Hillel Zeitlin: The Unorthodox Path to Orthodoxy

Hillel Zeitlin died in the death camp of Treblinka in 1942. He was murdered wrapped in a talith and tefillin and carrying a volume of the most important Jewish mystical text the Zohar. Zeitlin had premonitions of the impending doom of European Jewry and was a dedicated “territorialist”—advocate of a Jewish state anywhere in the world, not just in the Land of Israel. This stance was more practical than ideological: European Jewry was in distress and something needed to be done. Still, among Zeitlin’s closest friends and disciples was Joseph Hayyim Brenner, the great Hebrew writer who was a Zionist murdered in Jaffa during the Arab riots of 1921. Zeitlin, despite Brenner’s secularism, eulogized his friend although there were ideological gaps between them.
Zeitlin’s odyssey from a Hasidic upbringing to a movement toward secularism and his return to Orthodoxy constitute a fascinating and unique journey for a traditional Jew—or any Jew for that matter. As a boy growing up in a shtetl in White Russia, Zeitlin became known as a Talmudic prodigy. But over time he began to move away from the traditions of his youth and read works of Western philosophy and literature. The main figure who dominated Zeitlin’s world of thought was Friedrich Nietzsche. This 19th century philosopher impacted European Jewish thought and movements, including Zionism, in a significant way. Zeitlin was no exception. Nietzsche’s “Superman” searching for meaning in a Godless world and the attempt to find the authentic self had great appeal to Zeitlin. He wrote in depth on Nietzsche in Hebrew and was mesmerized by this atheist. In fact, he was a disciple of Nietzsche who, in later life, he would overcome but never fully reject.
Zetlin returned with zeal to Kabbalah and Hasidism shortly after World War I. He embraced Jewish Orthodoxy with a vengeance. But the atheist Nietzsche was still a focus of Zeitlin’s thought. The individual struggle with faith was not just a philosophical struggle but was at the heart of Zeitlin’s return from atheism to traditional Judaism. Zeitlin could only rediscover God after living in a world devoid of the divine presence. He employed Nietzsche’s idea that in order to create one had to destroy as a cornerstone of his teshuvah, of his return to God. Faith was never meant to be easy. The search for God entailed great struggle and effort and a genuine search for human and Jewish authenticity. Zeitlin’s overcoming of Nietzsche’s atheism did not preclude the existentialist philosopher’s continued impact on this traditional Jewish thinker.
This is just a thumbnail sketch of Hillel Zeitlin’s life and thought. For more detailed information on Zeitlin and other Jewish followers of Friedrich Nietzsche please read Professor Jacob Golomb’s Niezsche and Zion, a wonderful and detailed investigation of the great 19th century philosopher and modern Jewish life and thought.