Introduction: As we discussed in the previous letter, major leaders of the World Zionist Organization wanted our people to become in the Land of Zion a nation like all the nations – a desire which led many members of this movement to abandon their spiritual roots. We mentioned that there are some contemporary secular Zionists who now admit that this “nationalistic” movement eventually led to much assimilation, and we cited the lament of Asher Shiloni. As another example, I will mention the following lament of a noted Israeli secular thinker, Hillel Halkin, who wrote over three decades ago:
“We have developed a society whose one demand from everything, from a philosophical idea to the label of a product on a shelf, is that it bear the seal of that outside world that we have appointed the arbiter of our values and tastes, as paupers once indentured themselves to a master when they could no longer earn their own bread to eat.” (Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Letter 5)
Halkin also admits that the Chareidi communities foresaw this problem when the secular Zionist movement began, and he writes that “they were the first body of opinion to raise the possibility that a Jewish state might paradoxically prove as effective an agent of cultural assimilation for its inhabitants as the Diaspora” (ibid). It is therefore relevant at this stage of our discussion to develop a deeper understanding of the spiritual Chareidi critique of the dominant ideology of the World Zionist Organization.
What does the term “chareidi” mean? The Hebrew word chareid can connote fervent concern or zeal, and it can also refer to the “trembling” that may result from intense loving concern or awe. This word appears in the verse where Hashem promises to be close to “the poor and broken-spirited person who is chareid regarding My word” (Isaiah 66:2). The Prophet Isaiah uses the related term chareidim to describe those who are fervently loyal to the Torah – the Divine Teaching – in an age when many of our people were ignoring the Divine Teaching; thus, the Prophet refers to these loyal souls as those who are “chareidim regarding His word” (Isaiah 66:5).
Contemporary Chareidi communities include members of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, Chassidim, followers of Rabbi Samson Hirsch, Sephardim and Yemenite Jews; moreover, they also include converts, and we shall later tell some of their stories.
It is understandable that Torah-committed Jews, including converts, would be very concerned over the attempts by the World Zionist Organization to have nationalism replace the spiritual vision of the Torah as the raison d’etre of the People of Zion and the Land of Zion. As we mentioned, the W.Z.O. passed a resolution in 1911 which stated, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” In addition, the W.Z.O. also developed schools and cultural programs which stressed a secular and nationalistic definition of the Jewish people.
When these secular Zionist leaders first began their attempts to secularize the Jewish people, they were strongly opposed by groups of Torah-committed Jews that became known as “Chareidim”; moreover, some of the Chareidim were already living in Zion, and as we shall later discuss, Chareidi men and women were involved in some practical projects to renew Jewish life in Zion even “before” the rise of the World Zionist Organization.
The majority of Chareidim joined a new international organization, Agudath Israel, which was founded by leading Torah sages in 1912 on the following principle: The fulfillment of the Torah is the raison d’etre of our people. The founding conference of Agudath Israel therefore proclaimed that its goal was nothing less than “the solution of all problems facing the Jewish people in the spirit of Torah” (The Struggle and the Splendor). Agudath Israel also attracted Torah-committed Jews who had resigned from the W.Z.O. after it passed the resolution that Zionism has nothing to do with religion. They no longer wished to strengthen an organization which denied our spiritual raison d’etre and which sought to have “nationalism” define the meaning of our people and our land.
One of the leading Torah sages who founded and guided Agudath Israel was the Chofetz Chaim. As we discussed in a previous letter, the Chofetz Chaim stressed the following teaching:
The Torah serves as the “soul” of our people and the Land of Israel serves as the “body” of our people; thus, the Land of Israel without the Torah is like a body without a soul.
Dr. Isaac Breuer was a leader and activist in the Jerusalem branch of Agudath Israel. In his response to the Zionist leaders who said, “Let us be like all the nations,” he wrote:
“From remotest centuries there rings out to political Zionism the word of the Prophet Ezekiel (20:32), valid to all eternity: ‘What enters your thoughts - it shall not be! That you say: Let us be like all the nations, like the families of the lands, to serve wood and stone.’ In the eyes of Judaism, self-idolization in the form of absolute nationalism is also service to wood and stone.” (This quote is from his book, Concepts of Judaism.)
Dr. Isaac Breuer was a grandson and follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading Torah sage who helped create a renewal of Torah life in Germany. The followers of Rabbi Hirsch had a major role in the establishment of Agudath Israel, and Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, a follower of Rabbi Hirsch, became the first president of Agudath Israel. When he spoke at the founding conference in 1912, he said:
“The aim of Agudath Israel is to revive an ancient Jewish possession: the traditional concept of Klal Yisrael – Israel’s collective body, animated and sustained by its Torah as the organizing soul.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)
After the W.Z.O. founded the State of Israel in 1948, most Chareidim recognized the State. Chareidim in the Diaspora – including the minority of Chareidim that do not recognize the State – urge the governments of the countries in which they live to help strengthen Israel’s security and economy. For example, Agudath Israel of America has lobbied for economic and military aid to Israel. In 1975, after the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution was passed by the United Nations, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the President of Agudath Israel of America, issued a strong condemnation of the resolution which denied our bond with “Eretz Yisrael” – the Land of Israel, and he stressed:
“The U. N. resolution is aimed at all Jews, for it assails the historical Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah bestowed that right, and any attack on it is an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people.”
All Chareidi communities have strongly condemned a very tiny fringe group of Chareidi zealots who join our enemies in demonstrating against the State of Israel. It is relevant to mention that the Satmar Rebbe, a leading Torah sage who did not recognize the secular State of Israel when it was established, later expelled from his Chassidic community a group of young men who joined a P.L.O. demonstration against the State of Israel.
For the reasons we mentioned, the Chareidim were opposed to strengthening the W.Z.O. and allowing it to have the leading role in guiding our people. They therefore preferred to have an independent Torah organization.
There was, however, a Torah organization that decided to remain part of the W.Z.O., and this organization was called Mizrachi – a term derived from the Hebrew word for “East”; however, today, most of its members describe themselves as Dati-Leumi – a term which literally means “Religious-Nationalistic.” English-speaking members tend to call themselves, “National Religious” or “Religious Zionists.”
Most Religious Zionists have stressed that the establishment of the State of Israel was definitely the beginning of our final redemption. This was not the view, however, of Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetichik – a leading Torah sage of the 20th century who was associated with the Mizrachi movement for part of his life. He did not agree with those members of Mizrachi who proclaimed that the State of Israel was definitely the first flowering of our redemption.
Most Chareidim have taken a more cautious approach than most Religious Zionists regarding whether the establishment of the State was definitely the beginning of the final redemption. For example, when the State of Israel was established with the approval of the United Nations, Agudath Israel responded with the following proclamation:
“The world Agudath Israel sees as a historic event the decision of the nations of the world to return to us, after 2,000 years, a portion of the Holy Land, there to establish a Jewish State and to encompass within its borders the banished and scattered members of our people. This historic event must bring home to every Jew the realization that the Almighty has brought this about in an act of Divine Providence which presents us with a great task and a great test. We must face up to this test and establish our life as a people upon the basis of Torah. While we are sorely grieved that the Land has been divided and sections of the Holy Land have been torn asunder, especially Jerusalem, the Holy City, while we still yearn for the aid of our righteous Messiah, who will bring us total redemption, we nevertheless see the Hand of Providence offering us the opportunity to prepare for the complete redemption, if we will walk into the future as God’s people.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)
Another example of a Chareidi view on the establishment of the State of Israel are the following statements of the Chazon Ish, a leading Torah sage who was a major guide of most Chareidi communities in the Land of Israel:
“We are not witnessing the beginning of the redemption, but the conclusion of the exile.” (The Chazon Ish by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman)
“Perhaps it (the State) is the final test before the coming of the Messiah.” (Ibid)
The ongoing attacks of enemies seeking our destruction, the loss of some of the land which we regained during the Six-Day War, and the acknowledged moral breakdown within much of Israeli society are causing a number of Religious Zionists to reevaluate their belief that the establishment of the State of Israel was “definitely” the beginning of the final redemption. For example, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, a noted Religious Zionist who serves as the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, has made a small change in the way he recites the Religious Zionist prayer for the State: Instead of asking Hashem to bless the State of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption,” he asks for a blessing “so that it will be the first flowering of our redemption” (cited in The Forward, May 5. 2006).
Since I moved to Jerusalem, I have lived and studied in both Religious Zionist and Chareidi communities. In previous letters, I began to share with you some insights which I gained from this experience, and there are additional insights which I hope to discuss in future letters. I also hope to discuss some signs of a future reconciliation between Religious Zionists and Chareidim. In the meanwhile, both groups are strengthening their efforts to lovingly reach out to our brethren in the Land who are not yet Torah-committed. As the Chazon Ish wrote regarding these brethren:
“It is incumbent upon us to draw them to us with bonds of love, so that the light of truth will illuminate their ways to whatever degree possible.” (Cited in The Chazon Ish by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman – ArtScroll.)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The term “Zionism” was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization. He began to question the movement’s stress on political goals, as he felt that there needed to be greater emphasis on the cultural strengths of the Jewish people.
In 1898, he left the Zionist movement in order to become involved with activists who focused on strengthening Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and who viewed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. He then developed an inner awareness of the spiritual goal of the Jewish people, and he returned to the path of the Torah. He began to challenge the modern paganism of his era, but he also challenged Torah-observant Jews to renew their commitment to the revolutionary vision of the Torah through developing holy and holistic communities. His community activism became inspired by Torah, and he became the Secretary General of Agudath Israel. This gifted leader had previously dedicated his life to strengthening organizations that sought to secularize our people, and he now began to dedicate his life to strengthening an organization that sought to spiritually renew our people.