Why So Many of the Greatest Leaders in Jewish History Began Life as Jewish Outsiders

An investigation, and a tribute to the 2022 Herzl Prize laureate Roger Hertog.


The Sinai desert on May 12, 2008. Matt Moyer/Getty Images.
The Sinai desert on May 12, 2008. Matt Moyer/Getty Images.
Observation
June 21 2022
About the author

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Tikvah FundHe is the author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (2008), editor-at-large of the New Atlantis, and a contributor to numerous publications.

I have often wondered why some of the greatest leaders in Jewish history grew up without traditional Jewish educations. They began life as Jewish outsiders. The greatest Israelite prophet of all—Moses—grew up in the Egyptian palace, presumably learning the arts of political leadership necessary to rule a people. The greatest Zionist of all—Theodor Herzl—grew up in the world of the Germanic gymnasium, where the habits of the aristocratic heart took shape, including living always with honor. The great sage, Rabbi Akiva, was an uneducated shepherd until middle age, whose remarkable wife stood by him for decades as he became a master teacher of Torah. Ze’ev Jabotinsky—the warrior founder of the Jewish state and Zionist youth movement—grew up immersed in high Russian and Western culture.

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More about: History & Ideas, Jewish history