Moses Hess as a Prophet of Spiritual Zionism: The Origins of Messianic Jewish Humanism

Ron Margolin. Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas & Experience. Volume 38, Issue 1. February 2018.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Moses Hess’s humanistic-socialist messianism was a source of inspiration for a series of Jewish thinkers and leaders, of whom Martin Buber is perhaps the most outstanding. Others, however, especially among the leaders of the Israeli labor movement, who did not delve as deeply into Hess’s thought as Buber had, also identified with his vision. Echoes of his formulation can be heard in the worldview of the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and in his notion of Israel as a Paragon State. Ben-Gurion wrote on September 6th, 1954:

The creator of the Zionist organization was not involved in the nation’s tradition or the literature of his nation, but with the deep intuition of a historical visionary, Herzl understood that the State of the Jews to be established would be obliged to serve as paragon state. And just as Herzl did not create the idea of a Jewish State, he also did not create the idea of a paragon state. He was preceded in the 19th century by Moshe Hess, who was among the first German socialists. But even Hess was not the first. Three hundred years ago, this idea was expressed by the greatest of Jewish philosophers …. In his book on Biblical criticism and political theory, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza expressed with absolute confidence that the Jewish nation would establish again its state, and God would choose it anew. The meaning of Spinoza is clear: with the renewal of its national independence, the Jewish nation would again become a chosen nation, a guide for the world.

Spinoza explains in the third chapter of Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that the idea of Election in the Bible refers not to some innate ethical superiority but to the external economic and security achievements of the present or future Jewish State, what he calls “their polity and material interests.” There is no doubt that Ben-Gurion identified with Spinoza’s piercing criticism of Election as some innate Jewish national superiority of understanding and true virtue. But Ben-Gurion’s claim that Spinoza augured the establishment of a paragon state in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus does not appear in the text, and if so, only obliquely.

Contrary to what Ben-Gurion thought, the notion of a paragon state originated not with Spinoza but with Hess himself. Hess, who was an admirer of Spinoza, connected Spinoza’s prediction of the Jewish nation’s return to its homeland with his own social-ethical ideal. It was in the light of this linkage that Hess understood the messianic idea. This element has almost disappeared from contemporary Zionism. In this article, I would like to study Hess’s idea of Jewish nationalism as humanistic messianism, its origins and his contemporary sources of inspiration.

Moses Hess and the Zionist Movement

Writing about Moses Hess’s book, Rome and Jerusalem, published in Leipzig in 1862, Theodor Herzl declared in a 1901 diary entry: “All that we attempted to write already appears in it …. it is splendid what is in [Hess’s book] from nationalistic Spinozic-Jewish origin. Since the days of Spinoza, Judaism has not given birth to a spirit greater than Moshe Hess, something which has become faded and forgotten.” Following this, Hess was seen to be one of the three “forerunners of Zionism.” Shlomo Na’aman argues, however, that the subtitle of Hess’s book in the original German edition—”The Last Nationalist Question”—is merely tactical. “As a movement, [Hess] was interested only in social-democracy. While, for every Zionist, the attainment of territory as a basis for the establishment of national life shunted aside every secondary issue, Hess thought differently. In this sense, he was not a political Zionist, nor a ‘forerunner of Zionism’.”

Na’aman’s opposition to identifying Hess as a forerunner of political Zionism aroused the ire of some Israeli scholars. Na’aman’s most prominent challenger, Shlomo Avineri, writes, “Although Hess did not directly influence the fathers of Zionist thought—who were not familiar with his writings—Rome and Jerusalem encapsulates modern Zionist elements, and especially those of socialist Zionism. Upon the rediscovery of Hess, at the beginning of the current century, his ideas were appropriated by Zionism.” Avineri asserts (to a great degree following Buber in his Hebrew introduction to Rome and Jerusalem) that Hess’s socialist thought had been anchored in Jewish thought since his youth. Na’aman and Avineri differ significantly in their understanding of the relationship between Hess’s socialist activity and his Jewish nationalist writing, and, no less, between Hess’s nationalism and the political Zionism founded by Herzl.

Na’aman identifies Hess’s first biographer, Theodor Zlocisti (1874-1943), one of the leading young Zionists in Germany, a physician, and a member of the Tel Aviv city council and executive in the 1920s, as the individual mainly responsible for naming Hess a “forerunner of Zionism.” Na’aman writes: “Zlocisti did much to present Moses Hess as being the property of Zionism.” Na’aman ends his article stating:

The emphasis that Hess himself placed on the unity of the socialist and Zionist aspirations resolved [the enigma of his turning to the German workers’ movement shortly after the publication of Rome and Jerusalem]. Only the [characterization of Hess as] proto-Zionist, the forerunner of Zionism, presumably became impossible. Hess was a nationalist Jew, with a strong attachment to the Land of Israel. It would be preferable to leave the classification of this type of nationalism for future generations.

Although Zlocisti’s writing was undoubtedly motivated by his own profound Zionism, and Hess’s later researchers Silberner and Na’aman present a broader picture with their more removed historical perspective, further study of Zlocisti’s book reveals among his pages a more complex picture of the nature of Hess’s nationalism. For Zlocisti, Hess was the forerunner of the central spiritual idea that Ahad ha-Am had presented as an alternative to Herzl’s maximalist political conception, and that had brought about heated disagreement at the start of political Zionism and the establishment of an opposition to Herzl. Zlocisti declared in his 1905 biography of Hess: “We already know that the program of the gradual settlement of the Land of Israel that Hess imagined states that not all the Jews must leave their places of residence and move to the Land of Israel. Rather, they all must feel affection for the idea of the settlement, and work together for its realization.”

Zlocisti based this on Hess’s critique of the first chapter of an unfinished book about Political Christianity by Gustave d’Eichtal. The name of this chapter was: “The Great Three Peoples of the Mediterranean and Christianity.

Hess’s idea of a central spiritual element of the Hebrew people in the Land of Israel yielded excellent results: it was current in the Hebrew press in Eastern Europe, and Ahad ha-Am improved, interpreted, and explained this in his doctrine of spiritual Zionism […] the Land of Israel settlement must provide a basis for and prepare the spiritual center. Hess did not desire a settlement that would go in the ways of perverseness, nor one that would be built in secret, rather, “our desire to create a basis for a politico-socialist settlement must be publicly announced.”

Theodor Zlocisti was a delegate to the First Zionist Congress and, together with Shmarya Levin, Martin Buber, and others, established the Vereinigung Judischer Studenten, the union of Zionist student organizations in German universities. He was obviously aware of the controversy aroused by Ahad ha-Am’s criticism of the Congress. We can only wonder at Na’aman’s disregard of Zlocisti’s claim about the conceptual affinity between Hess and Ahad ha-Am, especially given that Zlocisti’s 1905 book was published only nine years after the eruption of the fierce controversy between Ahad ha-Am, Herzl and Nordau.

Furthermore, a close reading of Na’aman’s article about how Hess interprets his ideas in Rome and Jerusalem supports Zlocisti’s understanding of the similarity between Hess’s ideas and the spiritual Zionism of Ahad ha-Am. Na’aman asserts that, according to Hess, the Bible and the Talmud are singular creations of the Jewish People’s culture, not a manifestation of a supernatural (that is, religious) spirit. It was the people, he maintained, who created this culture, and the people who would alter its values as needed, once they could enact its laws in its spirit after their restoration to their land.

Na’aman based his arguments on a study of the unusual series of articles that Hess published in 1862 to clarify his views in response to Leopold Loew’s critique of Rome and Jerusalem. Leopold (Leibush) Loew (1811-1875) was a rabbi and scholar, editor of the Ben-Chananya periodical, and one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Hungary. Loew, however, was one of the few individuals who thought highly of Rome and Jerusalem, and within his sympathetic review of the book, critiqued Hess’s messianic conception. In my view, Na’aman’s claim, in the Hebrew edition of his article, that Hess’s conception of Judaism was completely refuted by his contemporaries of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, as reflected in Loew’s critique of Rome and Jerusalem, cannot stand.

Na’aman saw Loew as an outstanding representative of the Jewish scholarship prevalent during his and Hess’s times. Na’aman writes, “In Rome and Jerusalem Hess speaks conceitedly and arrogantly against the assimilated Jews, but in a dispute with one opponent who saw fit to argue with him [Loew], the basic weakness of his arguments is revealed. Hess is strong in monologue, but weak in dialogue.” Na’aman’s forceful claim of Loew’s disparaging attitude, however, is groundless. After Hess published a full response to Loew’s critique in his journal, Ben-Chananya, Loew wrote Hess a laudatory letter expressing his and his family’s deep appreciation for Rome and Jerusalem. He evidently deemed his criticism to be marginal and found Hess’s response fitting.

Is there no basis for the messianic-humanism that Hess championed for Zionism among his scholarly contemporaries in the Wissenschaft des Judentums? To help address this issue, let us begin by re-examining the writings and correspondence of Loew and Hess.

Hess’s Understanding of Judaism as Ethical Messianism

In his review and interpretation of Rome and Jerusalem, Hess returns to his two basic principles: (1) Judaism is a national, not merely religious, affiliation; (2) messianic belief that strives for national and universal social justice sits at the heart of the Jewish faith.

We Jews … have always borne with us, from the beginning of history, our belief in the advent of the Messiah. It is inherent in our Sabbath, that expresses the belief that the Sabbath of history will come together with it, just as it already brought with it the history of nature in the past, and thus history will attain harmonic perfection, as nature. The Sabbath is the end-purpose of the entire story of the act of Creation. He [Hess quotes himself] said: when the creation of nature was complete with the creation of man, the supreme act of nature, the Creator celebrated the Sabbath of nature. Only then began the labor of the social world, which will celebrate the labor of its completion in the messianic era.

Identifying Judaism as a historical religion, in contrast with the pagan religions of nature, originated in the writings of the most important Jewish historian of his day, Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), in his famous essay on the structure of Jewish history. Graetz writes:

Judaism is not a religion of the present, but of the future. As its patriarchs once lived in a world of promises and viewed their contemporary circumstances merely as a preparation for the future of their progeny, so Judaism struggles towards a present which it currently lacks. Aware of this imperfectness and the corresponding ineffectiveness, Judaism looks back to the burning bush of Sinai and forward to the time envisioned by the prophets, when the knowledge of God, justice, and happiness will unite all men in brotherhood.

Hess, who was very close with Graetz and mentions his History of the Jews in the introduction to Rome and Jerusalem, as a source of inspiration, directly develops this argument: historical religion is one that assumes a beginning—Creation—and an end, namely, the messianic era as the end of the historical process. This structure of Judaism as a historical religion corresponds with Hess’s perception of socialism as the end of the developmental process of human history. Hess further sharpens his conception of Jewish messianism in his response to Loew:

Other peoples, who at the end of a protracted historical process could adopt for themselves some of the idea of justice and humanism that is the apple of the eye of the Israelite historical religion, are capable of realizing this idea in life. Not so the Jews …. who already in ancient times had fashioned their form of life as a people, to the extent that this was permitted by labor and transportation conditions (that were still undeveloped at that time), in accordance with the principles of the Mosaic faith, that is, socialistic ones, are incapable of resolving this problem. How could you think to demand for all the other peoples the right to have faith in a new humanitarian creation, which is the Jewish belief in the messianic age, but refuse to grant this right to the Jewish people?

Thus, for Hess, the Jewish belief in the messianic era meant the hope for a just and humane world in which the socialist ideas conceived by Hess and his followers, the fashioners of the communist idea, would come to fruition. These notions included the negation of private property and the just distribution of economic capital among all people, as a direct response to the principles of the French Revolution.

In his review of Rome and Jerusalem, Loew casts doubt on the possibility of Jewish patriotism when no Jewish political institutions are capable of arousing such feelings. Hess responds:

Religion, philosophy, and politics do not attract me unless they are capable of bettering the condition of the working class by means of institutions that will put an end to all haughtiness or class affiliation of certain circles  to any class rule. But Judaism – any spirit of class affiliation and class rule is fundamentally foreign to it. The spirit of Judaism is, fundamentally and by its very nature, a social-democratic spirit. This is what I said: the spirit of Judaism is the spirit of the Jews. The root of the creativity of Judaism in the past, the present, and the future is not in Heaven, but in the heart and the spirit of the Israelite people. As long as this people had a shared ground [in the Land of Israel], on which it could develop its spirit out of freedom and without [foreign] degradations, it would realize this spirit in the institutions and literature that guaranteed the level of perfection that was universal [and not only particularistic] …. Nonetheless, I believe that specifically this spirit, when it will once again develop out of freedom on the soil of the patriarchs, will have the power to create new laws corresponding to the needs of the time and the nation …. But those, like the old values, will once again, as free creations of the spirit, directly influence all humankind.

In Hess’s view, the laws of the Bible attest that when the people dwelled in its land, it possessed the proper tools for realizing the vision of social justice that, according to Hess, reached its apex in the laws of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee, which mandated the release of slaves and the restoration of landholdings to their original owners every fifty years. For Hess, the reason for the observance of the commandments of the Torah, which originated in antiquity, was that in the future, when the state of the Jews would be reestablished, the laws of the past would serve as a basis and inspiration for the new legislation that would apply the biblical spirit of justice, in accordance with the conditions of the new time.

Where could Hess find contemporary scholarly support for his identification of Jewish messianic belief with the nineteenth-century socialism that he championed and perceived as the apex of human progress? Before I present the source of the inspiration that, in my estimation, has been overlooked by scholars who have explored this question, I wish to examine the problematic nature of this identification, and Hess’s familiarity with this source.

A review of the prayer book, especially those prayers which were composed after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, and especially those of the Amidah prayer that is recited three times daily, reveals immediately the traditional Jewish connection between the anticipated advent of the Messiah and the renewal of the Temple rite in Jerusalem. “Restore the service to the Holy of Holies in Your House, and accept in love and favor the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer. May the service of Your people Israel always find favor with You.” The supplication for the Messiah is also a request for a leader who will deliver his people, without specifying from what: “May the shoot of Your servant David soon flower, and may his pride be raised high by Your salvation, for we await Your salvation all day.” The petition for justice is formulated generally: “May You alone, Lord, reign over us with loving-kindness and compassion, and vindicate us in judgment.” The terms hesed (loving-kindness), mishpat (judgment or justice), and tzadkenu (vindicate us) can be understood in different ways, and their identification with the socialist vision is not obviously self-evident.

The meaning of the traditional Jewish messianic belief is the subject of scholarly debate, but even a cursory look at the prayer text suffices to indicate the problematic nature of Hess’s socialist ascription to traditional messianic yearnings. First, the actual use of the Jubilee year in Jewish history, beyond the realm of utopian vision, is very doubtful. More importantly, Hess’s treatment of the Jubilee year as central to Jewish thought, and as the source of messianic belief, is only one of many interpretations of this idea—and he knew it. Hess had more than a rudimentary knowledge of the Jewish sources: he was quite familiar with the prayer book and with a wide range of biblical laws, including the many laws of ritual and personal status, which were far removed from socialist thought.

In advocating for his altruistic socialism, Hess consciously pared off the cancellation of private ownership from other traditional elements of Jewish messianism, such as the renewal of the sacrifices, and the aspiration for the full realization of the Torah’s laws in eschatological time. By “revival” of Judaism, Hess referred only to the social dimension, not the ritual, though he expressed warm sentiments for Jewish rite embroidered by recollections of his grandfather’s house. On August 17, 1864, in Paris, Hess wrote to an unknown recipient (apparently Alphonse Peyrat, who had then written a critical history of the life of Jesus):

You, sir, like Mr. [Joseph] Salvador [who had written a book on Jesus and nascent Christianity], are more concerned with the religious mission of the Jewish people than its social mission. As for me, the religious question is entirely encompassed in the political and social question of the modern nationalities that are about to be resurrected … as Christianity changes its character. Christianity, in my opinion, was too exemplary an expression of the death of the ancient peoples, to attain the revival of the nationalities in our period, just as pagan Rome and the barbarians who preceded it were the negative side in the course of the [historical] events. Notwithstanding this, I do not refer—as you will understand by yourself—to a return to the national policy of antiquity, nor that the rite shall resemble that of the ancient peoples, the Israelites and the Greeks, and the like. If during antiquity the Israelites were not the sole inhabitants in their homeland, that David—the true founder of our political nation—expanded greatly beyond the territories of the tribes of Israel, then the new homeland will certainly not be inhabited only by Jews, who will first be obligated only to settle several regions of the early homeland, without having to care again for the Temple in Jerusalem. The rite is to be postponed to a later period, in which the hatred between the different religions shall cease: the Christian, the Mohammedan, and the Israelite. How so? This will be the activity of history, only the main elements of which I will mention in my letter.

Hess here equates the essence of Judaism with socialism and consciously marginalizes the traditional ritual elements. In his first book, Die heilige Geschichte der Menschheit (The Holy History of Mankind), discussed by Avineri, Hess also does not relate to the Judaism of his time or to the rite, but to the ideational essence innate in the Bible’s social legislation that culminated in the law of the Jubilee year. In Rome and Jerusalem, in which he first called for the restoration of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel, Hess took care to identify the Jewish messianic ideal with socialism and not with ritual, especially not with the renewal of the Temple service in Jerusalem and the content of the traditional prayers expressing sorrow for the destruction and the hope for a better future in the Land of Israel.

The Origins of Hess’s Identification of Judaism with Ethical Messianism

Shlomo Avineri and Michael Graetz question Hess’s sources for characterizing Judaism as an ethical messianic nationalist religion. Avineri thinks Hess’s main source was Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus:

[Hess’s] later adoption, in the 1860s, of an explicitly national program for Jewish survival and revival in Rome and Jerusalem should not then come as a surprise, despite its novelty. Its roots and intellectual lineaments are clearly visible in his early Holy History of Mankind: the social and the national were intertwined in his thought from the very beginning.

According to Avineri, Hess’s linking of a future humanism with the ideas of the French Revolution and the Bible’s moral laws are based on the ethical elements that Spinoza found in the biblical Jewish State and Mosaic code, which he perceived as the political constitution of the Hebrew people living in the Land of Israel. Even Avineri, however, concedes that the biblical demand for social justice that appears in Hess’s first book is almost absent from his second, and is not identical with the national-political nature of this idea in his third work, Rome and Jerusalem. Hess’s series of articles from the 1860s draw into sharper focus his conception expressed in Rome and Jerusalem that biblical law reflects principles of justice. The letters also highlight that the Judaism formulated in the late Second Temple period aspired to fully realize the principles of social justice and successfully preserved historical Judaism during the two millennia of Christianity and Diaspora that followed. The traditional Judaism with which Hess was raised until the age of fifteen in his grandfather’s and father’s homes championed the principles of social justice through observance of Torah laws and belief in the messianic renewal of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel. It devoted no extraordinary attention to the laws of Jubilee and Shemita. That is, Avineri provides only a partial explanation of Hess’s sources, because Hess’s nationalist shift identifies the spirit of the Bible with the principles of utopian social justice and equates contemporary halakhic Judaism with the socialist-humanistic vision. This is almost diametrically opposed to the perception of contemporary Judaism that Spinoza articulated in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Like Spinoza, the later Hess might have found no rationale for the traditional rite per se, but he justified the ritual religion of the Diaspora because it enabled Jews living beyond the Land of Israel to realize socialist principles in their communal life and maintain the messianic hope for a just world that would be fully realized when the people returned to its land and controlled its political life.

Michael Graetz discusses the French socialist circles of the 1850s that included individuals such as Ange M. F. Guépin (1805-1873), Constantin Pecqueur (1801-1887), and even Pierre Leroux (1797-1871), who adopted a more sympathetic attitude to the socialist elements of biblical Judaism. Despite their positive attitude, they did not abandon their view of Christianity as constituting a higher stage in humankind’s progress toward realizing the revolution of modern socialism. This catalyzed Hess’s return to Judaism and his argument that it represented the most faithful articulation of the socialist vision. Graetz writes:

… the turning point was the profound impression created when Hess, an educated Jew, came into contact with a group of gentile messianic seekers who allowed him to feel total participation and belonging, thanks to their apparently common socialist vision of salvation. This sense of belonging contributed to Hess’s universalist orientation that was not shaken even when the ancient Christian-Jewish antagonism reared its head. However, when his utopian friends redefined Jesus as a social radical, the first socialist in history, Hess recoiled and reacted by formulating a world view in which Judaism had a past, present, and future. In response to the Christian particularism of his friends, Hess adopted an outlook that returned the Jewish people to a central place in world history, even after the birth of Jesus. Many of the specifics of Hess’s new master plan of human events were added later by other German Jewish scholars, most notably under the influence of Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891).

Michael Graetz was also aware of the significant influence of the German scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums on Hess. He writes:

The historiographic framework was already in place years before the publication of Rome and Jerusalem, although the realistic content and empirical proofs were still lacking. The latter were provided by the proponents of Wissenschaft des Judentums in Germany, the number of whose publications increased specifically during this period. Thus Hess became increasingly certain of the continuity of the “national” existence of the Jewish people from ancient times, despite the loss of political independence and the going forth into Exile.

In the forward to Rome and Jerusalem, Hess, himself, mentions Heinrich Graetz’s famous claim in his History of the Jews: “‘The history of the post-Talmudic Period,’ says the famous Jewish historian, ‘still possess a national character; it is by no means merely a creed or church history.'” During the writing of Rome and Jerusalem, the two forged a personal friendship, and Hess even consulted with Graetz on the title of his book. Graetz noticeably influenced Hess’s conception of Jewish nationalism; moreover, their correspondence attests to their profound agreement regarding the moral essence of Judaism. Graetz wrote to Hess in 1866 regarding the French translation of the third volume of Graetz’s Geschichte der Juden (Histoire des Juifs), that Hess had edited for him:

Since I am of one mind with you, that the Ten Commandments are the first manifestation of the spirit of the Israelite people …. and according to its content, it can only be something divine, since the Ten Commandments are the first budding of Judaism, then it would not be fitting to omit any interpretation and detailing of the innovation that they brought to the world. Accordingly, I was so passionate regarding their great worth. Do you not think that brevity here is uncalled for?

We may assume that when Graetz, like Hess, stressed the importance of the Ten Commandments, he shared the latter’s emphasis on the ethical dimension of Judaism. But as regards Graetz, we should also examine what Hess took from him, and what in his thought was less significant for Hess. Heinrich Graetz tended to oppose an essentialist view of Judaism, and explicitly argued in his essay, “The Structure of Jewish History,” that “the totality of Judaism is discernible only in its history. Its complete nature, the sum of its powers, becomes clear only in the light of history.” He continues:

You may subject Judaism to a process of refinement, extract modern thoughts from the fullness of its contents and trumpet forth this essence as the heart of Judaism with stupefying, resonant phrases and brilliant clichés; you may build a church and accept a creed for this refined and idealized Judaism “in a nutshell”; nevertheless, you still will have embraced only a shadow and taken the dry shell for the succulent fruit. You possess neither the Judaism taught by the Bible in unambiguous terms, nor the Judaism molded by three thousand years of history, nor, finally, Judaism as it still lives in the consciousness of the majority of its adherents.

Graetz was not consistent in his demand to refrain from an essentialist view of Judaism. He, too, ascribed great importance to the monotheistic belief and hope for a better future, a notion which influenced Hess. The Jewish historians who followed Graetz sought to be more faithful to his declaration that history, and not ideas, is the précis of Judaism. But his influence on Hess was, without doubt, meaningful. Hess’s distinction between the religious-ritual and the social elements of Judaism was based on Graetz: “Knowledge of God and social welfare, religious truth and political theory form the two components of Judaism which are destined to flow through history thoroughly mixed. The dogmatic and the social or, to put it another way, the religious and the political, constitute the twin axes around which Jewish life revolves.”

We cannot, however, gloss over the chasm that separated Graetz and Hess. In the final analysis, Hess’s conception was totally essentialist; waiving or, at best, postponing rite to a universal messianic future that would enable the creation of a rite shared by all peoples. On the point most cardinal for him—messianism as a socialist aim—Hess departed from Graetz’s historicism that, even if not pure, allows us to assume that Graetz the historian would not have accepted Hess’s reduction of Judaism almost entirely to socialism. Oftentimes, individuals who disagree with one another can share a common ground. This enables us, for example, to understand Hess’s sympathy for Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Kalischer, who wanted to renew the Temple rite in Jerusalem. As with Graetz, Hess disregarded their disagreement, and related only to what they shared, namely, the goal of settling Jews in the Land of Israel.

Samuel David Luzzatto and Moses Hess

Although Hess did not accept his thought in its entirety, of all the proponents of Wissenschaft des Judentums, Samuel David Luzzatto supplied the greatest rabbinic and scholarly support for Hess’s understanding of Judaism as ethical humanism and messianism. Hess mentions Luzzatto in four places in Rome and Jerusalem, three of which substantiate my thesis, one of which does not.

  • In the sixth letter of Rome and Jerusalem, Hess states that Judaism is distant from spirituality and asceticism. He bolsters this claim with two references, the first from Graetz’s History of the Jews (vol. 3, n. 10), and the second, from Luzzatto’s commentary to Deut. 6:5, both of which object to spirituality and asceticism as foreign to Judaism. The latter is Hess’s most important reference to Luzzatto’s writings, and we should note the content of this passage in Luzzatto’s commentary. This is a lengthy commentary to the verse “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). The passage extends for almost three pages, and includes Luzzatto’s sharp disagreement with the medieval sages, led by Maimonides and his pupils, who interpreted the verse in light of the philosophical writings that they held so dear. Luzzatto called for the complete separation of philosophical truth and the intent of the Torah.
  • Then I greatly wonder at the philosophers, how they did not understand that the intent of the Torah is not that of philosophy. For the intent in philosophy is the knowledge and cognition of the truth, while the intent of the Torah is doing what is right and good. If the Torah teaches us of the unity of God and the renewal of the world [= Creation], this is not to impart to us knowledge of God and cognition of His perfection, as they say. Rather, it is to plant in our souls salutary beliefs, to guide us in the paths of righteousness and justice …. the service and love of the Lord does not lie in solitude and dwelling in deserts, but in dwelling among people and in acting righteously and justly with them.
  • Hess begins his eighth letter by praising the religiously observant maskilim: “Hebrew literature has in our century of national rebirth reawakened to new life, thanks to the excellent works of Luzzatto, Rapoport, Frankel, Krochmal, etc.” Luzzatto appears first here among the proponents of Wissenschaft des Judentums who contributed to the revival of the Hebrew language and Hebrew literary productivity. Hess undoubtedly also referred to Luzzatto’s contribution to the research and dissemination of medieval Hebrew poetry, especially that of Judah Halevi, whom Hess praises on the following page.
  • Section 3 of Hess’s Epilogue contains explicit reservations regarding Luzzatto, but this is written out of great fondness:
  • The objection raised by Luzzatto to Spinoza proves only that this great Hebrew scholar had wandered into a field in which he is a total stranger …. Luzzatto had no knowledge of the dialectics of world history; he has yet to overcome the superficial contrast between intellect and emotion. Against the brilliance of Spinoza’s ideas that are a direct manifestation of the creative spirit, he claims that they lack feeling, since he erroneously sees them as the intellective products of the maskilim.
  • For Hess, Luzzatto’s weakness lies in Romanticism’s excessive influence on him, his difficulty overcoming the intellect-emotion dichotomy, and his inability to recognize the emotional element inherent in Spinoza’s thought. Hess criticizes Luzzatto, who was known for his critique of Spinoza, but Hess’s objection is raised despite his closeness to Luzzatto. The degree of their affinity is no less evident in Hess’s objections to Luzzatto as in his praise.
  • Note 8 at the end of Rome and Jerusalem is based on Luzzatto’s commentary on the sacrifices. Hess adopts Luzzatto’s approach, and acknowledges its similarity to Maimonides’. Luzzatto asserts that the sacrifices were a vestige of the pagan world. Hess writes: “Luzzatto speaks [on the sacrificial rite] with twofold authority, both as a linguist and as a believing, observant Jew. According to him, the sacrificial rite described in the Bible was a concession made by Moses to the popular beliefs of the Israelites, in order to forestall a reversion to paganism.”

This discussion is important for Hess, both to ground his opposition to aspirations for a future renewal of the sacrificial rite and, more generally, for his objection to continuing the traditional rite in the Land of Israel:

A relapse in the case of the restoration of the Jewish cult into its former usage of sacrifices is therefore no more possible than a similar relapse from animal to human sacrifices was possible in former times. But a stationary stage in the Jewish cult, with its confinement to prayer, is likewise unthinkable after the renewal of the Jewish nation, since all the prayers of Israel, since the time when the Temple was destroyed, revolve around this axis of grief at the Destruction and hope for the renewal of the nation. The Jewish religion will be regenerated along with the people.

Luzzatto discusses the sacrifices in his commentary to the book of Isaiah. The prophet declares: “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls, and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats'”(Isa. 1:11). Luzzatto comments on this verse:

The Torah of Moses did not abrogate the sacrifices, it rather mandated them for the great benefits that derive from them for the public and for the individual. It made known, however, that “God shows no favor and takes no bribe” (Deut. 10:17) and stated in curses (Lev. 26:31): “I will not savor your pleasing odors,” that is, when the people sin, their sacrifices, too, will not be pleasing to Him, and His wrath will not turn away from them.

What is of importance for Hess in Luzzato’s commentary is that sacrifices are meant to benefit the people, not God; thus, they are a historical means, and not a religious end in their own right. Consequently for Hess, it is clear from this and other passages in Luzzatto’s writings that the direct aim of Judaism is doing what is right and good.

Luzzatto, unlike Heinrich Graetz, held in high regard the attempts by his contemporaries among the maskilim to determine the essence of Judaism. Indeed, “Essenza del Giudaismo” (“The Essence of Judaism”) was the title of one of the more important booklets that he wrote for his students in the rabbinic seminary he established in Padua, Italy. Even if Hess was not familiar with this particular booklet, which was written in Italian, the spirit of this and other booklets by Luzzato infuses his commentary to the Torah, to which Hess refers above. Luzzatto speaks openly of Judaism being: “Torah: instruction, not science. It is theoretical-practical instruction, that is, it intends to inculcate certain views and certain feelings, following which a person will be motivated to act in a certain way, and not in another. The aim of Judaism is practice: “It is not the expounding that is most important, but the practice” [Mishnah Avot 1:17].

For Luzzatto, belief in Divine Providence is basic, and the purpose of this tenet is to inculcate an awareness of the divine justice that recompenses every individual. In popular terms, this belief teaches the existence of justice and does not define it in the language of philosophers. The laws of the Torah are meant to raise to the level of absolute obligation compassionate acts not mandated by natural law: laws of leketshikhehah, and peah (respectively: gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and the corner of the field, all of which are to be left for the poor); the prohibition of taking interest; the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years; and the laws of slaves. Furthermore, and actually most importantly, Luzzatto waxed eloquent on both the universal and national nature of the Torah:

The Torah contains a general and human component, and a particularistic and national component. The sentiment of compassion and the belief in Divine Providence are, or could be, the common possession of all humans. The covenant of Abraham and the Torah of Moses are the special possession of the sons of Jacob. In the kingdom of Heaven, that was foretold by the prophets, Judaism will be accepted by all the denizens of the earth in its general part, but it will never be accepted by them in its national part. Judaism never barred entry to it whomever wished to stand under its banner, but it does not hope, nor does it desire, to become a world religion.

At the end of the booklet Luzzatto defines the essence of Judaism, and thereby overcomes the tension between the universal and the particular, stating that both dimensions simultaneously exist in Judaism.

A short study of Luzzatto’s teachings reveals a number of ideas characteristic of Hess, as well. Although Luzzatto did not imagine the cancellation of the traditional rite in the Land of Israel, his fundamental attitude toward the sacrificial rite provided the basis for Hess’s position. By treating Judaism as the actualization of compassion in social life, Luzzatto himself engaged in a process of ahistorical selection. The definition of Judaism as nationalism and universality is not a historical determination in the narrow sense of the word, but an ideational one. Luzzatto and Hess are closer than Graetz and Hess regarding the cardinal question of identifying messianism with socialist justice. Unlike Marx, Hess did not base socialism on scientific materialism, but on the principle of social justice that originated in the intuitive sense of justice reflected in the social laws of the Torah. Luzzatto’s influence can be proven textually only partially. Hess quotes Graetz verbatim infrequently, but the personal ties between the two presumably support the assertion of influence by Graetz, in contrast to the lack of direct contact between Hess and Luzzatto, who died in 1865. Hess was an independent and curious thinker and a well-versed autodidact, whose worldview was a synthesis of numerous and diverse sources of influence. We cannot indicate individual prompts; rather, Hess was an amalgam of factors that fashioned his unique outlook. Nonetheless, it seems that, on the topics I have discussed, Luzzatto’s unique character—as a rabbi and maskil, a universalist and nationalist, and someone who (in the spirit of Deuteronomy 16:20) “pursued” justice and the values of equality and compassion, was especially influential on Hess.

Graetz was a historian who sought to, but could not fully, free himself from essentialist approaches. Hess had no such aspirations. To the contrary, he built his thought on an essentialist conception of Jewish messianism. The historian rejects such approaches since he assumes that history itself is the answer, and if—as can be demonstrated—Jewish messianism is multifaceted, then the historian must include all of these aspects in his conception. Hess was not interested in history for its own sake, but for ideas, to change history. His shift toward nationalism, too, was connected to a conception of the nation as an expansion of the family. To Hess, nationalism and the nation-state are the natural foundations for realizing the socialist vision, which offers greater prospects for success than Marx whose revolutionary platform runs counter to human nature by negating national affiliation.


Hess’s harsh critique of the Reform rabbis of his time ensued from their rejection of nationalist elements, their belief in the incorporation of Jews into the German nation, and their separation of the ritual from the social. For Hess, the reason for performing the rite is to enable the existence of the national group, whose purpose is to realize the social ideal. This was also the view espoused by Luzzatto, who made similar criticisms of the Reform movement. Hess’s attacks on Reform Judaism, along with the charges he leveled against Orthodox fossilization, did not, of course, ensue from any fundamental opposition to religious innovations. He opposed the Reform Jews’ preoccupation with altering rites and eliminating the national elements of Jewish prayer because he was convinced that they were motivated by local interests and a misunderstanding of the essence of Judaism. For Hess, weakening the national aspect actually weakened the messianic-social axis of Judaism. Without its national character, Judaism’s influence would remain limited to the small Jewish community, or pitiful preaching to non-Jews. It would fail to build a socialist nation-state, or any other kind of national political entity. The Jews were to realize the socialist potential of their religious tradition through a state of their own that would be committed, more than anything, to the values of social justice. For Hess, “For the Torah shall come forth from Zion” (Isa. 2:3; Mic. 4:2), meant that in the Land of Israel the Jewish people would bring to fruition a messianic model; the ideal of a humanistic socialist state that could serve as a model for the entire world. Despite the gulf between them on the question of ritual halakhic life, this conception lay closer in spirit to Luzzatto than the Reform Jews or German intellectuals with whom Hess shared humanist and socialist ideals.

In his book on modern Jewish thought, Nathan Rotenstreich mentions a series of thinkers who defined Judaism as a national-religious commitment to ethics. This group, of which Spinoza, paradoxically, may be seen as forerunner and which continued with Mendelssohn, was fashioned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the wake of Kantian ethics and Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Bare Reason. Rotenstreich considers Luzzatto to be the first nineteenth-century thinker to express such a position, with Hermann Cohen ending the century with his own conception. In my view, Hess, following Luzzatto, developed this thought in a unique direction, linking the political actualization of Jewish nationalism with a commitment to realize Jewish humanistic socialism. Hermann Cohen went in the opposite direction, regarding Zionism as a withdrawal toward egocentric nationalism. In the twentieth century, Martin Buber continued Hess’s thinking, and Emmanuel Levinas continued that of Cohen.

Today, the State of Israel, as the realization of Jewish nationalism, has patently lost its deep commitment to socialism. It seems to me that Hess’s great mistake was his assumption that the longing and concern for social justice would naturally remain a dominant feature of Jewish nationalism among secular, and especially Orthodox, Jews. In the twenty-first century, socialist messianism has proven itself to be far from a simple or natural expression of Jewish nationalism. It remains just one of many Jewish ideas that will only exist if tremendous educational and social efforts are invested into placing it in the cultural spotlight. Nevertheless, Hess provides a great example of the personal courage and creativity required to reach novel conclusions about refashioning Judaism for an uncharted future in the Land of Israel; an approach that aspires to transform the traditional messianic hope for righteousness and justice into an evolving reality that can serve as a guiding principle for social life in the modern Jewish state.