The fall and the fall of the Herzl Dynasty (1): The clouds open

Theodor Herzl,  “the founder of Zionism spent his life fighting for a home for his people. His orphaned children spent their lives searching for a home of their own.”

(David Zax)

There was the “Rise of the Roman Empire” (Polyibus), and there was the “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire” (Edward Gibbon) in which Gibbon says:

“It is scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption. This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated” (Chapter 2).

When the bed gets too cozy, it’s hard to get up in the morning. What begins and continues in ease and comfort often ends in decay and extinction. One  of the reasons for the decline and fall of Rome was too much comfort, too much pleasure, too much peace. The sensuous become senseless,  and the fire is extinguished.

Rome rose, it declined, it fell. And the Herzl Dynasty? It did not rise, and so could not decline. But it did fall  – and fall. But in the conflagration, the fire continued to burn. Uraya Shavit (in her “Doomed Dynasty”) writes:

“His children, Pauline, Hans and Trude, were raised like royalty, isolated from their peers, aware from early childhood of the burden of responsibility imposed on them by their surname. But in stark contrast to his political vision, Herzl’s dream of a family dynasty was not realized. All three children suffered from various forms of mental instability that marked them for life. Alienated from society, unable to support themselves, they were an embarrassment to the Zionist movement and a drain on its financial resources. They died, tormented and solitary, without witnessing the realization of their father’s vision.”

Theodor had  a fire shut up in his bones that consumed him, perhaps similar to the intensity of the fire that consumed the prophet Jeremiah:

“Then I said, I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name. But His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” Jeremiah 20:9).

The zeal of Jeremiah and Herzl may have been similar in intensity, but was the fire the same? Most Jews would balk – and bark – at the insinuation, and protest : “Herzl we know, but who is Jeremiah?” If the fire the Levitical priests offered to the Lord was a holy fire,  then the fire that Herzl offered was a “strange” fire – an estranged fire, a profane fire, an alien fire that alienated him from the Holy One of Israel. Why would this be so? because Herzl had forsaken the Holy One of israel for the  Zeitgeist (World Spirit):

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered  strange (forbidden) fire – aish zara – before the Lord, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1).

vayakrivu lifnay Adonai aish zara asher law zavah otem וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָֽם׃

It is difficult to judge what role Herzl played in his wife’s drug addiction and insanity, and in the calamities that befell his children.What one can say is that such self-inflicted calamities are rare in a family that has a loving husband and father.

David Sax writes of Herzl: “Like other artists he longed for immortality, whether attained through work or descendents.” Shortly after his marriage to Julie Naschauer in 1889, she fell pregnant. In his short story “Der Sohn” (The Son), Herzl describes his “tangible sensuous love of life” for his anticipated son, who will be “my never-ending continuation, the guarantee that I shall forever inherit the earth.”

In 1894, Herzl attended the Dreyfus trial in Paris (which I described earlier). After his return to Vienna, the Judenstaat (The Jewish State) frothed forth from his frenzied soul:

“The clouds open. The thunder rolls. The lightning flashes about him. A thousand impressions beat upon him at the same time—a gigantic vision. He cannot think; he is unable to move; he can only write; breathless, unreflecting, unable to control himself or to exercise his critical faculties lest he dam the eruption, he dashes down his thoughts on scraps of paper—walking, standing, lying down, on the street, at the table, in the night—as if under unceasing command. So furiously did the cataract of his thoughts rush through him, that he thought he was going out of his mind. He was not working out the idea. The idea was working him out. It would have been an hallucination had it not been so informed by reason from first to last” (Herzl’s diary).

Herzl took two years to write “The Jewish State”, which was published two years later (1896).

Swept along by the vision, Herzl thinks he’s hallucinating, going mad; but he’s mistaken, for even though he can’t think, can’t breathe, can’t control his critical faculties, there is no doubt in his mind; the Judenstat is “informed by reason from first to last.” Where’s the proof? Here, perhaps:

“The land of our forefathers still exists… The ancient land renews its youth under the touch of diligent hands. Again it bears flowers, again it bears fruit, and, one day, one fine day, it may yet bear the happiness and dignity of the Jews,” (Speech to the members of the Maccabeans Club, a few weeks before the First Zionist Congress in 1897).

After the First Zionist Congress, Theodor wrote in his diary: “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: ‘At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’”

Herzl had not lost his mind; he had found his prophetic voice, and the world was listening. And if the prophecy were to fail, there was still “the guarantee that I shall forever inherit the earth.” That guarantee was Der Sohn,  JoHANneS.

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