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  • Herzl's Theology:A New Reading of Altneuland
  • Assaf Malach (bio)


Theodor Herzl published his utopian romance, Altneuland, in 1902. A spirited debate soon broke out, spurred by Ahad Ha'am's assertion that the state envisioned by Herzl had no specifically Jewish elements and was no different from a "normal" European state.1 Many scholars have adopted Ahad Ha'am's reading and seen the utopian polity of Altneuland as devoid of any meaningful Jewish identity.2 In recent years, however, several studies have emphasized the Jewish dimension of the state Herzl described and highlighted his attempt to establish a new Jewish identity on a secular national basis.3 My thesis is that a close reading of Altneuland reveals an additional aspect of the text that has not been sufficiently discussed.

I believe that reading Altneuland as a work of literature rather than as a utopian project reveals that Herzl wanted to use the novel to express his position on religious and theological issues, as part of his desire to revitalize the core concepts of Judaism. It is clear that Herzl's position was pluralistic and liberal, totally rejecting the authority of the rabbinic establishment and far removed from any tinge of religious fanaticism. Nevertheless, the reading I suggest notes the centrality of the religious dimension of the novel, culminating in the protagonist's rediscovery of religion. Attention to this aspect sheds new light on the entire work and on its place in the development of Herzl's mature Jewish identity.4

In the first part of this article, I present literary evidence for my proposed reading. In the second part, I analyze the main theological concepts that are transformed and revitalized in the novel, under three headings: (1) God and prayer; (2) redemption and miracles; (3) the Jewish people as endowed with a special vocation.

First let me clarify that the main thrust of Herzl's work and his major impact was in diplomacy and the public arena. I am not [End Page 1] attempting to deny this and portray him as a philosopher or theologian. Moreover, the analysis below is not an exhaustive summary of Herzl's views on the issues addressed because it focuses on Altneuland and leaves out the rest of his writings and his diary. Nevertheless, the literary evidence in support of my reading seems to be strong enough to inspire a new understanding of the book and, consequently, new thinking about the religious side of Herzl's life. As a novel that Herzl published towards the end of his life, Altneuland can be taken as expressing the culmination of Herzl's rapprochement with the core concepts of Jewish tradition, parallel to and part of the consolidation of his political philosophy.

part i: the literary evidence

Before I present literary evidence in support of my conclusion that Herzl intended the issue of religion, and the rebirth of religion and tradition that must accompany the return to the Land of Israel, to stand at the heart of Altneuland, I need to summarize the plot.

Friedrich Loewenberg is a young Jewish lawyer in Vienna of 1902 who hobnobs with the intellectual Jewish circles of the capital. Disappointed in love and feeling alone, he responds to an advertisement seeking "an educated, desperate young man willing to make a last experiment with his life" on a desert island. He meets a German named Mr Kingscourt, who placed the notice, and the two men prepare for an excursion to Cook's Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. While this is going on, Friedrich gives a shilling to an indigent young Jew named David Littwak, and even receives money from Kingscourt to support Littwak's impoverished family. Friedrich's encounter with the Littwaks brings him into contact, before his journey to the distant island, with a family of Jewish immigrants from Galicia who, despite their limited economic means, are full of faith and connected to the religious tradition.

En route to the Pacific, Kingscourt persuades Friedrich to stop over in Palestine for a brief tour. After they see the country in its ruined state, and are exposed to the incipient renewal of Jewish settlement there, they continue on to the...


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