Simon Dubnow

Foundational Jewish historian and non-Zionist nationalist.

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Jews today might struggle to understand a Judaism without either Israel or religious practice. But for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an array of diverse ideologies competed with Zionism and religion. Thinkers strove to create a non-Zionist, secular form of Judaism that eliminated God, Torah, and the Land of Israel as the exclusive bases of Jewish life.  One of the alternative foundations they proposed was History.  One of the most prominent of these thinkers was Simon Dubnow, a seminal Jewish historian and non-Zionist Jewish nationalist.

Rebellion Against Religion

Dubnow was born in 1860 in Belarus. Though he grew up in an observant family, Dubnow began reading literature associated with the Russian Jewish Enlightenment of the mid-19th century. These writings broadened his horizons and inspired him to rebel against religion. He set about teaching himself Russian and tried to acquire a secondary school diploma, which was needed to enter university.

Dubnow embraced a secular, cosmopolitan life. He moved in with his fiancée and rejected a religious wedding. He refused to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, arguing that he could not pray to a deity he did not believe in, and barely managed to say kaddish at his father's funeral.

But his allegiance to these values could not be sustained either. In his 20s, in the wake of the pogroms and anti-Jewish legislation of 1881-82, Dubnow lost faith in the doctrine of universal progress. In a climate of intensifying anti-Semitism, he found himself isolated, cut off from both Christian intellectuals and the traditionalist Jewish population.

This crisis catalyzed an ideological revolution. Dubnow became a Jewish nationalist. He came to believe that individuals' connections to humanity must be mediated by their membership in a national group. As members of a nation, there was no need for Jews to accept the truth of religion. Instead, Dubnow held that the basis of Jewish identity was historical consciousness.

Nationalist Jewish Identity

In his many books, among them the History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, his 10-volume History of the Jews, and a History of Hasidism, Dubnow sought to construct a conception of history which could serve as the basis for a nationalist Jewish identity.

Dubnow was influenced by Heinrich Graetz, the pioneer of modern Jewish historiography. Graetz saw Jewish history as the story of an unfolding spiritual tradition, grounded in rationalism and universal human values. Accordingly, Graetz's history emphasized the rational aspects of Jewish culture and neglected what he saw as superstitious, primitive or obscurantist, in particular Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the Yiddish-speaking world.  Dubnow initially agreed that the survival of the Jews should be explained in terms of their spiritual essence and that ethical behavior and spiritual achievement were the factors which bound Jews to their national existence and to their past.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.