All of these factors explain why, as mentioned before, “Zion” was fast becoming an abstraction in the eyes of Jews throughout the world. The process was becoming increasingly marked after the development of the Kabbalistic messianic doctrines associated with Isaac Luria, the Safed sage of the late sixteenth century.
It was the intense kabbalistic activity of the generations that came after Luria which had the effect of accentuating the symbolic aspects of the Land and removing it to a realm of intense over-spiritualisation. The question had to be asked whether, in such a rarefied spiritual atmosphere where the idea of the Land was weighed down with so much symbolism, the reality of the Land was not being lost.
One who clearly identified this trend and protested against it was the distinguished Chassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslav. In the early nineteenth century, Nachman made a journey to Israel in mysterious circumstances. From the research, it is clear that he was pre-occupied with trying to retain the idea of the reality of the Land, even as he accepted so much of the deep symbolism associated with it. Upon his return, he repeatedly emphasised to his followers the physical nature of the land and the fact that so many Jews whom he had met there confessed that prior to their coming to the land they had perceived it in purely spiritual terms.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some important rabbinic figures encouraged their followers to make the journey to the Land of Israel and to live there. Among those who immigrated were Chassidic students of the Ba’al Shem Tov; anti-Chassidic followers of Elijah, the Gaon [eminence, genius] of Vilna; and the Hatam Sofer, the leader of strictly-Orthodox Hungarian Jewry.
The motives were varied, including:
- An attempt to create a “pure” Jewish centre of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael, away from the “polluted” lands of Europe where Reform Judaism and assimilation were having increasing influence;
- A response to clear Messianic excitement within the traditional Jewish communities of Europe;
- A desire to fulfil the mitzvot (commandments) that could only be performed in Eretz Yisrael.
Some of these initiatives included practical efforts at settlement on the Land and are therefore especially noteworthy. During the late 1870s, attempts were made to found two agricultural settlements, one in Petach Tikvah and the other in Gai Oni (the original Rosh Pinah), but essentially, the ideational framework of these initiatives remained traditional - that is, based on a Messianic vision of the world.
The same might be said for the interesting ideas of a number of nineteenth century rabbinic thinkers who started to talk enthusiastically of the need for the return of Jews to the Land of Israel. However, these figures, who include Rabbis Judah Bibas of Corfu, Yehuda Hai Alkalai of former Yugoslavia and Zvi Hirsh Kalischer of Posen and Thorn, were also influenced by contemporary European events, particularly the unfolding of the emancipation process and the rise of nationalism, both of which led them to believe that the first stage of the redemptive process might be brought about by natural, human means. Despite their considerable efforts including the mapping of practical programs, their influence was limited. In this sense, they fit the category of being Forerunners of Zionism and precursors of Religious Zionism.