Keep Dreaming: The journey from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Herzl

Confluence of Remembrance Day, Independence Day raises question of what this Jewish state need become to justify the price we have paid for it.

Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Back in 2004, the Knesset graciously passed a law allowing me to indulge my passion once a year without having to make any excuses. It legislated that 10 of Iyar – the birthday of the father of our country, which happens to fall five days after we celebrate its independence – would henceforth be known as Herzl Day, and stipulated that it be celebrated by recounting his vision and deeds. Being the law-abiding citizen I am, I thus dedicate this column to my hero.
As our calendar tells me that we are still shedding the shackles of Egyptian bondage while making our way to Mount Sinai, I thought it appropriate to relate to Herzl’s own Jewish journey during a lifetime that lasted merely four years longer than our wandering in the wilderness. It begins with an attachment to the Jewish people essentially divorced from rites and ritual, and culminates in a passionate affirmation of Jewish tradition. Fascinating in itself, this exploration of Herzl’s evolving relationship to his Jewishness might also serve as a catalyst for considering our own – as well as prompting some reflection on our dreams regarding the Jewish state that his brought into being.
To begin with, fairness demands acknowledgment that misconceptions about Herzl’s attitude toward Judaism are not entirely groundless. They originate in his early response to anti-Semitism. Initially he was not terribly bothered by the phenomenon, held his brethren accountable for the animosity they attracted, and even went so far as to assert that there was something positive about it.
“We Jews have maintained ourselves, even if through no fault of our own, as a foreign body among the nations,” he wrote. “In the ghetto we have taken on a number of anti-social characteristics. Our character has been damaged by oppression and must be repaired through another sort of pressure...”
Anti-Semitism, he believed, would serve that purpose. “It is the education of a group by the surrounding populations and will perhaps in the end lead to its absorption” – which, shockingly, is what he fleetingly considered to be the best solution to the Jewish problem, as recorded in his diary in 1895: “About two years ago... I wished to arrange for an audience with the pope... and say to him: I will lead a great movement for the free and honorable conversion of Jews to Christianity.”
Such references account for the accusations hurled against Herzl that he was concerned with safeguarding Jewish bodies but not the Jewish soul. Add to this that in Der Judenstaat he wrote of the need to “keep our rabbis within the confines of their synagogues” and suggested the Jewish state might be established in Argentina (followed a few years later by his proposal of Uganda), and it is not difficult to understand why his detractors accuse him of lacking Jewish sensibilities.
BUT ANY dismissal of Herzl as an ardent defender of the Jewish faith with a deep affinity for the Land of Israel does him a terrible injustice, drawing conclusions based on isolated snapshots of his life taken out of context, and ignoring his own testimony of metamorphosis.
“Deep in his soul he began to feel the need of being a Jew,” he writes about himself in the short story “The Menorah.” “His Jewish origins... had long since ceased to trouble him, when suddenly the old hatred surfaced again in a new mob-cry. With many others he believed this flood would shortly subside. But there was no change for the better... and now he did something he could not have done in the old days – he began to love his Judaism with an intense fervor.”
But even “in the old days,” Herzl bore his Jewish identity with pride. As a student, he was expelled from his fraternity after accusing it of being anti-Semitic. When he had yet to establish himself as a writer, he refused an offer to be published if he would agree to adopt a less Jewish pen name. And he blamed his failure to gain the pope’s support for the Zionist cause in part on his refusal to kiss the papal ring.
While it may have been the “push” of anti-Semitism that first propelled Herzl from a trajectory of engagement with gentile society to an obsession with creating a Jewish one, the “pull” of Judaism quickly became his source of inspiration. In his address to the First Zionist Congress, he declared that “Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold even before it is a return to the Jewish land,” and he later asserted that our aspirations must include not only the settling of Jewish soil, but also “a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit.”
Following the Congress, he wrote in his diary of his visit to the synagogue the preceding Shabbat, recalling that “the head of the community called me to the Torah... and when I stood on the bima I was more moved than on any of the days of the Congress.” When, a year later, he arrived in Jerusalem late on a Friday, ill and suffering from exhaustion, he nevertheless chose to walk the great distance to his hotel rather than contravene the laws of Shabbat.
AS TO the depth of his connection to the Land of Israel, those who would deny it disregard the words Herzl puts into the mouth of his alter ego in Altneuland upon seeing Jerusalem for the first time: “Recollections of Seder services of long-forgotten years stirred in him. One of the few Hebrew phrases he still knew rang in his ears: Next year in Jerusalem!... And here before him the walls of Jerusalem towered in the fairy moonlight. His eyes overflowed...”
Herzl writes in a similar vein of his hero’s Pessah experience in Tiberias: “One guest at the Seder table pronounced the Hebrew words of the Haggada with the zeal of a penitent. He was finding himself again, and his throat was often so tight with emotion that he had to master his longing to cry out aloud.”
As to the sort of society he imagined coming into being, those who maintain that he was not interested in a Jewish state, but merely a state where Jews might live that would be thoroughly universalistic ignore what he had the audacity to rebuild in Altneuland: “What was that wonderful structure of white and gold whose roof rested on a forest of marble columns?... It is the Temple! The ancient prophecies had been fulfilled...”
Herzl, furthermore, was careful to ensure that it not stand empty. “The streets which at noon had been alive with traffic were now suddenly stilled... Slowly and peacefully the Sabbath fell upon the bustling city.
Throngs of worshipers wended their way to the Temple and to the many synagogues in the Old City and the New, there to pray to the God Whose banner Israel have borne... for thousands of years.”
This is far from being Herzl’s only reference to a society infused with Jewish values. The most sympathetic character in his novel is Rabbi Shmuel, and while Herzl is careful to keep him from meddling in politics, he keeps him busy addressing social issues, enjoining his followers to ensure that “the stranger will feel comfortable among you” and warning them that “all that you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren, unless you also cultivate freedom of thought and expression, generosity of spirit, and love for humanity.”
Those who have yet to be convinced that Herzl believed religion must play a vital role in the Jewish state of which he dreamed need only turn to the last page of Altneuland. Here visitors to this new society inquire of its founders what made its establishment possible. Each answers in accordance with his own perspective: the unity of the Jewish people, new systems of transportation, the forces of nature, self-confidence. “But the venerable Rabbi Shmuel got happily to his feet and proclaimed: ‘God.’”
These are the closing words of the novel. They attest eloquently to the zenith of Herzl’s Jewish journey while raising questions about our own. What answer does each of us have as to what has made the miracle of 63 years of Jewish statehood possible? And if the price it has exacted is to be justified, of what must we keep dreaming?
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and founding director of its Herzl Center on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem.