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  • Moses Hess as a Prophet of Spiritual Zionism:The Origins of Messianic Jewish Humanism
  • Ron Margolin (bio)

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.1

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."2 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 [End Page 75] 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.


Writing about Moses Hess's book, Rome and Jerusalem,3 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."4 Following this, Hess was seen to be one of the three "forerunners of Zionism."5 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'."6

Na'aman's opposition to identifying Hess as a forerunner of political Zionism aroused the ire of some Israeli scholars.7 Na'aman's most prominent challenger, Shlomo Avineri, writes, "Although Hess did not directly influence the fathers of Zionist thought—who were...


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