Every night after I’ve brushed my teeth, flossed, and turned on the classical music to which I go to sleep, I read a a primary source selection from The Zionist Idea or The Jew in the Modern World. It is my way of working through my personal crisis of Zionism.

Each year I come home to a nation bearing little resemblance to the mythical Jewish State that was propagated as a solution to the “Jewish Question” by the plethora of people responsible for the achievement of our two-thousand year old dream.

In this blog, I will occasionally be sharing choice words from Jewish and Zionist voices, and reflecting on their salience for our modern life from a variety of perspectives. My hope is to foster discussion and reignite the passion for learning which had characterized our people and was responsible for our cohesion and survival. We are the People of the Book; we betray our roots when we neglect our primary sources.

Though I will not adhere to a strict chronological order, I would like to start the series with the very first Zionist – Moses Hess.

A leading socialist and humanist in the 1840s, Moses Hess is credited with converting Friedrich Engels to Communism, collaborating with him and Karl Marx on several publications including The Communist Manifesto. But, like many later Zionists, Hess returned to the Jewish fold after his long period of estrangement.

In 1862, Hess published Rome and Jerusalem, the work that influenced Theodor Herzl and the first established generation of Zionists.  Hess believed that Europeans will continue to treat Jews as strangers, even as they grant them political and social rights. He went against the grain of popular German Jewish thought at the time when he suggested that the national aspirations of Israel – as many early Zionists referred to the Jews – could not be uprooted. At the height of the Emancipation movement, Hess argued against its very foundations.

But how is this history lesson relevant to Jews and Israelis today?

Because we also stand at a crossroads of history. The heavy chains of Orthodox traditions weigh down our potential as individuals and as a community. The rising tide of secularism threatens to drown the characteristics of our nation that were most important to the people who dreamed of its creation.

Back to Hess:

I claim that the divine teaching of Judaism was never, at any time, completed and finished. It has always kept on developing, always representing the typically Jewish process of harmonizing the sacred unity of life with the spirit of the Jewish people and of humanity. The free development of the knowledge of God, through untiring study and conscientious research, is the holiest religious obligation in Judaism.

Hess was writing against the backdrop of an emerging Reform movement which he claimed was “fashioned in imitation of Christian models”. He saw the creation of a national home for the Jews as a chance to redeem the Jewish spirit through a redemption of the soil. But first he wanted us to hit the books.

Our people must once again steep itself in history… and rekindle in the hearts of our younger generation that spirit which was the ultimate source of wisdom and inspiration for both our prophets and our rabbis… We will then again become participators in the holy spirit which alone has the right to develop Jewish law and refashion it according to the needs of the people.

After our move to America, my family incorporated many conservative traditions into our formerly secular lives. As a minority in a foreign land, we needed to hold on to the very acts and beliefs which kept the Jews united throughout a long and testing exile. But here in Israel some of our customs cannot but appear outdated. We do not need to dress differently to stand out amongst the masses. We need to come together, as a mass, to figure out the way forward.

Which brings us to the comments on my previous post. Even before the national aspirations of the Jews was called Zionism, Moses Hess noted a plaintive fact about that potential migration: “It is well understood that when we speak of a Jewish settlement in the Orient, we do not mean to imply a total emigration of the occidental Jews to Palestine.”

This is a note echoed by many later Zionists – though it was disputed by a vocal minority. To Hess, the intellectual visionary whose monumental book received a cold reception by his contemporaries, there was to be no division between the residents of the spiritual center in Zion and the representatives of the religion abroad:

There has been a central unity among the Jews at all times, even among those who were scattered to the very confines of the earth… Even in antiquity, the dispersion to the very ends of the world did not hinder the scattered members of this remarkable people from participating in every national undertaking, from sharing the fortunes and misfortunes of fate.