Author Archives: Lionel Kochan

Lionel Kochan

About Lionel Kochan

Lionel Kochan (1922-2005) was Littman Lecturer in Jewish Politics at Oxford University and Sherman Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. His books include Jews, Idols, and Messiahs and Beyond the Graven Image.

The Messianic Society: A Jewish Utopia

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from
Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought
, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

In the strict meaning of the term–“no place”–the concept of utopia has no application in Judaism.


The characteristic feature of the customary utopia is its remoteness in time and space. It will be inaccessible or perhaps exist in no recognizable area of the world. It may even be located on the moon. It is also frequently set at some future date, or is perhaps a purely intellectual construction.

Ideal Society in an Ideal Land

In this sense no Jewish utopian schemes seem to exist. Even those that come closest to it‑-the Zionist utopias discussed below‑-are unambiguously located in the land of Israel. If, however, utopia is taken to signify the impulse toward some sort of ideal society, then of course it does have its Jewish counterpart, if not precise equivalent, in the concept of the messianic age.

What belongs to the utopian genre in the gentile world belongs to the messianic in the Jewish. There is certainly no identity [between them], but a considerable overlap.

It is this that helps to account for the Jewish contribution, in the form of a secularized messianism, to radical and liberal movements of varied outlook. But the dominant strain within the Jewish context is to emphasize the indispensability of the physical, territorial dimension, although there are occasional tendencies in later kabbalism and Hasidism to spiritualize the messianic ideal and even to spiritualize the land. The ideal society can exist only within the land of Israel (although this, of course, may well be variously defined) and would itself have universal applicability.

Ambiguous Perfection, Catastrophic Initiation

A second distinctive characteristic of the Jewish utopia is the absence of precise description. It seems that the utopian future is to be visualized in terms of a society that embodies a broad framework of values, with their precise implementation in the mechanism of daily life being left an open question.

Zionist Utopias

In 1902, just two years before his death, Theodor Herzl, the leader of political Zionism, published Altneuland (Old-New Land), presenting his vision of a socialist utopia. Ten years earlier, Elhanan Leib Lewinski had published Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800, his vision of a utopian society in the year 2040 (5800 in the Jewish calendar). The following article briefly describes the characteristics of these utopian societies. Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

The new state of [Theodor] Herzl’s Altneuland is located in Palestine, lying east and west of the Jordan with indeterminate boundaries to the south and north that do, however, stretch into Syria. It is based on a form of anarcho‑syndicalist ideals [i.e. ideals based on revolutionary, socialist unionism] and lacks means of coercion.

Land is publicly owned. A form of public ownership governs the operations of banks, industries, newspapers, and retail stores. Agriculture flourishes, fertilized by vast irrigation works, which also bring life to the desert areas. The swamps have been drained. Transport is electrified, the energy being drawn from water power, particularly from a canal created by the excavation of a vast tunnel joining the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea.

The latter’s chemical resources in bromium and potassium have made the country a world production center. The towns are spacious and well-planned, enjoying the benefits of a noiseless mass transit system. Men work a seven‑hour day; women have the vote. Cooperation is the keynote of political, agricultural, and social life, eliminating the exploitation of man by man. Criminals are not punished but reeducated. Education up to university level is free. The old city of Jerusalem is surrounded by modern suburbs, parks, institutes of learning, markets, and architectural triumphs.

In cultural respects, Altneuland is marked by tolerance for all faiths, religion being relegated to the status of a private concern, although the Sabbath remains the general Jewish festival. The reestablished Temple takes the form of a modern synagogue. But society does not concern itself with whether men worship the Eternal "in synagogue, church, mosque, in the art gallery or the philharmonic concert." There is no official language, although German predominates.