Alt+SHIFT: Rav Shach as Ish HaHashkafa

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | February 16, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Avishay Ben Haim, Ish HaHashkafa: HaIdeologia HaHaredit al pi HaRav Shach (Mosaica, 2004), 186 pages

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l (1899-2001) passed away more than two decades ago but his influence continues to dominate the Haredi world; indeed, it is argued, he had the greatest impact of any ultra-Orthodox figure since the founding of the Jewish state. Avishay Ben Haim’s book looks at R. Shach’s theological worldview, with less focus on his political role, and this offers an important corrective to the bookshelf of studies pitched at general Israeli readers. But since R. Shach’s influence in both spheres cannot always be so easily separated out, I will begin with a brief description of his political influence.

As a Rosh Yeshiva of Bnei Brak’s famed Ponivizh Yeshiva, and as the head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, R. Shach was well positioned to serve as a Haredi authority. He actually launched two political parties: helping the Orthodox Sefardi world create Shas, and splitting off from Agudah to form Degel HaTorah, a move that divided the political branches of Israeli Hasidim and Mitnagdish Lithuanians. He started an incredibly influential Haredi newspaper, Yated Ne’eman. He was a vocal critic of secularism and Zionism, but made the important move of accepting (increased) State funding of Haredi yeshivot, in 1977, something which aided the incredible growth of that sector in the last four decades.

R. Shach was involved in many disputes including his criticism of Chabad messianism, his anger with Shas for ignoring his directive and joining a left-wing government in 1992, his split from Agudah, and his portrayal of secular Zionism as devoid of values. He even wrote of the importance of being a ba’al mahloket, something we usually consider a negative trait, since good wars have to be fought. In a related vein, R. Shach wrote that he did not understand the concept of a hidden Tzaddik because the truly righteous need to get involved in the issues of the day and that requires taking public stands.

Some pundits did not understand R. Shach’s combination of dovish political views with his preference for the hawkish Likud over the leftist Labor party, but Ben Haim nicely clarifies the blend. R. Shach believes in a quietist passivism that sees Am Yisrael as a sheep among seventy wolves. Gentile hatred for the Jewish people is a constant (“It is a halakha that Esau hates Jacob”) and survival depends on keeping our heads down and adopting the subservience that Jacob showed when he reencountered his brother. Only the gentles can live by the sword as manifested in Isaac’s blessing to Esau (Genesis 27:40). It is a mistake to identify his pacifism with liberal values.

Note how far the quietism goes. R. Shach says the success of the Entebbe rescue did not prove that it was the right move to begin with. He showed no enthusiasm for Israel successfully blowing up Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Only God can bring salvation and the Jews cannot defeat powerful gentile nations with military force.

R. Shach sees the Israeli left as a continuation of the Enlightenment ideology that rejects religion. Just as previous rabbis fought early reformers, we must fight the likes of Shulmait Aloni and Yossi Sarid (the leaders of Israeli political secularist party movement throughout the 1980s to early 2000s). Furthermore, R. Shach showed great skepticism about any human-generated ideology. Communism and Nationalism have both produced bad track records, and Zionism, he predicted, will likely follow the same trajectory. Only a God-generated system brings about the ultimate good. Keeping Torah has preserved us for millennia and it alone can continue to do so.

His attitude to human initiative and endeavor came to the fore in his response to the moon landing. While many celebrated this massive achievement, R. Shach stressed how little humanity understands about our vast universe and that God never intended man to live on other planets. His criticism of other ideologies extends to democracy which he called a curse and a cancer. All modern ideologies are forms of hedonistic materialism.

Regarding the Israeli political right, R. Shach identifies them as Jews with a simple faith in God even as they do not observe many mitzvot. Here, he thinks of traditional Sefardim who support Likud. Feeling a greater affinity with such voters, he was willing to join right-wing governments but not those dominated by the left. At the same time, he did not minimize the difference between Haredim and secular Likud supporters. He emphasized that while Menachem Begin uses more traditional language, he remained a secular Jew divided by a chasm from religious Jewry.

R. Schach outlined a coherent theology that has had tremendous influence on contemporary Haredi society. However, I found several of his ideas troubling. He sees the Holocaust as a punishment for secularism (that, he suggested, is why Sefardim were far less affected), he termed the Zionists rodfim, he called Shimon Peres a moser for supporting an investigation after the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, and wrote that yeshiva students do more for the war effort, by standing “guard” in the study hall, than any military force. I cannot make my peace with a religious voice that fails to show any gratitude towards secular Jews who risk their lives to guard our country. And yet, what comes from reading Ben Haim’s book is an awareness of the importance of R. Shach’s thought and its enduring impact among the Haredi faithful and their leaders.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

Leave a Reply