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Natonek, Yosef

(1813–1892), rabbi and early Zionist. Yosef Natonek attended yeshiva in Komárom with Pinḥas Leib Frieden, in Nikolsburg with Neḥemyah Naḥum Trebitsch until 1835, and in Ungvár for the year 1836. Although he never studied at the yeshiva of Mosheh Sofer (Ḥatam Sofer) as is often stated, he did apparently obtain ordination in Pressburg. He turned to trade and during the revolution of 1848–1849 supplied livestock to the Austrians and then to the Hungarian forces at the fortress of Komárom, where he settled in 1849. Later, he was issued a certificate of good conduct addressed to the Austrian authorities stating that during the revolution he had not “budged a hairsbreadth” from the path of loyalty.

In 1850, Natonek obtained a teacher’s diploma and spent several years as principal of the Jewish school in Nagysurány. In 1854, he was appointed rabbi of Jászberény and its surroundings. He had full command of both German and Hungarian, and when in 1861 the Pest community sought a rabbi who could preach in Hungarian, he was selected as one of four finalists but was turned down because of his “well-known restless temperament.” Instead, he was elected as rabbi of Székesfehérvár (Stuhlweissenburg), where he served between 1861 and 1867.

At that time, Székesfehérvár was the most conflict-torn community in Hungary, even requiring the repeated intervention of neo-Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Natonek maneuvered between the reformers and a dogmatic Orthodox faction that was oriented toward Hirsch, adopting a stance that was not far from the moderate Positive-Historical school of Zacharias Frankel. Natonek reiterated his middle-of-the-road position in Rabbi Mosche Sofer seligen Andenkens und der Magier Ben Chananja (1865), in which he defended the Ḥatam Sofer against the denigrating critique of Leopold Löw and called for a general reconciliation between the rival camps.

Around this time, Natonek decided to devote himself full time to the cause of Jewish nationalism, and to the Hebrew language and the restoration of the Jews to their ancient homeland. He had earlier written a study about Hebrew in his Schlosche Kmozim (Heb., Sheloshah kematsim; 1859). In his opinion, Judaism was at a point of crisis and lacked solid foundations; he felt that language and nationalism must provide the basis for recovery. In 1866, he began an extensive correspondence with Tsevi Hirsh Kalischer, proposing that Ḥevrat Yishuv Erets Yisra’el, a society for the settlement of Palestine, also “aim to remove Ishmael’s rule” over the Holy Land.

Natonek had close family ties with the Stampfer and Raab families, who joined Kalischer’s society at this time and later were among the founders of the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel in 1878, Petaḥ Tikvah. He corresponded with other forerunners of Zionism such as Yehudah Alkalai and in particular with Moses Hess, responding enthusiastically as early as the summer of 1862 to the publication of Rom und Jerusalem. He met Hess in Paris in 1866, while embarking upon a round of visits to Germany and France, and together they sought to enlist the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris for Kalischer’s scheme. Natonek received Adolphe Crémieux’s blessings for the philanthropic efforts to establish agricultural colonies. He returned through Vienna, where he won the support of the popular author Leopold Kompert, who was then serving on the communal board, and the young rabbi Moritz Güdemann. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the Turkish ambassador in Vienna, Natonek arrived in Constantinople in the spring of 1867. After consulting with local Jewish notables and especially with the ḥakham bashi, Yakir Giron, he formulated a memorandum and was favorably received by the grand vizier. Natonek’s actions may be viewed as one of the first in a long line of Zionist diplomatic efforts. Illness and the disturbances in Crete, however, cut his mission short.

Returning to Hungary, Natonek resigned his rabbinic post and settled in Budapest, where in the 1870s he published several short works, including a sketch about outstanding Jewish women and an essay on science and religion. In the summer of 1872, when Hungarian Jewry was already rent in two between the rival Neolog and Orthodox camps, he published seven issues (16 May–4 July) of Das einige Israel: Organ zur Einigung Israels, a weekly devoted to the unification of Israel. In 1876, he once again approached the Ottoman Turks with a proposal to establish a Jewish autonomous presence in Palestine, but without success.

Natonek’s Jewish nationalism was firmly in place by the 1850s, undoubtedly influenced by the example of the Magyar nationalist movement. When the issue of Jewish emancipation was once again debated in Hungary, he preached a controversial sermon on 25 June 1860 that the disgruntled communal elders were quick to seize upon. They reported to the local police that Natonek had urged them “to pray to God that Jews should not be emancipated, that their homeland and fatherland is not here, but in Jerusalem.”

Natonek’s most important work, Mesiás: A vagy értekezés a zsidó emáncipátióról, zsidónak s kereszténynek egyaránt kedvezö (Messiah, or Discourse on Jewish Emancipation: A Study Equally Pleasing to Jew and Christian; 1861), was published in Hungarian under the pseudonym Ábir Amiéli, “an Orthodox Jew” (igazhitü izraelita). The pseudonym, as he explains (p. 30), hints at the restoration of national independence (‘ami) that the spirit of Talmudic Judaism (el) is meant to direct to. His authorship of this extremely rare, 30-page booklet promptly condemned to oblivion was established only in 1956, when a family member noted that Natonek had employed the same pseudonym earlier in 1851 in an unpublished manuscript. Already there he had complained bitterly of Israel’s “national suicide,” rejecting “the influence of world events that are meant to awaken national consciousness.” In Mesiás, he presents himself as a liberal Orthodox Jew who nevertheless would not permit his religious zeal to overshadow his humanity, nor his liberalism “to swallow up my Israelite nationality.” His wide-ranging critique of Jewish society and religious indifference includes a harsh condemnation of both the Orthodox and their opponents, focusing upon their purposeful abandonment of hope for “the restoration of Israel’s national independence in Palestine.” He concludes his essay with puzzling Christological references to a separate work wherein he claims to have demonstrated that the Talmud considered Jesus the genuine Messiah and that according to Talmudic reckoning the Messianic era was imminent in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Natonek’s archives and manuscripts are located in Jerusalem at the Central Zionist Archives, A97. See also József Blumberger, Natonek József (Budapest, 1912); Dov Frankel, Re’shit ha-tsiyonut ha-medinit ha-modernit (Haifa, 1959); Mordekhai Frankel, “Yosef Natonek: Hogeh ha-tsiyonut ha-medinit, le-or ketavav,” Kivunim 24 (August 1984): 123–143; Gideon Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology (Hanover, N.H., 1995), pp. 78–80; Shmuel Hacohen Weingarten, Ha-Rav Yosef Natonek (Jerusalem, 1943).