There are two key questions to consider when examining Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s relationship with Religious Zionism. The first is why the Rav was so firmly anti-Zionist when he arrived in America. The second is how the impact of the Holocaust and birth of Israel caused the Rav to fundamentally change his perspective.
The nineteenth century saw deep rifts spread across the Jewish world. The secularism of enlightenment philosophy clashed with the Torah values of Orthodoxy. Political nationalism also made a deep impact. The desire to return to Jerusalem and renew the link with Eretz Yisrael is embedded in religious thought and prayer, and nationalism provided a secular language in which to express this religious ideology. Continued persecution and anti-Semitism acted to crystallize Jewish nationalism, and it was following the Dreyfus treason trial that Theodore Herzl first gave form to the dream of a Jewish state in Israel.
Herzl appealed to many Jews, but the religious world recoiled from his practical secularism. The yeshiva world of Eastern Europe was partially isolated from the powerful influence of the Enlightenment, yet ideas still traveled from Western Europe and could have strong impact.
The most well known yeshiva of that time was Volozhin, and this drama was played out in its bet midrash even before Herzl began his campaign. The most famous rosh yeshiva of Volozhin was the Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin; he was well versed in Enlightenment literature and a passionate supporter of the nascent Zionist vision. His son, Rabbi Meir Berlin (who later would change his last name to Bar-Ilan), became the president of World Mizrachi, which the Religious Zionist Organization founded in 1902; his closest student was Rav Abraham Isaac Kook.
The co-rosh yeshiva of Volozhin was the Rav’s great-great-grandfather Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, and though he left Volozhin to become the rabbi of Slutsk, his son, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, stayed and soon became a dominant personality in the yeshiva. Rav Chaim was vehemently opposed to Zionism, which he viewed as godless secular nationalism. However, he deeply loved and cared about the holiness of the Land of Israel, delivering high-level shiurim on Kodashim and Taharot (two complex areas of the Talmud that are mostly applicable in Temple times). This duality was a key component of the Rav’s heritage.
The Rav’s father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, began his main rabbinic career as the community rabbi of the town of Khislavichi, where the Jewish population was mostly Lubavitch. The Russian revolution changed Jewish life irreparably. Communism engendered a deep hatred of tradition and religion, and many youth were swept up in the tide as it engulfed the country.
The Rav’s family managed to escape from communist Russia and arrived in Warsaw. Warsaw was a center of Ger chassidism while the chassidic towns in Russia were centers of the Agudah movement. Agudah was founded in 1912 to unite Torah Jews in the face of secularizing influences. But the conservative element rapidly gained dominance within the organization and Agudah came to be defined by its opposition to Mizrachi and Mizrachi’s support for Zionism. Agudah stood for the values of traditional European Torah Jewry and it was within this environment of ideological conflict that the Rav grew up.
Rav Moshe began teaching in a Mizrachi school where secular studies were encouraged alongside Jewish studies. The Rav saw how his father was mocked and rejected by his family due to his association with a Mizrachi institution. Further, the Rav saw his father suffering within the school, as his conservative views differed from the more radical and modern approach of certain members of the faculty. The Rav’s childhood experience of watching his father suffer firmly established in him a negative association with Mizrachi organizations.
In 1926 the Rav traveled to Berlin, the center of the German Jewish world. The Judaism of Berlin – Torah and derech eretz, the legacy of Rav Hirsch – was a world away from that which he had been exposed to in Russia and Poland. This was not the Agudah of Russia, this was Agudah with Ph.D.s – sophisticated, educated and worldly. During the six years he spent in Berlin he mixed with the greatest Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century and aspired to become a great Agudah leader, entrenched in the world of Torah and tradition, yet also well versed in secular philosophy, science and politics.