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the religion of labor: remembering a.d. gordon

A.D. Gordon

I can’t seem to let A.D. Gordon go.  And yet his is not an ideology that almost anyone seems to care about these days. Isn’t the modern task to seek more leisure and relegate labor to lesser beings — transient workers, illegal immigrants, cheap Arab labor, robots if you’ve got ’em?

Aharon David Gordon was born June 9, 1856.  Maybe that’s enough of an excuse to think about him right now. Guess I can’t wait until his yahrtzeit. Or maybe, I’ll have to revisit him again then on February 22nd for that. But tell me, what’s wrong with דת העבודה — the religion of labor? You’d think that at this point it’d be exactly what was needed.

So. Here’s the premise.

You’e got this land called ‘The Holy Land.’ Which would imply that there is something inherently holy about the actual land itself.  If you read your bible, you might think that the Almighty bellowed over these valleys and deserts. That Abraham held his conversations with YHVH in that very place. That Sarai laughed at the message of angels. That Moses beheld an ineffable sight. That all of them and more were commanded to traverse that land and to make it (the land) fruitful, not just themselves.

And if that’s the case, then the sacred task would be to get your fingers dirty, crouch right down and plant something. Taste the soil. Plant it.

It’s only that way, said Gordon, that you can feel what ‘Holy Land’ is all about. Look at his clothes. Just look at them. A.D. Gordon chose to live as an agricultural laborer. He didn’t start out that way. And it’s not the only thing he did. He emigrated to Palestine in 1904 when his entire village was sold to a new owner and he was suddenly unemployed. It was right at the start of Second Aliyah. He had never done a stitch of physical labor in his entire life. But in Palestine, he insisted on tilling the soil, working as a manual laborer in the vineyards and orange groves of Petach Tikvah and Rishon le-Tzion. And he began to write.

דת העבודה — כי העבודה היא חיינו

The religion of labor — because labor is our life

Not a popular ideology, is it? Contrast this to Thorstein Veblen’s depiction of American values around the same time that Gordon was writing, and you’ve got the mismatch of the millennium.  Conspicuous consumption and leisure class ideology will trump the religion of labor any day.

But still. We do have an environmentalist movement, do we not? And maybe that’s the place to look for at least a sympathetic view of the sanctity of the land? And okay, let’s steer clear of the whole Zionist thing, and try to get more universal here. Maybe it’ll help.

A.D. Gordon’s argument is that man knows the cosmos by what he does and what he lives — i.e., by the immediacy of his experience.  He says that intellect is simply insufficient.

Let me stop right here and say that my volume of Gordon’s writings was given to me by my father — and I never saw my father do a stitch of physical labor in my entire life of knowing him. And yet, and yet, I’ve found an old black and white  photograph of him, hoe in hand, ecstasy exuding from him like an aura from God Almighty, actually tilling the soil. Of the Holy Land. Circa 1956. A hundred years after Gordon’s birth. Now, I don’t know if my dad just held that hoe long enough for the camera shutter to click or if he really and truly gave Gordon a chance.

Whichever it was, the religion of labor didn’t stick for him.

But it did for me.  Call it a defect, maybe. Maybe I just don’t know what to do with myself unless it’s labor. Maybe it’s why I drag out grading papers. Maybe it’s why when I finish the bloody papers, I go right to the garden, start planting, pulling, pruning, and having visions of Creation itself. Isn’t that what gardens are for? Microcosm of the macrocosm?

A.D. Gordon said that the source of religion is the feeling that man is an organic part of Creation.  That God cannot be approached through intellect, but through the immediate living relationship. His philosophy precludes the desirability of hiring labor, and the exploitation of cheap labor — especially cheap Arab labor in pre-1948 Palestine.  Even Socialism was too intellectual for him. It excludes the notion of spirit. And in particular, the possibility of the renewal of the human spirit.

He was not an exclusivist, even if at first he was a Zionist.

Jewish people, he said, should be reborn into or subsumed under just ‘mankind’ (along with everyone else) — and that too would get us closer to the feeling of Creation.

“Our road leads to nature through the medium of physical labor,” he said.

“Farmer!” he said, “be a free man among men, but a slave to the soil … kneel and bow down to it every day. Nurse its furrows — and then even its stony clods will yield a blessing! And in this ‘slavery’ remember that you are a tiller of the soil! A tiller of the soil in Palestine! This must be a badge of honor for our people.”

Which doesn’t mean bulldozing villages and ancient olive groves.

Which doesn’t mean building fences and checkpoints across the land.

Which doesn’t mean the hiring of cheap Arab labor.

Which doesn’t mean draining the Kineret.

And doesn’t mean nightclubs in Tel Aviv.

Or more settlements focussed on possession.

Maybe I’m a little old fashioned, or maybe it’s that I was raised on A.D. Gordon — but I just want to be in relation to that soil. When I was a kid we saved every penny to plant trees in that ‘Holy Land’ of “ours.” Donate money now, and that’s not where your money will go.

June 9th is A.D. Gordon’s birthday. In honor of Gordon — bring something to life.


Oh. And Gordon’s got a whole chapter on vegetarianism. The man was way ahead of his times. More on that one later!


By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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