Neutralizing Rabbi Kalischer

The process of neutralization was not only a strategy of hassidic masters; it was also embodied in the response of Eastern European rabbis to the emergence of the Zionist idea.

A signpost in eastern Slovenia. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A signpost in eastern Slovenia.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Celebrated American author Nathaniel Hawthorne penned many brilliant short stories.
One of these masterworks is “The Devil in Manuscript.” The tale that Hawthorne tells relates the narrator’s visit to a friend and writer in December in a snowy New England town.
The narrator’s friend has written much and has faced only rejection of his work. Rather than endure further humiliation, he decides to throw his manuscripts into the fire. The narrator protests but it is in vain. The rejected author incinerates his work in the fireplace. But the “possessed” manuscripts have a demonic life of their own. Suddenly, fires break out in the heart of the large town. The rejected writer cries out in triumph at tale’s end: “My brain has set the town on fire!” Although I am no literary critic, I have always understood this story as a warning against those who believe that the written word is simply the product of a detached intellect that does not impact the world. Once upon a time – not long ago – words burned towns to the ground and built up cities. This was especially so in the Jewish world. Words used to matter to our people. Ideas often found their interpretation in action and the shaking of communities, societies and worlds. The masters of Kabbalah always understood the power of the word, whether spoken or written, as the source of creation, chaos and redemption. In the Jewish world today, this mystical sense of the word has been lost. Ideas are stillborn. It is all about prestige, awards, money, and maintenance of the status quo. No iconoclasts needed in the Jewish world today. We are expected to tell Jews what they want to hear. Challenge the status quo and you will be “neutralized.”
“Neutralization” is a process first explored by Professor Gershom Scholem in his landmark essays on the messianic idea in Judaism.
Scholem describes the attempt by early hassidic masters to divert the energy of their followers away from messianic activism and to channel that explosive energy into personal redemption. This neutralizing of messianic activism was necessary in the wake of the failure of Shabbetai Zevi, the mystical messiah, to fulfill the promises of returning Jews to the Land of Israel for ultimate redemption in the mid-17th century.
Messianic activism was a danger that could only lead to further disillusionment and demoralization.
There certainly was a “devil in manuscript” of a failed messiah who only burned down but did not build up.
But the process of neutralization was not only a strategy of the hassidic masters. It was also embodied in the response of Eastern European rabbis to the emergence of the Zionist idea. The main target of this process was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer.
Kalischer was born in Posen in 1795. The province was in the western part of Poland, which Prussia acquired in the second partition of Poland only two years before Kalischer’s birth. In many ways, Kalischer’s life was unremarkable: after a conventional ghetto education he went on to serve as the rabbi of the community of Thorn for four decades. The rabbis of Eastern Europe acknowledged Kalischer’s mastery of the Talmud – most of his writing was in the genre of Talmudic legalism. He dabbled in philosophy, publishing a philosophical work and even a defense of Maimonides.
If it were not for Kalischer’s “proto- Zionism,” he could be safely tucked away in the confines of Jewish tradition and traditional Jewish authority of his time. He would be just another halachic authority to be forgotten in a long line of rabbis who did not deviate from the “four ells” of traditional Jewish exegesis, Talmudic mastery and legal acumen.
But Kalischer was a man of vision, different from many of his contemporaries.
He could not simply ignore the events of his time. From his pulpit, Kalischer was well aware that his world was undergoing a major transformation: the Poles rebelled twice against the Czar, first in 1830-31 and then in 1863. The forces of an emerging nationalism seized the imagination of the Russian-dominated Poles – the Polish dream was to restore the sovereignty of the medieval Polish kingdom – and also drove Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians to take up arms to overthrow the control of the Ottoman Empire.
These movements for national independence were anti-imperialist to the core. Nations that had been dormant for centuries were discovering new life in the world of the modern nation-state. Kalischer could not deny this reality – and it disturbed him. If the struggle for sovereignty motivated peoples to rise up in the bid to recreate their nation, why were not the Jews – the national group par excellence – pursuing their destiny as a people? Historians Arthur Hertzberg and Shlomo Avineri convincingly argue that it was not a coincidence that the first stirrings of Zionism emerged in the middle of the 19th century.
Obviously, the leap from the concept of a covenant-based people to a modern nation-state was considered fantasy by most Jews at the time – but this did not stop Kalischer from making that very leap in his religious and political imagination. The impact of non-Jewish national movements on Jewish visionaries Kalischer, Rabbi Judah Alkalai and Communist Moses Hess was considerable.
In 1862, the same year that Hess’ Rome and Jersualem argued for the existence of the Jews as a nation and not just a religious faith, Kalischer acknowledged that the politics of his time forced him to the same conclusion as Hess: “Why do the people of Italy and of other countries sacrifice their lives for the land of their fathers, while we, like men bereft of strength and courage, do nothing? Are we inferior to all other peoples, who have no regard for life and fortune as compared with the love of their land and nation?” While Kalischer, in his landmark work Seeking Zion, strove to place the restoration of “Jewish honor” within the context of Jewish tradition – specifically the idea that the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel was an expression of the emergence of the “Messiah son of Joseph” – the primary inspiration for his proto-Zionism was the rising up of Europe’s nations against the oppression of great empires. While the Zionist ethos is rooted in the Promised Land of the Hebrew Bible and the divine promise to Abraham, Rabbi Kalischer could not ignore the historic events of his own time.
As much as he wanted to root his “proto-Zionism” within the parameters of tradition and traditional theologies of the messianic idea, his ideas were subversive to the Orthodoxy of his time. It is no wonder that Alkalai and Kalischer were forgotten for so long, only to be recovered decades after they died, with the rise of Theodor Herzl and Political Zionism.
Alkalai’s mysticism and Kalischer’s Talmudic prowess were used by Jewish traditionalists to neutralize the subversive and revolutionary character of these renegade rabbis’ ideas regarding the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. Kalischer’s proto-Zionism would only revive a generation after his death with the Religious Zionism of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in the first decades of the 20th century.
Shlomo Avineri’s masterwork on the intellectual origins of modern Zionism is prefaced with these words of Hegel: “Great revolutions which strike the eye at a glance must have been preceded by a quiet and secret revolution in the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist), a revolution not visible to every eye, especially imperceptible to contemporaries, and it is hard to discern as to describe in words. It is a lack of acquaintance with this spiritual revolution which makes the resulting changes astonishing.” Perhaps another town is burning, just waiting to be rebuilt.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congergation in Boca Raton, Florida.