Kalischer, Tsevi Hirsch

views updated


KALISCHER, TSEVI HIRSCH (17951874), rabbi, messianic theorist, and activist. Kalischer spent his entire life in the Posen district of Prussia. He received an intensive education in Talmudic literature and independently studied Jewish philosophy. With his wife's financial support, he pursued a life of community service and scholarship. His works include commentaries on Jewish law, exegeses of the Bible and Passover Haggadah, and philosophical studies reconciling religion and reason. In his messianic writings he argued that Judaism encouraged efforts to accelerate the arrival of the messianic age. Historically, this opinion was accepted by only a few religious authorities; the dominant rabbinic tradition regarded messianic activism as a rebellion against God.

Starting with the rationalist assumption that God steers the course of history toward the messianic age without abrogating natural laws, Kalischer asserted that human participation in the redemptive process was essential. He contended that biblical prophecies, when interpreted through the ideology of messianic activism, indicated that the messianic age would arrive in gradual stages. A nonmiraculous stage, in which the Holy Land would be repopulated and made agriculturally productive by Jews, would be followed by a miraculous stage consisting of the other features described in biblical prophecies. The miraculous stage would be ushered in when the Jews reestablished their intimate connection with God by offering sacrifices on the rebuilt altar in Jerusalem.

In 1836, encouraged by European interest in the Jews' return to Zion and the Orthodox rabbinate's insistence on retaining in the liturgy prayers for the restoration of sacrificial worship, Kalischer wrote to Meyer Anschel Rothschild and several influential rabbis about acquiring the Temple Mount and studying the possibility of restoring sacrificial worship. Most Jewish leaders withheld their support when they realized that to Kalischer the sacrifice renewal was not academic and was actually part of a messianic plan. By 1860 he realized that focusing only on the agricultural development of Palestine would receive wider support; he still believed that the sacrifice renewal and other messianic events would flow naturally from that. This tactical change has led some historians to the mistake of describing Kalischer as a Zionist rather than a messianist.

Kalischer's writings and activities eventually helped legitimize messianic activism, and religious Jews who regard the State of Israel as a step toward the messianic age have adopted his formulation of this ideology.


The only comprehensive examination of Kalischer's messianic ideology is my Seeking Zion: Modernity and Messianic Activism in the Writings of Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer (Oxford; Portland, Ore., 2003). A complete bibliography of Kalischer's writings and secondary literature is included. A critical edition of Kalischer's major work, Derishat Tsiyyon (Lyck, 1862), and most of his messianic writings are collected in Ha-ketavim ha-tsiyyonim shel ha-Rav Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer, edited and with an introduction by Israel Klausner (Jerusalem, 1947).

Jody Elizabeth Myers (1987 and 2005)