Both Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook believed in the importance of outreach to Jews who had abandoned the Torah path or who were weak in their commitment to this path. For example, both of these great sages led a rabbinic outreach tour of various settlements of the New Yishuv during 1914, in order to bring the settlers closer to their spiritual heritage. And both of these sages were known for their enduring love of all Jews. Their major dispute was about whether supporting the Chief Rabbinate office of the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization was a good way to do outreach, or whether such support would actually strengthen an organization whose ultimate goal was to secularize the Jewish people and thereby cause damage to our Torah way of life. Rav Kook favored supporting the Chief Rabbinate office of the W.Z.O., and Rav Sonnenfeld was against supporting this office.
Regarding the dispute between these two great sages, the book, “Guardian of Jerusalem,” states:
“Despite the seriousness and intensity of the clash between Rav Yosef Chaim and Rav Kook, the dispute never entered the personal realm, and each displayed his high regard for the other. Even at the height of the dispute, whenever Rav Yosef Chaim and Rav Kook would meet at a bris (circumcision) or wedding, they would engage each other in friendly conversation, taking no pains to hide their mutual esteem.”
In this stage of the series on the soul of Zion, we have begun to learn about the life and teachings of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. I will therefore begin this letter with a story which reveals the great esteem that Rav Kook had for Rav Yosef Chaim. The story mentions the term bochur’l – an affectionate Yiddish term derived from Hebrew which refers to a young man or youth. The story also mentions the ancient Sambatyon River – a river which cannot normally be crossed due to its great turbulence:
When the dispute surrounding the Chief Rabbinate office of the W.Z.O. was at its peak, Rav Shmuel Hillel Shenker, Rav Yosef Chaim’s son-in-law, received an urgent telegram from Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, a leading sage in Europe, which required the immediate attention of Rav Kook. Rav Shmuel Hillel immediately dispatched his son, Yehoshua Leib, to take the telegram to Rav Kook. The youth entered Rav Kook’s home and found the Rav seated at a table with his closest supporters. Somewhat uncomfortable in the territory of the opponent of his grandfather, the youth nevertheless proceeded to the head of the table, where someone suddenly pointed him out as Rav Yosef Chaim’s grandson. As soon as Rav Kook heard this, he extended his hand and blessed the boy with unusual warmth. He sensed the boy’s discomfort, and he held the youth’s trembling hand while walking to a side room. After glancing briefly at the telegram, Rav Kook asked the boy to sit and inquired as to the well-being of his entire family. Rav Kook then rose, opened a drawer, and drew out a sheaf of papers. Turning to the youth, he smiled warmly and said:
“Look at my certificates of ordination from the world’s greatest Torah authorities and these letters addressed to me by the greatest of the leading sages of the Diaspora, and you will realize that I am not quite like that which people say about me.”
Bochur’l, he continued, “I give you my absolute word that in our innermost hearts, your grandfather, Rav Yosef Chaim, and myself are intimate friends. I also give you my absolute word that were your grandfather on the other side of the Sambatyon River, that I would spare no sacrifice to bring him here. The reason I can associate with the leftists and irreligious is only because there is a tzaddik like Rav Yosef Chaim who stands and admonishes, chides and remonstrates – that is why I can draw close to them and draw them close to me. But you should know, bochur’l, that if Rav Yosef Chaim did not do what he does or protest as strongly as he does – then I would have to do what he does and protest as strongly as he.”
Rav Kook was referring to Rav Yosef Chaim’s protest against strengthening the secular-dominated W.Z.O. through supporting its Chief Rabbinate office. Rav Kook was aware that Rav Yosef Chaim protested because he felt that any formal association which would strengthen an organization whose ultimate goal was to have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people would be an association that could do more harm than good. As the above words of Rav Kook indicate, he recognized that Rav Yosef Chaim’s concerns provided a needed balance to his own approach.
I have a close friend who grew up in a community devoted to the teachings of Rav Kook, and he told me that he was familiar with this story. I was glad to learn that there are contemporary followers of Rav Kook, as well as contemporary followers of Rav Sonnenfeld, who know this story.
Another story: When Rav Kook’s niece was about to be married, the groom came to Jerusalem to receive the blessings of his bride’s uncle. The groom approached Rav Kook and requested “the blessing of a Kohen and tzaddik.”
Rav Kook smiled and replied, “My son, if you have come for the blessing of a Kohen, then my blessing is given to you. But if you seek the blessing of a tzaddik, then go to Battei Machseh in the Old City; there lives the tzaddik, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and he will bless you.”
I will conclude this letter with the following personal message: We are living during a difficult period when we are experiencing the birth pangs of the approaching messianic age. During this period, the hatred between Jews that caused our current long exile is surfacing again, in order that we can work to fully eliminate this hatred from our midst. Unfortunately, there are rigid individuals who refuse to let go of their prejudices towards other Jews and who are therefore part of the problem. For example, someone I know who lives in Jerusalem is promoting a recent article in the secular Israeli media which encourages hatred of Chareidi men and women through presenting an ugly, distorted, and inaccurate stereotype of all the Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite Jews that are part of Chareidi communities. The individual who is promoting this bigoted article refers to himself as a National Religious Jew, and he has been on my mailing list for a few years. He once told me that the Torah teachings I share have encouraged him to rethink his prejudices towards Chareidi Jews; in fact, he responded in a positive way to my recent letter titled, “Please Don’t Hate Me.” What caused his regression? Just as a sip of wine can cause the regression of someone who is struggling to overcome an addiction to alcohol, so too, a hate-filled article in the media can cause the regression of someone who is struggling to overcome an addiction to prejudice. This is what happened to this individual, who once again became a passionate bigot after absorbing the poison from that recent article. Ironically, the wife of this individual has greatly benefited from a Chareidi-sponsored organization which provides help and support to individuals with health-related problems among all segments of Israel’s population, including non-Jews. (He is no longer on my mailing list.)
The healing stories about the respectful relationship between Rav Kook and Rav Sonnenfeld at the height of their dispute should hopefully inspire us to become part of the solution. May all our words and deeds therefore lead to the “shalom of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6).
Be Well, and Much Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. We have begun the three-week mourning period for the destruction of the First and Second Temples. This period concludes with the Fast of Tisha B’Av, which this year begins on Monday evening, July 19th. The Talmud states that a major cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the resulting long exile was the hatred that Jews had for each other (Yuma 9b).
2. To learn more about the highly recommended work, “Guardian of Jerusalem,” visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/YCPH .