This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
I think the ongoing debate on the CyberSeminar about whether Nietzsche was anti-Semitic, whether his writings fueled the rise of National Socialism, and whether Rand was influenced by him can benefit from a comment I would like to make about Nietzshce’s influence on Jewish writers.
I think that the fact that Rand herself was Jewish makes it difficult for some Objectivists to admit that the answer to the three questions posed above is “Yes.” It may be easy to face the three affirmatives when one keeps in mind that Rand was not the only Jewish writer who was influenced by Nietzsche in the early years of the 20th century--when nobody could foresee what Nietzche’s writings would lead to during World War II.
At the turn of the 19th century, there was a renaissance of Jewish literature in Russia, mostly in the Ukraine. This renaissance was a part of the rise of Jewish Nationalism and the establishment of the Zionist movement. The Jewish writers strove to break away from their Orthodox background and to live a secular, earthly life. As pointed out by Chris Sciabarra, it was the time of “The Silver Age” and the Jewish writers were no different from the rest of the Russians in their admiration for Nietzsche.
Some of these writers went to study in Germany, where they became completely absorbed in Nietzsche’s ideas. One of them was Micah Joseph Berdyczewski, who received a PhD in philosophy from Bern University in 1896. In his short stories, Berdyczewski described the passions and urges of the Orthodox Jews. His purpose, in his words, was “to show that we were Jewish, but also flesh and blood.”
The Jewish writers borrowed from Nietzsche the idea of the Masters, but not of the Slaves.
The Jewish writers, in Germany and back in Russia, had no problem applying Nietzsche’s ideas to their vision of a Jewish revival. In their poetry, short stories, and plays, they castigated the excessive spirituality of Judaism and extolled the bravery of the Biblical Jewish heroes, whom they called upon their readers to emulate. Some of them even idolized Paganism and Hellenism, to which they were introduced through Nietzsche’s writings. Foremost among these was the poet Saul Tchernichowski. My translation of his Hellenic poem "The Statue" can be found here . In his poetry, Tchernichowski followed Nietzsche all the way in his disdain for reason, technology, urbanization, and commerce. Here are two quotes from his poem “On the Blood” (translated by L. Bernard):
Glibly we praise our ‘Reason’--the false light
that lulls our spirit to forget its plight.
With boundaries, rules and laws do we acquire
civilized theories, crass and erudite.
The Jewish writers borrowed from Nietzsche the idea of the Masters, but not of the Slaves. They did not write about the subordination of a lower caste by a higher caste. Their benevolent version of Nietzsche’s ideas can be applied to Ayn Rand as well. She attempted to take from his writings the parts which inspired her while rejecting the rest. When she was writing The Fountainhead , World War II already broke out. Perhaps this was why she hesitated so much about using Nietzsche’s quotations in her book and finally decided against it.
The Flowering of Modern Hebrew Literature, by Menachem Ribalow, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1959.
Saul Tchernichowski, Poet of Revolt, by Eisig Silberschlaag, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1968.