Was Herzl the Messiah? Thoughts on American Zionism Today

BY: Ayelet Mael.

Are we living during messianic times, the first inklings of Aharit ha-Yamim (the End of Days)? The Jewish people have returned to Israel and have worked to build it up, yet, at the same time, there are still countless imperfections to the modern Jewish state they established. Can Israel really be the Holy Land of which Jews have dreamed for centuries – a country that is currently rife with political corruption and is engaged in constant war? This question, which very much probes the minds of contemporary Jews, especially those who are considering making aliyyah, has a conceptual precedent in another debate that ensued a century ago: was Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism and the one who paved the way for the establishment of the Jewish state, the Messiah?

At first glance, the very notion that Herzl could be the Messiah seems preposterous. How can one suggest that an assimilated, non-observant Jew like him could possibly fill the role of the Jewish Messiah, a character who usually elicits images of an old rebbe, a great talmid hakham, or a prophet? In contrast to such images, research shows that Herzl probably decorated a Christmas tree every year in his home, never circumcised his only son, urged his children to recite Christian prayers at night, and even offered the Roman ruler to convert all Jews to Christianity in exchange for an end to anti-Semitism.[i] Could this really have been the Messiah that Jews have dreamed of for centuries?

At the same time, if we take a look at the time period in which Herzl lived, it is clear that a great number of Jews worldwide, having long suffered under the terrible conditions of the ghetto, viewed him as the Messiah, especially after the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, Moldova, which claimed the lives of many Jews.[ii] For instance, when Herzl visited Vienna in 1903, people called out to him in the streets as “the King of the Jews,” and the police had to intervene in order to prevent public disorder caused by the excited crowds.[iii] Similarly, in America, Rabbi N. Benjamin, on behalf of a group of cantors, wrote in a letter to Herzl: “You are the divine emissary to whom was given the mission of once again raising up Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, as the prophets promised.”[iv] When Herzl traveled to the Israeli city of Rehovot, two leaders of Sefaradi groups fell on their knees before him, blessed him, and bowed while reciting: “This is what you should do to the Mashiah ben Yosef.”[v] Lastly, when Herzl stood before the Jewish community in Sofia, Bulgaria, he was trying to figure out how to face the congregation without turning his back on the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). One community member called out: “It’s all right for you to turn your back on the Ark; you are holier than the Torah.”[vi]

Specifically after the First Zionist Congress, many Jews who had previously negated Herzl’s messianic qualities began to recognize his significance. For others who had believed in him all along, the First Zionist Congress was a crucial turning point that strongly solidified their faith in Herzl as the Messiah. The sentiment was verbalized by David Ben-Gurion, who later reminisced that when he was 10 years old, around the time of the First Zionist Congress, “a rumor spread that the Messiah had arrived – a tall, handsome man – a ‘doctor,’ no less – Dr. Herzl.”[vii] Similarly, Mordechai Ben-Ami, a Zionist journalist, reported from the Congress: “It seemed as if the great dream cherished by our people for two thousand years had come true at last, and Messiah, the son of David, was standing before us.”[viii]

Although Herzl never stood on a platform and declared himself to be the Messiah, he was well aware that some, including the Chief Rabbi in Sofia, thought of him as such,[ix] that many people had positively compared him to other messianic figures like Shabbetai Tsevi, and that many Jewish communities believed that he would bring about the final redemption. In an effort to avoid as much as possible being labeled as the Messiah, Herzl took precautions not to ride on a donkey or a white horse while he was in Israel.[x] Yet, over time, Herzl began to wonder if the rumors about him were in fact true and he grappled with his possible messianic identity. In one cryptic line, he writes: “Our people believe that I am the Messiah,” but “I myself do not know this, for I am no theologian.”[xi] Moreover, a few months before his death, Herzl reported in his diary[xii] that when he was twelve years old, he would dream about the Messiah at night. In one of his dreams, he recalled that the Messiah carried him on his shoulders and when they passed a cloud of Moses, the Messiah said: “This is the child that you prayed for.” The Messiah and Moses then turned to Herzl and commanded him to tell the Jews: “Soon I will come and show my greatness and wonders to the whole nation and the entire world.” This dream suggests that Herzl possibly viewed himself as the messenger of the Messiah.

After Herzl’s death in 1904, different segments of the Jewish community adopted three basic attitudes towards him: 1) they further aggrandized him as the Messiah, 2) they totally rejected him as the Messiah, or 3) they assumed him to be a precursor to the true Messiah. These three attitudes are still extant among Zionists today.

Attitude #1: Further Aggrandizement of Herzl as the Messiah

This approach was adopted by secular Zionism, which reinterpreted the classic, rabbinic figure of the Messiah and transformed him into a more temporal, political leader, devoid of religious significance, in order to apply the title more readily to Herzl. Secular Zionists fantasized about Herzl’s heroism, especially after his early death. However, today, secular Zionism is almost non-existent. The reason for this, as Ruth Bevan explains, is that “its objective of securing the state has been fulfilled.”[xiii] According to secular Zionists, there is no further significance to Herzl and to his messianic dream beyond the establishment of a Jewish state, and therefore his messianic role has been completed.

Attitude #2: Total Rejection of Herzl

Many rabbinic figures condemned Herzl’s supposed messianic significance during his lifetime and hoped that his death would prove to the masses that he was certainly not the Messiah. R. Elhanan Wasserman, a prominent rabbi in pre-World War II Europe, lamented that, unlike most false Messiahs whose fictitious identity surfaced after a few years, people continued to believe that Herzl was the Messiah long after his death.[xiv] R. Joseph Breuer stated that Herzl was a false Messiah and therefore could not bring even the first inklings of redemption, but could only postpone the coming of the real Messiah.[xv] Similarly, R. Yisrael from Kharkov, Ukraine, who was a leader of the Agudat Yisrael, continuously reiterated that there were many points throughout history that had the potential for redemption, but each time someone came and ruined everything – such as during the Second Temple period, Shabbetai Tsevi in the 17th century, and Theodor Herzl in the 19th-20th centuries.[xvi]

Attitude #3: Herzl as the Precursor to the True Messiah

R. Avraham Yitshak ha-Kohen Kook portrayed Herzl as the Mashiah ben Yosef, the precursor to the Mashiah ben David who is the true Messiah that Jews have dreamed of for millennia. In his view, the role of the initial Mashiah is to bring about a nationalist revival among the Jews. Having accomplished this, he would then die and the Davidic Messiah would complete the messianic vision. R. Kook believed that sometimes negativity must precede the good, so that Mashiah ben Yosef is the political Messiah who must pave the way for the religious Mashiah ben David.[xvii] In a similar vein, R. Yissakhar Teichthal in Em ha-Banim Semehah, explains that if a religious Messiah would rise up initially, there would be great opposition from the yetser ha-ra (evil inclination) and the celestial forces, convincing God that the Jewish people are not worthy of such a Messiah. However, if the beginnings of the messianic age are bleak and the eschatological era creeps up slowly, building itself up step by step, it will not be faced by that same opposition.[xviii]

The view that was developed by R. Kook understands Zionism as part of the process of redemption, a process in which God guides the course of history, empowering important figures like Balfour and Herzl and influencing the world community to allow for the establishment of a Jewish state. There is no doubt that it was God who precipitated this messianic era, working behind the scenes in a “natural” way to return us to our homeland; however, that is only the initial stage of redemption. The process also requires our involvement: we must cultivate and build the Jewish state physically, spiritually, and religiously. This version of Zionism glorified Herzl for infusing disinterested Jews with a sense of nationhood, by inspiring them to display commitment to the Jewish people and helping to further the redemptive process.

If we use the model of R. Kook, then we will realize that it is up to Jewry today to build upon Herzl’s work by cultivating the secular foundations of Israel and then infuse them with religious significance. It is we who can become active partners in the process of redemption, raising ourselves from the current stage of Mashiah ben Yosef to the ultimate stage of the Davidic Messiah.

And if we conceive of the history of Zionism and the State in this way, we can better understand the role of American Jewry within the redemptive process. In many yeshivah day schools, students are imparted with the message that Israel is important, and so they attend the annual Salute to Israel Day Parade, say Tehillim for IDF soldiers after Shaharit, and participate in occasional rallies at the United Nations. However, having personally attended such institutions, I know that teachers in America cannot truly impose on students the duty to live in Israel, as that would be inherently hypocritical. When confronted, many American educators will reasonably explain that their current tafkid (mission) is in America. While one may agree or disagree with such statements, the reality remains that it is almost impossible for American teachers to infuse within their students a desire to make aliyyah because they have not made aliyyah themselves. Some schools have therefore opted to include shelihim (emissaries) from Israel and benot sheirut (women in Israeli national service) on their faculty or to encourage their students to participate in Bnei Akiva programs that promote aliyyah. However, American students sometimes cannot fully relate to the Israeli figures. Therefore, while a love of Israel is usually within the purview of American students, for many, it is only while studying in yeshivot and seminaries there that they begin to feel passionate about making aliyyah.

While the question of aliyyah is certainly an independent decision that each individual must struggle with, it is incumbent upon all to think about our current state as a nation. Are we living during messianic times? Do we have a duty to contribute to bringing about the next stage of the ultimate redemption? There is no doubt that aliyyah comes with many challenges – leaving one’s family and friends, settling for a lower paycheck, and living in a place where one may not understand the radio because the news reporter speaks Hebrew too quickly. And so, aliyyah may not be right for everyone. But there is something that we all can and should do – intensify our prayers, give philanthropically, attend rallies, lobby in Washington, or even just show that we care. Apathy is simply not an option.

It is hard to deny that we are living during a critical period in Jewish history. Even if the situation in Israel is not perfect, it is certainly a start in the right direction. And with that, one must ask, “What is my role within the larger scheme of this eschatological era?”

Ayelet Mael is a second-year student at BRGS majoring in Modern Jewish History.


[i] Iosef Nedavà, “Herzl and Messianism,” Herzl Yearbook 7 (1971): 9-26, at p. 9.

[ii] Shlomo Eidelberg, “Theodor Herzl: From Vision to Reality,” in Theodor Herzl: If You Will It, It is Not a Dream (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 1997), pp. 11-25, at p. 20.

[iii] Nedavà, p. 11.

[iv] Quoted in ibid., pp. 18-19.

[v] Benjamin Salomon Hamburger, Meshihei ha-Sheker u-Mitnaggedeihem (Benei Berak: Mekhon Moreshet Ashkenaz, 1989), pp. 331-332.

[vi] Nedavà, p. 19.

[vii] Quoted in ibid., pp. 10-11.

[viii] Quoted in ibid., pp. 17-18.

[ix] Ibid., p. 17.

[x] Hamburger, p. 327.

[xi] Nedavà, p. 26.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 10-12; Hamburger, p. 327. Original source: The Complete Diaries of Theodore Herzl, ed. by Raphael Patai, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Herzl Press, 1960), entry from Dec. 25, 1903.

[xiii] Ruth Bevan, “Theodor Herzl: A Zionist Leader,” in Theodor Herzl: If You Will It, It is Not a Dream (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 1997), pp. 27-35, at p. 34.

[xiv] Hamburger, p. 341.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Lionel Kochan, Jews, Idols, and Messiahs: The Challenge from History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 186-189.

[xviii] Yissakhar Teichthal, Em ha-Banim Semehah (Mevaseret Tsiyyon, Israel: Kol Mevaser Pubications, 1998), pp. 132-140.