Part Two: The Guardians of Jerusalem!

Dear Friends,


When the settlers of the modern Zionist movement – including many with secular views – arrived in the Land of Zion, they encountered established Torah-committed communities in the Land. Until the end of World War 1, Torah sages – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic – were the recognized leaders of these Torah-committed communities; moreover, under Turkish rule, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi was the official and honored representative of the entire Jewish population. During World War I, the British defeated the Turks, and the British began to rule over the Land of Zion, which they called “Palestine” – a reference to the ancient Philistines who once lived along the coast of the Land. After World War I, the British government gave the secular World Zionist Organization the right to govern the Jewish communities in the Land.
In previous letters, we discussed how most of the leaders of the W.Z.O. believed that a commitment to Jewish nationalism should replace a commitment to the Torah as the raison d’etre of our people. These secular leaders therefore viewed the Torah-committed Jewish communities which were already established in the Land as a threat to the secular and nationalistic regime which the W.Z.O. hoped to establish in the Land. As a result, the W.Z.O. not only wanted to weaken the political power of these religious communities; it also wanted to weaken their spiritual power. The well-funded W.Z.O. therefore attempted to influence the educational policy of the Torah schools of these communities, in order to begin to bring a “nationalistic” and “western” spirit into these educational institutions. The majority of Jews in these communities, however, strongly resisted these attempts, and they continued to follow the leadership of their Torah sages.


After World War I, the main leader of the W.Z.O. was Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann felt that the many members of the Torah-committed communities were the main obstacle to the full control of the W.Z.O. over the political destiny of the Land. This was especially true in Jerusalem where the majority of the Jews were Torah-committed. There was a W.Z.O. meeting which discussed the remaining influence of these religious communities, and Weizmann derisively described these communities as a kloizel – small synagogue. Weizmann told his colleagues:


“As long as this kloizel exists, there is no hope for our own institution to achieve control over the country.”


Dr. Weizmann felt that the W.Z.O. could eventually gain control over the educational system of these 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 the Jewish spiritual leaders of Jerusalem: The W.Z.O. would help to fund the Torah schools of Jerusalem in exchange for the right to establish courses which would express the spirit of the World Zionist Organization. In a very blunt manner, Weizmann made the following statement to the Torah educators and leaders of Jerusalem, including Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld:


“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!”


Weizmann, however, was determined to achieve his goal, especially in Jerusalem. At a community meeting in the spring of 1918 – a meeting which included the impoverished teachers from Jerusalem’s elementary yeshivos for young students – Weizmann presented his proposal and his offer of funding. In response, Rav Avraham Aharon Prague, a leading teacher of Kollel Shomrei Hachomos’ elementary yeshiva, rose and exclaimed:


“We have been entrusted by God and the parents with the souls of these children, and they (the parents) do not desire any change. Are we to violate our sacred trust for the sake of our personal welfare? I propose that we vote a unanimous “no”! We will continue to guide our trust, even at the cost of our personal welfare, to our last breath. And if we are fated to die of hunger, then let us die as courageous men and not sell ourselves for money.”


These words, spoken by one who was himself impoverished and burdened with the need to support a large family, made a deep impression on everyone present.


The teachers then had a separate meeting, and after a short debate, they reached a unanimous decision not to allow the W.Z.O. to make any changes in the curriculum of the elementary yeshivos. Weizmann was informed of their decision, and chagrined by his defeat, he temporarily left Jerusalem.


He returned during the summer of 1918, and he decided to focus his attention on the advanced yeshivos for older students. Weizmann therefore arranged a meeting with leading sages of Jerusalem, including Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin (who was the son of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin – the Brisker Rav – whom we discussed in the previous letter). The meeting took place in the home of Rav Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin. At the meeting, Weizmann presented his plans for a new yeshiva for advanced students with prescribed courses approved by the World Zionist Organization. He claimed that the wealthy W.Z.O. had conceived these plans out of its desire to strengthen Torah institutions, and it would therefore completely fund this yeshiva, which in turn would serve as a model for other yeshivos.


A silence filled the room, and everyone turned to Rav Yosef Chaim, awaiting his response. Rav Yosef Chaim rose to his full height, placed his palms on the table, and addressed Weizmann in a strong, firm voice:


“Definitely not, Dr Weizmann! The yeshivos and elementary schools are ours!  We will conduct them as we see fit and under no circumstances will we allow someone who is not one of us to have any say in our institutions – not in determining their curriculum and not in deciding their essential nature.”


And he added:  


“Even if a recognized rav were to come to Jerusalem with a similar plan for an ‘advanced yeshiva,’ we would still have to give long and hard thought as to whether such an institution has a place in Jerusalem, a city full of Torah scholars and faithful adherents to the Torah. How much more so when the plan originates from one who is far from Torah and mitzvos, who, despite being a representative of a world Jewish organization, has no qualms about publicly desecrating Shabbos. When such a man presumes to portray himself as the concerned patron of Torah scholars, the matter seems extremely suspicious to us. What connection is there between you and the yeshivos? Leave the direction of the citadels of Torah in the hands of those who revere it as the essence of their lives and the focus of their aspirations.”


One rav in the group was fearful that Rav Yosef Chaim’s strong rejection of Dr. Weizmann’s offer would place the income of hundreds of yeshiva people in jeopardy. He drew Dr. Weizmann aside and tried to mollify him by saying that Rav Yosef Chaim was an “extremist”; however, the main thing, he told Weizmann, was not to introduce any sudden, radical change. The rav assured him that, with gradual modification, Weizmann’s ideas for his proposed yeshiva would be gradually accepted.


Weizmann placed his hand on the rav’s shoulder, turned to the other participants in the meeting, and said to the rav:


“Listen. I understand myself and my position. I know what I want and my position is clear. I also understand Rav Sonnenfeld and his position. He knows what he wants and his position is clear – to his way of thinking. But you I don’t understand at all, and I suspect that you yourself don’t know what you want.”


Although Rav Yosef Chaim was his ideological opponent, Dr. Weizmann respected the integrity of this sage; moreover, he told one of his associates:


“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.”


Not infrequently, Dr. Weizmann would leave his office and proceed to Rav Yosef Chaim’s home in the Old City where he would initiate heated and wide-ranging debates about the value of the secular Zionist ideology. In reply, the sage would emphasize the spiritual meaning of the term “Zion.” In the heat of one of these debates, Rav Yosef Chaim turned to Dr. Weizmann and said:
”We pray that we should merit the return of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to Zion as it was in days of yore, before the destruction of the Temple. As stated by all the prophets, the main yearning to return to Zion must be to renew our spiritual lives in Zion – to return to lives of holiness and purity, as it was when the Kohanim and Levites stood at their posts and the populace absorbed Ruach Hakodesh (the Spirit of Holiness) and conducted itself according to the Torah. But to you who call yourselves ‘Zionists,’ Zion is merely a geographical, political, physical concept in which you seek to establish theaters and cultural institutions the same as all the nations, while severing ties with our glorious past. Is this to be called ‘Zion’? There is no greater travesty than this!”
And he added:


“Believe me, I do not love Jews any less then you, and I wish for all non-observant Jews that they should engage in the process of spiritual return and receive all the reward reserved for the righteous.”


Certain people came to Rav Yosef Chaim and asked him if it was not possible, in spite of all the difficulties, to join with Dr. Weizmann and the World Zionist Organization. After all, Weizmann was offering plans and financial resources for building up Jerusalem and establishing its residences on a surer footing. Rav Yosef Chaim replied that the Torah communities needed to remain independent as long as Dr. Weizmann viewed their spiritual values as a relic of the exile which must be uprooted, and as long as he therefore strove to rebuild Jerusalem along the lines of the cultural centers of Paris, London and Berlin.”


Rav Yosef Chaim added:


“We will go our own way and reiterate that the House of Israel is not like all the nations, nor is the Holy City of Jerusalem, palace of the King, like other capital cities. There is no doubt that if we have been exiled from our land because of our sins, then we cannot possibly return with those same sins clothed in modern garb.”


Regarding Jews who had abandoned the Torah path, Rav Yosef Chaim said:


“Most Jews today who have abandoned mitzvos are prisoners of alien cultures and improper education. Were it not for the effects of the long and bitter exile, they would certainly find their way back to their faith and origins.”


Even when Rav Yosef Chaim was forced to defend the Torah way of life from the attacks of the secular Zionists, he would pray for their physical and spiritual welfare, for he was guided by the following principle which is mentioned in the Talmud: Pray for the elimination of sin, but not of the sinners (Brochos 10a).


His struggle was not against the individual members of the W.Z.O.; his struggle was against the dominant ideology of this organization which viewed a commitment to nationalism as the raison d'etre of our people. He therefore opposed the giving of power to this organization. Instead, Rav Yosef Chaim urged Jews to remain loyal to the following spiritual definition of our people which was emphasized by all the Prophets of Israel:
We are the people of the Torah, the Divine Teaching, and we were given the Land in order to fulfill the Torah. Through the power of our own example, we are to inspire all the peoples to live according to the universal and sacred truths of the Torah. Through this process, “Torah will go forth from Zion and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).
In this spirit, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld described the Land of Zion as, “the Holy Land, to which God affords special supervision, from which blessing emanates to the rest of the world, and in which God’s prophets foresaw the future happiness of all humanity.”
Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. Most of the information in the above letter is from “Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. The well-documented historical accounts in this book can help us to understand the roots of current conflicts and problems within Israeli society. For information on this highly recommended work, visit:


Some of you may be interested in the original and larger Hebrew edition – HaIsh AlHaChomah – which has additional documentation.


2. The above story about Rav Yosef Chaim’s reply to Dr. Weizmann’s statement about the money available to those who fall into line is found in the book: “Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the Parashah (weekly Torah portion)” compiled by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. For information on this book, visit:

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