A Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Part One



We will begin to discuss a major dispute that arose between two leading sages in the Land of Zion, and this introduction will help us to understand the historical background of this disagreement. The dispute took place during the period after World War One, when Great Britain began to rule over the Land; moreover, this was the period when the British government gave the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization administrative control over the Jewish communities in the Land, even though the majority of the members of these Jewish communities were committed to the Torah, the Divine Teaching. The communities of these Torah-committed men and women were established before the rise of the modern Zionist movement, and they therefore became known as the “Old Yishuv” – the Old Settlement. In a previous letter, we cited the following comment of the Zionist historian, Yehudah Slutzki, which described the frustration of these Torah-committed men and women when the W.Z.O. was given administrative control over their communities:


“Until the First World War, the Old Yishuv was in control. They had comprised the majority of the Jewish population and now felt like prisoners in their own home.” (Interview in 1970 on the Israeli radio program Zarkor)


The Jewish men and women in Zion who were committed to the Torah were therefore faced with the following challenges:


The W.Z.O. had adopted an ideology which denied the spiritual raison d’etre of our people in the Land of Zion; thus, the W.Z.O. adopted the following resolution in 1911: “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” In addition, the W.Z.O. sought to have “nationalism” replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. The leaders of the W.Z.O. also sought to gain some control over the religious institutions of the Old Yishuv, including its schools, in the hope of bringing the members of the Old Yishuv closer to the secular and nationalistic ideology of their organization.


The Torah-committed Jews of the Old Yishuv who fervently and peacefully opposed the ideology of the W.Z.O. and its attempts to change their spiritual way of life, become known as “Chareidim” – those who are fervently loyal to the Word of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One.


Dear Friends,


The leaders of the W.Z.O. wanted to gain recognition as the leaders of all the Jewish people, and they therefore sought to gain influence and prestige among the Torah-committed Jews in Zion and the Diaspora. As a major step towards this goal, they established a Chief Rabbinate office in Zion. A dispute arose among the Torah-committed Jews in Zion about whether the Chief Rabbinate office sponsored by the secular-dominated W.Z.O. should be recognized and supported by their communities. As we shall later discuss, the two leading sages who became the major figures in this dispute maintained a friendly and respectful relationship with each other despite their strong and passionate disagreement. Their ability to do so has great relevance to the current disputes among Jews who are committed to the path of the Torah.


Some debates and disputes among human beings are motivated by certain negative character traits which need a “tikun” – fixing. These traits include jealousy of the other, hatred of the other, and the desire to always triumph over the other. Although these traits are often an expression of foolish arrogance, they can also be an expression of the inferiority complex of someone who does not realize his true value; thus, he mistakenly thinks that he must put the other person down in order to have any self-worth. Such an individual is also afraid to admit that his view may be incorrect or in need of modification even when presented with overwhelming evidence, for he mistakenly feels that an error on his part diminishes his self-worth. Unfortunately, given the weaknesses of human nature, one can find certain debates and disputes among Torah-committed Jews which are motivated to some degree by these negative traits. Although these individuals may claim that they are only motivated by the search for truth; the real truth is that they are motivated to some degree by the needs of their egos. A major sign of their self-interest is their inability to truly listen to the arguments of the other and evaluate the evidence presented to them.


There are other debates and disputes among Torah-committed Jews which are primarily motivated by the desire to understand the truth of the Torah and the ways in which we are to express this truth as individuals and as a community. Within these higher disputes, the participants are not only willing to passionately present their arguments; they are also willing to listen to the arguments of the other and modify or change their view when given proper evidence. Such a dispute in known in our tradition as, “a dispute for the sake of Heaven” – a term which appears in the following quote from the Mishnah:


“Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will endure, but one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.” (Pirkei Avos 5:17)


In what way will the dispute for the sake of Heaven endure? Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that the phrase “will endure” means that both views will have abiding value, and he writes: 


“But actually, both views will have permanent value because through the arguments each side has presented, both parties will have served to shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed.”


The dispute which we shall discuss is the dispute between Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook regarding the way Torah-committed Jews should react to the Chief Rabbinate office established and funded by the World Zionist Organization. The stories which I shall later share with you reveal that both of these leading sages acknowledged that the other’s view was for the sake of Heaven.


Rav Sonnenfeld was born in 1848, and his family lived in Verbau, a city in the Hungarian region. He arrived in the Land of Zion in 1873, and he settled in Jerusalem, where he became one of the leading sages of the Old Yishuv; moreover, the leading sages of the Old Yishuv later appointed him as the Ashkenazic Rav of Jerusalem. In our letters on Old Jerusalem, we described various aspects of his greatness and nobility of character. In addition, we began to discuss the sensitive and spiritual way in which he related to the Arabs in the region. His great-grandson, Rav Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, mentions in his noted biography of his great-grandfather that Rav Yosef Chaim had a love for “everything in God’s creation”; moreover, his love for all Jews, even for the least observant among them, was “boundless.” (Guardian of Jerusalem, page 192)


Rav Kook was born in Griva, Latvia, in 1865. After holding various rabbinical posts in the region of Latvia, he arrived in the Land of Zion in 1904. He first served as the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, a city on the coast, and in this position, he also served the new settlements in that area. He had a love for all creation, and a boundless love for all Jews, including the least observant among them. He later was appointed by the W.Z.O. to serve as the Ashkenazic Rav of the Chief Rabbinate office which this organization established. It was his decision to accept this position which became the focus of the dispute.


In order to better understand the dispute, we need to be aware that the establishment and growth of the secular-dominated W.Z.O. had caused Torah-committed Jews in both Zion and the Diaspora to be divided into the following two groups: The National-Religious and the Chareidim. The National-Religious were a minority faction within W.Z.O.; however, they were willing to belong to the W.Z.O. and accept the leadership of this organization, as they felt that membership in the W.Z.O. was the best way to renew Jewish life in Zion. They also hoped that they could exert a positive religious influence within this organization, despite their minority status. The name of their National-Religious organization was “Mizrachi” (Eastern).


The Chareidim, however, were opposed to membership in the W.Z.O., as they felt that membership would strengthen an organization which sought to secularize our people. In addition, the leaders of the W.Z.O. claimed to be the leaders of our people, and the Chareidim felt that membership in the W.Z.O. would strengthen this claim and thereby cause Jews, including some religious Jews, to feel that the major criteria for becoming a Jewish leader is a commitment to Jewish nationalism, rather than a commitment to the Torah. In fact, many Torah-committed Jews who were members of the W.Z.O. later left this organization, and they joined Agudath Israel, an international Chareidi organization which was founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages in 1912. During the early 20th century, the majority of the Torah-committed Jews in the Land of Zion were Chareidim, and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld became the major leader of the Chareidim during the period following World War One.


Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook is often mistakenly called the founder of Mizrachi, the National-Religious organization; however, he was not a member of Mizrachi, and he had ties to Agudath Israel. He also tried to start a new Torah-committed organization – “Degel Yerushalayim” – which could serve as a bridge between the secular-oriented Zionists and Torah-committed Jews, but he was not successful in this attempt. In addition, Rav Kook worked together with the leading Chareidi sages of the Old Yishuv. For example, in 1914, these Chareidi sages organized an outreach tour of various settlements of the New Yishuv in the Upper and Lower Galilee (northern region), in order to bring the settlers closer to their spiritual heritage, and the delegation of rabbis on the tour was headed by Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rav Avraham Yitchak Hakohen Kook, and Rav Yonasan Binyamin Hurvitz, the director of Kollel Amsterdam in Jerusalem.


Rav Kook also defended the Chareidim from the attacks of their opponents who viewed the Chareidim as being in the “wilderness” because they refused to join the World Zionist Organization. In an essay which discusses the modern Zionist movement (Igrot R’iah 871), Rabbi Kook writes that this movement “will never be a stronghold for the whole nation, because it intrinsically fails to grasp the holy eternal light of the nation’s soul, the spirit of the true God in its midst; thus, it will do well in the external area of building up the nation, but will never be able to deal with its inner side.” Rabbi Kook adds:


“That inner building stands ready for other workers of an entirely different type. These will develop, from all places, out of the ‘wilderness’ of the Chareidim, those who faithfully and truthfully opposed Zionism because of their pure zealousness regarding the spirit of Hashem, His people, and the foundation of its existence.”


Although Rav Kook was not a member of Mizrachi, he was very popular among its members, for he had written some positive statements about the World Zionist Organization – statements which indicated that the W.Z.O. had a certain positive role in the redemptive process. The members of Mizrachi were therefore overjoyed when the World Zionist Organization decided to appoint Rav Kook as the Ashkenazic Rav of the Chief Rabbinate office which this organization established after World War One.


With the help of Hashem, we will discuss in Part Two of this letter the following questions:


Why did a group of leading Chareidi sages, which included Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, oppose the idea of a Chief Rabbinate office sponsored and funded by the W.Z.O.?


Why did Rav Kook, who was a respected colleague of these Chareidi sages, agree to accept the position as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi in the Chief Rabbinate office sponsored by the W.Z.O.?


Be Well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


In a previous letter, we described the following attempt by the W.Z.O. to influence the schools of the chareidi communities:


Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a major leader of the W.Z.O, felt that the W.Z.O. could eventually gain control over the educational system of the Chareidi communities, beginning with Jerusalem, through offers of financial assistance. He knew that most of the residents of Jerusalem were greatly impoverished after the suffering and economic turmoil of World War I, and that many had died of hunger during the war. He therefore presented the following proposal to leading rabbis of Jerusalem, including Rav Sonnenfeld: The W.Z.O. would help to fund the Torah schools of Jerusalem in exchange for the right to establish courses in these schools which would be more in the spirit of the new Zionist organization. Weizmann therefore made the following blunt statement to these leading rabbis:


“I have ample access to the most sought-after commodity in the world – money! But it is available only for those who fall into line!”


Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld replied to Dr. Weizmann:


“Do you know why the back of the hand is hairy, but the palm is totally smooth? It is to teach the lesson that one’s palms (i.e., the money one receives) must remain totally clean and smooth – without any taint of dishonesty!”


To review this previous letter about the attempts of the W.Z.O. to influence the Chareidi schools, you can visit: http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/guardians2.htm


An e-mail copy can be sent you upon request.

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