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.
The third factor that influenced the formulation of the Rav’s Agudist position was the role models he encountered in America. The Rav came to the United States in 1932, brought over by the Chicago Hebrew Theological College. When the Depression hit, the community was unable to honor the contract, so the Rav moved to Boston.
Religious life in Boston was a challenge and the person Rav Soloveitchik respected most was Rabbi Eliezer Silver, a student of Rav Chaim Ozer who had come to America and worked in the insurance business before serving as a community rabbi in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1937 Rabbi Silver led the American delegation to the last European Agudah conference and received a mandate to establish Agudah in the United States. Rav Soloveitchik was one of the founding members.
In the late 1930s, when the rabbinic leaders of Agudah refused to support a boycott of Germany and Hitler, the Rav sided with them. This decision seems perverse in hindsight, but we must recall that the Agudah of that era was still stuck in the mindset of the ghetto. Agudah leaders maintained an inherent aversion to confronting government authority and felt a boycott would only anger Hitler and make the situation worse for European Jews.
The initial catalyst for the Rav’s switch from committed Agudist to powerful and eloquent advocate for Religious Zionism came in 1943, when the horrific nature of the ongoing destruction of European Jewry became evident. American Jewry woke up to Hitler’s crimes and many members of the Agudah leadership who had rejected a boycott in the 1930s announced the time had come to take action.
Two days before Yom Kippur, Agudah leaders, the Rav among them, marched to Congress to request a meeting with the president. The greatest rabbinic delegation America could muster was denied an audience. Their protest went unanswered and they returned home, defeated and dejected.
When the full extent of the destruction of European Jewry was revealed, it caused the Rav to make a frank and full reevaluation of his philosophy. He came to the decision that he had been wrong – wrong about the primacy of rabbinic edict in the realm of hashkafa and wrong about the relevance of Jewish activism.
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In his addresses to the American Mizrachi Association, which were subsequently transcribed as the Chamesh Derashot, the Rav explained the first aspect of his change of heart. He noted that in the realm of halacha the rabbinic majority reigns supreme. God gave the Torah to man, and our capacity for halachic creativity and decision-making is axiomatic to a vibrant relationship with God.
In hashkafa, however, the rules are different. For questions that are outside the four volumes of the Shulchan Aruch, the focus is not on man’s insight and deduction; rather, we have to constantly evaluate what it is that God wants of us. We have to continually reevaluate our decisions to ensure they align with ratzon Hashem (the will of God), and we have to adapt to the world around us.
In hashkafa there is no edict that is infallible and no rebbe who is exempt from this obligation for constant reappraisal and review. Once halacha is fixed by man it becomes law and even God cannot alter it – as the heavenly voice affirms, lo bashamayim hi, it is not in heaven. Hashkafa, however, must be in a constant state of flux and adaptation.
The Rav connected this message to the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. All the children of Yaakov knew there would be an exile, as had been revealed to Avraham. Yosef wanted to question the comfortable life of the family and challenge them to rethink the status quo of life in Canaan in preparation for the inevitable trials ahead. The brothers rejected this. They judged Yosef guilty of treason for even suggesting it; they were happy with life in Canaan, comfortable, settled and secure. The Divine Voice rang out that Yosef was right. Yosef’s visions proved true and he eventually ended up as viceroy over all of Egypt, able to guide his family safely to Egypt and soften the blow of exile.
The Rav explained that the Mizrachi of 1902 represented Yosef HaTzaddik and Agudah represented the other brothers. Mizrachi wanted to reevaluate Jewish life in Europe, to prepare for the Jewish future and ensure Jewish continuity, whereas Agudah was content with the status quo. Mizrachi fought and dreamed, and without it there would have been no place for refugees to go following the war. Without the yishuv, Hitler would have killed Judaism. The Rav saw this as a full retroactive justification of Mizrachi philosophy.
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The second component of the Rav’s Religious Zionism was activism – the necessity for Jews to take a stand in world affairs, to be people of deeds as well as of books. He developed this philosophy building within the tradition of his father and grandfather.
The essence of the Brisk conception of Torah is the mandate of imitatio Dei, intellectual creativity of man emulating the creativity of God through the study of Torah. The Rav felt this creative power must also be actualized beyond the realm of the intellect and carried into the outside world. He believed the vision of Mizrachi was to extend beyond the tent of Torah, to establish the Jewish people’s ownership of the Land of Israel in the way the returning exiles did in the time of Ezra, through weeding and plowing, digging wells and fortifying borders.
The Rav came to believe with a full heart that the true achievement of the state of Israel was the creation of a people with a Gemara in one hand and a plowshare in the other. This activism was at the heart of his Zionism and the focus of his entire worldview.
Activism comes with obligation. If God gave us the power to act, we have a responsibility to do so. The Rav elucidated this beautifully in his 1956 speech at Yeshiva University titled “Kol Dodi Dofek.” He told Shir Hashirim’s tragic story of a couple deeply in love. One night the young lover knocks on his beloved’s door, but she is too tired and tells him sleepily to go away and come back tomorrow. She awakens the next day and goes searching for him but eventually realizes he is gone forever, lost to her for all time because she missed her opportunity.
The Rav argued that each of us is given a chance to reach for something, to become great and to actualize our potential. We learn from Shir HaShirim that we must not let apathy, feelings of inadequacy or laziness spoil this opportunity.
The Rav spoke of six knocks on the collective door of the Jewish people calling us to awaken and reach for greatness. These knocks were the six miraculous events accompanying the establishment of the State of Israel.
The first was political, as both the United States and the USSR voted for the creation of a Jewish state. The second was military, as a tiny Jewish fighting force, handicapped by an arms embargo and massively outnumbered, emerged victorious. The third was theological, as Christian doctrine was refuted by the Jewish people reemerging as a vibrant player on the world stage.
The fourth was sociological, as Jews from around the world felt proud to be Jewish and free to re-engage with their Jewish identity. The fifth was attitudinal, as the international community realized that with the birth of Israel the Jews had a homeland and Jewish blood could no longer be shed freely and without fear of retribution. The sixth and final knock was the influx of exiles, as Jews returned to Israel from around the world.
This speech became the most famous exposition of Religious Zionist thought in the 20th century, and the philosophy it espoused was a result of the Rav’s personal journey over the previous decades.
For both Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, Zionism was connected to Torah. For Rav Kook, however, Zionism was an a priori reflection of his Torah perspective, as obvious as tefillah, Shabbat or kashrut. For the Rav, Zionism was a posteriori, a position adopted after tumult and struggle.
The Rav, therefore, did not grant Zionism an independent mandate in religious life. He rejected the position of Nachmanides, elucidated in his commentary on Acharei Mot (18:25), that mitzvot can only be properly fulfilled in Israel and that, therefore, yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling the Land of Israel) is more important than all the other commandments combined. This position would lead to the conclusion that Zionism is more important than every other aspect of Torah life. The Rav wholeheartedly rejected this; he believed that Zionism, as with every other hashkafa, must be actualized solely within the bounds of a rigid halachic framework.
This position often put the Rav at odds with other Mizrachi thinkers who followed the teachings of Rav Kook and saw Zionism as of supreme importance in religious life.
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Rav Soloveitchik was arguably the greatest exponent of Religious Zionism in the latter half of the 20th century and he traveled a long path to reach that position. He constructed a majestic Religious Zionism built on activism and the passionate desire to seek out God’s guiding hand in the world. He became an ardent Zionist and a member of Mizrachi yet always maintained his independent view. Each decision he made was subjected to rigorous analysis, and halacha was never subjugated in favor of Zionist sentiment.
His switch from Agudah to Mizrachi was a testament to his intellectual honesty and personal conviction. It was hard for the Rav to differ from his family, change his associations and uproot his worldview, yet he came to see this as a fulfillment of two fundamental religious obligations – the drive to attune with the will of God and the mandate to emulate God’s creativity – to be an activist and make an impact in the wider world.
Both the content and context of his Zionist philosophy have beautiful and powerful messages for us all.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. This essay, a version of which originally appeared in Yeshiva University’s Torah To-Go series, is based on the shiurim of Rabbi Rothkoff and was compiled by Sam Fromson, a rabbinic student in the YU Israel Kollel.
Rav Soloveitchik passed away on 18 Nissan (April 9), 1993.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.
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