In the Morning in the East, In the Evening in the West:
On the Destiny of Contemporary Jews and Judaism:
Lessons from Jewish History in a Time of Crisis and Transition
An early Yahrzeit Lecture by Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik
Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring
On Motzaei Shabbos, Parashas be’Ha-alosecha, June 19th 1943, Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik (hereafter the Rav), then aged forty, delivered a yahrzeit lecture some two years after the death of his father and teacher, R. Moshe Soloveitchik, at the Anshei Brisk Synagogue, in Brooklyn NY. As was to become his custom for such shiurim, the Rav crafted his presentation in two parts: the first was a purely halachic construct, while the second proceeded to address a broad spectrum of hashkafic and other matters, based on principles developed in the first part. The shiur in its entirety was published (in Hebrew) as a special supplement to the monthly rabbinic journal Ha-Pardes, in February 1944 (volume 17:11), which was edited by Rabbi Shmuel Pardes, and the halachic section was subsequently included in Avos Tiknum (Jerusalem 1983.) The shiur was not included in the two volume Shiurim le’Zecher Abba Mari, edited byRav Aharon Lichtenstein, that published other yahrzeit shiurim of the Rav.
What follows here is the first segment of the hashkafic portion of the shiur. I hope to post the other segments in due course.
To appreciate the shiur in its larger context, a number of clarifications are in order.
- It is well-nigh impossible to do justice to the richness of the Hebrew original, which is replete with innumerable implicit and explicit allusions to scriptural verses, Talmudic concepts and ideas, and rabbinic texts, both early and late. Moreover, the literary style was highly poetic and thus it is exceedingly difficult to convey the power of the original in an English translation. Accordingly, what is presented here is far from being a verbatim translation, but is instead a summary of key ideas utilizing (in translation) many of the expressions and phrases found in the original. Readers who wish to read the original for themselves are encouraged to examine it online.
- The shiur cannot be fully understood or appreciated without a familiarity with the historical setting in which it was delivered. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff has lectured in detail in describing the communal and personal background leading to the Rav’s embrace of Religious Zionism. See for instance a summary at YUTorah. What follows here should be seen as a complement to his analysis that adds crucial perspectives that emerge from the shiur itself. In June 1943 American Jewry was well aware of the dire straits of European Jewry, even if it was yet fully informed of the extent of the catastrophic loss of Jewish life at the hands of Germany together with its allies and collaborators. A few months earlier Roosevelt and Churchill had met in Casablanca to set in motion a multi-front counterattack against the German and Axis armies, and at the same time the Russian military had captured the bulk of the German forces that had invaded Russia. In September of 1943 Italy would surrender to the Allied forces, to be followed by the D-Day attack on the coast of Normandy in June of 1944. Thus, the Rav spoke (and the shiur was later readied for publication) at a time that was filled on the one hand with grief for the fate of European Jewry, but on the other with guarded hope that a turning point in the war and hence the salvation of the remnant of European Jewry had been reached. These complex contemporary realities are reflected at key points in the shiur.
- This profound awareness of what was happening to the Jews of Europe is central to another aspect of this shiur, namely the Rav’s attitude toward Zionism and the national return to the land of Israel. It is well known that the Soloveitchik family had for generations been opposed to the secular Zionist enterprise. The Rav himself was an active member and honorary officer of the non-Zionist Agudas Harabbonim until 1940-1941. And yet in 1946 the Rav was appointed honorary chairman of Mizrachi (i.e., the Religious Zionist movement.) In subsequent years he spoke and published extensively on the religious significance of the Zionist State, providing an ideological framework justifying and promoting Religious Zionism. What brought the Rav to break publicly with the anti-Zionism of the Soloveitchik family and the Brisker/Agudah tradition in the years preceding the establishment of the State in 1948? About a year prior to the shiur, in May 1942 the World Zionist Movement had gathered in New York, and after much deliberation led by David Ben Gurion, had adopted the so-called Biltmore Program. Until that point the Zionists had been split over whether to rely on the British Mandatory regime to advance the Zionist cause. With the Biltmore Program, however, those arguing for a proactive push to establish a Jewish state overcame the objections of those who considered such an approach to be premature and ill-advised. In the months that followed, nearly all the Jewish organizations in the U.S. adopted the activist Biltmore Program, and it became the basis of the political struggle leading to the establishment of the State of Israel.
- With this in mind we can better understand the Rav’s comments in this shiur in which he highlighted the response by Rabban Gamliel (in opposition to his contemporaries) to the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the catastrophic failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion. This background can also help us understand the Rav’s idea that there are sometimes moments of crisis when conventional historical processes leading to redemption must be dispensed with, in the presence of extraordinary events (whether in Europe or Palestine) that can transcend the long arc of the return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland. In this light, this shiur can be viewed as a key turning point in the emergence of the Rav’s Religious-Zionist persona. That it was delivered in the Anshei Brisk synagogue is especially noteworthy.
- Many of the ideas and expressions in the shiur regarding what the Rav refers to as modernity, liberalism, and the Jewish response to it, reflect his experiences in Warsaw and Berlin, in the decade of the 1920’s, the latter being at the height of the Weimar Republic, when he studied for and received his Ph.d in general philosophy at the University of Berlin. During those years he was exposed to the contemporary non-Orthodox social settings, both Jewish and Gentile, in their philosophical, cultural and social dimensions. His comments here regarding the influence of the Haskalah and its successors in 19th and 20th century Jewish life as they sought to penetrate the shtetlach and communities of Eastern Europe, reflect the contrast between what the Rav experienced as a child growing up in his parents’ home in a small town (Chaslavitch) in eastern Lithuania, and what he encountered in Warsaw, Poland, in the Jewish community of Berlin, and finally in depression-era American Jewish life. This first-hand familiarity is fully reflected in the shiur that was delivered a mere 11 years after arriving in New York.
- As reflected throughout the shiur, the Rav spoke at a time when Orthodoxy, and halachic commitment in American Jewish life were at a low point, while the movements that he refers to as embodying “liberalism” (his term) were fully ascendant. Although much has changed since then, the core of his analysis of the distinctions between those committed to Halachah and the rabbinic mesorah on the one hand, and those who embrace a modern liberal mindset on the other hand, remains remarkably prescient, and as repercussive and powerful today as it was when first given, given the current challenges facing Orthodoxy, both from within and from without, on the right and on the left. In sum, the lecture projects a masterful balancing of received tradition in juxtaposition to a receptivity to new realities and contemporary exigencies, at a pivotal moment that he understood to have a significant precedent in the Jewish historical experience.
“We have seen the moon in the morning in the East, but in the evening in the West.” (Rosh Hashanah 25a)
I began this shiur by analyzing the halachos of the authority of the Bes Din Hagadol (hereafter “Sanhedrin”) regarding the sanctification of the new moon and the proclamation of a leap year, for two reasons: Firstly because the laws of the Sanhedrin are dealt with in our parashah in the words “gather unto me seventy men from the elders of Israel,” and secondly because this matter concerns me constantly when I consider the fate of modern Judaism in comparison to Judaism of old.
The sanctification of the moon by visual identification depends on the Sanhedrin. This tradition was handed down from antiquity as a halachah from Moshe at Sinai. It was in accordance with this teaching that our fathers established their months, holy days, and calendars, in times of peace and tranquility, as well as in periods of suffering and deprivation. So too, recognition of new historical eras symbolized by the appearance of a new moon in the affairs of the nation, to be marked by a declaration of its sanctification, were placed entirely into the hands of the teachers and leaders of the people. Subsequently the masses of Israel throughout the lands of exile related to new eras in the life of the nation with utter seriousness. They were not confused at times of historical transition from the end of one era and the beginning of another. Nor were they historically conflicted when a moon beam found its way through the thick clouds to strike the flimsy roofs and walls of their courtyards. For the witnesses who saw such moonlight appear above the distant mountain tops or tree canopies did not presume on their own to proclaim the arrival of a new era that entailed a re-examination of the ancient values handed down to us from generation to generation. Such witnesses did not demonstrate a psychosis that would lead to overturning ancient traditions or the rejection of the Creator. Those who witnessed a new moon did not dare to sanctify a new era themselves, but would always go to the leaders to bear witness to having seen a new moon, while confessing their misgivings over expressing their opinions and inner thoughts.
Then the leaders would carefully examine the witnesses with seven tests and seven examinations, in great detail, in each and every respect. “Did you see the moon in front of the sun or behind it, to its north or its south, how high was it, how wide, how inclined (Rosh Hashanah 23)? Just like the astrologers (Rambam, Kiddush Hachodesh 1) they considered every possibility of error – concerned that perhaps the light was merely a reflection of the water or of a cloud or of a glass, or some other misleading source of light. Perhaps it was not yet time for the new moon to appear, insofar as the people had not risen beyond the era of mundane historical events to merit redemption; perhaps it was not yet time for the feet of the messianic herald to be heard on the mountains? Perhaps it was yet necessary for Israel to remain as before, wrapped in its tallis, ensconced within its four cubits, given the state of a public square that remained sunken in materialistic impurity? Perhaps wild animals still lurked in the streets and avenues of the public domain?
Indeed there were those like the Baitusim for whom the ghetto walls were too constricting, who yearned for light, for freedom, who hired false witnesses (Rosh Hashanah 22) to attest that they had seen a moon arise beyond the walls of what they considered the dirty, detested ghetto. Who spoke of a wondrous light that had pierced the clouds of bitter exile to illuminate a new way for this long-oppressed people. Such false witnesses would hasten to bring the “good news” of a wondrous new light penetrating their dark and empty world, to enthusiastically proclaim “Gentlemen, it is time to sanctify a new era, by opening the ghetto gates so that the new light can come into the dark and miserable alleys and hovels; it is time to transcend the physical and spiritual strictures by moving into broad open spaces, and thereby bring illumination to your dispersed brothers who thirst for light and long for radiance.”
Such Baitusim sent many misleading witnesses. Some were historians who made up facts to revise historical perspectives. Some were philosophers who came up with false ideas – which they hurled as accusations against the Elders of Israel, demanding that they liberate the nation from the “chains” of an allegedly outdated tradition. Some proclaimed a new cultural reality, based on ideas of equality, brotherhood, and freedom that had arisen in Europe; a moon suffused with the light of a general culture that had replaced the darkness of the Middle Ages – and thus urged the leaders to “arise and sanctify this new era, tear down the walls of the ghetto and go forth into the great and wide world.” Many were the bonfires that these Baitusim burned on the hilltops (Rosh Hashanah 22b), fires proclaiming new eras and new songs, intending to bring light to a people longing for salvation and pleading for redemption. Such were the flames of religious Liberalism and national assimilation on the mountains of France and Germany that gave off sparks of freedom and equality, and promises of expanding vistas and a more dignified life. And such were the Enlightenment flames that such Baitusim kindled on the plains of Lithuania, in the forests of Poland, and atop the mountains of Galicia, bringing the younger generation a message of openness, preaching the virtues of a spiritual freedom that was necessary to achieve full political and economic liberation. Thus did these socialist fires created by Jews on high shine their seductive light onto the frail walls and into the dark cellars of the ghetto, leading many who were imprisoned in their poverty to see in them the image of redemption.
Nonetheless the majority of the nation was not seduced by these bearers of the fires of freedom and the call of their supposed messiah. The majority waited to hear from the contemporary analogues to the members of the Sanhedrin. And they in turn, with all due obstinacy, did indeed sit in serious judgment, their heads bowed. They considered the immediate as well as long-term implications of those flames. Then they declared as one: “giving all due consideration to the tradition of our forefathers, and reflecting proper respect for the holy ones of our nation, we must be exceedingly careful regarding these alien fires that burn with satanic darkness; thus we declare that the messiah has not yet arrived!” Thus did the leaders look out from their windows and through the lattices, examining the events of the day in the light of history so as to decide whether they were worthy of being sanctified. For these wise men knew well the perils that would ensue in the wake of a historic mistake or an erroneous perspective. Such things were capable of destroying the Jewish world and uprooting Judaism entirely. If only the Baitusim who kindled those fires would have understood, if only they had not rebelled against the tradition, the present tragedy would not have been as awful as it is!
And thus, the secret of the calendar, the mystery of the sanctification of the moon and the determination of the timing of the holidays, and the changing of an era, were given to the Sanhedrin and their subsequent analogues alone. This is not a minor matter insofar as the strength of our people is connected to the secret of its calendar, via the sanctification of the new moon and the ability to distinguish between sacred and profane, between one light and another, and one month and another.
But at that time of crisis, when Knesset Yisrael was enveloped in sackcloth and fasting, the leadership of the people that was usually so cautious, turned into visionaries to proclaim it a time of redemption. The members of the Sanhedrin who would usually cross-examine any witnesses claiming to have seen a new moon did not invoke the usual astronomical considerations, but instead joyously accepted the words claiming the sighting of the new moon.
Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 24b):
Once two witnesses came and said “we saw the old moon in the morning in the east, and the new moon in the evening in the west.” R. Yochanan ben Nuri said “they are false witnesses.” But when they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony. On another occasion two witnesses came and said “we saw the new moon in its time, but on the following night (following the thirtieth day) it was not seen.” Again Rabban Gamliel accepted this as evidence that the thirtieth day was Rosh Chodesh. Whereupon R. Dosa ben Harkinus said “they are false witnesses, after all it cannot be that a woman gives birth one day, and the next day her belly is between her teeth?” When R. Yehoshua agreed with R. Dosa, R. Gamliel sent a message to R. Yehoshua insisting that he come to Yavneh with his staff and wallet on Yom Kippur by his reckoning.
It was taught in a Beraisa: Rabban Gamliel said to the sages: “I have a tradition from the house of my father’s father that sometimes the moon travels a long route and at other times a short one.” Said R. Yochanan “this accords with the verse ‘He has made the moon for appointed times, whereas the sun knows when it comes.’ (Psalms 104:19.) This teaches that it is only the sun whose coming is fixed, whereas the moon fluctuates.”
These discussions took place at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt and destruction of Beitar, which were filled with blood and death, when Judea was filled with corpses, and the Shechinah had gone into exile. With the Sages of Israel wrapped in grief and mourning, contemplating the cruel present and a horrendous future, two excited witnesses suddenly appeared to declare “yesterday morning we saw the old moon in the east, and then in the evening we saw the new one in the west.” That is, “yesterday morning we witnessed the Jewish nation in all its morning glory – the Temple intact, Jerusalem resplendent, priests and levites in their service, the land of Israel populated and flourishing, farmers joyously harvesting the earth’s blessings, and daughters of Israel going forth to dance in the vineyards. But then came the night of destruction – the Temple burnt, priests killed, Sages of Israel slaughtered, our cities decimated, and Romans ripping our flesh. Then, lo and behold, during that same night, we saw a new moon arise in the west, a moon in whose gentle light we saw the glimmerings of a merciful Shechinah, whispering a message of redemption and salvation, of hope and consolation.
“Now dear rabbis please do not invoke detailed and complicated astronomical questions, for in truth we cannot prove what we have seen via objective reasoning. Just believe us when we say that we have sensed a light beckoning from the far west, one that arose just as the sun was setting over the ocean. Please believe us when we say that we have glimpsed a new era in which R. Akiva who now grieves over the death of 24,000 disciples will find five disciples to reconstitute the crown of Torah; a new era in which the descendants of Rabban Gamliel who now cries over the destruction of the Temple, will in time spread Torah to the mountains of Efraim and Naftali, to Usha, Tzippori and Teverya, thence to the rivers of Babylon in Sura, Pumpedisa, and Mechoza; and in time to Egypt and North Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, the plains of Ukraine, and the villages of Russia, throughout the lands of the west, north, east, and south. Moreover we have seen that here too in Judea in due course will be heard the sounds of a nation celebrating its resurrection and redemption. The land will be redeemed and sanctified with the sweat and blood of its builders and workers who will carry the produce of its vineyards and orchards on their shoulders. This nation, suffering the birth-pangs of the Messiah, will carve out building stones from the quarries of Judea. And across the ocean, where the sun sets, on a new continent, in a land of great liberty and freedom, Israel will find strength, will multiply and grow greatly in numbers, in the shadows of towers and skyscrapers. There they will delve into the laws of personal status, sanctified objects, purity and impurity. On the banks of the Hudson River they will recall halachos formulated by Rabban Gamliel, R. Yehoshua, and their fellows. Do not despair O leaders of Israel, for our kingdom will in time prevail over all the evil empires.”
Even while they were still speaking, two more witnesses came forward to declare that they too had seen a strange thing, i.e., one night the new moon was visible, but the next night it was not. So they said “We know very well that some will deride our utopian dreams saying that they make no sense. But please believe us and our spiritual sense. While we may not know the precise heavenly calculations, we are certain that we have seen the future, in a wondrous and holy illumination.”
Confronted with such contradictory testimony R. Yochanan b. Nuri, R. Dosa b. Harkinus, and R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah rejected both sets of witnesses. How could they accept them without due diligence and cross examination, let alone such testimony that contradicted all the known laws of heavenly appearances and common sense? Certainly they must have declared “we surely believe that in the distant future Israel will be redeemed forever, and that all the evil empires like Rome and a thousand like her will be uprooted from the earth. But at this moment, when our dead still lie before our eyes, such optimism is simply not warranted, or based on clear thinking. Too much fantasizing is not conducive to faith and hope, but leads rather to disappointment and despair. For sure, these are false witnesses!”
Nonetheless R. Gamliel, normally so careful and precise to use the lunar models he kept in his attic in examining the witnesses (Rosh Hashanah 23a), in this case accepted the words of both sets of witnesses without discussion, debate, or examination. He heard their words and declared “a new moon and new era is upon us– an era of creativity and building, renewed sanctity and spiritual triumph, an age of hope and consolation, blessing and divine mercy! The month and the festivals of Israel are sanctified! In spite of our awful circumstances and the catastrophe that has come upon us, notwithstanding the destruction and the suffering, the fires and rivers of blood, in spite of all that, I declare ‘it is sanctified!’ For this is the tradition I have received from the house of my father’s father.” What he meant was “I have never dabbled in Greek philosophy for the ways of the Greek scholars are alien to me, and I have never debated the elders of Athens, or Caesar and the noblemen of Rome. I know nothing regarding the impact of astronomical forces on the earth, or the laws of Pythagoras and Democritus, and the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Therefore I do not accept their assertions that there cannot be less than 24 hours between an old and a new moon, or that heavenly bodies cannot act in inexplicable ways by skipping time or compressing space. I have never spent my time studying how things evolve over time, or how nations and empires arise and fall. I know nothing regarding rules declaring that nature does not bend to the needs of particular nations, or that the cosmos is deaf to the cries of an oppressed nation drowning in a storm-tossed ocean. Rather, I follow my grandfather’s tradition, one that has illuminated the way of Knesset Yisrael with flames of faith in times of disaster. It is a tradition that says that such laws apply only in the realm of the sun symbolizing other nations who fear nothing. Like the sun they have time and can wait and wait for a gradual process of redemption, following laws based on Greek logic. And this tradition says that those laws do not apply to the moon which represents Knesset Yisrael, both of which are not subject to rational, fixed-time laws. For when the enemy is so brutal and the peril so immediate, they cannot wait patiently for a step-by-step Shir ha-Maalos, or Song of Ascentsof gradual historical processes to unfold.
“That,” said Rabban Gamliel, “is our received tradition. Sometimes when we dwell securely and we are not beset by our enemies, the moon arises slowly and follows natural laws. But at other times, when our ship is engulfed in waves of oceanic peril and our people is overwhelmed by darkness and bereft of hope, the moon appears suddenly. In such times it pays no attention to scientific causality, and disregards the dictates of gradualism, for then “the moon does not know its coming!” At such times we dare not procrastinate with excessive cross-examinations. At such times we must accept the word of the witnesses and declare the time sanctified. Those astronomical models in my attic were shown to the witnesses only when it was a time of tranquility and we could afford to examine and test and compare and investigate them at length. But now, we must perforce dispense with such investigations! The new moon has hastened to appear; if we wait we will God forbid lose this singular opportunity, and delay the footsteps of the Messiah! Let us welcome the new moon and declare before the people “it is sanctified!” Let us be through with the astrologers, be done with the cynicism of logic, objectivity, and rules, for David King of Israel is alive and well! It is sanctified!
Comments by Basil Herring:
- In the first segment of this selection, dealing with the cultural and ideological perils that accompanied the emergence of the modern period of Jewish history, the Rav establishes the indispensable need for central rabbinic leadership and authority, not just in relationship to the minutiae of Jewish law in the daily life of the Jew, but also in the understanding and determination of historic processes and communal priorities. Thus, he makes clear that these were not matters that could be left to the democratic will of the masses or even to local rabbinic personalities who might not have the necessary expertise or acumen in making such decisions. Knowing how to respond appropriately to larger social trends, or competing value systems that might impact on halachic practices and communal priorities, have always required an expertise and insight into Jewish law and Jewish life that only the leading few in each generation possess. This is especially true, the Rav suggests, when the alternatives to the received tradition are themselves deceptively alluring, with messengers and spokesmen who offer seductive rationales for what is in effect the abandonment of halachic attitudes and behaviors. Such historical trends, the Rav insists, must be resisted at every step.
- When the shiur was delivered in 1943 the Rav in this section most likely had in mind the numerically and politically dominant non-Orthodox movements, i.e., the Conservative, Reform, and non-sectarian majority. He had seen their approaches to Jewish life (that were largely the end result of the Enlightenment and its subsequent offshoots) up close in Europe and the U.S., and clearly rejected their non-halachic outlooks and practices. Whatever might have changed in the 70 years that have passed since the shiur was first delivered, one can assume that the Rav would have the same response today regarding the cultural fashions of our time, i.e., framing Judaism in a liberal context is only valid to the extent that it does not conflict with past halachic priorities and values. To be specific, this would suggest that any challenges to traditional practices emanating from outside cultural influences such as egalitarian impulses, feminist priorities, redefining acceptable gender or sexual behaviors, or deconstructionist approaches to sacred texts, an emphasis on personal autonomy in the making of moral judgments at the expense of religious authority, and the like, must be treated with extreme caution. This is true even if it means that in some instances a majority of Jews, including Orthodox-affiliated ones, stand opposed to, or are critical of, such a cautious (or what might be called “conservative”) approach.
- But in the next segments the Rav develops an apparently contradictory notion, when he writes that there are indeed extraordinary times of catastrophe or cataclysm, when the leading rabbinic authorities might be too cautious if they fail to recognize that new realities demand an unprecedented, or at least unconventional, response. In such an era, it might be necessary to part company from the to the rabbinic consensus by adopting a dissenting response to the events of the day. The model in this instance is Rabban Gamliel in reaction to the destruction of the Temple and subsequent collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt. Of course, to qualify as such an outlier one must possess the appropriate credentials – not everyone can be a Rabban Gamliel in his generation. Furthermore for the Rav such dissent cannot involve dispensing with consensus Halachah or accepted custom. Nonetheless in arena of communal or public policy new approaches or strategies can be contemplated and embraced – especially when the physical survival of the Jewish people and the preservation of its unique Torah way of life are at stake.
- This is the case, the Rav writes in 1943, regarding the modern, secular, Zionist enterprise in its campaign to establish a Jewish State in the land of Israel, against the will of the nations (or at least in the absence of widespread international support for the idea of a Jewish state) especially in light of the Holocaust catastrophe. In this instance, he is saying, we Orthodox rabbis must join with the Zionists to develop and add our own unique Religious Zionist voices to the symphony of national salvation and redemption. Again, seventy years later, there is no reason to think that the Rav would have changed his mind in light of intervening events. To the contrary, he would have seen the current undeniable shift of the center of Jewish life (both quantitatively and qualitatively) from North America and Europe to the land of Israel, as confirmation of the validity of the Religious Zionist dream. He would not, it seems safe to say, have joined with those who are ever more vociferous in their denunciations of what they perceive to be discrimination against Torah-observing individuals and communities in the holy land.
- Seeing the Rav’s embrace of Zionism in light of the growing awareness of the extent of the Holocaust likewise conforms to the Rav’s theodicy (or philosophy regarding the existence of evil): that is, we cannot understand or justify the evil that occurs in God’s world, certainly not the evil of the Holocaust. As the Rav often wrote, God’s ways in history are sometimes contradictory and often impervious to human understanding at the time. The only appropriate response is to ensure that something good and positive emerges from that which in itself is undeniably evil. Therefore for the Rav, the appropriate religious response to the Shoah was not to question or seek to understand God’s inscrutable ways, but rather to join the struggle to build a Jewish homeland by garnering international support, create a secure Jewish State in which the survivors could rebuild their lives, and to ensure that that state becomes a bastion of Torah learning and halachic adherence.
- How does the Rav deal with the fact that the Zionist movement was initiated and led by secular Jews? He does so by highlighting the paradoxical fact that even in the time of the Sanhedrin the first harbingers of change are not the Rabban Gamliels themselves, but rather ordinary Jews who have seen an extraordinary light at the end of a dark exilic tunnel. Such, the Rav implies in a manner that brings to mind the writings of Rav Kook a few years earlier, are the Zionists around the Jewish world, working in tandem with the laborers and builders of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, who are the harbingers and witnesses of a dawning redemption in our ancient homeland. They are the ones who can be God’s partners in accelerating the redemptive process. And who might be their partners? For the Rav the answer is clear: it is those who dwell on the Babylonian rivers of the West, i.e., on the banks of the Hudson, in the shadows of the skyscrapers, who have faithfully preserved the ancient ways but must now rise in extraordinary response to a new era, and a new reality.
- With all that, however, we must also note that the Rav did not go so far as to state dispositively that the State that modern Zionism sought to establish would certainly in itself embody the long-awaited Messianic redemption. It was a beginning of the redemption, part of a hastened messianic process that we should all hope and pray would come to speedy fruition, like the pale sliver of a new moon that waxes in time on its way to illuminating the entire world. Even subsequent to the establishment of the State of Israel and its apparently miraculous victories in ensuing decades, the Rav declined to view it definitively in messianic terms. Just as it was impossible to know the meaning of the Shoah or why God allowed it to occur, so too it would be rank arrogance to presume to know with certainty God’s providential design as to the role of the State of Israel in the ultimate Messianic redemption. The State of Israel could very well have messianic significance as the beginning of the final redemption, but we cannot be certain of its ontological status in the divine scheme of things.
- In the halachic analysis section of the shiur that precedes these ideas, the key insight of the Rav was that the very power of the Sanhedrin to sanctify the new moon was itself drawn from the power granted to Knesset Yisrael as a nation to declare the new month. For this reason, the Rav explained, even after the Sanhedrin ceased to function, when the moon was sanctified by lunar calculation rather than by physical sighting, the authority to do so remained intact – because Klal Yisrael itself continued to observe the lunar cycle, and in so doing in turn empowered the rabbinic authorities of each generation to proclaim the variables of the calendar. Seen in this light, the primary sanctifier of a new moon, and a new era, is the Jewish people itself. Elsewhere the Rav explained that this idea is reflected by several notable aspects of our monthly Shabbos morning Birkat ha-Chodesh, i.e., the proclamation of “chaverim kol Yisrael”, and the custom of the Cantor taking hold of the Torah that symbolizes the unity of the Jewish people at the moment he proclaims the coming new month. (We can add that this might also underlie the public proclamation of the exact moment of the molad in Jerusalem, i.e., if we all are the agents of the sanctification of the moon by virtue of being part of a united Knesset Yisrael symbolized by a unifying Jerusalem, we all need to know exactly when the new moon will be sanctified “by us” in that place. This, we can venture to say might be the fullest meaning of the Rosh Chodesh Mussaf proclamation that rashei chodashim le’amcha Yisrael nasata, i.e., You have entrusted the determination of Rosh Chodesh to Your entire people Israel.”)
- This, one can suggest, is what connects the halachic section of the shiur to these subsequent hashkafic segments: that is, unlike the extreme liberal impulse that was a distortion of the true spirituality of the Jewish people, the Zionist movement should be recognized as a grass-roots movement representing a legitimate expression of the spirit of Knesset Yisrael in recognizing a turning point in Jewish history. In this, the Zionist movement was true to the responsibility of Knesset Yisrael since time immemorial to proclaim the dawning of a new moon, and a new era.
- In summation, as with so much of the Rav’s dialectical thinking, these two opposing poles remain in unresolved, yet creative, tension. On the one hand a steadfast opposition, led by leading rabbinic authorities, to foreign influences and popular demands to conform to fashionable ideologies and non-halachic practices. On the other hand, a readiness, even an eagerness, to embrace a popular movement of national salvation led by secular Jews and opposed by the rabbinic establishment. Today, seventy years later, the tension remains – and the Rav’s challenge to the thinking Torah-committed Jew is no less striking or noteworthy.