The forgotten vision of Rabbi Bibas

I first encountered Bibas’s name in another excellent 1997 volume – Restoring the Jews to their Homeland: Nineteen Centuries in the Quest for Zion by Joseph Adler.

Reading a torah scroll (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I looked forward to the publication of the second edition of political scientist Shlomo Avineri’s The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. It is one of the best reviews and analysis of the thought that led to the return of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael and sovereignty. The first edition was published in English almost 40 years ago. Time was due for Avineri to bring us up to date on the development of Zionist thought in the 21st century.
Another volume that is indispensable to the student of modern Jewish history is Arthur Hertzberg’s translations into English of the classics of Zionism – The Zionist Idea : A Historical Analysis and Reader. The anthology was originally published in 1959 but Hertzberg updated the work in a 1997 edition. While both works are excellent and indispensable, both omit the legacy of one of the earliest modern Zionist thinkers and activists Yehudah Aryeh Leon Bibas (1782-1852).
I first encountered Bibas’s name in another excellent 1997 volume – Restoring the Jews to their Homeland: Nineteen Centuries in the Quest for Zion by Joseph Adler.  Adler, a writer who dealt in detail with the history of Zionism, devotes two paragraphs to Bibas and mostly focuses on Bibas’s struggle to modernize the Jewry of Corfu, Greece, where he served as rabbi of the community.
To his credit, however, Adler does discuss the emerging nationalism of Bibas. The author writes: “Deeply impressed by the upsurge of nationalism that he had witnessed among the peoples of the Balkans, Bibas felt that the time was now ripe for a Jewish nationalist movement with Palestine as the final objective. He boldly proclaimed to all who would listen that Jews should learn to use arms so that, like the Greeks, they might take advantage of the nationalistic tide to regain sovereignty in the ancient homeland.”
Bibas envisioned a Jewish State in Israel even before the celebrated harbingers of modern Zionism – Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Communist Moses Hess. Bibas took a brave stance when the dream of Jews settling in the Land of Israel and attaining sovereignty would be deemed the ravings of a lunatic or a heretic. He advocated for study of Jewish and secular subjects among the Jews to lead to national revival. He couched his vision in traditionalist terms, as did his religious Zionists heirs. But he found few supporters in his lifetime for his grand plan.
Adler writes, “Worn out by his failure to convince his fellow Jews that a restoration in Palestine was possible,” Bibas made aliyah to Hebron in 1852 and died soon afterwards, as “a disillusioned man.”
As a student of Jewish history, Bibas would have remained a footnote to me – certainly in English – were it not for the recent work of Jay M. Shapiro. Shapiro, an oleh like Bibas, a physicist, translator, and radio commentator, recently published A Vision Shared: From Napoleon to Herzl. The book traces the predecessors of modern Zionism, including the forgotten rabbi from Corfu. For that alone, the work is of great value.
I would like to delve into Shapiro’s assessment of Bibas and the rabbi’s friendship with the celebrated proto-Zionist Yehudah Alkalai. While Joseph Adler’s short account is important, A Vision Shared includes much more detail regarding Rabbi Bibas’s life and mission.
In his introduction to the chapter on Bibas, Shapiro explains the failure to credit him: “Yehudah Aryeh Leon Bibas was a polymath – a talented, many-faceted person whose historic role as one of the forerunners of political Zionism has, until recently, not been given proper recognition. He is arguably one of the most important and least well known of those few individuals who conceived of some form of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land after seventeen hundred years of exile.”
Shapiro explains that this brilliant man’s writings were destroyed or disappeared. His wife and sons died during his lifetime and no direct descendants could convey the information of his remarkable life and career. Rabbi Bibas influenced the far-more well-known Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai of Serbia. But as Shapiro notes, the younger rabbi described his elder as “a scholar, inspiring personality, familiar with Jewish law and philosophy, general philosophy and knowledge, and conservative in his approach to Jewish tradition.”
Bibas was not only a poet and halakhist. He held a doctorate from an Italian university, and was a superb orator in English, Italian and French. This was critical to the attempts of Babis to spread his ideas throughout Europe. That he, on the surface, failed was likely the result that he was too far ahead of his time.
Bibas, a Sephardic Jew who could trace his ancestry to the Jews expelled in 1492, served as rabbi of Corfu. The island was a center for trade and the exchange of ideas.  Most of its inhabitants were Greek, and their bid for independence from Ottoman Turkey impressed the rabbi. Shapiro conveys the disgust of his subject with the Jewish situation in exile – it was a chilul Hashem, a desecration of the Holy Name of God. In his travels, Bibas met many Jews and non-Jews, including rabbis, statesmen, clergymen and missionaries. Shapiro does fine work recreating many of the meetings, the most important that with Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai in Serbia in July 1839.
By this time, Bibas had retired as rabbi of Corfu and was dedicating his time and resources to his mission for the Jewish people. In the conversation between the two Zionist visionaries, Bibas based much of his argument to convince Alkalai by citing the work of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), the groundbreaking rabbi and scholar who presided over the aliyah of numbers of his followers. The younger rabbi was convinced that Bibas was on to something but he had to think about it before deciding. The result concluded with Alkalai becoming a fervent advocate of the Jewish return to sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. Although Alkalai had already produced his Zionist tract Sh’ma Yisrael in 1832, there is no doubt that Bibas had a lasting influence on his fellow Sephardic rabbi. This meeting, along with the later Damascus Blood Libel in 1840, solidified Alkalai’s vision and plan.
While Shapiro gives credit to historians, especially those writing in Hebrew, for illuminating the life and career of Yehudah Arye Leon Bibas, his contribution to our understanding of this forgotten visionary is a great service to an audience reading in English. Rabbi Bibas will no longer be forgotten.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.