Launch of the Herzl Institute — Machon Herzl

By Yoram Hazony, October 8, 2013

october-8-2013-logoThis week is an important one in my life, professionally and personally. Sunday was the official opening of Shalem College, which I spent 22 years working to create (read Marilyn Marks’ excellent write-up of the Shalem story in this week’sPrinceton Alumni Weekly.) And Tuesday marked the official launch of my new venture, an independent research institute in Jerusalem to be named the Herzl Institute/Machon Herzl.

october-8-2013-classThe Shalem chapter of my life is now ended. I left Shalem more than a year ago together with a group of colleagues. Shalem College, in the steady hands of its new President Martin Kramer, and of Dan Polisar, who took my place as Provost, will go on, God willing, to change the face of Israeli undergraduate education. I will be President at the Herzl Institute, a few blocks up the street from the beautiful old Shalem building, now standing empty. Leading the Herzl Institute with me will be three long-time friends from Shalem: Ofir Haivry, Vice President; Meirav Jones, Executive Director; and Lorena Avraham, Office Manager. Resident scholars at the institute include Joshua Berman, Yechiel Leiter and Shmuel Trigano.

What’s the Herzl Institute all about? Our job will be to take the research programs, publishing enterprises, and graduate-level educational intiatives that were Shalem’s particular specialties and bring all of these to the next level.

People will of course be curious about the name of the new institute. Today, Herzl is principally remembered for his “political Zionism,” a phrase coined by his principal detractor, Ahad Ha’am, as a term of derision. Herzl realized that the rapid rise of anti-Semitism in France, Germany, Austria and Russia was leading to a catastrophic persecution of the Jews, and saving Jewish lives was a principal motive behind his efforts to establish a territory under Jewish legal and military control that could serve as a place of refuge and eventually become a sovereign Jewish state.

But Herzl’s critique of the Jewish condition ran much deeper than what can be gathered from his political activism. Even Jews living in lands that afforded them physical safety were in an intolerable position, Herzl believed, because they had given up their dignity and honor in leaving the identity and traditions of their fathers. Herzl’s Viennese Jewish environment was in many ways quite similar, in fact, to the picture of a disappearing American Jewry painted by last week’s Pew Research Center report, which suggests that 64 percent of non-Orthodox Jews now marry non-Jews. Herzl knew this world all too well, and argued, remarkably, that his fellow Jews should seek the source of the inner strength that guided the Jews of the Middle Ages. As he wrote in an essay published a few months after the appearance of his book the The Jewish State:

The atrocities of the Middle Ages were unprecedented, and the people who withstood those tortures must have had some great strength, an inner unity which we have lost. A generation which has grown apart from Judaism does not have this unity. It can neither rely upon our past nor look to our future. That is why we shall once more retreat into Judaism and never again permit ourselves to be thrown out of this fortress.

Of course, in calling for a “retreat into Judaism,” Herzl did not mean that Jews should retreat from engaging with or benefiting from the modern world, or from a concern for the broader circumstances affecting humanity. But he believed that in adopting a specifically Jewish “ideal,” Jews could regain a personal self-respect and integrity they had lost, and in so doing develop something unique that could bring a blessing to mankind:

Nothing human is alien to us. We, too, want to work for the improvement of conditions in the world. But we want to do it as Jews, not as persons of undefined identity…. Once we have an ideal, as other nations have an ideal of their own, people will learn to respect us…. Even by merely walking along this road we will become different persons. We shall thereby regain our lost inner wholeness and along with it a little character—our own character. Not a Marrano-like, borrowed, untruthful character, but our own. And only then shall we vie with all other righteous people in justice, charity, and high-mindedness. Only then shall we be active on all fields of honor and try to advance in the arts and sciences…. This is how I understand Judaism.

(“Judaism,” November 1896)

Thus for Herzl, Zionism was fundamentally about restoring the inner unity of the Jewish soul. The creation of a Jewish homeland was, of course, crucial. But it was to be an outward manifestation of a deeper change that was to take place in the circumstances of the Jew. The true aim had to be the establishment of a firm Jewish consciousness, a unique Jewish “character” and perspective on things that the Jews could defend as their own, and which would permit them again to play a special role among the nations.

Thus while the basic components of Herzl’s political vision were achieved with the founding of the State of Israel, we are still waiting for the establishment of Jewish independence and self-determination in the realm of ideas and of the spirit. This is a fact that should be familiar to anyone with an intimate knowledge of the Jewish people as it is today. In our yeshivas and seminaries, rabbis and students immerse themselves in traditional learning, but for the most part such learning neither responds to challenges from the outside world nor bothers to try and teach the outside world anything. Meanwhile, our universities continue to carry forward the ideas of the old German academy, in which the Jews as a people were seen as having contributed little or nothing to man’s advancement—with the result that academic studies are even now, more often than not, a force that gently presses the student to get enlightenment, and with it, a contempt for Judaism and all it stands for.

What, then, is to be done? What can be said to young Jews who are unwilling or unable to ignore modern ideas? To Jews who wish to pursue scientific and philosophical studies at the highest level—and want to know if Judaism can remain meaningful in light of them? And what of the many non-Jews who believe the Jews still have something important to say to the world, and simply want to know what that is? What are we to say to them?

These questions have been asked before. But astonishing as this may seem, there is still no institution anywhere devoted to developing and disseminating the Jewish story—including the ideas of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, the impact of these ideas on the history of the world, and the relevance of Judaism and Israel in our time—in a way that intelligently engages with the questions raised by modern philosophy and political theory, science and historical scholarship, and that can be relevant to thoughtful women and men both in the academic setting and in broader public life.

The aim of the Herzl Institute is to answer this need, as urgent today as it was when Herzl rose to greet this challenge more than a century ago. The Herzl Institute will be the first research institute and training center specifically directed toward the development of Jewish ideas in fields such as Jewish philosophy and theology, Jewish political theory, the history of Jewish ideas on the world stage, the history and philosophy of Zionism, and the relationship of all of these disciplines with the broader world of general philosophy and science.

I have no interest in establishing a Jewish catechism on these or any other subjects. What is needed is not doctrine but a rush of new thinking, and the enthusiasm that comes of a sense of discovering new and truer things. Through this thinking anew, our hope is to delve deeper than others before us, and to be able to offer a uniquely Jewish approach to modern science and ideas, providing scholars and students, rabbis and lay leadership with the tools needed to see Judaism as a real alternative to other systems of thought now competing in the marketplace of ideas.

The Herzl Institute’s mission, also available on our new website at, will be as follows:


Herzl Institute MissionI. The Herzl Institute aims to contribute to a revitalization of the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the family of nations through a renewed encounter with the foundational ideas of Judaism.II. The Herzl Institute of Jerusalem is a research institute and training center dedicated to intellectual renewal, content development and capacity building in the following core areas: Jewish Political Thought
 Jewish Philosophy and Theology
 History of Jewish Ideas in the Christian and Islamic Worlds
 History of Zionism and the State of Israel
 Human Nature and Philosophical Psychology
 Philosophy of Science
 Interfaith Encounter and Coalition Building
 The New Anti-Semitism
 Higher Education and the University Curriculum
 Jewish Education and Curriculum

III. The Herzl Institute will serve as a hub of collaboration, research and joint learning for Jewish scholars, clergy, lay leadership and students who seek better answers to the challenges ahead through a more rigorous engagement with the riches of Hebrew Scripture and rabbinic sources.

IV. The Herzl Institute welcomes the participation of Christian and other non-Jewish scholars and students who see the sources of Judaism as offering an opportunity for foundational renewal within the context of their own nations and faith traditions. The Herzl Institute will conduct an array of intensive outreach activities, including public events, publications, and new media platforms aimed at bringing the fruits of its work to a broad public in Israel and abroad.

V. The Herzl Institute seeks collaboration with research institutes, academic institutions, and religious seminaries throughout the world in an effort to leverage great ideas and establish coalitions of significance.

VI. The Herzl Institute strives to honor the memory of Theodor Herzl: Statesman, political thinker, and champion of his people, whose vision and deeds initiated the rebirth of Israel.

VII. The Herzl Institute is located in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, home to the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Shalom Hartman Institute, Israel Democracy Institute, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Van Leer Institute, among other resources.


For more information about The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, August 28, 2012) go here.To pre-order the book, click here.To subscribe to follow the book by email, click here.

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