasidut L’shitoteha V’zerameha) which is incomparable in its scope and beauty. Other noteworthy essays include B’Ḥevyon Ha’Neshama, a response to William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience published in 1913, and Al Gvul Shnei Olamot, a mystical dream journal and diary from 1917, published in 1919. Throughout this time he continued to write on a nearly daily basis about contemporary news, events, and other controversies. All of his writings share a riotous literary style, as Zeitlin infused heartfelt pathos into every line.

Zeitlin remains an enigma. His son Aaron Zeitlin, himself a prominent writer and poet, wrote on many occasions that he himself did not truly understand who his father was. While Zeitlin appears to have spent the years between 1897 and 1906 in a state of deep pessimism while struggling to cope with his loss of faith, even in that period he produced works of deep religious longing. Furthermore, even after his stated return to the Torah study and the traditional observance of his youth, Zeitlin continued to study and cite in his writings many non-Jewish sources. Thus we find Zeitlin writing in 1903 about his prayers alongside the trees of the forest, while throughout the later years of his life he continued to reference the New Testament and Zoroastrian myth, amongst other unorthodox sources, in the midst of otherwise deeply religious and traditional prose. The difficulty in ascertaining the ambiguous orthodox character of his writings is further hampered by the censorship of Aaron Zeitlin, who excised many heterodox statements from the writings of his father which he prepared for republication after the Holocaust. Zeitlin’s divided nature is reflected in his tumultuous relationships with the Orthodox establishment, who viewed him with suspicion, and the secular literary elite, who increasingly ignored him as his writing adopted a more religious tone.

Largely forgotten after the Holocaust, Zeitlin has begun to attract renewed attention from scholars. Zeitlin was such a broad individual that his life and work are relevant to those studying the history of Zionism, Hebrew literature, Philosophy, Mysticism, and the Holocaust, amongst other fields. In particular, Jonatan Meir, Asael Abelman, and Arthur Green have written extensively about Zeitlin and his work. Green’s English translation of a selection of Zeitlin’s religious essays is an excellent introduction for those wishing to explore Zeitlin’s writings for themselves. Unfortunately, access to his Hebrew writings is more difficult. Two volumes of collected essays (B’Pardes Ha’Ḥasidut Ve’Ha’Kabbalah and Al Gvul Shnei Olamot) edited (and lightly censored) by Aaron Zeitlin appeared in the 1960s, however they are currently out of print. A third volume of essays, Safran Shel Yeḥidim, was published in 1979 and is similarly out of print. The vast majority of Zeitlin’s writings are only available in their original publications, limiting their availability to scholars. Many essays have been scanned and uploaded to the internet by Rabbi Oz Bluman, available on his blog.

By necessity, I have skipped over or lightly covered subjects deserving book-length treatment. It is my aim in this blog to upload translations of works which display the diversity of his thought and personality.

[1] Kabbalistic terminology referring to the immanent presence of God within the physical world.

Further reading:
Krutikov, Mikhail, and Pinsker, Shachar. 2011. Zeitlin Family. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Zeitlin_Family (accessed November 15, 2016).

Green , Arthur, and Ariel Evan Mayse. ““The Great Call of the Hour”: Hillel Zeitlin’s Yiddish Writings on Yavneh.” In geveb (March 2016): Accessed Nov 15, 2016. http://ingeveb.org/articles/the-great-call-of-the-hour-hillel-zeitlins-yiddish-writings-on-yavneh

Green, Arthur, and Joel Rosenberg. Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin. New York: Mahwah, NJ, 2012. Print.

Bar-On, Shraga. “Hillel Zeitlin in Search of God: An Analysis of Zeitlin’s Meditation “The Thirst”.” Faith: Jewish Perspectives. Ed. Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz. Boston: Academic Studies, 2013. 478-99. Print. https://www.academia.edu/8082229/Hillel_Zeitlin_in_search_of_God_The_Thirst

https://ozbluman.wordpress.com/ (Hebrew)