In memory of
on the 70th anniversary
of his reburial in Israel,
August 17, 2019.
Theodor Herzl died on July 3, 1904, and was buried in Vienna. He wrote in his will that he should be buried next to his father in Vienna “until the day when the Jewish people transfer my remains to Palestine”. His wish was fulfilled 70 years ago, when he was reburied on Mount Herzl on August 17, 1949. This month, in lieu of a responsum, I am republishing my article “Moses and Herzl” which originally appeared in Conservative Judaism 47/1 (Fall 1994), pp. 39-49 and in revised form in my book Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, second series, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 151-166. Yehi zikhro barukh! May Herzl’s vision and memory continue to inspire us! DG
Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925) was a popular Jewish artist and illustrator at the turn of the twentieth century. He was also an ardent Zionist who corresponded with Theodor Herzl, attended the Zionist Congresses and even took the famous photo of Herzl on the Basel Bridge.(2)
In 1908, four years after Herzl died, Lilien was commissioned to illustrate a Lutheran bible containing the Old and New Testaments.(3) In it, Herzl was Lilien’s favorite model. Lilien used Herzl as a model for an angel (three times), Jacob, Aaron (twice), Joshua, David or Solomon, and Hizkiya.(4) In addition, Lilien used Herzl as his model for Moses. That bible contains an illustration in which Moses/Herzl is kneeling on one knee at the burning bush (see header image).(5) It also contains a dramatic illustration of Moses/Herzl breaking the Tablets of the Law on Mt. Sinai (Figure 2).(6) In another illustration, Moses/Herzl hovers between heaven and earth, wearing an Assyrian-looking head covering, engulfed in a Christian-style halo and holding the Ten Commandments (figure 3).(7) Finally, Lilien also designed a stained glass window for the Bnai Brith of Hamburg in which Moses has the face of Herzl (Figure 4).(8)
More importantly, on at least two occasions, Herzl himself thought he was somehow connected to Moses. Half a year before his death, Herzl told Reuven Brainin the following story.(9) At about the age of twelve, Herzl had read somewhere in a German book about the Messiah who would come riding on a white ass in order to redeem the Jewish people. A little while later, he had the following dream:
The King-Messiah came, a glorious and majestic old man, took me in his arms, and swept off with me on the wings of the wind. On one of the iridescent clouds, we encountered the figure of Moses. The features were those familiar to me out of my childhood in the statue of Michelangelo. The Messiah called to Moses: “It is for this child that I have prayed.”(10) But to me he said: “Go, declare to the Jews that I shall come soon and perform great wonders and great deeds for my people and for the whole world.” (11)
At a later point in his life, Herzl seems to have identified with Moses in a much more direct fashion. In March of 1898, already feeling the financial and physical strain of his Zionist activities, Herzl put down the outline of a biblical drama, “Moses”. He envisioned Moses as a great, powerful figure, filled with the strength of life and the spirit of humor. The drama is to show how he becomes inwardly grim, while retaining his will to the full. He is the leader because he does not want to be it. Everything is swayed to his will because he has no personal desires. His aim is not the fulfillment, but the wandering… Aging, he encounters and recognizes Korah [and] the golden calf, the eternal characteristics of slaves. All these things weary him, and yet he must urge the others forever forward with fresh energy. It is the tragedy of a leader of men who is not a misleader… (12)
It does not require a psychoanalyst to determine that Herzl is really talking about himself.
Lastly, we have the reaction of his contemporaries. Chief Rabbi Moritz Gudemann of Vienna also compared Herzl to Moses. On August 17, 1895 Herzl read him the first draft of his “Address to the Rothschilds” which later became The Jewish State. That evening, Gudemann said to Herzl:
“It is as if I saw Moses in the flesh…Continue to be that which you are. Perhaps you are the one who has been called by God?” And he kissed him. (13)
Yet even without this contemporary evidence, a careful reading of the respective biographies of Moses and Herzl yields a series of striking parallels between them in terms of education, character, plans and ultimate success.
Let us begin with the age at which they became involved with the “Jewish Problem”. According to one well-known midrash, Moses was forty years old when he revealed himself to his oppressed people.(14) Similarly, Theodore Herzl was 35 years old in June of 1895 when he went to lay his proposal for a Jewish state before Baron Maurice de Hirsch.(15)
Moses was brought up in the house of Pharaoh (Exodus 2:10). We tend to think of him as an observant Jew, but this, of course, is an anachronism. In truth he must have been quite assimilated. His name Moses is a typical Egyptian name.(16) Moses must have also looked like an Egyptian, because when he saved Jethro’s daughters from the Midianite shepherds, they went home and told their father: “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds” (Exodus 2:19). Furthermore, when his second son was born, he neglected to circumcise him, with almost disastrous results (Exodus 4:24-26 and Rashi ad. loc.). Lastly, the New Testament reports that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22).(17)
Herzl was not brought up in the house of Pharaoh, but he too grew up in an atmosphere far from Jewish tradition. Although he attended the Liberal synagogue across the street from his home in Budapest and had his Bar Mitzvah there, his parents were quite assimilated and German culture was clearly much more important to them than Jewish culture.(18)
Given their backgrounds, there was no logical reason for Moses and Herzl to become involved with the plight of their people. Moses could have continued to live a coddled life in the house of Pharaoh, while Herzl could have continued his successful career as the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna. What sparked their involvement in the “Jewish problem”? What made them return to the Jewish fold with a vengeance? It appears that they both had an innate hatred of injustice and an innate desire to help the downtrodden.
The story of Moses’s leaving the House of Pharaoh is encapsulated in seven verses (Exodus 2:11-17), yet in those seven verses he manages to get involved in three fights which were none of his business. First he intervenes when an Egyptian is beating a Hebrew (v. 11-12). Then he gets involved when a Hebrew is fighting with another Hebrew (v. 13-14) and, finally, he saves the Midianite daughters of Jethro from other Midianites (v. 15-17). In other words, Moses was a man who could not bear the sight of injustice. He could not sit on the sidelines. When one human being – whether Jew or Gentile – mistreated another, he had to get involved. As Ahad Ha’am so eloquently stated:
The Prophet has two fundamental qualities which distinguish him from the rest of mankind. First he is a man of truth… Secondly, the Prophet is an extremist.. From these two fundamental characteristics there results a third, which is a combination of the other two: namely, the supremacy of absolute righteousness in the Prophet’s soul, in his every word and action…
When Moses first leaves the schoolroom and goes out into the world, he is at once brought face to face with a violation of justice and, unhesitatingly, he takes the side of the injured. Here, at the outset, is revealed the eternal struggle between the Prophet and the world…
Then “two Hebrews strove together”… Once more the Prophet’s sense of justice compels him, and he meddles in a quarrel which is not his… [He is forced to flee to Midian.] … before he has had time to find a friend and shelter, he hears once more the cry of outraged justice, and runs immediately to its aid. This time the wranglers are not Hebrews, but foreigners and strangers. But what of that? The Prophet makes no distinction between man and man, only between right and wrong. He sees strong shepherds trampling on the rights of weak women – “and Moses stood up and saved them”.(19)
And what of Herzl; what triggered his involvement in the Jewish problem? It is true that beginning in 1892 he became more and more interested in the plight of his people and dealt with anti-Semitism in his letters, in his newspaper reports and in his play The Ghetto.(20) But in 1893 he still believed that the real and definitive solution could only lie in the complete disappearance of the Jews through baptism and intermarriage.(21) The spark that ignited his Zionism and propelled him to write The Jewish State was the public degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on January 5, 1895. Herzl was present at that event in his capacity as a reporter and he heard the mob shout “A mort les Juifs!” – “Death to the Jews!”. Like Moses, he could not bear the sight of injustice, especially of injustice against an innocent Jew. As one of his biographers writes,
the ghastly spectacle of that winter morning must have shaken him to the depths of his being. It was as if the ground had been cut away from under his feet. In this sense, Herzl could say later that the Dreyfus affair had made him a Zionist.(22)
Moses’s plan was very simple: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go…” (Exodus 5:1).(23) At God’s behest, he wanted to take the Jewish people out of slavery, and lead them to Eretz Yisrael. Herzl had a similar plan. He wrote in his “Address to the Rothschilds” in 1895: “This simple old idea is the Exodus from Egypt.”(24) When he went to see Baron Maurice de Hirsch in June 1895, he said to him:
… I will say to the German Kaiser: Let us go forth. We are aliens here, they do not let us dissolve into the population, and if they let us, we would not do it. Let us go forth!…(25)
And he later wrote in his diary: “I pick up once again the torn thread of the tradition of our people. I lead it into the Promised Land.”(26)
The Reaction of the Jewish People
When Moses and Aaron went to visit Pharaoh for the first time, they were rebuffed. Instead of freeing the People of Israel to celebrate a festival in the wilderness, Pharaoh cracked down on them. From now on, their quota of bricks would remain the same, but they would have to gather the straw themselves. The Israelite foremen took out their wrath on Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us objectionable to Pharoah and his courtiers – putting a sword in their hands to slay us” (Exodus 5:21). In other words, they had a typical slave mentality: stay out of trouble and you’ll survive. Later on, Moses tells his people about God’s promise of deliverance. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by bondage” (Exodus 6:9).
Herzl, too, was initially rejected by the Jewish people. On June 2, 1895 he went to see Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the richest men of his time and the founder of the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) which had already colonized 3,000 Jews in Argentina. Baron de Hirsch cut Herzl off in the middle of the conversation.(27) Herzl then wrote in his diary a sixty-five page pamphlet entitled “Address to the Rothschilds”. He decided to read it to his friend Schiff. When Herzl finished, he asked Schiff for his reaction. Schiff replied that he considered the plan the product of an over-strained mind and he urgently advised Herzl to take a rest and seek medical treatment.(28)
Later, Herzl read his “Address” to Chief Rabbi Moritz Gudemann of Vienna and Heinrich Meyer-Cohen, a Zionist from Berlin. Meyer-Cohen expressed sharp opposition and declared the entire plan “a Utopia of the fantasy”. Gudemann was at first taken with the plan, as noted above,(29) but he soon changed his mind and published an article decrying the “Kuckucksei” (cuckooness) of Jewish nationalism.(30)
In November 1895, Herzl went to Paris to see Narcisse Leven, general secretary of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, and Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn.(31) They too rejected his plan.
Finally, Herzl published the revised version of his “Address” under the title Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in February of 1896. Stefan Zweig later recalled the reaction of the Jewish middle class of Vienna:
I can still remember the general astonishment and annoyance of the middle class Jewish elements of Vienna. What has happened, they said angrily, to the otherwise intelligent, witty and cultivated writer? What foolishness is this that he has thought up and writes about? Why should we go to Palestine? Our language is German and not Hebrew, and beautiful Austria is our homeland…Why does he, who speaks as a Jew and who wishes to help Judaism, place arguments in the hands of our worst enemies and attempt to separate us, when every day brings us more closely and intimately into the German world? (32)
This reaction sounds familiar. The reaction of the Jews of Vienna to Herzl is almost a paraphrase of the reaction of the Israelites to Moses 3,000 years earlier!
Hesitation and Doubts
Both Moses and Herzl were, at first, taken aback by the opposition of the very people whom they had come to save. After being berated by the Israelite taskmasters, Moses turns to God and says: “O Lord, why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, it has gone worse with this people; yet you have not delivered your people at all” (Exodus 5:22-23). And again in the next chapter, when the Israelites refuse to listen to Moses, he turns to God and says: “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12)
Herzl, too, was devastated by the reaction of his friend Schiff. On the very next day, he wrote a letter to Baron de Hirsch:
My last letter calls for a conclusion. Here it is: I have given the whole thing up. There is no helping the Jews for the time being. If someone were to show them the Promised Land, they would treat him with contempt. They are disintegrated. And yet I know where salvation lies: in us!…But we shall have to descend deeper, we shall have to fall lower, we shall have to endure more insult…before we become ripe for the idea…We have not yet reached the right degree of despair. That is why the savior will be greeted with laughter.(33)
Of course, from an objective point of view, both the Israelites and Schiff were absolutely correct: Moses and Herzl were insane. Moses had no army and no weapons – he barely had a people – and yet he appeared before Pharaoh, the greatest monarch of his day, and demanded: “Let my people go!” What unmitigated chutzpah! There was no reason for him to succeed and, yet, succeed he did.
Herzl was just as insane. He traveled to Constantinople in June of 1896. The Sultan at that time owed Turkey’s creditors the incredible sum of 106 million pounds. Herzl let it be known that if the Jews were given Palestine as an independent state, they would undertake the regulation and normalization of Turkish finances and liberate the country from foreign control.(34) There was only one hitch – Herzl did not have a penny in his pocket nor did he have the backing of Hirsch or the Rothschilds or Montagu who could have financed the scheme. Again, what chutzpah, and again he succeeded nonetheless.
The Personal Price
Moses and Herzl both succeeded. Their crazy dreams became reality. Moses took a group of slaves, made them a people and brought them to the threshold of their own land – all in the course of forty years. Herzl took a people scattered throughout the world for 1,800 years, reminded them that they had a land, and inspired them to return to it – all in the course of nine years.(35)
Yet they both paid a heavy price. Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land but not to enter it.(36) Herzl visited the Promised Land in 1898, but did not live to see his vision fulfilled. He burned himself out and died of heart disease in 1904 at the age of 44. On his deathbed he said: “Give them all my greetings, and tell them that I have given my heart’s blood for my people.”(37)
Why did they succeed?
We have no real way of knowing why Moses and Herzl succeeded in their impossible dreams. We can only hazard a guess. First of all, they both seem to have been handsome men with tremendous personal charm and charisma.
We, of course, do not have any portraits of Moses. But he was clearly very strong; he killed the Egyptian with one blow and he saved Jethro’s daughters from the shepherds (Exodus 2:11-17). A number of sources emphasize Moses’s physical beauty. Philo reports that “the child from his birth had an appearance of more than ordinary goodliness”. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him in the bullrushes, “she approved of his beauty and fine condition” and after he was weaned “he was noble and goodly to look upon”.(38) Josephus concurs(39) and he adds that
When he was three years old, God gave wondrous increase to his stature; and none was so indifferent to beauty as not, on seeing Moses, to be amazed at his comeliness. And it often happened that persons meeting him as he was borne along the highway turned, attracted by the child’s appearance, and neglected their serious affairs to gaze at leisure upon him…(40)
The Sages of the Talmud, however, were more interested in his spiritual characteristics:
… The Sages say: at the time when Moses was born, the entire house become filled with light. It is written here (Exodus 2:2) “And [his mother] saw that he was good ” and it is written there (Genesis 1:4) “And God saw the light that it was good ”.(41)
As for Herzl, we needn’t rely on oral and written traditions. One merely has to look at a photograph of him to be impressed by his physical beauty and amazing eyes. And indeed, his contemporaries made frequent reference to his striking appearance.(42)
But this could not have been the only reason for their success. After all, there have been many handsome and charismatic leaders who have failed in their chosen missions. There must, then, have been other, deeper reasons for their success. Ibn Ezra gives two such reasons for Moses’s success in his commentary to Exodus 2:3:
Perhaps God caused him to be raised in the royal house so that his soul would be on a higher plain through training and habit and not lowly and accustomed to being in the house of slaves…And another thing, because had he grown up among his brothers and had they known him from his youth, they would not have been afraid of him, for they would have related to him as one of them.
In other words, Moses succeeded because he grew up in Pharaoh’s house and absorbed there both self-confidence and nobility. Had he been brought up as a slave among his people, he would not have had the self-confidence necessary to defy Pharaoh. Furthermore, the Israelites paid attention to him and gave him more respect because he came to them from the outside. They must have thought: if Moses who grew up in the house of Pharaoh is willing to redeem us from slavery, we should at least give him a chance and listen to what he has to say.
These same two explanations fit Herzl to the tee. Since he grew up in an assimilated German-speaking household, he did not have many of the feelings of inferiority so common among East European Jews who were consistently persecuted and treated as second-class citizens. More importantly, he was particularly popular among East European Jews who couldn’t get over the fact that a successful, assimilated Viennese Jew had decided to devote his life to solving their problem. As Chaim Weizmann explained:
Fundamentally, The Jewish State contained not a single new idea for us… yet the effect produced by The Jewish State was profound. Not the ideas, but the personality which stood behind them appealed to us. Here was daring, clarity and energy. The very fact that this Westerner came to us unencumbered by our own preconceptions had its appeal.(43)
That is why the Jews of Sofia, East London, and especially Vilna came out to greet him in droves and hailed him as their “Lord and Leader” and “King”.(44)
Thus far we have seen that there are a number of striking parallels between Moshe Rabbeinu and Theodor Herzl. They both grew up and were educated in a non-Jewish or assimilated atmosphere and discovered the “Jewish Problem” relatively late in life. Their devotion to their people was sparked by their reaction to an act of injustice and cruelty. Their plan of returning the Jewish people to their land was almost identical. The initial reaction of the Jewish people and their initial discouragement were also very similar in nature. Both of them advocated a plan which was impractical and insane and yet both plans succeeded. But they both paid a heavy personal price for their efforts; their plans succeeded but they did not live to enjoy the fruit of their labors. Lastly, their success can be attributed to three factors: their appearance and charisma, their noble upbringing, and the fact that they were outsiders.
What lessons can we learn from the careers of Moses and Herzl? I believe there are three. The first is the power of one individual to change history. Without Moshe Rabbeinu we might still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. God sent Moses and God performed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, but without the human leadership of Moses neither Pharaoh nor the Jewish people would have listened. Similarly, without Theodor Herzl the Zionist movement and the State of Israel would never have come into being. Hovevei Tziyon and Rothschild would have continued their settlement work, but the massive waves of aliyah which led to the founding of the State of Israel might have never occurred.
Secondly, we tend to view the problems of the State of Israel as insurmountable: the Intifada, disengagement, the economy, unemployment, and the abysmal Jewish illiteracy of most Israelis. These are indeed daunting problems, but if Moses could take a group of slaves, turn them into a people and bring them to the threshold of the Promised Land and if Herzl could take a people scattered all over the world for 1,800 years and forge a national movement which led to the founding of the State of Israel – then we too can overcome our military, economic and spiritual problems.
The last lesson has to do with the miraculous events of the past few decades. We have witnessed the mass aliyah from Ethiopia and Russia of two Jewish communities who grew up “in the house of Pharaoh”, the one cut off from the Jewish people for hundreds of years, the other cut off from Jewish culture and observance for over seventy years. They too are returning to Israel and/or to Judaism in the middle of their lives. Some people have a tendency to make fun of their accents, or their lack of Jewish knowledge or their motives. They say: what can these Russian and Ethiopian immigrants possibly teach us?! My reply is: like Moses and Herzl, they can teach us plenty!
The Ethiopians can teach us what true Zionism is all about. They can teach us what true devotion is all about. Despite hundreds of years of persecution and social pressure, they clung fast to their Jewishness and to their love of Eretz Yisrael. They were willing to leave all of their worldly possessions behind in order to realize their dream of making aliyah. They can also teach us about politeness and gentleness. Israelis are known as Sabras – tough on the outside and soft on the inside. The Ethiopian Jews can teach us how to be soft on the outside as well.
The Russians, too, can have a huge impact on the State of Israel. They bring to Israel a rich legacy of art, music and culture which they are already sharing with us and thereby raising the cultural level of the entire State of Israel. Similarly, they bring with them a great love of math, science and engineering. They have the ability and the potential to raise the scientific and technological level of the entire country.
In other words, like Moses and Herzl before them, it is the outsiders who come to Israel from afar who have the ability to dream dreams and to work miracles. We can only hope and pray that it shall come to pass.
Bein = Alex Bein, Theodore Herzl: a Biography, Philadelphia, 1940
Bibel 1908 = Die Bucher der Bibel, Braunschweig, 1908 ff., illustrated by E. M. Lilien
Bibel 1912 = Die Bibel in Auswahl furs Haus, Braunschweig und Berlin, 1912, illustrated by E. M. Lilien
Diaries = The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, New York and London, 1960
Heyd = Milly Heyd, in: Gideon Shimoni and Robert Wistrich, eds. Theodor Herzl: Visionary of the Jewish State, Jerusalem and New York, 1999, pp. 265-293
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.