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Ballagi, Mór

(1815–1891), advocate of Magyarization, Protestant theologian, and Hungarian linguist. Born Moritz (Mordekhai) Bloch, Mór Ballagi’s first memories were of his father, a tenant farmer, imprisoned a year for debt, and of his mother searching for wild berries in the forest to feed the family. At an early age, Bloch learned to fend for his livelihood, sleeping in synagogues and living off charity. He studied at yeshivas in Nagyvárad (1829) and Pápa (1831), and only while working as a tutor at Mór and later Surány when he was 20 was he first exposed to Greek and Latin classics. In time, he also taught himself Hungarian, and studied classics, math, and history at the Pápa secondary school.

While enrolled at Pest University in 1837–1838, studying math and engineering, Bloch began to write well-received articles for local German and Hungarian journals. Since engineering was a field still closed to Jews in Hungary, he decided to continue his studies in Paris in 1839. When reports of the debates of the Hungarian Diet on Jewish emancipation reached Paris, he composed A zsidókról (On Jews) early in 1840. Later that summer, after returning to Hungary, he translated, introduced, and annotated a related pamphlet, A zsidók (The Jews), by Löw Schwab, the rabbi of Pest.

Bloch emerged as the foremost Jewish intellectual championing the cause of Hungarian Jewry. Believing that emancipation called for Jews to embrace the Magyar language, he proposed various educational projects, often with the backing of his friend Philipp Korn, a book dealer and publisher in Pressburg. Bloch’s translation of the Pentateuch with commentary and philological notes appeared as Mózes öt könyve magyarra fordította és jegyzetekkel fölvilágította (1840–1841). The title page of Exodus, which appeared toward the end of 1840, announced that Bloch was now a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy. Inducted on 5 September 1840 after producing the first volume, he became the first Jew to enter the Academy (in December 1858, he became a full member and in 1891 the institute celebrated his jubilee as a member). Other translations followed, including the prayer book Jiszrael könyörgései (Israel’s Prayers; 1841) that revised the rendition of Moricz Rosenthal; and the Book of Joshua with commentary, Elsö Jósok: Josua (1842). He also composed Ungarische Unterricht in der Kleinkinderschule (Teaching Hungarian in the Kindergarten; 1841); a book on Magyar grammar (1842); and a German–Hungarian dictionary (1843–1844).

In February 1841, Bloch issued a public appeal to establish a Hungarian Jewish teachers’ seminary. Wanting to ensure a viable parochial educational system, he noted that most graduates of non-Jewish schools ended up without any religion at all and lost their moral compass. He was disappointed by an indifferent response to his proposal and left to study theology at Tübingen. His conversion on 11 May 1843 to Lutheranism (later he became a Calvinist) came as a shock to Hungarian Jews. The motivation behind his act was not clear. There were critics who in retrospect discerned Christological traces already in his Bible commentary; others accused him of frustrated ambition and venality. The defense of his act published by József Szekács, Bloch’s patron, created a minor furor, eliciting a sharp rejoinder by Leopold Löw. Even a liberal such as Baron József Eötvös, who had been a pioneer in advocating Jewish emancipation in Hungary, privately applauded Bloch’s act as the inevitable finale of Jewish integration.

In 1847, Bloch changed his name to Ballagi. During the 1848 Revolution, Eötvös, then the minister of religion and education, offered him a university post, but he preferred to serve in the army. In October, Ballagi became a first lieutenant and served as secretary on General Artúr Görgei’s staff. In June 1849, he was promoted to captain and assigned as secretary to the president’s section of the War Ministry.

Ballagi had joined the faculty of the Szarvas seminary in 1844; in 1851 he became professor of theology in Pest. By the 1860s, he was a leading liberal Protestant figure, an institution builder who worked energetically for the Magyarization of his church, and was a talented editor and publicist defending the interests of Protestants. He was elected to parliament in 1861 and later was honored as a royal councilor. He wrote numerous studies on the Magyar language, publishing dictionaries, grammars, lexicons, and readers.

Ballagi did not entirely abandon ties to his Jewish past. Interestingly, he continued to maintain his diary in Jüdisch-Deutsch years after his conversion. Besides publishing books on the Hebrew language (1856), he was also known for advancing Jewish students. He was well thought of by Ignác Goldziher; and Rabbi Yosef Natonek, a forerunner of political Zionism, showered him with praise in his Messias. It was with bitterness that Ballagi saw his own son become an antisemite.

Suggested Reading

Aladár György, “Ballagi Mór, a paedagogus,” Néptanitók Lapja 24/89 (7 November 1891): 841–843; Sándor Imre, Emlékbeszéd Ballagi Mór (Budapest, 1893); József Szinnyei, “Ballagi Mór,” in Magyar irók, vol. 1, pp. 438–443 (Budapest, 1891).