I. The Many Flavors of Zionism
Until now, we have discussed two attitudes towards one of Zionism:
1. Messianic Zionism — The belief that the resettling of the land of Israel and the establishment of the state of Israel are the beginning of the Redemption. According to proponents of this view, we are already experiencing the beginning of the Redemption, as the Gemara in Megillah (17b) states: “The beginning of Redemption is war.” The wars Israel is currently fighting are the wars during the Redemption. This view led to the following phrasing of the blessing for the state of Israel that is recited in many synagogues: “Our Father in heaven, the rock of Israel and its redeemer, bless the state of Israel, the beginning of the sprouting of our Redemption (reishis tzemihas ge’ulaseinu).”
2. Anti-Zionism — The conviction that the state of Israel is a satanic creation that is based on evil and brings destruction to this world. Proponents of this view would like to see the state of Israel dismantled, but only the (crazy) ultra-extremists want the Palestinians to have control of the land. Those who share this belief refuse to recognize the state of Israel and do not use its currency. They certainly do not serve in the government, and generally do not vote in Israel’s elections.
These are certainly not the only views on the subject. There is a spectrum of religious approaches to the state of Israel between these two extremes, and the following two are only two general categories that are not meant to be exhaustive (based on R. Yehuda Henkin’s Bnei Banim, vol. 2 ma’amar 2; he then proceeds to suggest a fifth approach that I do not describe here). Every thinker has his own nuanced approach.
3. Non-Zionism — The belief that a secular state of Israel has no religious significance. It has political significance, in that Jews are generally treated well by this government and many lives have been saved by it. However, it is not a “Jewish” state in the sense that being “Jewish” requires subjugation to the laws of the Torah, which the state of Israel does not have. However, culturally and religiously, Jews have fared well under this government, even though at times the state of Israel has been antagonistic, to say the least, towards religion and religious Jews. Non-Zionists might be classified as Zionists by some, in that they encourage living in Israel and treasure the land of Israel. They also participate in the government, just like they would in the government of any land in which they live.
4. Hopeful Zionism — The view that the current return to the land of Israel might be the ingathering of exiles and the state of Israel might lead to the Messianic Era. We don’t know. It might and it might not. We’ll just wait and see. In the worst case, the state of Israel is simply a temporary respite from our long exile that we should enjoy and treasure while it exists. In the best case, it is the forerunner of the Messianic kingship that will usher in the Redemption.
In my opinion, for what little it is worth, history needs to have a voice in distinguishing between the different views. What might have seemed tenable when the state of Israel was first declared may be seem quite implausible after 57 years of existence. It seems hard to me to consider the state of Israel a satanic creation when it allows, and supports!, the study and living of Torah on an unprecedented scale. I am not aware of any other country in history that has funded through tax dollars so vast a number of people studying Torah. The extent of such support is simply staggering. Additionally, there is no other country in the world where people can live and practice religion as Jews with such freedom. To someone raised in exile, the freedom to be Jewish in Israel is almost palpable and is certainly easily recognizable.
Is the state perfect? Certainly not. While there is great religious freedom, it is not absolute. The state frequently acts arbitrarily, and frustratingly, against religious causes. There are compromises that need to be made because of the large secular population. Despite all this, there is simply no place like Israel where Jews have such freedom and governmental support.
I can’t imagine that being merely a satanic ploy. On the other hand, the great flaws in the Israeli government make it hard for me to believe that it is the harbinger of the Messianic Era. After over fifty years, the state of Israel still remains largely unobservant and the government of Israel still retains some anti-religious biases.
To my mind, history has disproven both the Messianic Zionist and the Anti-Zionist views. But I admit that this is conjecture on my part.
II. The Gedolim
To which approach do the great Torah scholars of the past half-century subscribe? There is no single answer to that, because, unsurprisingly, great thinkers often disagree. Those who wish to rewrite history have to deal with two things. First, the explicit statements we will quote shortly that prove the contrary. Second, the following question: Who was holier and smarter — the Satmar Rav or Rav Kook? The Satmar Rav, we know, was an ardent Anti-Zionist. Rav Kook was a Messianic Zionist, on the other side of the spectrum. So who was greater?
Anyone who dares to answer that question should be kicked in the rear. Both scholars were great in their own ways, and no one has the right to disqualify either of them. On the occasion of Rav Kook’s fiftieth yahrtzeit, R. Nissan Alpert eulogized him and began by pointing out that both Rav Kook and the Satmar Rav were outside of the mainstream on this issue. There is no reason that one’s teachings should be excluded from the community any more than the other’s.
In a recent article in the journal Modern Judaism, Dr. Zvi Kaplan points out that the Satmar Rav “opposed the Ultra-Orthodox non-Zionists, who participated in the electoral process without sharing in the ideals of Zionism, and the Religious Zionists with equal vigor… Rabbi Teitelbaum saw the Zionist and non-Zionist Orthodox as enemies from within” (p. 170). Va-Yo’el Moshe was written as much, if not more, against Agudath Israel as it was against Mizrachi!
To the point, though, the record is clear that many Gedolim took positions closer to the center. For example, R. Tzvi Pesah Frank and R. Isser Zalman Meltzer were sympathetic to the state of Israel. Even R. Hayim Shmulevitz made public statements about the positive value of the state of Israel. R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin was a Messianic Zionist and, as a Lubavitcher, he was castigated by his rebbe for this belief. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent him harsh letters on this subject that were eventually printed in Likkutei Sihos. R. Yehiel Mikhel Tukaczinsky was a Zionist, as is evident in his Ir Ha-Kodesh Ve-ha-Mikdash. R. Meshulam Roth was also a Messianic Zionist (see this letter). Well before that, R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk (see this letter) and R. Shlomo Ha-Kohen of Vilna were enthusiastic supporters of Mizrachi, as were R. Hanokh Henokh Eigus of Vilna (the Marheshes) and R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner (the Dor Revi’i). A comprehensive history of the Mizrachi movement was published in Sefer Ha-Mizrahi (Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1946). The chief rabbis of Israel, in particular Rav Kook and Rav Herzog, were first class Gedolei Torah. Notable also was R. Shaul Yisraeli and to
day’s R. She’ar Yashuv Cohen, R. Shlomo Aviner, R. Aharon Lichtenstein and R. Hershel Schachter.
R. Moshe Feinstein was asked about the prayer for the state of Israel. He said that it should be modified to indicate a Hopeful Zionist view, instead of a Messianic Zionist approach. The text, as he recommended, is as follows: “Our Father in heaven, the rock of Israel and its redeemer, bless the state of Israel that it become the beginning of the sprouting of our Redemption (she-t’hei reishis tzemihas ge’ulaseinu).”
R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin was adamantly opposed to the position of the Satmar Rav. He wrote:
I was shocked to read in Chomoteinu of Cheshvan 5719 the slanderous notion that we are required to give our lives (limsor nefesh) to frustrate and resist the efforts of the State of Israel in its struggle against those who would rise up against them. This was stated as a p’sak din based on what we learn that Israel is restricted from rebelling against the nations (Ketubot 111a)…
Now all the rabbis who were opposed to Zionism and the establishment of a state took up that position until the time that it was officially founded. Once the state was declared, anyone who plays into the hands of the nations of the world even where there is no imminent danger, is clearly a moseir and rodeif. All the more when there is danger to destruction of life in so doing… Surely, those who recently emigrated must be very weary of the state’s efforts to strip them of their Torah way of life, but to proclaim that anyone who aids the state is a rodeif, well such talk is the severest form of redifa.
If I’m not mistaken, this is Rav Henkin calling the Satmar Rav a rodef (pursuer)!
R. Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg, author of Seridei Esh, wrote an essay titled “Herzl, the Man of Religion” (now in Kisvei Ha-Gaon R. Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg, vol. 2 p. 298ff.). After that essay, the editor of that volume (Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, who kindly sent me a copy of the book) collected a number of pro-Israel and pro-Zionist statements of R. Weinberg. One example is from the journal Ha-Pardes (Nissan 5726), in which R. Weinberg opposed the establishment of Israel Independence Day as a religious holiday because it was done unilaterally by the Israeli Rabbinate, without approval from other great scholars. In that letter, R. Weinberg expresses his great joy at the establishment of the state of Israel.
It is also no secret that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was a Zionist. While he was not a Messianic Zionist, he was a leader of the Mizrachi organization. R. Walter Wurzburger, in assaying the various approaches to Zionism, describes R. Soloveitchik’s view as follows (God is Proof Enough, p. 90; for another discussion, with relevant citations, see R. Mayer Twersky, “A Glimpse of the Rav” in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:Man of Halacha, Man of Faith, pp. 116-119):
On the one hand, he categorically refuses to treat the establishment of the State of Israel as a Messianic event. For all his enthusiasm for an independent Jewish State, he was not prepared to accord it the preliminary status of Atchalta De’Geulah (the beginning of the Redemption). On the other hand, he was unequivocally opposed to the do-nothing passivity of the pietists as they await the arrival of the Messiah.
I personally saw both R. David Lifschitz and R. Ahron Soloveitchik recite hallel on Israel Independence Day (see here and here). See the biographical article of R. Lifschitz by his son-in-law, Dr. Chaim Waxman (here): “Eretz Israel and Medinat Israel were among his greatest loves throughout his adult life.” Dr. Waxman also wrote to me about the joy R. Lifschitz had when he saw his grandson, R. Ari Waxman (now a rebbe in Yeshivat [Hesder] Sha’alvim), in an Israeli army uniform: “Reb David was also incredibly proud of Ari for being a soldier in the Israeli army.”
R. Ovadiah Yosef has expressed great appreciation for the state of Israel. See, for example, his responsa on whether to recite hallel and she-heheyanu on Israel Independence Day (Yabi’a Omer, vol. 6, Orah Hayim nos. 41-42). In the journal Torah She-be-Al Peh (16, 5734, pp. 19-20), R. Yosef wrote: “I wish to emphasize first that the state of Israel and independent Jewish reign in our holy land is of the highest historical and religious significance.”
R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky writes in his Emes Le-Ya’akov Al Ha-Torah (Exodus 12:2 n. 17):
It is incumbent on us to understand that the establishment of the state of Israel in our day, after the the great destruction and despair that overtook the remnant, and given the desperate and destroyed status of Russian Jewry, God caused the establishment of the state of Israel in order to strengthen the connection to Judaism and to sustain the link between the Jews in exile and the Jewish nation.
R. Eliyahu Dessler has two relevant letters, from 1948 and 1949, that were published in Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 3 pp. 349-353. He writes that he is hesitant to call the establishment of the state of Israel and the ensuing military victory the beginning of the Redemption, but he considers it a possibility (i.e. a Hopeful Zionist position). He also has harsh words for anyone who refuses to see God’s miraculous intervention in this, considering them heretics who reject Divine Providence.
R. Avraham Yishayahu Karelitz, the author of Hazon Ish and a close colleague of R. Dessler’s, also took the position of Hopeful Zionism. The following letter from R. Zvi Yehuda, who was very close with R. Karelitz at the end of the latter’s life (he passed away just five years after the establishment of the state of Israel), was published in Tradition 18:1 (Summer 1979):
Based on my intimate closeness to Hazon Ish at the time, I am in the position to deny categorically such a libelous and disastrous rumor [that he predicted the destruction of the state of Israel in the near future]. Hazon Ish was the paradigm of a halakhist; he never assumed the role of prophet or soothsayer… Nor was the great sage Hazon Ish (and claims to the contrary by partisan ideologians notwithstanding) imbued with any negative or hostile attitude to the State of Israel. He genuinely loved Jews and welcomed indeed anything that may save their lives or improve their lot. The current “oral tradition” circulated within some yeshiva (or “kollel”) coteries, that Hazon Ish was against the State, and even proclaimed its doom and decreed its fall within a prescribed span of time, is no more than a vicious lie–perpetrated by the zealots through a deliberate distortion, and received by the naive on the basis of an unfortunate misunderstanding…
Thus we examine the meaning of the State of Israel by halakhic categories: Is it really, from the point of view of our limited human judgment, the beginning of redemption? Is it certainly and clearly a positive, constructive redemptive act?
‘Time will tell.’ This is the gist of Hazon Ish’s response, that by malice or stupidity (or both) is now distorted and repeated as if it were a terrible pronouncement of doom.
This list could continue almost endlessly (UPDATE: see here for two additions). My point, which I think has been firmly established, is that the Gedolei Torah had different views on the subject of Zionism, with many of them taking positions throughout the spectrum. The
statement that I have seen in the comments section and elsewhere, that the Gedolim were all opposed to Zionism, is simply factually incorrect. They were, by and large, against the Anti-Zionist approach of the Satmar Rav. However, as R. Nissan Alpert said, that view is also part of Torah, just as is Rav Kook’s Messianic Zionism.
I thank R. Dovid Gottlieb, Dr. Marc Shapiro, Dr. Chaim Waxman, R. Ari Waxman and R. Yehuda Henkin for helping me find sources and avoid getting out of my chair.