Herzl and the Rabbis

Shany Littman
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Shany Littman

The writer David Isaiah Silberbusch once described in the Russian Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Melitz a rabbi from a town in Hungary who comes to Frankfurt to visit his son. The son, an ardent Zionist, persuades his father to accompany him to the Third Zionist Congress in Basel. After listening patiently and devotedly to every word, Silberbusch writes, the rabbi returns with his son but remains mute on his impressions, despite his son’s curiosity. A few days later, the aged rabbi is visited by Dr. Horowitz, the chief rabbi of Frankfurt, who studied with him at the same yeshiva in their youth.

Theodor HerzlCredit: Theodor Herzl

Silberbusch describes how Dr. Horowitz rails moralistically at his colleague for having attended “the church of Jewish criminals.” The Hungarian rabbi listens to him without uttering a word, “unruffled and not batting an eyelash.”

However, as Dr. Horowitz starts to vilify Herzl for regarding the Torah precepts lightly, the old rabbi leaps up, as if bitten by a scorpion, stands erect and declares, “By the holy sparks of my beard, I vow that seven times a day I shall praise the Lord of Israel that Herzl does not observe the precepts. If, heaven forbid, he were religiously observant, I would wander the streets and call aloud that he and no other is the Messiah.”

Appalled, Dr. Horowitz asks, “Well, what did he say? Did you really hear such things from him?” The aged rabbi replies in a quavering voice, as if he had frightened himself: “It was not that I heard such things, but experienced such things!”

The leaders Herzl eventually dubbed “the protest rabbis” came from both Reform and ultra-Orthodox circles. While Reform rabbis in Germany were concerned that the idea of a Jewish state would undermine their status in the fatherland, Herzl’s ultra-Orthodox detractors not only rejected the idea that man, rather than the Messiah, would create a Jewish state, but also worried about Herzl’s secularism. Some cited the obscure idea that Herzl had jotted down in his diary in 1893 about collectively converting Jewish children to Christianity.

When Herzl took the Jewish world by storm in 1896, his idea of a Jewish state confronted ultra-Orthodox leaders with a dilemma − to continue waiting for Messianic redemption or to embrace his secular idea of a political solution to anti-Semitism. While a few notable rabbis chose to follow Herzl, most rejected him adamantly.

Moritz Güdemann, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, embodied the religious ambivalence Herzl encountered. After reading Herzl’s 1895 draft which later became his manifesto “The Jewish State,” he likened Herzl to a modern Moses. Yet, in April 1897 Güdemann − who had encountered Herzl lighting a Christmas tree for his children − made an about-face and published a scathing attack on Zionism without explicitly naming Herzl, arguing that religion and nationalism were incompatible.

In 1897, Herzl had to relocate his First Zionist Congress because the rabbinic leadership of Munich vigorously objected to its presence. Yet, Herzl’s charisma sent ripples through the ultra-Orthodox leadership. Some bore him grudging respect, while those who supported him had to figure out how to take his lead without losing their own followers. Herzl also attracted prominent religious converts to Zionism, including two major Lithuanian rabbis, Shmuel Mohliver and Yitzhak Reines, who founded the Mizrahi movement. They faced the dual task of advocating Herzl’s idea without offending religious sensibilities.

“Everyone in the Mizrahi movement − Rabbi Reines and his circle − viewed Herzl as a genuinely miraculous figure,” says Avinoam Rosenak of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “They admired him absolutely, so much so that they decided to vote for the Uganda project, even though this went against every religious instinct” − referring to the 1903 proposal to resettle Jews temporarily in East Africa to spare them potential pogroms, which Herzl submitted to the Zionist Congress. “It is important to remember that Herzl was the first person who succeeded in putting the Jewish people on its feet. Because of that, there were some who forgave him everything,” says Rosenak.

‘Messiah, son of Joseph’

Another rabbi who supported Zionism, but took a different approach to Herzl was Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, who presided over the community in Jaffa at the turn of the century and later became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the pre-1948 Yishuv in Palestine. He notably thought that “Herzl’s earthly role was a type of sanctity, transcending what a spiritual person could achieve,” says Rosenak, who wrote a biography of Kook. “It was more than Torah study. He found a profound religious statement in Herzl’s existence, where others saw only a tool.”

Rosenak notes that Herzl’s death confronted the rabbi with an extraordinary challenge when he was charged with delivering the Zionist visionary’s eulogy at a memorial gathering in Jaffa. While Kook understood the audience’s need for words of consolation, he did not want to clash with the Haredi ‏(ultra-Orthodox‏) circles in the Old Yishuv, who took a highly negative view of Herzl.

He negotiated this delicate path by using the euphemism “Messiah, son of Joseph” without ever mentioning Herzl by name, referring to the biblical character who physically redeemed his family from hardship.

In his speech, he drew a distinction between the classic “Messiah, son of David” who represented religious Jewry’s desire for spiritual redemption, and Herzl, who represented a physical redemption that had its own valid role to play in Jewish history. “The material aspect was essential for the world of the spirit and necessary for the good of the nation,” Kook eulogized. “The spiritual end represented by Messiah son of David would be unattainable until the material framework required for the nation would be completed, and that was the role of Messiah son of Joseph.”

According to Rosenak, these comments had a purpose behind them. “Rabbi Kook was one of the central figures who took seriously the physical awakening espoused by Herzl, and he gave it concrete translation by talking about Messiah son of Joseph,” he told Haaretz. “It was a courageous act to talk about Herzl in this way. On the other hand, considerable tension prevailed between the different groups in the Yishuv, and the last thing a responsible person would do would be to anger the people he had to work with − which is why he did not mention Herzl’s name in the eulogy.”

Rabbi Isaac Breuer, a senior figure in the Agudath Israel movement and a preeminent thinker, was more ambivalent about Herzl. Like Rabbi Kook, Breuer also wrote a eulogy of Herzl, which he published in Der Israelit, the central organ of Germany’s Jewish community. While deriding Zionism itself, he could not but admire Herzl the person. Zionism, he explained, was born in Herzl’s soul from an internal contradiction: His spirit was alienated from Judaism, but his heart was Jewish.

Breuer added that Herzl was a noble personage from head to foot, and a great idealist. Maintaining that a Jew in the full sense of the word must obey the divine precepts, Breuer asserted that no bridge could span the abyss separating believing Jews from Zionism. He concluded by saying: What a great Jew Herzl could have been.

The last Zionists

A century later, it seems hard to believe that rabbis like Reines or Kook could support the assimilated Herzl, says Rabbi Moshe Grylak, a writer and the chief editor of the Haredi weekly Mishpacha. But he admits there was tremendous admiration for Herzl among large segments of religious Jewry in Europe.

“He was received by the Ottoman sultan, which was a meaningful act,” Grylak told Haaretz. “The fact that he wanted to convert the Jewish people to Christianity is very disturbing. But he did have interesting sides. A figure like Rabbi Reines was a devotee of Herzl despite all the differences [between them]. Herzl was a phenomenon, and the great rabbis, too, were dazzled or had a desire to enjoy a little redemption. Some claim that love of Zion drove these people to distraction. It was a very great blow when Rabbi Reines joined the Zionist movement, but fortunately our crowd did not follow him.”

Rabbi Grylak says Haredi circles have not modified their view of Herzl over the years. In his book “The Haredim: Who Are We Really?” (in Hebrew) Grylak defines a Haredi person as someone who opposes Herzlian Zionism. “Our point of departure is the Jewish people according to its Torah,” he says. “When someone like Herzl, who was not raised in a religiously observant home, tries to forge a Jewish people on the basis of land and language, in the form of the national-liberal state which was then the norm in Europe, we cannot accept it.

“The Zionists thought that if we became a normal people we would gain the liking of the world, because the hatred was only for the Orthodox Jews,” he adds. “Well, that was a total failure. The attempt to repair or resolve the Jewish problem succeeded materially, but fell apart socially.”

The picture among religious supporters of Zionism, on the other hand, has only become more convoluted over time, asserts Rosenak. While the majority of religious Zionists today follow Rav Kook in one way or another, the post-1967 debate over the Land of Israel has made “the matter fuzzy,” he says, particularly events like the Oslo agreement, disengagement from Gaza and the dismantling of the Amona outpost.

“Each of those junctures generated shockwaves that created yet another subgroup,” Rosenak explains. “There are those who continue to cling to the vision that Herzl is the advent of our redemption,” even if they believe he was not aware of the divine role he was playing. Notable among this camp is Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau, who left the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva founded by Kook − which started rejecting aspects of religious Zionism in the 1970s − to found his own yeshiva, a bastion of the Haredi Zionist movement known as Hardal. A second group has broken off from this view, arguing that Kook was only right in his assessment of Herzl in the context of the times he lived in, and that if he were alive today he would reject him as the rabbis in this group do now.

“But this group, too, is split,” stresses Rosenak. “There are moderates within it, such as Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, and there are radicals who have decided to disengage completely from Zionism and who no longer say the prayer for the State of Israel, such as Rabbi Shmuel Tal.”

Returning to Herzl

Both Rosenak and Grylak agree that Herzl’s image is not present at all today in the discourse concerning religion and Zionism. “On the other hand, people say that the Zionist revolution did foment spiritual revolutions,” says Rosenak. “But they say that this is due to Ahad Ha’am [the Zionist thinker Asher Ginsberg] and not to Herzl. There are struggles over the meaning of Zionism and over who actually triumphed: Ahad Ha’am or Herzl.”

Grylak agrees that “no one thinks about Herzl anymore,” adding, “He does not occupy any sort of place − today’s problems are very different. Only Neturei Karta [a radical Haredi sect] still deals with Herzl in its wall posters, and that is primitivism. Maybe Neturei Karta are the last Zionists, because who else besides them talks about Herzl?”

Dr. Yitzhak Weiss, for one, believes that Herzl is more relevant than ever today, and that the discourse should go back to focusing on Jewish identity, as he conceived it. “We must return to Herzl,” he declares. Weiss, an observant Jew who was born in Paris and now lives in Jerusalem, is not an historian but a dentist who specializes in root-canal work. He got to Herzl completely by chance, but is unable to break away.

Weiss says that like most people, he too made assumptions about Herzl, mainly based on his apparent alienation from Judaism. While on vacation with his wife, he happened to read Herzl’s book “Altneuland” ‏(“Old-New Land”‏) and suddenly had a revelation: “Like everyone, I also thought that he was alte zachen” − old stuff − “and irrelevant. Reading the book gave me a shock, because I grasped intuitively that there was a fraud, a distortion under way here, which unites segments of society otherwise divided by an abyss: the Haredim on the one hand and the post-Zionists on the other,” he says. “When I got back to Jerusalem, I started to read Herzl systematically. Suddenly I understood how symptomatic Herzl is of the identity crisis that is wracking Israeli society.”

The result of his research was a book entitled “Herzl: A New Reading,” which was published two years ago in Hebrew and French. Its central theme is what Weiss calls “the systematic erasure of the Jewish dimension in Herzl’s writings.” He is out to correct the injustice he believes has been done to the prophet of the state by describing him as totally assimilated.

“Herzl was not as ignorant as people depict him,” says Weiss. “He had a relatively good knowledge of the Bible. He was not learned in Judaism in the usual sense of the term, but he was learned about Jewish identity. Herzl thought that a Jew remains a Jew even if he discards all the precepts. But that never happens, because observing the precepts is a collective act.”

It is Herzl’s terminology that makes him so relevant, Weiss emphasizes, and this is also what makes possible a different take on the whole question of religion within Zionism. “Herzl wanted a synthesis between the Jewish dimension and the universal dimension of Jewishness in the Land of Israel,” he says. “One of his first assertions in the First Zionist Congress was, ‘A return to Jewishness is an absolute condition for a return to the Land of Israel.’ Herzl drew a distinction between ‘the religion of the Jews’ and ‘Judentum,’ meaning Jewishness. In the First Zionist Congress he was amazed to see that people from different backgrounds could unite in the light of a common identity.”

Herzl’s approach, asserts Weiss, provides the basis for redefining the religious debate: “We need to uproot the Jewish terminology of religious-and-secular and start to talk about Jewish identity.”