Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Not long after its founding, Agudat Yisrael came to be a metaphor for charedi Jewry’s confrontation with modernity in general and with religious Zionism in particular.

Essentially born of anti-Zionism, Agudah maintained as one of its principal guiding ideas that Zionism is incompatible with Torah Judaism. As such, although it developed an active presence in Eretz Yisrael, its focus was on dwelling in the land – which is a Torah commandment – rather than establishing Jewish sovereignty there. Accordingly, while it sought recognition and status for the charedi community in Eretz Yisrael, it refused to be included in the political bodies of the Yishuv.

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The origins of Agudah lay in the Tenth Zionist Congress – held at Basel, Switzerland in August 1911 – at which the Zionist movement suppressed the political aspect of Zionism in favor of cultural and economic policy, marking the end of the friction between the practical Zionists and the political Zionists.

Though ironically dubbed the “Peace Conference,” there wasn’t much peace with – or within – the Orthodox Mizrachi camp, which was bitter due to the adoption by the Congress of the cultural program, pursuant to which the Zionist Actions Committee was charged with carrying out educational activities in Eretz Yisrael and Eastern Europe. This program was an anathema to many of the charedi leaders, who believed that religious Judaism could not coexist with a secular Jewish culture.

Charedi leaders were actually less worried about the threat presented by Herzl’s secular Zionism, which it saw as drawing much of its support from already assimilated Jews, than it was about the Mizrachi movement, a Torah-true organization with an appeal to Agudah’s base and which therefore presented an unacceptable challenge to both Agudah’s theological approach and to its general hegemony.

Seeing the writing on the wall – i.e., that the cultural Zionists were about to take command of the Zionist movement – the charedim held a meeting prior to the commencement of the Tenth Congress, which resulted in the drafting of a resolution that “nothing that is contrary to the Jewish religion should be undertaken by any institution for cultural activity by the World Zionist Organization.”

When the Congress defeated the proposal and adopted the cultural program, many delegates and leaders withdrew from the WZO and, a year later, joined German Orthodox separatist leaders and Eastern European traditionalist opponents of Zionism to form Agudat Yisrael.

The founding conference of the World Agudat Yisrael was held in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia in May 1912, with some 300 delegates in attendance, who began the difficult task of uniting the disparate views of Orthodox communities across Europe under the Agudah flag. The conference appointed a temporary council charged with founding Orthodox organizations across Europe and established the first Moetset Gedolei HaTorah (the “Council of Torah Sages”) as a rabbinical body charged with passing on the propriety of all the Agudah’s major actions.

The aim of World Agudat Yisrael became to strengthen Orthodox institutions independent of the Zionist movement and Mizrachi. Due primarily to the efforts of Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, head of the Mizrachi movement, most Mizrachi members remained with the WZO. (The Agudah would not drop its anti-Zionist position until after the Holocaust.)

Although the Agudah launched branches throughout Lithuania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, it proved most successful in Poland and, by the early 1920s, it became perhaps the most influential political Jewish party in Poland. Agudah members held themselves out as good citizens – indeed, as patriots – of the Polish fatherland, thereby earning the goodwill of the Polish people and facilitating the promotion of Jewish civil rights within the existing political structure.

During World War I, German Rabbis Pinchas Kohn and Dr. Emmanuel Carlebach – as the rabbinical advisors to the German occupation forces in Poland – worked together with R. Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, to unify much of Eastern European and Western European Orthodox Judaism under the Agudah umbrella.

The movement, which quickly gained important support, particularly from chassidic and charedi Jews, ran a slate of nominees in post-World War I Polish elections and obtained great electoral achievements, including the election of Alexander Zusia Friedman, R. Meir Shapiro, R. Yosef Nechemya Kornitzer, and R. Aharon Lewin of Reysha to the Polish Sejm (parliament).

Historic photo of the saintly Chofetz Chaim arriving at the First Knessiah Gedolah (1923).

In August 1914, Agudah commenced preparations for convening a worldwide Knessiah Gedolah (“Great Congress”) as a counter to the Zionist Congresses, but the start of World War I made such a plan unworkable. The First Knessiah Gedolah, which was held in September 1923 (from the 4th to the 11th of Elul) at the elegant Opera House in Vienna, Austria, was a seminal event in the modern history of Jewish Orthodoxy. Chaired by Rav Yehuda Leib Zirelsohn, it was attended by many of the world’s greatest leaders, including R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the legendary Chofetz Chaim.

Other attendees included thousands of Jews seeking to join their revered leaders in standing up for the ideals and goals of Agudat Yisrael. One segment conspicuously missing, however, were religious Zionists, whom the Agudah rabbis viewed as a danger on par with assimilationism.

The Chofetz Chaim offered a beautiful parable to explain the purpose of the Knessiah Gedolah as part of his address at the gathering:

Various medical professionals surrounded the bed of a critically ill patient. In accordance with his medical specialty, each of them paid close attention to a particular organ or body part and proposed various treatment regimens.

Suddenly, one of the physicians approached the patient and listened to the beat of his heart. “Wait,” he announced to his fellow doctors, “listen to his heart. The heartbeat is very feeble. First, let us get his heart to beat normally again, and then we can consider other medical issues.”

My dear brothers, the heartbeat of the Jewish people is the Torah, and the slowed beat of its heart is manifest. We have come here to save the very heart of the Jewish people.

The “slowed beat of its heart” was the result of the new freedom Jews gained with emancipation, which flowed from the modern “Enlightenment” and led to materialism, socialism, and the abandonment of the Torah by many Jews and Jewish communities. The Knessiah represented the first 20th century gathering of world Torah leaders to unite in the struggle against secular and assimilationist movements that were threatening the survival of Torah Jewry.

First Knessiah Gedolah card mailed from Vienna on September 23, 1923.

Exhibited here is a rare and beautiful Knessiah Gedolah card mailed from Vienna on September 23, 1923. It depicts a globe inscribed “Agudat Yisrael” atop the three pillars of Agudah, based upon Pirkei Avot 1:2: Torah, the Temple service, and practicing acts of piety. Also shown is a Delegate’s Card for attendance at the Knessiah.

The Knessiah passed a resolution conveying its blessings and hopes for a successful term to President Calvin Coolidge and, while expressing gratitude that America served as a refuge for large numbers of Jews, it asked the president to use his influence to liberalize the immigration laws. To the great disappointment of the American Jewish community, Coolidge was unaffected by the Knessiah resolution and, worse, he signed the Johnson-Reed Act, an immigration bill that restricted Jewish immigration to the United States.

One of the major topics of discussion at the conference – which caused great disagreement – was Agudat Yisrael’s relationship toward organized Zionism in general and toward the Mizrachi in particular. The principal accomplishment of the Knessiah, however, was the remarkable ability of the various factions and interests to unify for a single directed purpose and to promote a feeling among world religious Jewry – again, except for the Zionists – that they were a single community united in its commitment to fight assimilation and non-Torah values.

Delegate’s Card for attendance at the Knessiah Gedolah.

Protesting the persecution of Jews in Russia, the Assembly also adopted separate resolutions urging the Soviets to modify their attitude on the subject; upholding schechita (ritual slaughter); and promoting increased religious observance, particularly greater Shabbat observance worldwide.

It also determined to send a prestigious group to America, including the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe, to recruit followers for the Agudah. The mission (which ultimately did not include these two personalities) proved highly successful and led to the establishment of the Agudat Yisrael of America.

The Knessiah was further notable for challenging long-established Eastern European Orthodox practice by promoting Jewish education for girls. Although the idea to found yeshivot for girls had been initiated by Sarah Schenirer a few years earlier when she opened the first Bais Yaakov school, the Knessiah championed the establishment of Bais Yaakovs across Europe and allocated significant funds for their support.

Delegate’s Ticket to attend the second Agudat Yisrael Knessiah Gedolah on September 17, 1929, which coincided with the completion of Tractate Zevachim on the Daf Yomi cycle.

However, the most historically significant event at the Knessiah – an episode with repercussions that reverberate to this day – was undoubtedly a proposal presented by a 36-year-old rabbi, who captivated everyone with his eloquence and brilliance. Rav Meir Shapiro, then rav of Sanok, Poland and future rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, was selected to present to the plenum the suggestions and decisions of the Vaad LeInyonei Chinuch (Committee on Matters of Education).

On August 16, 1923, after enumerating the plans to strengthen Jewish education and practice, he sought permission to present a personal proposal, which shook the very foundations of Torah study: that Jews in all parts of the world should study the same daf (page of Talmud) each day, with the goal of completing the entire Talmud in about seven and a half years. As Rav Shapiro himself beautifully explained it to the delegates at the Knessiah:

What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes Gemara Berachot under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael to America, and each day he learns the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis medrash in New York and finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the beis medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?

In those years, only some of the 63 tractates of the Talmud were being studied regularly, while others, such as Zevachim and Temurah – which focus on topics that relate to the Temple ritual – were hardly studied at all. Originally, Rav Shapiro saw Daf Yomi as an appropriate program only for the religious youth of Poland, but his idea was greeted so enthusiastically by the nearly 600 delegates at the Congress, including many Torah leaders from Europe and America, that the program was accepted by practically all religious Jews worldwide.

The first cycle of Daf Yomi commenced a few weeks later on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684, September 11, 1923. To show support for the new program, the Gerrer Rebbe learned the first daf of Berachot in public. On November 12, 1924, when Tractate Berachot was completed, Rav Shapiro published a calendar for the entire cycle of Daf Yomi study.

Handwritten letter by R. Meir Shapiro.

Exhibited here is a very rare correspondence handwritten by Rav Shapiro on his personal letterhead and dated “Sanhedrin 40” (it was his practice to use the Daf Yomi to date his correspondence). He sends blessings for the New Year to the rav of Sekowil and closes with a statement about saying the Shehecheyanu blessing on the second night of Rosh Hashanah.

Rav Shapiro (1887-1933), who earned broad recognition as a great illui and gaon at a very young age, received semicha from a number of the greatest rabbanim of the time, including the Maharsham. He went on to serve as rav in Galina (1910-1920), Sanok (1920-1924), Petrakov, and, finally and most famously, in Lublin, where he established the world-renowned Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, which trained many hundreds of rabbanim who went on to serve as leaders of Polish Jewry.

R. Meir Shapiro, founder of the Daf Yomi.

The cornerstone of the yeshiva was laid in 1924, but it would not be able to open its doors until six years later at the culmination of R. Shapiro’s fundraising efforts throughout Poland and the United States. With R. Shapiro simultaneously serving as rav of Lublin and as rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin became one of the most venerated yeshivot of its time.

In 1914, R. Shapiro was appointed head of the Education Department of Agudat Yisrael in East Galicia; went on to become president of Agudah in Poland (1922); and became an honored member of the Moetset Gedolei HaTorah. He became the first Orthodox Jew to become a member of the Polish Sejm, serving from 1922-1927; although his lack of proficiency in Polish limited his effectiveness, having a leading rabbi in the Parliament constituted an important symbolic encouragement to the Jews of Poland.

Sadly, he died of typhus at the very young age of 46.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.