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Notes from Limmud

Messianism and Zionism: The three forerunners of modern Zionism

Nahum Gordon

[Now revised to incorporate the handout I just found I had.]

Two Orthodox rabbis and a secular socialist were among the first to call upon their brothers to settle Israel, but for very different reasons.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Shlomo Alkalai, 1798-1878, was born in Sarajevo and studied in a Sephardi Yeshiva. He was invited to be Chief Rabbi of Zemun (Semlin), capital of Serbia in 182X. He particularly became the community's driving spiritual force. Inspired by the Greek independence and Serbian nationalists, he proposed the recolonisation of the Holy Land as a precondition of redemption.

In 1840, upon an incidence of blood libel, Alkalai wrote, in Shema Yisrael, that the time was right for the Jewish people to return to their own land - but not because of antisemitism.

What happened was this. On 5 February 1840 Father Thomas vanished in Damascus with his Muslim servant. At the instigation of the French consul there spread the rumour the Jews had murdered them for their blood for Pesach. An active press campaign in France accompanied this. A confession was extorted from a baker. More Jews were arrested and tortured. Two died under torture, and a third, Moshe Abulafia, converted to Islam. Sixty-six children were kidnapped until their mothers "confessed" where the bodies were.

Palestine was then under the rule of Mohammed Ali Pasha, who in 1831 had succeeded in turning Syria and Palestian into a semi-autonomous country. France supported this, the British did not.

As news of what happened in Damascus spread, protests happened in Europe. An Austrian was arrested. In Britain, Lord Montefiore appealed to Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, to pressure Ali to release the kidnapped children. France pressured him not to. Palmerston told Parliament he had warned Ali of the consequences of his action. The USA and other European countries supported the British. A delegation of notables under Montefiore travelled to Palestine and denounced the revival of the mediaeval blood libel. They pressured the authorities for the first time to investigate what had really happened, which the authorities were not interested in.

The delegation achieved its purpose. Ali caved in and released the prisoners; shortly afterwards he was first to relinquish everywhere except Egypt; and the Sultan issued a firman denouncing the blood libel and assuring the Jews of his protection.

This incident of blood libel really shocked the newly emancipated Jews; it was part of what led to the founding of the Alliance Israelite Universelle twenty years later.

Now back to Alkalai. For him this libel was just another manifestation of two thousand years of suffering in the Galut. His principle mode of thought was messianic. 1840 was thought to be the year of redemption, so now he had to explain why the Jews had not been redeemed. The Moshiach's non-appearance, he said, was due to the Jews' transgressions. This had to be expurged through good deeds and repentance. So he urged the Jews dedicate one tenth of their income to support the Jews in Jerusalem. Alkalai argued that self-help and use of ?nationalist ?means was called for in the Moshiach ben Yosef (Messiah the son of Joseph) only. [The Moshiach ben Yoseph - Messiah son of Joseph - was regarded as a forerunner of the "main" messiah, the Moshiach ben David.]

Alkalai's model was Montefiore's delegation; he considered this to be the Moshiach ben Yoseph(!): it personified the increasing influence of Jews. "Such a deliverance was undoubtably a manifestation of the hand of G-d," he wrote. He saw human intervention as hastening the advent of the Moshiach. He talked about waiting for a fiery chariot from heaven as being a stumbling block to the advent of the Moshiach. He saw the advent of the Moshiach as a step-by-step process, not a relevation.

How did this not violate the three oaths G-d had imposed on the Jews? These are given in the Babylonian Talmud, in Ketuvot 111a, as follows: You are not allowed to force the end of days; Israel may not ascend the wall - i.e. go up en masse to ארץ ישראל [the Land of Israel] - and if the nations say you can't go up to Israel, you can't defy them. [These laws, written only a few centuries after the tragedy of the Bar Kochba revolt, were put in place, presumably, to stop another futile attempt to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel.]

Alkalai did not see these as being in contradiction with his own philosophy; the second prohibition, for instance, he viewed as supporting his own concept of gradual עליה [aliyah, immigration to Israel]. "Thus is the redemption of Israel. At first little by little, for we are adjured not to go up all together." [Etc, I didn't take down the whole quotation.] Alkalai had turned the traditional edict of passivity on its head.

He argued that land should be bought from the Turks in the same way the patriarch Abraham had bought the Cave of Machpelah. He preached that political Zionism was an integral part of the Jewish faith.

His ideas were greeted almost universally with contempt. Undaunted, he travelled to Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris and Jerusalem, arguing that Israel should be bought from the Ottomans like the Patriarch Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah. He argued that political Zionism [Sorry, I lost the end of this; the speaker went too fast.]

So why were his ideas rejected? Firstly, he did not write in the vernacular. He first wrote only in Ladino, which would only have had a limited audience; then he switched to Hebrew, which was then still very much a scholarly language. Secondly, Jews at this time were very disillusioned with redemptive ideas. Having been emancipated they didn't want to be redeemed; and many were still struggling for rights in their adopted lands. A third reason was racism by the sophisticated Ashkenaism to the Sephardi Alkalai. Indeed, he got better reception from the Christians.

He also advocated reviving Hebrew as a spoken language (the better to unify the Jewish people in preparation for Redemption), agricultural settlement, digging wells, building houses, etc; saying that one can't behave in this world as if it were the World to Come.

He went to Jerusalem, and was rebutted there too; but was called back when the position of the Zemun community deteriorated. He asked the Sultan to let the Jews go to Israel.

Three years later he went to Jerusalem and proposed the establishment of a Jewish National Fund, as a world organisation - in 1874, twenty-three years before the first World Zionist Congress! He prophesied that resettlement would capture the hearts and minds of world Jewry.

Herzl's father Yaakov also came from Zemun; his grandfather was a follower of Alkalai. So did this influence Herzl? Apparently not; it doesn't seem Herzl had ever heard of him.


Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer, 1775-1874, was an Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbi. He came from Lissa, a Polish town then in Prussia, and finished his rabbinic training in Posen. He ??????ed himself with Jews and general ?Orthodoxy. From 1874 (?) he lived in Thorn, on the Vistula. He served as an unpaid communal rabbi.

He found opposition, in the West, to his Zionistic ideas not only from the leaders of Reform Judaism but from the Orthodox, who regarded this as blasphemous. Capable of outmanoeuvring his opponents in the theological field, he pointed also to the other revolutions in Europe - the reunification of Italy; the Bulgarians casting off Turkish domination. In 1836 he tried to interest Amshel Mayer Rothschild of Frankfurt to buy Israel, or Jerusalem, or at least the Temple Mount from the Turks to provide a reason for miraculous redemption; but the only Jew to respond positively was Sir Moses Montefiore. In 1860 he convinced a gathering of several important rabbis to plan... [Sorry, too fast again.]

He proposed barring non-religious Jews from going on aliyah!

דרשת ציון [Drishas Tsion, Searching for Zion], his book (1862), drew attention in Europe. His blueprint consisted of a programme of land purchase, agriculture and immigration, with econonomic development to replace charitable donations from the Diaspora. He taught this would improve the standing of the Jews amongst the Gentiles. He saw the need for Jewish self-defence units to guard the new settlements. He advocated reinstitution of sacrifices in Jerusalem even before the rebuilding of the Temple, replicating life as it was before the Temple was destroyed: G-d would provide the missing link - the Temple.

He viewed redemption as phased. "He will not cause the Holy Temple to descend from the heavens, but we will not run in terror and flight, for the redemption of Israel will come over time." "We know that all our worship of G-d is by trials by which He tests us. [...] If the Almighty would suddenly appear through miracles this would be no trial of our faith. Under such circumstances what fool would not go up to Israel not because of his faith but for his own sake!"

Denying the messianic conception of the present his opponents derided the idea of redemption this way. The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem said redemption depended on Torah and love of G-d, and is obscure in Jewish literature. He said Kalischer's ideas violated the three oaths.

Kalischer disputed this to the end. "With regard to the oath not to force the end, this leaves the miraculous utopian end in the hands of G-d; the preparation for it, though, could be done by human hands." What about the oath not to rebel against the nations of the world? Alkalai and Kalischer said their plans were political, not military; they wanted to do it with the approval of the nations, and they requested the Sultan's approval. His book was given a good reception by numerous Jewish intellectuals. This approach was to be typical of Torah-true Zionism - they accepted it because they didn't care about the messianism; they just wanted people to settle the land.

מקוה ישראל [Mikveh Israel], an agricultural school, was founded in 1870 under the auspices of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Haifa using Kalischer's method. Only declining health prevented him from becoming the school's halachic inspector - i.e. occupying the position of barring non-frum Jews from it.

Alkalai and Kalischer did offer a third way between the integrationist response of Samson Raphael Hirsch, and the isolationist approach of ??, within Orthodoxy.

They even regarded the endorsement of the Christians as good; plus the AIU kickstarted the process. The entire return would forfeit its value, in their eyes, if it were not frum - but they saw it as taking place with frum Jews only.

Alkalai and Kalischer were not modern Zionists, but they did pave the way for religious Zionism. Zionistic rabbis at the end of the century toned down their messianic message in order to increase their membership, so there would be more frum Jews in the resettled land.


Moses Hess, 1812-1875, was one of the founders of German socialism. He was brought up religious in the Rhineland, but as a young man abandoned his Jewish practice and became secular. He studied at the University of Bonn, and found his way to a left-wing group including Karl Marx. They cooperated for some years though later Marx was to ridicule Hess's ideas. Hess believed socialism would solve man's moral problems.

Hess's first stirrings about Zionism were due to the blood libel of 1840. This did not manifest itself for twenty years, but Hess never abandoned his Jewish identity.

In the 1850s he was peripherally involved with a French Christian utopian movement. He did not believe in an incarnate human redeemer or the end of the world coming, but his referring to the point where human civilisation will [and again]. He staked a claim for the unique mission of Judaism.

His book, "Rome and Jerusalem" (1862), predicted pious Jews joining hands with the enlightened on the common ground of Jewish nationalism - which did indeed happen - the מזרחי [Mizrachi] movement.

In his seminal work, he wrote, "it dawned on me for the first time that I belonged to my slandered, despised... people." He concluded there was no future for the Jews in the גלות [exile] - "they will never respect us because our home is not theirs." Alone among secular Jews, he linked the future of the Jewish people to Israel. By returning and creating a just society based on socialist principles, Jews would be taking part in man's great historical movement towards human redemption. For him, the pathway to Paradise was secularised messianism.

He pinned his hope of a Jewish homeland in Palestine on the support of France (!), because France had lent its support to the reunification of Italy!

The nation state was the natural unit of historical development; hence, he felt, enlightened emancipated Jews were betraying themselves. His approach would avoid the excesses of both the מסקילים [Maskilim] who wanted to assimilate altogether, and also the Orthodox who wanted to hide away from the world.

Hess defined Judaism as an ethnic spiritual identity which should be preserved because it contained the essence of the future.

His condemnation of assimilationism for the Jews to ingratiate themselves with their neighbours did not go down well in his homeland.

But the influence of his book was limited. Herzl never even read the book until after he had written his own. It is now regarded as a classic of modern Zionist literature, though.

So why was he ignored? Having emigrated from Germany, he had abandoned his position in society and isolated himself He had no credibility with or influence on the Jews of his time.

Hess was probably ahead of his time. It took the pogroms of the 1880s and the Dreyfus affair to prove he was right.


Nevertheless, it is not true to say these pioneers of Zionism were without indirect influence altogether. Mary Anne Evans - better known as George Eliot - influenced lots of people with her novel Daniel Deronda, which was openly Zionist. These included Arthur Balfour, the future author of the Balfour Declaration, who met her in 188x; she also strongly influenced Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the pioneer of reviving Hebrew as a spoken language.

So who influenced Evans? She read Josephus and Spinoza; she met someone who introduced her to the Talmud, etc. He introduced her to Graetz's monumental History of the Jews, and Graetz had been profoundly influenced by reading the works of Hess and Kalischer.

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