The Surprising Endurance of Va-Yoel Moshe’s Antizionism

Menachem Keren-Kratz Tradition Online | March 2, 2021

It is worth remembering that from the advent of modern Zionism many Jews rejected this ideology, which symbolized for some an abomination, heresy, and the worst collective sin ever committed by the Jewish people. Since its first publication in 1960, Va-Yoel Moshe – written by the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum – has been considered the most radical articulation of that worldview. 

For more than 100,000 Satmar Hasidim, and an even greater number of members of the radical Haredi groups associated with the Edah Haredit in Israel and Hitachdut HaRabbanim in North America, Va-Yoel Moshe became a canonical text. It is taught in special classes, both in yeshivot and by independent study groups, and hundreds of rabbis around the world cite the book regularly during their sermons at public events. Excerpts from the book are quoted and interpreted in pamphlets that are distributed every weekend in synagogues worldwide and are also sent by mail to thousands of subscribers. Va-Yoel Moshe inspires various zealous groups, such as Neturei Karta, whose provocative demonstrations, such as their participation in protests alongside radical Muslims who seek the annihilation of Israel or when they burn Israeli flags, challenge and aggravate Jews worldwide.

The ideology expressed in Va-Yoel Moshe can be reduced to two fundamental principles. First, it claims that Zionism in general and the State of Israel, in particular, are the worst sins imaginable. This sin was so grave that God’s only possible response to it was the Holocaust. Second, that only a small group of Jews, namely those who accept the ideas expressed in Va-Yoel Moshe, are “true Jews,” while all others who call themselves Jews are imposters who are either false or flawed. This group of “fake Jews” contains not merely secular, assimilated, Reform and Conservative Jews, but even religious and Haredi Jews. Since these are merely “fake Jews,” the book suggests that there is no real need to consider their rabbis’ ideological stands or halakhic rulings.

Although Va-Yoel Moshe is probably the most recognized anti-Zionist text, it is by no means the first one. The gathering of the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 prompted several Orthodox activists to formulate their anti-Zionist ideas and to publish them. They were followed by a few dozen other anti-Zionist publications which appeared in several countries throughout the first half of the twentieth century. There are three main reasons to explain why while all other anti-Zionist texts have been largely forgotten, Va-Yoel Moshe retains its status among the more radical Haredi groups.

First, its author. Almost all writers who published anti-Zionist books were second- and third-tier activists who expressed their own opinions and sometimes attached a few letters of support from more established rabbis. No other prominent rabbi had ever devoted an entire book to laying out his anti-Zionist worldview. When Va-Yoel Moshe was published, Rabbi Yoel was already known throughout the Jewish world as one of the most outstanding Hasidic leaders after the Holocaust. He not only headed his own large Hasidic court but also Hitachdut Ha-Rabbanim, the organization of radical anti-modern and anti-Zionist rabbis in America as well as the Edah Haredit, the organization of Israel’s most radical and anti-Zionist Haredi groups. 

Second, unlike the former authors of anti-Zionist texts, who aimed them at secular and religious Zionist readers in hope of persuading them from going in the wrong direction, Rabbi Yoel’s audience was his own Hasidim, who were already convinced that Zionism was the greatest sin of all. While until then they had only heard these arguments during his sermons, now they could read them in a book, the only book their revered rebbe had ever written. The fact that it was based on thousands of sources presented Va-Yoel Moshe as a text rooted deeply in ancient Jewish traditions.

Third, the religious ideology Rabbi Yoel promoted in America was Hungarian-style extreme Orthodoxy. Its leaders in Hungary took a hard line not only against the secular, the maskilim, and the non-Orthodox but also against mainstream Orthodoxy, which they condemned for being excessively lenient and prone to compromise, thereby creating a social framework that formed an enclave within an enclave. Since mainstream Orthodoxy was represented by Agudat Israel, the book not only condemned Zionism, but also Agudat Israel which cooperated with it. 

The most efficient way to establish a barrier between mainstream Orthodoxy and Satmar’s extreme Orthodoxy was through halakhic ruling. Consequently, Rabbi Yoel steered the pro- and anti-Zionist discussion away from abstract ideas that had no practical consequences, such as the role and destination of the Jewish people; loyalty to the Torah’s true path; and the anticipated coming of the messiah, toward the field of halakha. Issuing a halakhic ruling that forbade Jews to vote in the Knesset elections and barred Haredi delegates from serving as members of parliament, created a clear-cut border between those who complied with Rabbi Yoel’s ruling and those who ignored it.

Seeking to reinforce the extreme Orthodox ideology and to accentuate its unique stand vis-à-vis mainstream Orthodoxy, Rabbi Yoel never bothered to address the usual topics discussed in mainstream rabbinical literature. For example, the book neither called for greater observance of the mitzvot, nor condemned Zionism for its secular worldview and for its anti-Haredi policy. Nor did it deal with the numerous other issues that previous anti-Zionist texts had addressed. Instead, it focused solely on the three major points that exposed the ideological gap between Rabbi Yoel’s worldview and that of mainstream Orthodoxy as represented by Agudat Israel.

In the book’s first section Rabbi Yoel asserted that the basic principles of Zionism violate the Three Oaths Midrash and thus constitute an extreme form of heresy that, indirectly, serves to justify the severe punishment that God meted out to the Jews—namely the Holocaust. He draws the conclusion that the Zionists are evil and that anyone who cooperates with them, such as Agudat Israel, cannot be regarded a God-fearing Jew. In the second section he claimed that, contrary to common belief, there is no halakhic obligation to settle in Eretz Israel, at least not for the time being. This too constituted a direct attack on Agudat Israel’s policy of encouraging the settlement of Haredi Jews in Eretz Israel. In the third section, he asserted that the use of Hebrew as a spoken language, as was the practice in many of Agudat Israel’s schools, yeshivot, newspapers and conventions, is forbidden by the halakha.

Because Rabbi Yoel lived for another twenty years, and persistently reiterated these ideas, the work made an indelible impression on several generations of his Hasidim, who could now not only listen to their spiritual leader but were able to cite and interpret his words. Despite its rejection by all other mainstream Orthodox rabbis, his Hasidim acknowledged Va-Yoel Moshe as a canonical text. The fact that the book was so closely identified both with Rabbi Yoel and with his community, thereby creating a mystical leader / holy text / community triangle, made it so resistant to the passing of time. Even after his death, the book and its ideas still connected the Hasidim with his memory. 

During the ensuing decades, the book has reappeared in more than a dozen full editions and has been translated into several languages. At least thirty further volumes have offered interpretations, adaptions for children, compiled digests, or reviewed its relevance to various ideological issues or halakhic rulings. Nowadays the book is also available online, and unlike in the past, copies of Va-Yoel Moshe can today be found in the libraries of many mainstream yeshivot. Consequently, discussions its contents are no longer limited to the extreme Orthodox groups, but exist among other religious groups such as Modern Orthodox, mainstream Haredim, and religious Zionists, as well as in academia.

Dr. Menachem Keren-Kratz recently published the first extensive biography of R. Yoel Teitelbaum – the first written by a non-Haredi author. The Hebrew volume, HaKanai (Zalman Shazar Center), is based on his doctoral dissertation, presents thousands of sources, and reveals many unknown facts about the Satmar Rav’s turbulent and inspiring life, and is available for purchase in Israel or the United States.

Register here to join the virtual book launch on March 8, 2021 (Adar 24) at 7:00 p.m. (IST) = Noon (EST) on Zoom. 

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