The Bruderhof and the Kibbutz
"The Varied Paths of Communal Life"
By Josef Ben-Eliezer
Israel, June 2010
(Talk presented at the Tenth International Communal Studies Conference of the International Communal Studies Association)
As we gather here to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the kibbutz movement, we remember our own beginnings 90 years ago. I would like to speak about our beginnings—about the sources and personalities that inspired our two movements. Although there are obvious differences between our movements, when we look back at our roots we discover that we share a common vision.
The Importance of Going Back
Going back to the sources, to the roots, is important for any movement. And when thinking of our own movements—the Kibbutz and the Bruderhof—we can be drawn closer together by considering again our roots. Our dear brother Hans Meier, whom some of you will remember, pictured our two movements as being on opposite banks of the same river. People can build bridges across the river, which can help. But if we go against the stream, we will eventually meet at the source. Our good friend Professor Jakob Oved observed this when he said,
In those (early) years the close affinity between both movements was caused by their sharing the same spiritual sources; in fact, their communal concepts were essentially inspired by Martin Buber and Gustav Landauer."
But there is another reason why it is important to go back to the beginning. All our efforts at communal living are doomed unless we are continually inspired by what it was that gave birth to our communities. The founders of the Kibbutz were possessed by a vision that made them ready for tremendous sacrifice; it was this that gave them the energy and inspiration to build up a communal way of life. The same is true of the Bruderhof. We could have never withstood the persecution, hardships and threats— both from without and from within— if it had not been for our common faith and purpose.
Both our movements are approaching a second century of existence. And because of this we risk being cut off from the source. A flywheel can keep turning long after the power has been shut off. But it will eventually give way to inertia unless new energy is supplied. It is crucial, therefore, that we rediscover our original vision and purpose. Otherwise we are in danger of becoming lifeless caricatures of what our founders had in mind.
Our Common Sources
What then are the sources that have inspired our two movements? What do we actually share in common? First there is the vision of the prophets of old, those who envisioned and proclaimed a life of justice, brotherhood, harmony, and peace. But then there are also the writings of such visionaries as Gustav Landauer and Martin Buber and Eberhard Arnold. Arnold, the founder of our own Bruderhof movement, had a tremendous respect for Landauer. He also corresponded with Buber. And then there is A.D. Gordon, who is buried in Degania, and who is considered by many to be the spiritual father of the first Kibbutz; is an inspiration. He spoke in very much the same spirit as Landauer and Buber.
When we consider what these men stood for, several common themes emerge. Upper most is the call to live out peace and justice through a life of genuine, honest work. Only in this way can a radical change or rebirth occur in society. These men also understood that a new society could only come about when people were inspired by something higher than themselves, something Landauer calls "spirit" and Gordon calls "the great ideals". For the Bruderhof this spirit is exemplified by the first Christians in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. And this spirit realizes itself in the here and now, through our labour in concrete, practical ways.
Let us consider these themes in more detail. Why is being an example so important? How is an alternative really possible? What does it mean to be inspired by something greater than ourselves?
The Need for an Example
The people of Israel were called to represent to the world a just society. That there must exist a people of God, a distinct people who represent God's will, runs throughout the Torah and the prophets. The prophet Isaiah, for example, spoke of the "mountain of the LORD's temple" to which all nations will come, where "God will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." He spoke of Israel being "a light for the Gentiles", and challenged the people: "Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD" – words which became the slogan of the first Biluim.
This theme of a called-out people who are a light among the nations is foundational to the message of our respective visionaries I referred to earlier.
Martin Buber, for instance, speaks of the demand God makes upon the nations to realize His kingdom and in this way to take part in the redemption of the world. He writes:
The message is applied especially to Israel and demands of it that it make an exemplary beginning in the actual work of realization, that it be a nation which establishes justice and truth in its institutions and activities. Therefore Isaiah not only calls upon the Gentiles to stream to Mount Zion…. he supplements this by his summons to the House of Jacob to walk before them in the light of the Lord.
Buber expounds on this further:
When the prophets say that there is no security of Israel save that in God, they are not referring to something unearthly, to something "religious" in the common sense of the word; they are referring to the realisation of the true communal living to which Israel was summoned by the Covenant with God and which it is called upon to sustain in history, in the way it alone is capable of. The prophets call upon a people represents the first real attempt at "community" to enter world history as a prototype of that attempt.
A.D. Gordon understood this calling quite similarly.
We must create a new people, a human people whose attitude toward other peoples is informed with the sense of human brotherhood and whose attitude toward nature and all within it is inspired by noble urges of life-loving creativity.
Gordon's vision was shared by Landauer as well: "Our spirit must ignite, illuminate, entice and attract. Talk alone never does this; even the mightiest, angriest or gentlest talk does not. Only example can do it. We must give the example and lead the way."
The need for an alternative example in a world that is torn asunder by hatred, violence and war is critical for understanding the original impetus behind our two movements. Eberhard Arnold saw this clearly in Germany after WWI, where everything had gone to pieces and was crumbling and rotting away. For him, the age of progress had come to a crashing halt. Everything had fallen apart. "The only help for the world," Arnold boldly proclaimed, "is to have a place of gathering, to have people whose will, undivided and free of doubt, is bent on gathering with others in unity."
The Need for Renewal
Now the question arises: How can people create this new and just society? What has to happen in order for a new social order to arise? Can Marxism or Capitalism save us? No. For all these visionaries, rebirth and renewal can only occur when our human egoism is overcome. Transformation has to start from within before it can spread elsewhere.
This idea of personal renewal was paramount in Gordon's writings. He says, "Revival of our society can only come about through the revival of the individual." If this doesn't occur, dire consequences ensue.
When a person is not renewed through his ideals, striving, and actions, he ends up being overcome, swallowed up by them instead of overcoming through them, and the spirit of the old life gains the upper hand. And worse, the new forms which are supposed to express the ideals of new life become an expression of the old spirit only in new forms.
The theme of purification and redemption is not unique to Gordon—it is central to Jewish and Christian teaching. Buber thus writes:
The goal is greater than mere liberation. It is a regeneration of the very being; it is an inner renewal, a rescue from the physical and spiritual deterioration, the turning from a fragmentary, contradictory existence to a whole and unified way of life; it is purification and redemption.
Landauer refers to the "rebirth of the peoples out of the spirit of community" and "a new rule and transformation by the spirit". His vision for renewal is especially inspiring:
A people unites, awakens. Actions are done. Supposed obstacles are recognized as insignificant and easily surmounted. Other obstacles are removed with united strength, for spirit is joy, power, movement, which nothing on earth can impede. … This voice and this uncontrollable longing burst forth out of the hearts of the individuals in an equal and unified way; and so this new reality is create.
When we look back at the founding of both our movements something of this renewal was truly experienced. Human egoism was fought against, and a different way to live was found.
It must be emphasized that personal transformation, if it is genuine, never stands alone. It invariably begins to penetrate all areas of life. Personal and social transformation actually work together in tandem. As Arnold emphasized again and again, one simply cannot have one without the other:
[One cannot] speak about being freed in one area unless at the same time we are free in all other areas. We should not think we are taking a firm stand in the political situation or claim to be radically free from social injustice unless we are free at the same time from lying and immorality. It is impossible to condemn and combat one while being soft and spineless in another.
The stream of unity flows from the fountainhead... into all areas: first into the heart-to-heart relationships and then into the things around us. Out of community in the Spirit grows community of education and of work, and that naturally means community of goods without any private property, because the mainspring of our life is love. Love is joy in one another. This joy, welling up from the fountain of unity, enables us to surrender everything.
The Need for Spirit
How does this renewal welling up from the fountain of unity come about? Is it through contemplation? Through heroic self-denial? Through unwavering optimism? No. Arnold just alluded to it. Something beyond us much reach down. Something beyond human effort, but also within our midst, must break in. It is "spirit", a sense of togetherness and unity of heart, something those in the early Kibbutz called the experience of "Jachad".
This "spirit" is not a vague force or a metaphysical abstraction. In biblical terms, one cannot help but think of Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones – only when God breathed his Spirit into the bones did they come alive. The first Christians in Jerusalem came alive by this same Spirit, which led them to give up everything and live in total community together. In our own Bruderhof movement, we can testify that by the Spirit heartfelt exuberant community of justice possible.
It was this recognition of and need for the Spirit that led Landauer to deplore mechanistic and materialistic approaches like that of the Marxists. He would surely say the same thing of the impersonal forces of free-market capitalism. These, in the end, are lifeless, and ultimately destroy what is genuinely human.
Spirit gives meaning and sacredness to life; spirit makes, creates and permeates the present with joy, strength and delight. The ideal turns away from the present towards something new. It is a longing for the future, for something better and unknown. It is the road out of times of decline to a new culture.
Gordon recognized the same. He believed that another power besides our own was needed to keep us alive. Only then shall nation not lift up sword against nation. This other power, explains Buber, is "the living truth," which is not our possession, but that "by which we can be possessed, which is not dependent on us but we upon it." And although we are depended upon it, it still "needs us in order to become something... concrete, something 'historic.'"
The Need for Work
What happens when we give ourselves to the spirit, to the truth and nothing else? What gets realized when we are gripped by something greater than ourselves? Above all else, spirit always generates work—real work that is inspired and practical and an integral part of life in community. It is well known that Gordon not only emphasized the importance of work but put this idea into practice. "It is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture," he wrote. And this, in its turn, "is an outgrowth of the people's toil and the people's labor."
Arnold too saw the importance of honest work. He himself gave up his comfortable city life to live on a farm and work on the land. "We love physical work – the work of muscle and hand – and we love the craftsman's art, in which the spirit guides the hand. In the way spirit and hand work through each other we see the mystery of community."
Like Gordon and Arnold, Buber recognized that words must be translated into action. "No matter how brilliant [the intellect] may be," Buber observed, "the human intellect which wishes to keep to a plane above the events of the day is not really alive. It can become fruitful, beget life and live, only when it enters into the events of the day... Be true to the spirit, my friends, but be true to it on the plane of reality."
For Landauer, not surprisingly, spirit manifests itself chiefly through work. He concludes his book, A call to Socialism, with this rallying cry:
Only the present is real, and what men do not do now, do not begin to do immediately they will not do in all eternity…. We need people to give the battle-cry; we need all who are filled with this creative desire; we need people of action. This call…. is addressed to people of action who want to make the first beginning.
These words inspired our predecessors, and may they inspire us—along with all those who long for a new future. Spirit-filled work and work enlivened by spirit—this is what we need today.
I have spoken of our common roots, of our mutual recognition for on-going renewal— inspired by spirit and realized in practical work. From these we draw strength and for these we must live.
Let me close with one final thought. 1935 was a very dark hour in Germany. Hitler's sinister power, based on fear and hate, was like a noose around the necks of the German people. Despite this, a small group held out hope and placed its trust in a different power, one that transcended the forces of evil. Gripped by this power, Eberhard Arnold wrote the following:
In today's world situation it is essential that here and there among us there continue to exist rays of light and hope, spiritual realities by which the unity of God's peace and the brotherliness of true justice are recognized.
This, he said, is our only task—yours and mine. This is what our two movements share in common. It is not our task to solve all the problems of the day. It is not our task to impose our vision of justice on others. Our task is much more straightforward and simple; it is to live out here and now a life of brotherly justice. In the words of Arnold,
Our task is to represent unity in the midst of a disunited world; to live in friendship in the midst of a hostile world. Our task is to represent the justice of true brotherly love in a communal life in the midst of an unjust world.
May all us of realize anew this very task. For the world is in desperate need of a different way.