The “Renewal” Tour of the Rabbis: Part One

This two-part letter is dedicated to the memory of my beloved and honored father, Shlomo Ben Avraham (Seymour Oboler). His yahrtzeit – the anniversary of his passing – is on the 2nd of Teves, which in most years coincides with the Eighth Day of Chanukah.




In the previous letter – Renewing the “Light” of Our Menorah – we cited the following call of the Prophet Isaiah to our people:


“O House of Jacob: Come let us go by the light of Hashem!” (2:5)


As we began to discuss, the Torah-committed men and women of the Old Yishuv strived to live by the light of Hashem. In addition, they strived to bring this Divine light into the new neighborhoods that they built outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem and into the new agricultural settlements that they established. They were living in the Land of Zion before the rise of the modern Zionist movement.


 In 1882, the settlers of the modern Zionist movement began to arrive in the Land, and their communities became known as the “New Yishuv.” A major group among them was called “BILU” – a Hebrew acronym based on the ancient words which we cited above:


“O House of Jacob: Come let us go.”


The BILU pioneers removed from this ancient proclamation the concluding words, “by the light of Hashem.” There was therefore a clash of two visions regarding Zion – one which included the “light of Hashem” and one which omitted the “light of Hashem.” This clash caused tensions between the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv. A group of leading rabbis representing the Old Yishuv therefore decided to go on an outreach tour of the settlements of the New Yishuv in an attempt to ease the tensions through a renewal of the “light of Hashem.” In part one of this letter, we shall discuss the strong anti-religious prejudice that the rabbis needed to challenge, and in part two of this letter, we will focus on the tour itself – the message that the rabbis brought to the pioneers of the New Yishuv and the way this message was received.


Dear Friends,


Before World War I, the modern Zionist movement experienced two waves of immigration to the Land. The first wave – known as the “first aliyah” – took place during the period between 1882 and 1903. Among these immigrants, there were those who had adopted secular ideologies, those who were Torah-observant, and those who had a traditional orientation which included some religious observances. The second wave – known as the “second aliyah” – took place during the period between 1904 and 1914. Many of the immigrants of the second aliyah were young Jewish radicals from Russia who had developed a prejudice towards Judaism. The majority of the leading activists of the second aliyah had an ideology which was a combination of nationalism and socialism; moreover, both aspects of their ideology reinforced this prejudice.


In what way did the “nationalist” aspect of their ideology reinforce their prejudice towards Judaism? When I began to study the history of the modern Zionist movement, I discovered that the nationalism of these activists was based on their particular perspective of the early history of our people, when we lived in the Land of Zion. It was a perspective which tended to focus on warriors, instead of prophets and sages; moreover, these activists glorified our military achievements, and, with rare exceptions, they ignored our spiritual achievements. This perspective also caused them to feel distant from the spiritual achievements of our people which took place during the centuries of our exile.


Their approach to Jewish nationalism led them to reject a spiritual message of Chanukah which is expressed in the following words from the portion of the prophets which we chant on the Shabbos of Chanukah:


“Not by might and not by power, but through My spirit, said Hashem, God of the hosts of creation” (Zechariah 4:6).


For example, at the laying of the foundation for Hebrew University – a secular intellectual center for the New Yishuv – one of the speeches contained the following statement:


“We do not say, ‘not by might and not by power’ – but ‘by our might and our power’ ” (cited in “Guardian of Jerusalem”).


These activists came to Zion in order to build a new society which would be based on the nationalistic ideology described above. To their dismay, they discovered religious Jewish communities in Zion that focused on the teachings of our prophets and sages; moreover, the members of these religious communities – who became known as “Chareidim” – took great pride in the spiritual achievements of our people during the biblical period, as well as during the centuries of our exile. In addition, these religious Jews were willing to accept the Divine message, “Not by might and not by power, but through My spirit.” They were therefore viewed as a threat to the new society which the secular and nationalistic activists wanted to establish in the Land of Zion.


In what way did the “socialist” aspect of their ideology reinforce their prejudice towards Judaism? These activists were influenced by the following statement of Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the people.” This statement caused many socialists to feel that “religion” must be eliminated from society in order to achieve the “progressive” goals of the movement. Due to this hostile attitude towards religion, these socialist Zionist activists felt that the religious men and women of the Old Yishuv posed a serious threat to the new society which they wished to establish in Zion. Many of them also developed a strong disdain towards any form of religious Jewish expression. A sad example of this disdain can be found in the following story; however this story also has a hopeful ending:


There was a famous “tzaddik” – righteous person – in Jerusalem who was known as the Rachmistrivker Rebbe. His righteous Rebbetzin (wife of a rabbi) had a special affinity for “baalei teshuvah” – returnees to the Torah path. No one knew why, until the Rebbitzen revealed the reason at a party in which the Rebbetzin, despite her advanced age, insisted on organizing for a newly married baalei teshuvah couple. At that celebration, the Rebbetzin told the guests the following story about her father:

Her father was the grandson of a spiritual giant, the great Chassidic Rebbe who was the illustrious author of the noted work, Bnei Yissaschar. When her father was young, however, he was influenced by the Zionist and leftist ideologies of that era, and he left the fold to join a group affiliated with “Hashomer Hatza’ir” – a socialist Zionist youth organization which was stridently secular.

His group went up to the Land of Zion where he went to work building roads while living on a kibbutz. The young man knew that his grandfather had been a great Jew, and he felt himself pulled on at least one occasion to return to Judaism, but he ignored these feelings.

One day, he saw a fellow kibbutznik sitting before a pile of tefillin (phylacteries used in prayer), tearing them apart and throwing the scrolls within them into a garbage can. He couldn’t contain himself. He cried out:

“Are you crazy? What are you doing? These scrolls have the noblest ideas in all of human literature.” (These sacred scrolls contain various spiritual teachings, including the proclamation to our people known as, Shema Yisrael – the proclamation of the Divine Oneness and Unity which also reminds us of the oneness and unity of all creation.)

His friend, however, just looked at him and kept on pulling the tefillin apart, as if to say, “So what?”

The grandson of the author of Bnei Yissaschar was so shocked that he got up and left the kibbutz. He traveled into Jerusalem and wandered the streets in his shorts and sandals, not knowing where he was going. Finally someone invited him into a synagogue and began studying Torah with him. So fascinated was he by the learning experience, that for the next two years he practically did not leave that synagogue. He eventually became not only a religious Jew but a learned one. He ended up marrying the daughter of a well known Rebbe, and his daughter was the future Rachmistrivker Rebbetzin.

My father was a radical socialist, but he never developed the vitriolic disdain and hatred towards religion which many other radical socialists developed. He had respect for sincere religious people of all faiths, especially when their religious beliefs inspired them to become better human beings. In addition, when he was growing up in New York City during the 1930’s, the American socialist organizations and the American Communist Party had softened their rhetoric against religion. During this period of his youth, my father felt some religious stirrings and began to attend services at his local synagogue, but he did not have a Torah teacher to guide him and answer his questions.


Despite the lack of a Torah education, he was proud of his Jewish heritage, and he was aware that his concern for social justice and love of humanity was connected to Judaism. My father felt a strong bond with his people, and he fought against all forms of anti-Semitism, including the anti-Semitism he discovered within some of his own leftist circles. He also defended the right of the State of Israel to exist, and he was supportive of the State when it had to defend itself against violent enemies that were seeking its destruction. He had a tolerant attitude towards religion, and when I developed a strong interest in Judaism during my childhood, he allowed me to leave public school and go to a Torah-committed day school.


In his later years, my father developed a greater interest in Judaism, and he began to express his faith in God. For example, after the Six Day War, my father felt that Israel was miraculously spared from destruction due to Divine intervention. As an expression of his spiritual appreciation for Israel’s salvation, he took out the set of tefillin which he received on his bar mitzvah, and he began to put them on each weekday. After putting on the tefillin, he would proclaim in Hebrew the opening verse of Shema Yisrael:


“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Have a happy and light-filled Chanukah,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

Related Comments:

1. Rebbitzen Leah Feldman, the wife of my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, attended the party that the Rachmastrivska Rebbetzin gave for the newly married couple, and it was there that Rebbitzen Feldman heard the above story. Rav Feldman told over this story at the convention of Agudath Israel of America in 1999.

2. I highly recommend the following work: “Guardian of Jerusalem – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (Mesorah Publications). For further information on this work, visit:  

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