Theodor Herzl and the Enlightenment

Theodor Herzl leaning over the balcony of the ...

Theodor Herzl leaning over the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois (Three King’s hotel / Hotel drei Könige) in Basel, Switzerland, possibly during the Sixth Zionist conference there (see here) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theodor Herzl’s influence looms large in the history of modern Zionism. Few Jews have not been affected by it, whether they are aware of it or not. In my life, besides this influence, which I am writing about now, there is also the fact that my first and last schools were Herzlia Junior School (while at the Cape Jewish Orphanage) and Herzlia High School, which I wrote about here.

There is a very strong connection between Herzl’s cultural and political backgound, France and the Enlightenment. All of these played a significant role in my intellectual and spiritual development.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. On May 2 of that year, Theodor was born in Budapest, a major city and also the geographical center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Hapsburgs. His family had assimilated into the German and Christian culture of the Empire. The Herzls  celebrated Christmas like many other good assimilated Jews.

The Danube divides Budapest into two parts, the undulating Buda and the flatter prosaic Pest. Theodor was born in Pest, in a building next to a synagogue. In that same year, the first international Jewish organization “Alliance Israelite Universelle” met in Paris. The “Alliance” was founded to protect the rights of world Jewry. Why was the first international congress of world Jewry held in France? After the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), and the slicing off of heads, France became much more liberal towards the Jews. Those grateful to keep their heads were now, in theory, equal, brothers and free – Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In 1791, the Jews were granted full civil rights and were soon integrated into French society. Of course, the society was not high society owing to the brute fact that high society had already been radically cut down to democratic size. It was the era of the European “Enlightenment”, which was spearheaded by France. The French Enlightenment was embodied in Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) and Voltaire (1694 – 1778). As in many human endeavours, what often begins with a hand holding a spear aloft ends with a head in a bucket; the head of the man with the spear; Robespierre. This is especially true when the clarion call is for human freedom and human reason.

The Enlightenment had already been kindled in Germany by Emmanuel Kant. In his “What is Enlightenment?”, Kant describes the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”, where “tutelage” is (Kant continues) “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another”.

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.

Seventy years after the French Revolution, the Austro-Hungarian Empire heeded the call of liberty, equality, fraternity. A year after Theodor entered primary school (1867), Austria-Hungary created a new Constitution under which Austrian Jews received full civil and religious rights. Meanwhile, in London, Karl Marx, another Jew, was publishing the first volume of his major work, “Das Kapital.”

A portrait of Karl Marx.

A portrait of Karl Marx. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of sixteen, Theodor attended the Protestant High School “Evangelische Gymnasium.” Why was he studying at a Christian school? In my case, most Jews of my generation would not have raised an eyebrow at me attending a Christian school in Wellington (South Africa). What about the Jews of the 19th century like Theodor? In the 19th century, Jews were permitted to attend Jewish primary schools. Subsequent education, however, had to be completed at state schools. For example, Theodor’s first school was the “Pester Israelitische Normalhauptschule”, which was one of the primary schools run by the Jewish community of Pest.

All institutions – government, courts, and education – except for a few primary schools – were German. It was only natural for the Hapsburg Empire to pursue a policy of Germanisation. Even family names had to be German. Herz in German – as well as Yiddish – means “heart”. The German herz and Theodor’s family name Herzl is similar in spelling and pronunciation; Herzl has two possible meanings: 1. the Germanised name for the Yiddish Herschel (“deer” – Yiddish “hirsh”; the Old English word “hart” as in the King James Version of Psalm 42:1 “As the hart panteth for the water brooks…”) and 2. the diminutive of herz (heart) in Austrian German.

Here is another example of a Germanised Jewish name: Mord(e)chai becomes Marcus. Karl Marx is an interesting example. How did he get his very German name? His rabbi grandfather, Marc Levy , dropped the Levy, and exchanged Marc for the Germanic name, Marx. Karl’s father’s first name was Heshel, which is a variation of Herschel. Heshel Marx changed his name to Heinrich Marx, which is not a good name for a Jew but a very good name for a Lutheran, whose religion Heinrich Marx adopted and into which his son Karl was baptized. Heinrich became a Lutheran because it opened the higher echelons of the legal profession to him, which were closed to Jews. Heinrich saw the light. Enlightened Germans (who thought they knew what light was) began chipping away at the Scriptures: the enlightened German Jews at the Tanakh, the enlightened German Christians at the “Bible”, and processed it into mangle of academic incoherence. They became lost not for words, but in words: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).

When Herzl was 17 years old, the Empire was divided into the German speaking Greater Austria (the red section in the map) and the Hungarian speaking Greater Hungary (the green section of the map). Budapest is at its geographical center.

Austro-Hungarian Empire 1814-1914

Austro-Hungarian Empire 1814-1914

In Moral Dust appears a photo of pre-WWII rabbis; most, if not all, were killed in the holocaust. All of them were against the Zionist ideal of a Jewish state. They believed that the scriptures had clearly forbidden the Jews to attempt to establish a political state. This was not only the belief of the rabbis but of most Jews. There were, however, some rabbis who believed otherwise. Herzl’s grandfather, Simon Loeb Herzl, was one of these. Simon Loeb Herzl was a disciple of Rabbi Judah Alkalai of Semlin, near Belgrade. Rabbi Alkalai published a book in which he stated that the redemption of the Jewish people could only occur if there were a Jewish state in the Holy Land. He expected wealthy Western Jews to play a key role in the establishment of the Jewish state. Theodor’s grandfather, who seemed to have had a large influence on Theodor, shared this view.