Hans Herzl (2): He was always a Jew?

(The is a follow-on from Hans Herzl (1): The World-Church and Unification of the Human family)

When Hans Herzl was four years old, Theodor, his father, pictured Hans in the grubby regalia of a medieval ghetto Jew and crowning him, King (“doge”) of the Jewish State:

The procession which starts at the doge’s palace will be opened by Herzl-Cuirassiers. Then come the artillery and infantry… while all are marching in gold-studded gala uniforms, the high priests under canopies, the doge himself will wear the garb of shame of a medieval ghetto Jew: the pointed hat, the yellow badge… When I thought that someday I might crown Hans as doge… I had tears in my eyes” (Herzl’s diary, 1895).

Thirty-five years later, the day after the death of his sister Pauline in Bordeaux, Hans wrote a short note to the hotel manager, in which he apologised for the mayhem he was about to unleash. Then“with a single gunshot, pierced the head his father had dreamed would wear the crown of Israel.”

Over the last few months, I can’t get Hans out of mind. It is true that like him, I am a Jew who belonged to various Christian denominations, one of which, Roman Catholicism, played a dominant role in my life (but no longer does). But there’s more to my preoccupation with Hans:

Firstly, it’s the contradiction between his utterly wretched family life and death (and indeed his father’s wretched family life as well), on the one hand, and the “Messianic” hopes his father, Theodor, had dreamed up for him. And secondly, it’s the mystery of salvation itself, of Christian salvation, which Hans obviously didn’t understand, because he wasn’t – it seems – looking for it.

I only touch on this second issue here, which I will deal with in greater detail in the last part of my thoughts on Hans Herzl.

Hans’ parents, Theodor and Julie, were products of the “Enlightenment.” The “Enlightenment” has profound relevance not only for understanding modern man and the modern Jew; not only for understanding Theodor Herzl and the non-religious inspiration of the Zionist movement, but also for shedding light on much of modern Judaism and modern Christianity, where the focal point is man’s happiness, not God’s glory. God saw that the light was good, but man saw that enlightenment was better – much better. In the Herzl family, there was nothing Judaic. Hans was not even circumcised. Theodor Herzl, like most of the older Zionists, like Chaim Weizmann (see his autobiography “Trial and error”, 1949) and Nordau and Jabotinsky were not interested in their Judaic heritage. As Achad Ha’am remarked, Herzl knew much about the Newland but nothing about the Oldland, nothing about the “ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Judith Rice describes the Vienna of the Herzls and the Herzls” family life:

Vienna, in the 1890’s, was viewed as the cultural center of the world. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a shining example of cross cultural amalgamation and hope for the disparate groups of peoples living under the Emperor. The Herzl family fully accepted and adopted the principles of Jewish liberation, acceptance and normalization through assimilation, modernization and national identification. After two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora, European liberalism and an enlightened, educated public would finally bring an end to Jewish isolation, rejection and irrational anti-Semitism.”

Hans Herzl was the middle child, of three, born to Theodor and Julie Herzl. The Herzl children were raised in a highly assimilated, visciously dysfunctional pseudo aristocratic Jewish household. The parents despised each other. The children, isolated from other children, ostensibly for health reasons, were virtually raised by governesses and strangers. By the time of Theodor Herzl’s death in 1904, Hans had little background in Jewish social, cultural or religious education. It was only in the relatively few years before his father’s death that Hans was episodically and superficially introduced to Judaism.”

Uraya Shavit (in her “Doomed Dynasty”) writes:

[Theodor Herzl’s] 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.”

Hans had little regard for his father’s vision of a Jewish State. Hans was an internationalist; his homeland was, as he said, the “entire world.” Here is Hans in 1929, one year before his death:

My father was a great man, whom I loved… But I’ve come to see that he made a great historical error in his attempt to rebuild the Jewish State…. My father did not realize the true mission of the Jewish people, which has proven that the living and fertilizing spirit does not need territorial boundaries, and that a people can live and exist even when fortifications and borders have disappeared. I would ask them not to attempt to add to the decadent civilizations but to remember their true identity and work for the cultural reconstruction of their homeland – and this homeland is the entire world.” (Hans Herzl to Marcel Steinberger in “Princes Without a Home, Modern Zionism and the Strange Fate of Theodor Herzl’s Children 1900-1945.” Ilse Steinberger, International Scholars Publications, San Francisco 1994).

Hans’ spiritual struggle was unrelated to psychology, politics and religion. Hans reasoned that if God was universal, it would follow that He must be God for all mankind, a universal God. For this reason, Hans did not believe in a historical Messiah. What was important was not the historical but the ethical. This view is prominent in much liberal Christian theology such as Karl Barth: to put it perhaps crudely, what is important to many modern Christians – and Jews (see here, here, and here) – is not the historicity of the Bible but its positive impact on universal brotherhood. I would add that anyone who makes a significant contribution to this ideal, will most certainly be up for the Nobel Peace prize.

For Hans, the problem, in the earlier period of his spiritual search, lay in the ethical realm of good and evil. Hans believed that ethics proved the existence of a moral law giver. Indeed, the Bible is shot through with the struggle between good and evil; so much so that it is easy to fall into the error of thinking that the main focus of the Bible is about man’s (in)humanity to man. The main focus of the Bible is the revelation of those facets of God’s character and his purposes that he desires to reveal to us. One thing the Bible makes clear: God’s purposes are not man’s purposes.

Did Hans come to realise that the Bible was more than a handbook on ethics. Does such a realisation explain his connection (conversion?) to various Christian movements. One writer (Free Library) describes his links to various religious as “cycling through” different denominations. Gil Hoffman believes that the reason why Hans became involved with Christianity was not because he was searching for a level of truth deeper than ethics, deeper than human relationships, but because he saw in Christianity, and later in liberal Judaism, a possible way to unite humanity. Gil Hoffman writes:

Hans’ search for ‘the universal truth’ which could unite disparate nations drew him away from his limited links with Judaism and towards the Baptists, the Catholic Church, the Hebrew-Christians, the Quakers, and finally to liberal Judaism, in spite of its clearly anti-Zionist bias at the time.”

Judith Rice expresses a similar view to Gil Hoffman:

The Baptists did not provide the structure and answer for the better world that Hans envisioned. He saw that they could not deliver a world-wide improvement to humanity through a central fiat the way a head of state could. In short order Hans converted again and was baptized a Catholic. Hans soon left the Catholic Church and was excommunicated. He tried different forms of Christianity but found no solace in any. In time he found himself attending the liberal synagogue in London. His life had spiraled into spiritual, emotional and personal hopelessness. Word came to him of his beloved sister Pauline’s death in Bordeaux. His depression and self-absorption, his failure in protecting his sister and saving himself (hence his people the Jews) became manic.”

Hans was with his sister the day she died. The next day he wrote (my italicised comments appear within the text in square brackets):

If a ritual can really calm our spirits and give us the illusion of being in the company of our beloved dead once more I can’t think of anything better than a visit to the Temple: there I can pray for my parents, ask their forgiveness [Hans had a miserable childhood; his parents were continually at each other’s throats] and repent my apostasy before God [Apostasy from what? Not from Judaism, because he never believed in the God of the Torah. He was a “liberal” Jew, like his father]. I am destitute and sick, unhappy and bitter. I have no home. Nobody pays any attention to the words of a convert. [“Nobody” refers to Jews. The immediate disciples of Christ were all Jews. Imagine if their fellow Jews didn’t listen to them because they were “converts”]. I cannot suddenly turn my back on a community [Jewish community] which offered me its friendship.”

Without prejudice, even if all my physical and moral impulses urge me to: I have burned all my bridges… What good is the penance which the Church has ordained for my “spiritual healing”! [It becomes obvious that Hans was not interested in the deep truths of Christianity but only in their social significance].I torture my body in vain: my conscience is torturing me far worse. I am destitute and bitter. I have no home. My life is ruined… Nobody would regret it if I were to put a bullet through my head. Could I undo my errors that way? I realize how right my father had been when he once said: “Only the withered branches fall off a tree – the healthy ones flourish.” [Theodor Herzl had written in The Jewish State: “The branches of the Jewish people may perish. Its tree will live.”1

Hans was at his sister Pauline’s bedside in Bordeaux when she died. On September 15, 1930, a day after Pauline’s death, Hans shot himself in the head. He wanted to be buried with his sister. The orthodox Jewish community of Bordeaux, however, were very much against the idea that an apostate should be given a Jewish funeral. After much pressure, and the realisation that he, like the rest of his family, suffered from mental illness, they relented and buried Hans – hush hush, – in the same Jewish cemetery as his sister.

Judith Rice writes:

Prof. Dawnd an old friend of Hans wrote to Trude (Herzl) Neumann in Vienna: ‘I first met dear Hans at the British Legation in Bern, in August 1914… I loved has as a (dear) brother, and his tragic death was a great shock to me and my family. He had changed his views: he was a true Jew, and until a few days before his death he was studying the Bible with me, and praying for the peace of Jerusalem…’ September of 2006 the Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel provided the final respectful honor to Theodor Herzl. The modest ceremonies returned the remains from France to be reburied on Mt. Herzl. The final act was done.”

Hans ended up a Jew. Once a Jew always a Jew? The Jew says yes. Once a Catholic always a Catholic? The Catholic says yes. If both the Jew and the Catholic are right, doesn’t it follow that once a Jewish Catholic always a Jewish Catholic. But more seriously, there are Jews who believe that the soul God puts into Jews is far superior – indeed of a different genus – to the Gentile soul. This superiority, they nobly argue, exists to serve inferior souls and bring them to God and show them how to obey his commands (mitzvot). (See “The book of Jewish belief” by Louis Jacobs, p. 40).

Here is a recent example of the superiority of the Jewish soul from Bubby, a Jew, at the RoshPinaProject:

“The truth is that every Jew has a Jewish Soul, you were not created by mistake as a Jew, it wasn’t an afterthought; Jews were not created to believe in christianity, and believing in jesus involves being a christian. Yes, I am well aware that there are Jews who believe in Jesus; there are Jews who do a lot of things, it doesn’t mean that Jews should believe in jesus. The Jews are not just a religion, we are a people. Christians are not born christians, but Jews are born Jews with g-d given Jewish Souls….its abnormal for a Jew to believe in a christian god; this is why so many Jews wake up and fly off the windowsill.”

Bubby had once become involved in Messianic Judaism. She was one of those who woke up but instead of “flying off the windowsill” managed to jump back inside safely into the arms of “the truth [that] every Jew has a Jewish soul” (Bubby).

The Rambam’s view (Moses Maimonides) is that the difference between a Jewish and a Gentile soul is purely theological. This seems to be the majority Jewish view. If Maimonides is right, then the only kind of apostasy is theological. Now, as Hans Herzl had no Judaic believe to apostatize from, he can’t be regarded as a Jewish apostate, but rather as a Catholic apostate.

In my third and last part on Hans, I discuss the religious implications of his life and relate them to my religious journey.

1I include here part of Hans’ letter in the original German, which – for me – is much more poignant. If you know Yiddish (my parents spoke Yiddish), the German will not be much of a problem. There are many German words that are similar to “Afrikaans,” which I can speak, being a South African. “Ich bin eine einsame, verzweifelte, traurige und bittere Gestalt”, schrieb Hans Herzl ein Jahr vor seinem Selbstmord an seinen Freund Marcel Sternberger. “Niemand hört auf einen Konvertiten. Ich habe alle meine Brücken verbrannt. Mein Leben ist ruiniert. Niemand würde es bedauern, wenn ich eine Kugel durch meinen Kopf jagte. Ich kann so nicht weiterleben.” German – einsame; Afrikaans eensaam; German – traurige; Afrikaans – treurig, and many more.

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