Friday, October 10, 2014

Zamenhof and Religion

He made a language and a religion.
This post is appropriate for today, because as I type this shabbat is approaching; I have a challah rising in the kitchen. It is also my 300th post, and since Esperanto is the most popular subject with the readers of my blog,[1] it’s fitting that the 300th should be about Zamenhof.

I’ve noted before that Zamenhof was involved in the early Zionist movement, although he was skeptical that a Jewish state could be created in Palestine. But let us be clear, despite the mistaken assumptions of George Macloskie, Zamenhof was not a Roman Catholic,[2] but a Jew. Yet, his own involvement in Judaism seems to have had a bit of complexity to it.

On one hand, Zamenhof observed shabbat,[3] on the other hand, he did create his own religion. Subsequent to his work on Esperanto, Zamenhof started thinking about how not only language, but religious differences, divided people. His religion project took several names over the years, but no matter what the Washington Herald got it wrong when they announced on October 10, 1915, that there was a “New Religion by Esperanto Head.” Here’s what they reported:
New Religion by Esperanto Head
Paris, Oct. 9.—Dr. Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto, which he intended to be a universal language, has invented a new religion called Homaraist, which he is about to spread broadcast. His object is to gather all the people into a union of humanity.
Let’s start by what they got right: their description of his goals is reasonably accurate. Just as Esperanto was intended to erase the language barriers that lead to strife, he hoped that his religious thoughts would also ease conflict, and the one time Zionist became a universalist.

But it was never called “Homaraist.” This seems to be an error for “Homaranismo,” which by dropping the Esperanto noun marker -o would give you the Englished “Homaranism.” It's literally a belief (-ismo) in one's membership (-an-) in humanity (homar-), clearly supporting the Herald's statement that Zamehof wished to "gather all the people into a union of humanity." Zamenhof introduced this in 1901 as “Hilelismo,” and based it on the thought of the Rabbi Hillel.[4] And, as the title Hilelismo - propono pri solvo de la hebrea demando indicates, it was Zamenhof’s contribution to solving the Jewish question (not surprising, given his earlier activity in the Zionist movement). Zamenhof published this under a pseudonym, “Unuel” (unu el “one of”), carrying on his tradition of initially publishing under a pseudonym. Later, as the Esperanto movement grew, the leaders worked to dissuade Zamenhof from discussing his religious ideas and worked to downplay that Zamenhof was Jewish.[5]

Hilelismo didn’t go over well, and Zamenhof decided that instead of a religion for the Jewish people, he would offer it to the Esperanto movement, which as Aleksandr Korzhenkov notes, didn’t go over well:
In 1913, he planned to organize a Congress for a Neutrally Human Religion in conjunction with the 10th Universal Congress of Esperanto to be held in Paris the following year. His idea was unusual: he intended to address, not those who believed their religion was the only true one given by God, but freethinkers who had abandoned the religion of their forefathers. Of the four theses expressed in his Declaration, three were more or less in line with the religious dogmas of homaranism, while the fourth dealt with organization. The Parisian leaders of the Esperanto movement opposed his plan, so he decided to hold a small, separate congress in Bern following the Esperanto congress in Paris.
More than three thousand people signed up for 1914 Paris Universala Kongreso, which was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I.

Zamenhof continued working on this for the remainder of his life, publishing a revision in 1917. What was published in 1915 wasn’t anything new, but rather as he was no longer head of the Esperanto movement (his idea), he felt free to publish this under his own name for the first time.
Vikipedio has the full text of the Declaration of Homaranismo, which I assume comes from the 1913 revision (instead of the final one of 1917), since Korzhenkov notes that the 1917 version “omits all mention of the neutrally human language,” while the text on Vikipedio includes ”mia idealo estas lingvo neŭtrale-homa”[6] (“my ideal is a neutral human language”). It’s not a conventional religious document. There are two references to God, both in the Tenth Dogma, which describes the religious principles of Homaranismo.
Sub la nomo “Dio” mi komprenas tiun al mi nekompreneblan plej altan Forton, kiu regas la mondon kaj kies esencon mi havas la rajton klarigi al mi tiel, kiel diktas al mi mia saĝo kaj koro.

Under the name “God” I understand this to be a highest Force, incomprehensible to me, which rules the world and the essence of which I have the right to clarify for myself, as dictated by my wisdom and heart.[7]
Later, in the Tenth Dogma, Zamenhof states that morals are not given by God, but by people (“moroj…estas donitaj ne de Dio, sed de homoj”). Homaranismo probably was a long trip for a shabbat-observant Jew. Yet, I think his views would not be out of place today in a Reconstructionist synagogue.[8]

In the spirit of all this, I want to bring the traditions together and wish you ŝabata paco.

  1. Lately, I’ve been swamped with some other writing, but I do have posts on other topics in the pipeline. Nevertheless, I’m aware that those won’t get as many hits. People vote with their clicks.  ↩
  2. Macloskie seems to have drawn this misconception from a statement that Zamenhof made to the Christian Endeavor Society.  ↩
  3. As noted by Aleksandr Korzhenkov in his essay Zamenhof: The Life, Works, and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto.  ↩
  4. The same Rabbi Hillel whose name was taken for the Jewish college organization.  ↩
  5. Zamenhof was complicit in this, since he worried that people would reject Esperanto because it was created by a Jew. This actually happened, after all. You don’t think that the Nazis banned Esperanto on linguistic or aesthetic grounds, do you?  ↩
  6. From the “Ninth Dogma” (La Naŭa Dogmo).  ↩
  7. Translation mine.  ↩
  8. Nor would Esperanto be that out of place. In my synagogue, one of the traditions for Rosh Hashanah is to offer greetings in many languages. I have done this in Esperanto on several occasions.  ↩

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...