RESPONSES: The Rav’s Early Zionism

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To the Editor:

R. Seth Farber is correct in concluding that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “sympathies for Zionism were in place before the war,” that is, before the Holocaust (“Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Early Zionism,” TRADITION, Spring 2020). However, it is important in this regard to distinguish between the historical question as to when the Rav publicly and organizationally affiliated with Mizrachi and the philosophical question of what was the thinking that led the Rav to make the move—one that was so personally painful. For it is precisely the clarity and originality of that thinking that made the Rav the spiritual leader of Modern Orthodoxy as well as of Religious Zionism. The switch from Agudah was not some sort of sudden revelatory conversion. His Agudah affiliation was formal, to be expected of members of that family and of those deeply immersed in the Yeshiva culture. Actually, the ideological transition to Mizrachi was the gradual and natural consequence of the opening of the Rav’s eyes to the dark and perilous reality of world Jewry, a reality the Rav discovered during his formative years in Warsaw and Berlin (1924-1932). In this post-World War I period, kaleidoscopic changes were taking place: populations were on the move, millions of Jews had migrated to the United States without their spiritual leaders, national boundaries had been redrawn, Eretz Yisrael had been freed from Ottoman rule, the breakup of the Austria-Hungarian Empire had given rise to national movements, among them the fledgling Political Zionist Organization. Its development had been encouraged by the Balfour Declaration (1917) and by the San Remo Conference (1920). This spelled opportunity. However, the dangers were most threatening and immediate. Decimated Jewish communities were poverty stricken. Emancipation had spurred assimilation and the traditional Rabbinic leadership was not meeting the challenges of modernity. Overall the black clouds of state-sponsored Antisemitism were gathering as countries came under totalitarian rule.

Before the Rav left for the United States in 1932 it was clear to him that there was no future for the cherished way of life of his childhood and that the very existence of those Jewish communities were threatened. Thus the program of the Mizrachi, which had been established in 1902, seemed both suitable and practical. Political Zionism had brought to the fore the national component in Judaism and was awakening Jewish historical consciousness while its practical aspect of settling Jews in the Holy Land was of existential importance. For sure, Orthodox Jews had a very different vision of a Zion rebuilt. But why not join our secular brethren and establish a Torah foothold in this historic project? As we all know, the response of the traditional Rabbinic leadership was intensely and almost ferociously negative Their main argument, which as a teenager in a Brooklyn Yeshiva I heard over and over again, was that “one is forbidden to join with rashaim (bad actors) even for a mitzva” (a reference to the secular life style of the leaders of the Zionist organization). To this the Rav responded, “Providence is using these secular Jews as agents to implement His great plans for the Holy Eretz Yisrael.”

As to the opposition of so many halakhic authorities, the Rav retorted:

God handed over technical legal matters to the authority of the Sages, to rule on what is clean and what is unclean, to decide between obligation and exemption, forbidden and permitted. But in historical questions, not those relating to the legal status of ovens…but those relating to the destiny of the Eternal People, God Himself decides as to whose interpretation shall become the “law” (the historical development). Nor can any one dispute the ruling of God in this domain. In the controversy between Joseph of yore and his brothers thousands of years ago, God decided in accord with Joseph’s interpretation of the historical process. In our days, the creator of the universe similarly decided that the historical “law” will be as the Joseph of 5662 [1902; the year of the founding of Mizrachi]. [The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses (Tal Orot, 1983), 32.]

This has enabled them to lay the groundwork for Torah in Eretz Yisrael.

In discussing the “Zionism” of individuals such as Maimonides, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Menachem M. Schneerson, or the Rav, it is important to remember that their understanding of the centrality and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael in our past and to our future was classic, complete, and comprehensive. To inquire about their “Zionism” is only to ask about their attitude towards the reality of the condition of Eretz Yisrael in their own time and place.

The title of the derasha, in which the misleading reference to the Holocaust appears, as mentioned by Farber, is “And Joseph Dreamt a Dream.” Perhaps the Joseph referred to here is not the biblical hero, but the Joseph Dov Halevi of 1903-1993.

Shubert Spero
Jerusalem; Rabbi Emeritus, Young Israel of Cleveland

* * * * *

I was excited by the new information presented recently in TRADITION by Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber regarding Rabbi Soloveitchik’s early Zionism. It indicates all the more how great was the influence of Rabbi Eliezer Silver on the Rav. Already in the 1930s, Rabbi Silver, the founder of Agudath Israel in America, declared: “The Mizrachi is my younger sister!”— 

[Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era in American Jewish Orthodoxy: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation (Feldheim, 1981), 156]

Aaron Rakeffet, Gruss Kollel, Jerusalem

[Published on September 7, 2020]

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