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  • Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn:An Orthodox Rabbi Responds to the Balfour Declaration1
  • David Ellenson (bio)

The eminent modern Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim employed the phrase, “the Jewish return into History,” to contend that the success of political Zionism in creating the State of Israel after 1800 years of Exile and restoring national political sovereignty meant that an end had come to collective Jewish political passivity.2 Through the creation of modern Israel, the Jewish people as a national group had at long last returned to the arenas of history and power politics. As the Hebrew University scholar of Jewish Thought Eliezer Schweid has phrased it, the Jewish people, as a collective, now had “new responsibility—total and comprehensive—for a state, a society…That was the full scope of the change wrought by the national movement.”3

The renewed national sovereignty of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland brought scores of moral and practical challenges to Jewish life and thought that remain unto the present day. For many contemporary religious and cultural Zionists, one of these challenges has been, in the words of historian Adam Ferziger, to discover “alternative and more liberal ways of approaching questions of Jewish law and modernity in general and of Judaism and nationalism in particular.”4 [End Page 247]

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Figure 1.

Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn. Israel National Library.

[End Page 248]

In engaging in this quest, more and more religious-national and cultural Jews in Israel have turned with great interest to the writings of Orthodox Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn (1857–1935 [Figure 1]). A native of the Land of Israel who came to the United States in the first years of the Twentieth Century, he wrote on issues regarding the proposed Jewish state while living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Interest in Hirschensohn—particularly in Israel—has become noteworthy in recent decades. The scholar Eliezer Schweid wrote an impressive 1992 monograph, Democracy and Halakhah, on Hirschensohn and his thought, while David Zohar, a religious-national Israeli, authored Jewish Commitment in a Modern World: Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn and His Attitude toward Modernity, in 2003, a book that scholar Marc Shapiro has described as the starting point from “where all future analysis of Hirschensohn’s halakhic thought will begin.”5

Besides these scholars, many others have turned to Hirschensohn. This scholarship has sparked a renewed contemporary interest in Hirschensohn and his writings precisely because his great halakhic erudition as well as his warm embrace of Zionism and the modern world allowed him to argue that Judaism and Jewish law possess the capacity to affirm democracy and other modern political and cultural currents and trends.6 For religious and cultural Zionists who wish to reject the apocalyptic, messianic currents of religious Zionism as promoted by the ideological heirs of Gush Emunim, the responsa of Hirschensohn allow them to identify political-religious Zionism with the openness and rationality that they feel ought more appropriately to characterize religious Zionism. [End Page 249] Because his writings display an unwavering commitment to religious Zionism and a profound knowledge of Jewish law, Hirschensohn provides a model of authentic halakhic sobriety, creativity, and integrity that they feel Israel needs today.

In this essay, my aim is to focus on two major issues he addresses in his halakhic work Malki Bakodesh: the end of Jewish political quiescence as a response to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the contention that Jewish law should not only accommodate democracy, but that it demands its full embrace as the form of government required by a Jewish polity. In analyzing his work, I will demonstrate the novel halakhic efforts of a scholarly rabbi residing in the United States to explain these matters from a Jewish legal standpoint.

Rabbi Haim Herschensohn and Malki Bakodesh: His Life and the Context for His Halakhic Work

The life of Haim Herschensohn cannot be understood without an appreciation of the mid-nineteenth century world into which he was born. The Land of Israel during the mid-1800s was under Ottoman rule. Three major groups succeeded in establishing autonomous Jewish settlements there at that time, religiously-traditional Sepharadim from the Ottoman Empire itself, Ultra-Orthodox Askenazim who fled Central...


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