Rabbi Yoel Schwartz has written so many books, he can’t remember exact how many. The Israel National Library has 180 titles registered. The 80-year-old Torah scholar and co-founder of the IDF’s Nachal Haredi Division, believes the number is closer to 200.
His interests are as eclectic as he is prolific, having written books on conversion, special-need children, yishuv ha’aretz, kosher grasshoppers, Bnei Noach, the Holocaust, and the wonders of the universe. In addition to his work on a gamut of projects, such as his effort to reach out to Bnei Noach around the world, he also teaches newcomers to Judaism at the Dvar Yerushalayim Yeshiva in Har Nof, where he has been based since 1984.
The Jewish Press: From your books, it’s evident that you possess extensive secular knowledge. Where did you attain it given your charedi upbringing?
Rabbi Schwartz: My parents came to Eretz Yisrael from Hungary. They were followers of the Chatam Sofer who encouraged Jews to make aliyah. I was born in Yerushalayim, and from an early age, I loved books.
By the time of my bar mitzvah, I must have read a thousand books, including hundreds of books I discovered in a nearby library. I especially enjoyed encyclopedias. Although my parents were completely charedi, their European background instilled in them a respect for general culture and secular knowledge.
What yeshivot did you attend?
I learned in Kol Torah in Yerushalayim, in Yeshivat Ponevezh in Bnei Brak, and in the Mir Yeshiva under the guidance of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yosef Kahaneman, and Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, all of blessed memory. Afterward, I served as the mashgiach of the Itri Yeshiva, then I taught in Yeshivat HaNegev in Netivot and in Yeshivat Ofakim.
Why did you decide to devote yourself to teaching baalei teshuvah, and even non-Jews, rather than remaining in the traditional yeshiva world?
Doesn’t every Jew have to learn Torah? And non-Jews are required to know their maker as well. The Prophet Isaiah states, “From Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the L-rd from Yerushalayim.” That means that the word of the L-rd will be for everyone in the world.
In your classes, which are sometimes recorded and posted on YouTube, you often combine divre Torah with a rundown of recent events. Why?
Our Sages reveal that a person is asked a few questions when he finishes his sojourn in this world and reaches the beit din in heaven. One question is: Did you look for the coming of salvation? That means: Did you look to see the coming of Israel’s Redemption in the events of your time?
[We must] see the signs of redemption, which are set down in the Gemara and other holy writings. [The Gemera tells us] that the surest sign of the Exile’s end is when the branches of the trees in Eretz Yisrael give forth their fruit in abundance, an agricultural phenomenon we have witnessed, Baruch Hashem, in our time.
Another teaching is that in the year Mashiach comes, the Iranians will wreak great havoc in the world (Yalkut Shimoni, Yishayahu, 60). After the killing of Iran’s master terrorist, the time is nearing when Iran will shake the world.
The Midrash relates that Israel becomes afraid, and HaKodesh Baruch Hu asks, “Why are you afraid? Everything I’m doing, I’m doing for you.” This applies to the Jews in Monsey and Brooklyn as well. The Master of the World is bringing about all the recent violence and anti-Semitism to tell the Jews in the Diaspora to come home. This is a sign of redemption as well.
The increasing violence against Jews around the world is a call for all Jews to come home to Israel?
Yes. If someone in the Diaspora has an important position educating Jews or non-Jews to these exalted matters – to help people open their eyes to the truth of the divine election of Israel and the significance of Eretz Yisrael – that person can stay and teach, but every other Jew should come.
In your opinion, where does Benjamin Netanyahu fit into this hidden divine plan?
It isn’t hidden. Just open your eyes and look. In the Gemara (Sotah 49b) appears a list of signs of the “footsteps of Mashiach.” It states that “chutzpah will increase.” Can there be any greater chutzpah than Lieberman and Lapid who rail against the upholders of the Torah?
It says that the “truth will be hidden” – what we call “fake news.” It says the “wisdom of the Sages will be scorned” and “those who fear sin will be despised.” Last week, see how everyone condemned the chief rabbi.
The Sages say, “The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.” If the media represents the generation, we have arrived at this signpost, and Mashiach is just around the corner. We hold election after election and no one is elected, just like our Sages predicted: “On whom can we rely except on our Father in Heaven?”
Hashem is leading us to understand that salvation won’t come through politics. Only Mashiach can do the job. Not the private Mashiach that everyone is waiting for to solve their own personal problems, but the real Mashiach who brings salvation to the world. When people want that Mashiach to come, he will be here.
Where does Bibi fit in?
On Chanukah we learn about how the Maccabees fought the Greeks and Hellenists to save the Torah in Zion. In Hebrew, “Tziyon” consists of the word for Greece, “Yavan,” with the letter “tzadik” added – the “tzaddik” who isn’t afraid to stand up for the Torah. Add the “tzadik” to “Yavan” and you get “Tziyon.”
Bibi, whose father’s name was Ben Zion, stood by the Torah parties and remained in power. Gantz, who learned in a yeshiva high school, went with Lapid and lost. He calls his party “liberal secular” like the Greeks. Bibi went with the charedim and rose. Gantz went with Lapid and fell. One wants to honor Judaism, the other wants to uproot its holy foundations.
In the middle is the Israel secular judicial establishment, which the Gemara in Sotah exactly describes, stating that “chutzpah will increase” and “truth will disappear,” and “the meeting place will become a place of immorality.” More and more people now realize that the halls of the Supreme Court are empty of value and justice, and this leads the way to a restoration of the judges of old and to the ever-advancing days of Mashiach.
A question or two about the IDF unit “Netzach Yehuda” – more commonly known as “HaNachal HaCharedi” – which you helped establish for charedi youth who had difficulty maintaining a steady course of yeshiva learning. Do you believe the program has been a success?
Absolutely. First, most of the boys have proven to be excellent soldiers. They have won the respect of the army and the public alike. While some return to the benches of the beit midrash when they complete their service, many join the civil work force in a wide range of productive capacities.
Also, on their own personal level, coping with the many challenges of the army experience helps strengthen their characters in ways that yeshiva learning wasn’t able to do for them given their often complicated personalities and family histories.
While the program was created for charedi youth, isn’t it now filled with soldiers from the dati-leumi community?
Seventy percent of the enrollment is still charedi. From the dati-leumi community, there are many serious young people who want to avoid contact with female soldiers during their time of army service, and the Torah-observant “hilltop youth” often choose the Netzach Yehuda unit for the overall religious atmosphere it affords.
Why did you end your involvement with the program?
I still visit units, counsel soldiers, and give classes, but when the Draft Law became a source of ugly political and social conflict, I didn’t want to be involved. The way to Mashiach is through mutual understanding and respect, not through senseless hatred and division.
We have just finished reading about Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Each had his own individual character and mission. On Shabbat, we bless our children to be like both Ephraim and Menashe – the two of them together with their own unique ways. Together – not apart.