When two leading Jewish figures, one Orthodox the other secular Zionist, spoke in a storied 1952 meeting, did one best the other? On October 20, 1952, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion paid a visit to R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, known as the “Chazon Ish,” to discuss the political hot-button issue of compulsory national service for women. The Chazon Ish adamantly opposed the induction of young Orthodox women into national service while the Prime Minister considered a crucial matter of national interest. The two leaders did not resolve the issue together. However, one aspect of their failed conversation became legendary.
The Chazon Ish offered Ben Gurion a Talmudic parable to explain why the Orthodox viewpoint should receive priority. Surprisingly, multiple versions of the story exist. Dr. Benjamin Brown, in his recently published intellectual biography of the Chazon Ish, The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution (available for purchase here: link), compared all the different versions and interviewed the only remaining witness — Yitzchak Navon — in order to establish the proper text. The Chazon Ish compared the Orthodox and secular communities to two camels (or boats or wagons), one with a burden and one without, arriving at a narrow pass. One must go first and the Talmud (cf. Sanhedrin 32b) rules that the camel (or boat or wagon) carrying the burden receives precedence.
According to Navon, the Chazon Ish continued that the Orthodox bear the burden of religious law while the secular do not feel bound by it. Because of the limitations they face, the Orthodox’s view should prevail. Other versions, which are far more prevalent, have the Chazon Ish comparing the burden to the ancient Jewish tradition the Orthodox uphold. In comparison, the secular worldview is quite new. The Orthodox camel carries 2,000 years of Jewish tradition and must therefore receive precedence.
Brown points out that Navon’s version is more pragmatic. The Orthodox simply have less leeway while the non-Orthodox are freer in their behavioral choices. The other versions are more rhetorically and ideologically powerful, expressing the superiority of Orthodoxy over the secular Zionist alternative.
If the Chazon Ish compared the Orthodox and their tradition to a camel bearing a burden, then it would seem he offered a compelling rebuttal to Ben Gurion. Interestingly, Brown points out that while Ben Gurion recorded the meeting in his journal, he left out this parable and, indeed, never wrote or spoke about it publicly. Was this an omission of embarrassment or indifference? Did Ben Gurion erase the parable from his memory because he felt bested or did it fail to make an impression?
Based on Shimon Peres’ recent book, Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, I suggest that Ben Gurion found the parable unconvincing. Peres, a long-time trusted aide of the Prime Minister, explains that, as a tactic to counter the Orthodox community’s ancient Talmudic tradition, Ben Gurion adopted a Biblical tradition. Peres (together with his co-author David Landau) writes (pp. 149-150):
In his battles with the Orthodox, he exploited the fact that many of them tended to focus on the Talmud and neglected the Bible. He put the Bible at the center of his philosophy and of the national ethos as he sought to fashion it, because the basis of the Bible was in Eretz Yisrael, whereas the Talmud, the “Oral Law,” was a product of the Diaspora… [H]e advocated the restoration of the Jewish people to the Bible and of the Bible to the Jewish people. As he famously declared to the Peel Commission, “The Bible is our Mandate.” He initiated a Bible-study circle at his home, and the annual Bible Quiz, which became a popular event, was his idea.
If so, Ben Gurion could have actually bested the Chazon Ish, had he felt the moment opportune. He could have responded that the Orthodox follow a Talmudic tradition that is 1,500 years old while the secular Zionists bear the 2,500 years old Biblical tradition. Had he done so, the conversation would have quickly degenerated into an argument, with the Chazon Ish protesting that the Orthodox, not the Zionists, bear the Biblical tradition as transmitted in the Talmud. Political expedience did not permit such an argument because Ben Gurion had a mission, albeit one he failed to achieve.
While the Chazon Ish’s parable carries great emotional pull among the Orthodox, I suspect that Ben Gurion found it uncompelling. His attitude toward the Bible allowed him to ignore it, if not counter it directly. From his perspective, it was based on a mistaken and easily dismissed premise. Neither of the two leaders emerged victorious from that 1952 meeting, whether rhetorically or politically.