Rarely in Jewish history has there been a sage such as R. Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish (1878-1953), who held no official position, shunned the limelight, and maintained no academy, yet was regarded by so many as the gadol hador (the greatest rabbinic authority of his generation).
A frail man who craved learning, writing, and anonymity, R. Karelitz became known as the Chazon Ish (literally, “Man of Vision/Prophecy”) for his magnum opus of the same name, a work on Orach Chayim and other parts of Shulchan Aruch which he published in Vilna in 1911.
He subsequently wrote over 40 books – all considered models of lucidity and brilliance – in beautiful, clear Hebrew and with his characteristic polished and precise style. His legacy remains the promotion of clarity in Talmud study, devotion in the worship of G-d, and loving-kindness in human interaction.
The Chazon Ish was particularly recognized for his novel and incisive interpretations of the mitzvah of shemittah and the creative application of shemittah law to modern agriculture, such as the cultivation of hydroponics. He thought that knowledge of Torah also required knowledge of the physical world, and believed in a synthesis of the two that made secular knowledge virtually inseparable from Torah study. As such, he became recognized also for his great knowledge of the sciences, particularly medicine, which astounded neurosurgeons and saved numerous lives.
Perhaps most of all, he was known for his modesty, kindness, and saintliness, as people from all walks of life frequented his home to seek advice on religious, business, or personal problems, or to simply be in his presence and receive his blessing. After making aliyah (1933), he became the recognized leader of charedim in Israel, virtually single-handedly created the Orthodox community of Bnei Brak, and never again set foot out of Eretz Yisrael. He was also respected by Israeli heads of state and secular leaders, many of whom traveled to his modest home in Bnei Brak to seek his counsel.
In the extremely rare handwritten note exhibited below, the Chazon Ish extends his Rosh Hashanah greetings:
May you be inscribed and sealed for life in the book of the totally righteous, from he who seeks the peace of Torah, Avraham Yishayahu.
Unlike many of the leading charedi rabbis of the time, the Chazon Ish accepted the legitimacy of Israel. Regarding Israel as neither the epitome of darkness in a 2,000-year exile nor as the long awaited Jewish redemption, he refused to either accept Zionist nationalism or to actively fight against it, instead adopting a pragmatic approach and concentrating his efforts on strengthening charedi institutions and promoting Jewish practice in Eretz Yisrael.
Thus, though many anti-Zionist rabbinical leaders refused Ben-Gurion’s overtures to meet – including notably R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, who was adamant about never meeting with the prime minister – the Chazon Ish surprised many of his followers by graciously accepting Ben Gurion’s invitation.
Their historical meeting at the home of the Chazon Ish on Monday, October 20, 1952 is considered one of the greatest 20th-century encounters between a high-ranking secular Jewish leader and a prominent rav, and the conference received intense media attention throughout the Jewish world. The charedi press, evidencing its contempt for Ben-Gurion, described the meeting as a confrontation between holiness and impurity, between “the prophets of G-d and sinful kings.”
After the 50-minute meeting, which Ben-Gurion viewed as a “summit,” both participants refused to discuss the subject of their conversation. Ben-Gurion remained uncharacteristically silent, and Rav Aryeh Levin could not get any details from the Chazon Ish, except the following: “[I]mmediately upon his arrival, he [Ben-Gurion] announced that he believed in G-d, and I replied simply ‘Amen, let it be so.’”
At the time of the meeting, there was great friction between the political and rabbinic communities regarding the recruitment of religious girls for national service, and most commentators claim that this topic was the primary focus of their talk. The only other person allowed into the room at the time of the meeting was Yitzchak Navon, later Israel’s president and then Ben-Gurion’s personal secretary, who noted:
In the debates over the question of women recruitment and other religion and state questions, the Knesset members of Agudat Israel used to say to Ben-Gurion that they must ask the Chazon Ish’s opinion. Ben-Gurion’s curiosity increased every time and he expressed his desire to get to know that person who has no formal degree but holds such a high level of admiration and respect by his followers.
However, neither Ben-Gurion’s diary nor his notes of the meeting reflect this topic ever coming up; rather, Ben-Gurion’s focus during the meeting was seeking a way for the secular and religious communities to co-exist with mutual respect. Years later, Ben-Gurion confirmed that co-existence had, in fact, been the subject of the historical meeting:
[I told the Chazon Ish that] I came to talk to [him] about one topic: How will religious and non-religious Jews live together within this country without us exploding from the inside? Jews come here from many countries, in the hundreds and thousands, with different traditions, cultures, and hashkafot [philosophical orientations]. The state faces extended danger, the Arabs still want to destroy us, and we have to make the most of everything that is common to all parts of the people. How can they live in peace and unity?… I did not get an answer to this question.
In a 2013 radio interview, Navon said ruefully: “[W]e did not get an answer to how we are going to have a modus vivendi in this land. It is now more important than the external enemy.” Ben-Gurion later recounted that he asked the Chazon Ish: Since, according to halacha, the preservation of Jewish life is paramount, shouldn’t the love of the people of Israel trump every other consideration? The great sage responded, “There is no Torah without Israel, and there is no Israel without Torah.”
Navon wrote that Ben-Gurion – who was extremely well-versed in Talmud and halachic sources – cited a Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 32b) in which the Sages discuss the case of two camels seeking to ascend on a narrow and steep path at Beit Horon and note that if both beasts of burden attempt to ascend simultaneously, both will fall. As such, reasoned Ben-Gurion, the non-weight-bearing camel – i.e., the charedi community – must yield the right of way to the load-bearing camel: Israel’s secular Jews, who bear the burden of supporting and defending the state.
The brilliant rav countered that the load-bearing camel in this parable is actually “we, the religious Jews, who carry a burden of hundreds of mitzvot, to which secular Israel must give way.” Virtually none of the published accounts of the meeting include Ben-Gurion’s response to the rav; as per Navon, however – who was there – Ben-Gurion answered: “All the Torah studied by the thousands of students in the European yeshivot did not succeed in saving the Jews from the Holocaust.”
According to Navon, the prime minister and the rav also discussed public Shabbat desecration in Eretz Yisrael, which the Chazon Ish explained was a source of great personal torment. Ben-Gurion responded that while he himself seeks to avoid public Shabbat violations, the state cannot coerce secular Israelis to learn Torah or to observe Shabbat and that hard-working Israelis, who would not be attending synagogue in any event, should be permitted to engage in secular pursuits on Shabbat, their one day off. The rav expressed his heartfelt belief that the time will soon come when all Jews in Israel will keep Shabbat and study Torah.
On several occasions after the meeting, Ben-Gurion expressed his enchantment with the Chazon Ish. Upon leaving the room after the meeting, he told Rabbi Gershon Greschenkorn, then mayor of Bnei Brak, “He [the Chazon Ish] is a smart Jew, a ladder to the ground and his head comes to heaven” (a Biblical reference to Genesis 28:10-19 concerning Jacob’s dream of a ladder ascending to heaven).
He characterized the rav as “in good spirits and with much laughter, lacking a zealot’s anger.” A few days after the historic meeting, he began a cabinet conference by discussing how impressed he was by the Chazon Ish’s gentleness and kindliness and how awed he was by the great sage’s radiance and angelic holiness.
Moreover, he expressed incredible reverence for the rav even when taking a position adverse to him. For example, when the Chazon Ish in a December 7, 1952 letter took issue with Ben-Gurion’s “decree” on national service for women — a two-year mandatory civic service law for women had been passed at the time (the law was ultimately never implemented) – Ben Gurion responded as follows:
In honor of the genius Chazon Ish, Zichron Meir Bnei Brak.
I was pleased to receive your letter, and I am very sorry that I cannot do your will. Regarding the women recruiting, there is a double conscience problem: There is a charedi community whose conscience is hurt by the recruitment, and there is a large part of Israel whose conscience affected by the lack of recruitment…. I know that among the halachic scholars the opinions differ; I am not prepared to put my head between those, and certainly I will not dare to stand up against you because I know that you are gadol hador. However, I know the security needs of the people of Israel, and pikuach nefesh of the nation trumps everything, and I am sorry that you characterize recruiting women for national service as a “decree.”…
Allow me to add that the meeting and talking with you was an important experience for me. And I will never forget it.
With high regard and respect: D. Ben-Gurion
The respect went both ways. The Chazon Ish characterized Ben-Gurion as a man with a “neshamah gedolah” (an “expansive soul.”) Rav Moshe Tennenbaum, the director of Vaad Hayeshivot and a confidant of the Chazon Ish who arranged the historic meeting, reports that the Chazon Ish told him, “When Ben-Gurion comes to the World of Truth, he won’t understand why they’re honoring him. It will be because the Torah in Eretz Yisrael stands upon the breath of his mouth.”
In the truly amazing and historic April 16, 1954 letter exhibited here – his only known written discussion of the Chazon Ish – Ben-Gurion writes:
You may judge me for responding briefly where an extended response may be required, but you should know that silence and a brief description is appropriate for that meeting. Although we came to the subject casually, it was evident in your response that you expect me to elaborate. I do not want to elaborate on the details of the minutes-long meeting that left me with many impressions, [but] to you, I can say briefly that I was amazed by the personality of Chazon Ish, a slender and deferential man whose considerable virtues were clear.
Throughout the meeting, he exhibited a remarkable relaxation which I lack the proper words to express. His apartment is very modest; we sat at an empty table in a small room with a book closet and bed. His manner of speaking is tender, his face of a spiritual man, his eyes are smart.
The meeting was in good spirits but, as to content, I was disappointed. He answered in his own way to my questions about establishing our relationship with the devout, but his answers did not satisfy me, mainly because he completely ignored the blessed results of our Zionist enterprise and that interdependence and responsibility are [vital].
To you, my friends, I can tell as I know that you understand me correctly, that the impression I had left is in the form of a reverse wishful heart – I wish that our adhesion to our way was at least as strong as the devout in their way.
For your interest in my health, I look forward to better days.
D. Ben Gurion
Note that nowhere in this letter does Ben-Gurion make any suggestion that national service for religious women was ever discussed during the meeting.
The recipient of the letter is author Shlomo Zemach (1886-1974), a friend and confident of Ben-Gurion’s from his childhood in Plonsk and one of the first to come to Eretz Yisrael during the Second Aliyah.