Monday, March 23, 2009

Theodor Herzl - Hero or Villain

I am not a Religious Zionist - at least not in the traditional meaning of the word. I do not belong to Mizrachi and do not believe that we are in the first flowerings of the redemption.

This is in fact one of the reasons I so strongly criticize the extremists among Religious Zionists. They act as though our redemption is at hand. And to that extent they advocate even violent resistance to government anti settlement activity in the West Bank - which I condemn.

But that is not the subject of this post. I come here in praise of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Theodor Herzl was a secular Jew with absolutely no religious background or any interest in Judaism. At one point he advocated conversion to Christianity as a solution to anti Semitism – so removed was he from his religion!

He devoted his early life to journalism. It was in his context as a journalist that he saw anti-Semitism flourish in the supposedly enlightened Paris of his day. That happened at the trial of a Jewish army officer. It was then that he had his ‘conversion’. He conceived and became dedicated to the concept of a Jewish State. He felt that anti-Semitism could never be eradciated unless Jews could have their own state. And thus secular Zionism was born.

The little he knew about Judaism pointed him in the direction of Israel. But short of that any area in the world would do and famously (or infamously as some would put it) he had considered Uganda as a possible alternative.

In his quest for support he sought rabbinic approval for his cause but was rebuffed. The Rabbis felt it was anathema to approve of a secular state creatred by a secular Jew who knew nothing about Judaism. Especially since he seemed to be advocating for a state devoid of Torah.

There were some Rabbis that were sympathetic to the idea of returning to Israel and creating a religious state. They were the spiritual heirs of the Chovevi Tzion – forerunners of Religious Zionism. The Chovevei Tzion boasted such Gedolim as the Netziv.

Long story short - Herzl succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He worked hard for his cause and convinced many Jews to join his band wagon. He also tried to convince world leaders of the justness of his cause. He never lived to see the Balfour declaration – an official British declaration that looked favorably on the concept of making Palestine a homeland for the Jews. Herzl died at age 44. But if not for Herzl’s efforts that would have never happened. The Balfour declaration is credited for giving many Jews - mostly secular - the impetus to make Alyiah and physically build up the land.

So - how are we to look at Herzl? Was he a hero or a villain? Tzadik or Rahsa?

There is much debate about that in the Torah world. The more Charedi one is, the more he is seen as a Rasha. But I do not see him that way at all. I would not describe him as a Tzadik. But neither was he a Rasha.

The claim is that he was anti Torah, but I don’t think that is accurate . I think history shows that at worst he was neutral on the issue of Torah. He couldn’t have cared less one way or the other. And the fact that he at first sought out rabbinic approval shows that he at least valued their support. But their rejection was so swift and strident that he became turned off from them.

I see him in a favorable light. One must understand where he was coming from, his motive, and the level of dedication to his cause.

His motive was to rid the world of anti-Semitism. That was truly an altruistic goal. He had no need to do that for himself as he was so assimilated that no one would have even known he was Jewish and he could have lived the good life as an assimilated Jew. But he didn’t do that. He instead dedicated his life to the cause. His background was devoid of any real Jewish education. His parents were only interested in assimilating their son into the culture as completely as possible and he had no personal interest in anything Jewish.

He was a complete Tinok Shenishba – a captured infant. That is a Halachic term applied to Jews who were not raised religious and grow up knowing nothing about Judaism. He nevertheless dedicated his life to the welfare of the Jewish people. And to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that he opposed to religious practice by those who wanted to be observant.

If one takes all that into consideration, how can anyone see him as a Rahsa – an evil person? At worst one can say he was misguided - and that was only because he was not raised with Torah vlaues.

One of the biggest complaints about him was that he looked at Uganda as a possible location for a homeland for the Jews. But who can blame a man ignorant of his heritage for seeking an alterative to Israel as a means of fighting anti-Semitism? That was his only reason. There were no theological reasons. Only for historical ones.

His vision was for a modern State that could compete in the world. He realized that Israel would be a stronger draw for Jews than Uganda. Can we fault him for that considering his purpose and background? Idon’t think so.

We must look at Herzel in his own context and in the context of history. He was a visionary. And he started the ball rolling to what we have today – a flourishing State where Torah exists at a level not seen since the destruction of the second Temple. It was spiritual heirs that made it happen and though they didn’t realize it or acknowledge it, God was on their sie. It was Siyata D’Shmaya that enabled them to succeed in establishing a State through many hidden miracles.

It is true that some of his spiritual heirs who were the State of Israel’s founders were anti Torah and worked very hard against it. But their efforts backfired.

Herzl’s positive contributions cannot not be denied. And we should recognize him for that instead of condemning him.