(1817–1889), rabbi, public activist, and early leader of religious Zionism. Mordekhai Eliasberg studied in the Volozhin yeshiva and served as rabbi in Bauska, Latvia, from 1862 until his death. Fluent in German and well versed in contemporary literature, Eliasberg firmly believed that there was no contradiction between faith and the Haskalah (Enlightenment). Nonetheless, he expressed concern about what was at the time called “false enlightenment” (i.e., enlightenment that serves social purposes such as secularizing society), which he felt posed a great danger to faith. He also believed in the importance of improving the economic situation of Russian Jews.
Eliasberg was deeply influenced by Tsevi Hirsh Kalischer, and already in the 1870s was publishing articles calling for the settlement of the Land of Israel. Like Kalischer, Eliasberg was deeply impressed by the emancipation of Jews in various countries, a development that (more than antisemitism) fostered his faith in the Jewish people’s future in its own land. He promoted the idea of a Jewish utopia, marked by Jews supporting themselves through productive work in agriculture and industry and living modest lives. Eliasberg was also one of the first proponents of religious Zionism. According to his understanding, both the people and the land of Israel are holy, the sanctity of the one not canceling out that of the other.
Eliasberg was active in the Ḥoveve Tsiyon movement from its very inception. At its Druskininkai conference of 1887, he was appointed an honorary trustee, along with rabbis Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin and Shemu’el Mohilewer. Eliasberg was known for his moderate views and for looking favorably upon cooperation between observant and nonobservant Jews. He believed both factions were needed, and therefore proposed the establishment of a twofold leadership for Ḥoveve Tsiyon, one political and the other religious. Among secular Zionists, Eliasberg came to symbolize a Torah-observant rabbi who was moderate and tolerant of nonobservant Jews.
In halakhic matters, Eliasberg inclined toward leniency. He vigorously supported the rabbinic dispensation to engage in agricultural work during the religiously prescribed sabbatical year, in opposition to many of his colleagues.
According to Eliasberg’s historical understanding, “natural wisdom” and “Torah wisdom” had been united in Israel in the distant past. With the Jewish people’s dispersion, the one became separated from the other, but now, by way of the Ḥoveve Tsiyon movement, it was possible to reunite them once again. The freethinking proponents of “natural wisdom” who represented the movement to the world must, Eliasberg thought, be fluent in languages and worldly knowledge; those with “Torah knowledge” would provide the movement with its spirit and inner world. Eliasberg suggested to Lev Pinsker, author of Autoemancipation (1882), that he choose a spiritual and social guide for the settlement of Israel, who would be responsible for the spiritual and social strength of the newly established pioneering communities in the spirit of traditional Jewish faith.
Aside from articles in periodicals, Eliasberg did not publish a great deal of material during his lifetime; many of his books remain in manuscript. A collection of halakhic responsa entitled Terumat yad was published in 1875. Shevil ha-zahav, dealing with the modern settlement of the Land of Israel, was published after his death by his son, Yonatan Eliasberg, and became one of the basic texts of religious Zionism. Its unique contribution lies in its acceptance, without reservations or denials, of the reality of two types—one freethinking and the other religious—in the Ḥoveve Tsiyon movement. This approach was continued by Avraham Yitsḥak Kook, who was also Eliasberg’s successor in the rabbinate of Bauska.
Eliahu Moshe Genachowski, Ha-Rav Mordekhai ‘Elyasberg (Jerusalem, 1937); Eliahu Moshe Genachowski, Ha-Rav Mordekhai ‘Elyasberg (Tel Aviv, 1947).
Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss