8 Things You Need to Know About… Micha Joseph Berdichevsky

Journalist and scholar

1. He was born Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, August 1865, in the Ukraine and into a family of Chasidic rabbis. His father was the rabbi in a town of impoverished Jews. He was to grow up to speak for a generation that was trying to navigate the rocky straits between traditionalism and modernism.

2. An early prodigy in Talmud, he began reading mystical writings and other materials that brought him into conflict with his teachers. He was married while still in his teens to the daughter of a wealthy, pious merchant. But when his father-in-law discovered that he’d been reading works of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), Berdichevsky was forced to divorce his wife.

Berdichevski3. He ran away to Volozhin, to the yeshiva there, but again ran into difficulty because of his unorthodox reading. He was nineteen. A few years later, he published an article about these difficulties in the Hebrew language newspaper Hamelitz. The impassioned language he used – expressive of the conflict within him between tradition and assimilation – was to become a hallmark of his writing.

4. In 1890 he went to study in Germany and Switzerland, studying philosophy, notably the works of German philosophers, and earning a doctoral degree. His thought was deeply influenced by the works of Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Hegel. These were years of enormous productivity: between 1890 and 1900, Berdichevsky published ten books as well as articles and stories in Hebrew journals.

5. In 1900 he married and returned to his home in the Ukraine, where he was struck by the deterioration of traditional ways of life under the harsh conditions there. He returned to Germany in 1911 and lived there the rest of his life. The outpouring of stories, essays and novels continued, expressing always the ambivalence he felt between the wish to preserve Jewish tradition and the wish to live according to secular European culture. His aim, he said, was to repair the rent in the heart of the Jewish nation, making it possible to be both a Jew and a man in the modern world.

6. Berdichevsky’s essays included literary criticism and polemics against what he considered the dead weight of Jewish tradition, which he thought emphasized history over life. He spoke for a “rebellion of historically suppressed individualism.” Jews, he thought, had been detached from nature and physicality, their culture ossifying in exile. He hearkened back to ancient Israel – a time of political sovereignty and physical heroism – as a model; and he argued for a Hebrew literature that would become a means for Jews to retain their cultural and spiritual coherence while embracing the phenomena of modern life.

7. His fiction portrayed the difficulty of navigating a break from the immediate past while still continuing Jewish tradition. The characters in nearly all of his stories are either attempting to escape the weight of tradition or to survive within it, both with equally futile results.

8. In 1914, he began using the name Micha Yosef Bin-Gurion and continued to do so until his death in Berlin in 1921. In these later years, he devoted himself to collecting Jewish legends, myths and folktales, which he rewrote in a modern idiom, using a sparse, lyrical Hebrew, a kind of old-new tongue. This remarkable collection is perhaps, in the long run, his greatest contribution to Jewish literature.

 Berdichevsky“It is upon us to choose in ourselves that which is good and beautiful, that which is righteous and lasting. Free men are turned into slaves if they close the path before themselves, if we open our windows – freedom arrives from the distance.”

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Berdischevsky Street running eastward off the northern end of Rothschild Blvd., between Marmorek and Cremieux.

The moshav Sdot Micha, founded in 1955, was named for him, as well. It is located in central Israel near Beit Shemesh.

13 Things You Need to Know About… Baruch Spinoza

Rationalist philosopher

1. He was born Benedito de Espinosa in Amsterdam in November 1632. The son of a successful merchant, he was raised in the Portuguese Sephardic community. He had a traditional Jewish upbringing, but his education was cut short at the age of seventeen, when his elder brother died and he went to work in the family business importing dried fruit.

2. He went on learning. He spoke Portuguese, Hebrew, Spanish and Dutch, and at age twenty began the study of Latin with a freethinking former Jesuit, Franciscus van den Enden, who probably introduced him to modern philosophy. Spinoza evidently taught himself medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah and modern science. In 1654, when his father died, he began teaching at Van den Enden’s school and changed his name to Benedictus de Spinoza. He became friends with dissident Christians who rejected the authority of established churches.

3. After lengthy reflection, he concluded that the scriptures were not authored by Moses and that many prevailing dogmas of Judaism were wrong. In July 1656, at the age of twenty-three, he was exiled from the Jewish community by a cherem for his “evil ideas and acts,” his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” Scholars believe he was teaching the ideas that he would soon publish – denying the immortality of the soul; rejecting the notion of a providential god; and claiming that the Law was not given by God.

4. His response to this censure was, “This does not force me to do anything I would not have done of my own accord, had I not been afraid of a scandal.” Attacked on the steps of the synagogue by a knife-wielding assailant, he wore his torn cloak for years afterward as a kind of badge of honor.

5. At about the same time, the importing business turned sour; he turned it over to his younger brother and devoted himself to optics and philosophy. He worked as a lens grinder, a profession that brought him into contact with prominent scientists and mathematicians involving him in optical investigations and the design of microscopes and telescopes. He lived simply, turning down rewards, honors, teaching positions and an inheritance. Though he associated with Christians, he never converted to Christianity.

6. Only two of his works were published in his lifetime: Descartes’ ‘Principles of Philosophy’ and Theologico-Political Treatise. The latter was written in defense of secular and constitutional government, in opposition to the Prince of Orange. It was published anonymously in Hamburg in 1670, but he was quickly identified. One of the prince’s  supporters described the tractate as “forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil.” Spinoza kept writing, but stopped publishing. His other works include A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding and his great work, Ethics, which is dense and mathematical. His books were listed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

7. Is it any wonder that he wore a signet ring engraved with a rose and the Latin word “caute” (cautiously)?


“Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.” – Spinoza

8. His ideas laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, modern biblical criticism and modern concepts of the self. In brief, he held that everything that exists is one substance, that God and Nature are two names for this same fundamental substance; that God exists, but is abstract and impersonal, having infinite attributes, some of which are not present in our world; that mind and body, too, are not separate (as Descartes held) but aspects of the same infinite substance; that the reality we experience comes from God, but being the ultimate and only substance, God cannot be prevailed upon by prayer or ritual to change anything.

9. It follows from this that everything that happens, happens of necessity, nothing by chance; that reality is perfection, and that our perception otherwise is because of our inadequate understanding – good and evil are relative and seen with regard to our limited human circumstances. The best human response to the world is to come to understand it better, the highest virtue being knowledge of God/Nature/Universe.

10. Spinoza identified three types of knowledge – opinion, reason and intuition. Intuition, he said, provides the greatest satisfaction; the more conscious we are of ourselves and Nature, the more blessed we are. This line of thought, of course, leads directly to modern psychology.

11. Spinoza’s work appears to have influenced the life, thought and work of many prominent thinkers, including George Eliot (who translated his Ethics into English), Goethe, Maugham, Albert Einstein, Borges and I.B. Singer. Hegel wrote, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”

12. He died in February 1677 of lung disease, age forty-four, and is buried in the Hague in a Christian cemetery.

13. For more quotations by and about him, see en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Baruch_Spinoza. For more about his philosophy, go to this article by Steven Nadler at http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/septemberoctober/feature/why-spinoza-was-excommunicated. A 2008 play, “New Jerusalem” by David Ives is based on the cherem issued against Spinoza.

In Tel Aviv, Spinoza Street runs north-south between Frischmann and Ben Gurion.