Defending Our Identity!


Dear Friends,


The term “identity” can refer to the distinguishing characteristic of an individual or a group. As I developed a deeper understanding of Torah, I also developed a deeper respect for the unique identity of each person and each group. Within creation we find a large group called “humankind”; moreover, humankind is composed of the peoples of the earth, each with its own identity.


In previous series, we cited classical sources within our tradition which reveal the following Torah perspective: The unique identity of a person expresses his or her unique purpose within the Divine creation; the unique identity of humankind expresses its unique purpose within the Divine creation; and the unique identity of each people expresses its unique purpose within the Divine creation. This is why our tradition does not define any of the above identities in “secular” terms, for each of them, when properly understood and expressed, serves the sacred and life-giving purpose of our Creator. Each identity therefore has a spiritual purpose. With this awareness, we can gain a better understanding as to why the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages strongly opposed the attempts by the World Zionist Organization to deny the spiritual nature of Jewish identity.


One of the strongest attacks on the concept of a spiritual Jewish identity came from Jacob Klatzkin, a leading activist within the World Zionist Organization who also served for a period as the editor of its official organ, Die Welt. Klatzkin defended the secular vision of Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet, The Jewish State, for as Klatzkin wrote, “Zionism” has the following purpose:


“Its real beginning is The Jewish State and its basic intention, whether consciously or unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria.” (cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg)


Klatzkin added: “Zionism began a new era, not only for the purpose of making an end to the Diaspora but also in order to establish a new definition of Jewish identity – a secular definition.” (Ibid)


In order to achieve this secular goal, the World Zionist Organization passed a resolution in 1911 which proclaimed:


 “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.”


In addition, the W.Z.O. began to establish schools and cultural programs which would accelerate the secularization of our people through stressing that “nationalism” has replaced the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. The W.Z.O. also stressed the importance of secular leadership, and they therefore opposed the spiritual leadership of the leading Torah sages. (As we mentioned in the previous letter, “A Mitzvah of Tikun,” Theodor Herzl envisioned a secular Jewish state where the concerns of the rabbis would be limited to the temples.)


These attempts to secularize our people caused a good number of the religious members of the W.Z.O. to resign, and many of those that resigned later joined a new international Jewish organization, Agudath Israel, which was founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading Torah sages in 1912 on the following principle: We are a people with a spiritual identity, for the fulfillment of the Torah is the raison d’etre of our people.


 There was, however, a Torah-committed organization which decided to remain within the World Zionist Organization. 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.” The leading sages who guided Agudath Israel disagreed with Mizrachi, for they felt that Torah-committed Jews should not be members of the World Zionist Organization, for this would strengthen an anti-religious organization which sought to replace our spiritual identity as the people of the Torah with a secular identity based on nationalism.


As I hope to later discuss, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook was a leading sage of that period who was greatly admired by the members of Mizrachi, for although Rav Kook opposed the secular goals of the World Zionist Organization, he felt that the development of this organization had some positive benefits. Rav Kook, however, refused to join Mizrachi, and he attempted to start a new Torah Organization, Degel Yerushalyim (the Banner of Jerusalem), which would be independent of the World Zionist Organization and which would focus on the rebuilding of Zion in the elevating spirit of the Torah. To his dismay, he did not succeed in this attempt.


There were members of the World Zionist Organization, including some members of Mizrachi, who argued that anyone who did not join and strengthen the World Zionist Organization was lacking in love for the People of Israel. Anyone familiar with the lives of the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and the other leading sages who opposed membership in the W.Z.O. would be amused by this accusation, for these sages were known for their great love for our people. We therefore need to remember the following statement of Dr, Chaim Weizmann, a major leader of the W.Z.O., regarding his major ideological opponent in Zion, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld:


“It is extremely difficult to fight against Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld’s brand of pure and objective truth, especially when it flows from a warm Jewish heart completely permeated with the love of the land and the People of Israel.”


The opposition of these sages to the World Zionist Organization was “because” of their love for the People of Israel. As we discussed in a previous letter, true love for other individuals should include the love of the beautiful and sacred potential within each of them: the love of their souls. In that letter we also cited teachings and stories which reveal that true love for the People of Israel should include the love of the beautiful and sacred potential within this people: the love of their collective soul. As the Chofetz Chaim taught us:


“The soul of Israel is the holy Torah.” (Chofetz Chaim on the Torah, Parshas Bo)


Through the giving of the Torah, we were assigned a spiritual and universal mission; moreover, we became a nation whose inner identity would be defined by this mission. As Hashem proclaimed to our people at Mount Sinai:


“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).


In this way, we can become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6); however, the W.Z.O. stressed that our ultimate goal is to be like all the nations by becoming another nationalistic entity. Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl was a leading activist in Agudath Israel, and he indicated that the goal of becoming just another nationalistic entity like all the nations was opposed to the universal goal of Judaism. Rabbi Weissmandl was known for his dry humor, and in one conversation with a Zionist leader, he said:


“You have exchanged a universal religion for a Paraguay!” (Torah-Judaism and the State of Israel by Uriel Zimmer)


Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen, a son of the Chofetz Chaim, tells the story of how someone once read to his father an article from the newspaper HaMelitz in which the hope was expressed that the Jews of Palestine would emulate the people of Bulgaria, whose people had risen up against the Turks and gained their independence to become a nation like any other. Rabbi Aryeh Leib writes that his elderly father began to weep, and he cried out: “Is this why Jewish blood has been spilled during the past eighteen hundred years – so that we could become another Bulgaria?” (Cited in, “Chofetz Chaim – A Lesson a Day,” in the section, “Vignettes from the Life of the Chofetz Chaim”)


The reason I can share the above story with each of you who is receiving this series is because you have the spiritual sensitivity to recognize that these were tears of love. The love of the Chofetz Chaim included a love for our spiritual potential, and he did not want us to forget about this great potential within us.


He also did not want us, the people of the Torah, to forget about the great spiritual potential within the human being; thus, he wrote:


“Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that, ‘God created the human being in His image.’ The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One – to do good and act with loving-kindness with others; moreover, it is written in Scriptures (Psalm 145:9), ‘Hashem is good to all and His compassion is on all His works.’ ” (Cited in “Loving Loving-kindness – Part 2”)


It is therefore not surprising that the Chofetz Chaim felt loving concern for all human beings, and the following story can serve as an example: A rabbi who had returned from a trip to the Jewish community of South Africa came to visit the Chofetz Chaim, who lived in Poland. During the visit, the Chofetz Chaim asked him, “What is the situation of the Blacks in South Africa?” The rabbi, who was aware of the Chofetz Chaim’s constant and deep concern about the very serious problems and dangers facing the Jewish people, asked the elderly sage, “Why is the Rebbe so concerned about the Blacks in South Africa?” To which the Chofetz Chaim responded:


“First, they are also people. Secondly, it says that eventually the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, which includes everyone, so shouldn’t I be concerned with their welfare?” (Jewish Observer, Kislev 5663)


Yes, all human beings have a spiritual identity, and they will all become fully aware of this identity in the age when, “the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covering the sea bed” (Isaiah 11:9).



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen 


P.S.  The book, “Chofetz Chaim – A Lesson a Day” is about ethical speech. For further information, visit:  .

Hazon - Our Universal Vision