Leo Tolstoy and the “Jewish question”

(in memory of G. A. Levit)

There was a good genius with our family. His name was Grigori Alexandrovich Levit.

Translated from Hebrew, his name means a “religious minister”. And he did live up to his name. He was a “minister” in the highest sense of the word. He was wise like a prophet and merciful like Christ. At first sight, he he may seem to have had an unremarkable occupation as a physical therapist. But it is exactly thanks to this profession that he could work miracles – although those miracles would often take much time and effort to happen. The main thing was that a hitherto bedridden patient would rise and start walking again. When I was taken ill, he would help me. When my acquaintances were taken ill, he would help them. And every time his help would come free of charge.

Grigori Alexandrovich would tell little about himself. As a child, he had often starved. When he fainted away, his father would tightly clench his head with both hands, until he came to himself. He knew German. He had lived in Germany for some time (possibly, it was linked to Soviet troops’ advancement westwards), lodging with peasant families. He would praise Germans and adduce examples of the German folk’s worldly wisdom. And he would show me a “trophy” that he had brought from Germany, a zither (musical instrument). The latter circumstance echoed in a strange way later on, when I, with my teacher of piano accompaniment, worked on R. Schumann’s song “From Hebrew melodies,” containing the following words: “My heart aches bitterly! Where is your lute, my friend?”

Grigori Alexandrovich’s healthy life-style recommendations resemble in many respects a system developed by our surgeon and enlightener Nikolai Amosov. They are fairly simple and largely based upon the assumption that the human body should be given a necessary and sufficient physical exercise. But this should be done wisely. I remember many of his recommendations and try to follow them as far as possible. Here are some of them:

  • rest must go in advance of fatigue;
  • one has to build up his muscle strength, but only till he’s 40;
  • exercise until you sweat;
  • exhale during maximum exertion;
  • finish your training with exercises for smaller muscle groups.

When on a metro escalator, Grigori Alexandrovich, if possible, would always walk, irrespective of whether it was up or down. Nearly till his last days (he died when his was well over 90), he would ski.

But it was not only physical activity that Grigori Alexandrovich cared about. He was a man of high moral standards and would be hurt by any injustice he encountered. He even tried to extend moral laws to politics. For instance, he would always support the idea of setting so called “socialist countries” free. Here, he would cite the example of Finland, to which Lenin had granted independence. “Therefore, Finns are our friends,” – he would reiterate. Also, he would oppose Victory Day celebrations, citing the then French president de Gaul who had abolished such celebrations in his country, substantiating his decision by the fact that the “war was over”. In doing so, however, the French leader provided decent pensions and housing for veterans. When listening to Grigori Alexandrovich, I would often think to myself: such a man should sit in the Cabinet.

Grigori Alexandrovich was a man of great erudition. He read heavily and cultivated in me a love of books. He would always take along some “reading matter” to spend time on public transportation. He was the first to tell me a joke that “man has to read 12 books during his lifetime”. Here, the question arises: What are those books? The gist is that in order to learn what those 12 books are, one has to have read all the rest.

He was especially keen on collecting aphorisms. And he would always use them to the point and, as a rule, in the original language. Truly, those were the basics of wisdom – so helpful for the one who was set to embark on the path of absolute knowledge.

Not long before his death, Grigori Alexandrovich brought me a notebook leaf covered with his neat handwriting. “Lyosha, – he said, – this is what Leo Tolstoy spoke about Jews.” I was a bit surprised. Of course, I knew that my older friend was a Jew, but we had never touched upon the subject. Anyway, I accepted his gift, without saying a word. To the blessed memory of Grigori Alexandrovich I dedicate this posting of his “last will”.

  • /The New Vienna Magazine of May 17th, 1931.
  • An unknown letter by Leo Tolstoy/

Things have not been made perfectly clear so far about Leo Tolstoy’s attitude towards the Jewish question. There are various interpretations of the issue. Tolstoy had once refused to put his signature to an appeal condemning pogroms. This circumstance gave cause to accuse Tolstoy of having anti-Semitic tendencies. However, Tolstoy decisively opposed anti-Semitism in response to a book, “The Jewish State”, sent to him by Theodor Herzl.

At present, an earlier unknown letter written by Tolstoy has been discovered devoted to the Jewish question and exposing the author’s very important thoughts. The letter has been found in the archive of the late Jewish politician F. Gabai and published.

In his letter, Tolstoy asks with light irony: Who is a Jew from the viewpoint of today’s politics? An answer would say: a Jew is a monster who exploits land in the interests of his rapacious desires; he executes deals (geschäfts) only to benefit from them to the largest possible extent, without being concerned about the benefit for consumers, etc. Let us, however, – writes Tolstoy, – formulate this question somewhat differently. Let us express it in this way: What kind of phantom is it, whom all rulers and peoples have tortured, eliminated, hanged, expelled, who has been treated cruelly, who has been robbed by everyone, starting from Egyptian pharaohs to contemporary anti-Semitic political journalists, from inquisitors to policemen and petty officials of all governments.

What kind of phantom is it, who has gone through everything, has prominent figures among all cultured peoples, has its representatives in politics, economics, jurisprudence, in the government, in the army, and also in science and art? Who is that Jew, who, after all beatings and humiliations, would rise again full of strength as a living reproach to his persecutors and assassins? Who is that Jew, who is allegedly greedy beyond measure and strives for enrichment, but who does not betray his faith and the accepted way of life for brilliant and generous promises from his oppressors? This Jew is a Prometheus who brought us fire from heaven and made it available for the entire world. The Jew, who has for centuries been guarding the divine thought, is a source of faith, thanks to which all other religions have emerged.

The Jew is a pioneer of freedom. As early as in ancient times, when mankind was divided into masters and slaves, the Law of Moses forbade keeping humans in slavery for more than six years. On expiration of this term, they would be set free without buyout.

In that cruel, barbaric epoch, when human life cost nothing, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage, was brave enough to come out against death penalty. Synedrion, the Talmud says, which would pass a death sentence once in 70 years, was called the “court of death”.

A Jew, by his civil and religious respects, is a symbol of justice and eternity; an eternity that cannot be eradicated neither by fire nor sword, neither by persecution nor torture.

Among all the peoples, it was only a Jew who was destined to disclose the divine idea, the guardian of which he has been throughout many centuries and preserved it for the entire world.

A Jew has existed and will exist, the fighter and herald of freedom, equality, culture, and tolerance towards various outlooks and beliefs.

/Leo Tolstoy/

PS. Grigori Alexandrovich died in the corridor of one of Moscow’s ordinary hospitals. When he was admitted there, a doctor at the reception petulantly muttered: “You’ve brought him here to die, haven’t you?” Grigori Alexandrovich was not able to speak by then. One could only notice a tear rolling down his hollow cheek. He was buried in a neglected rural cemetery. For all that, even in his farewell humiliation, there was a hallmark of some supreme selectness showing through.

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