Meir Bar-Ilan was born in Volozhin, Russia, the son of the Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin), one of the greatest sages to emerge in the course of Jewish history. The Netziv was the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin which was forcibly closed down by the Russian government in 1892. Undoubtedly, the young Meir was influenced by his father’s deep commitment to the settlement of Eretz Israel. When the Netziv died in 1894, Meir began to travel from yeshiva to yeshiva; first to Telz, then Brisk and finally to Novordok where he learned with his grandfather, the renowned Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein.
In 1905, Rabbi Bar-Ilan participated for the first time as a delegate to the Zionist Congress and unlike many of his other colleagues within Mizrachi, voted against the Uganda plan, being convinced that Eretz Israel was the only possible homeland for the Jewish people. It is from this point on that Bar-Ilan began to devote his entire life and activities to the development of the Mizrachi party in the Diaspora and Eretz Israel.
In order to further his studies, Bar-Ilan moved to Germany, where he was deeply influenced by the religious community and its ideology of ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ – a synthesis of traditional Jewish law and study with the modern culture of the time, i.e., western European culture. In Germany, Rabbi Bar-Ilan began active involvement in the daily affairs of the Zionist community and within Mizrachi in particular. In 1911, he founded the first Hebrew weekly newspaper called “Ha’Ivri.” It became recognized as an open forum, enabling leading Zionists to express the very grave and realistic questions which faced the Zionist movement as well as serving as an outlet for literary articles written on Zionism. Although he held no official position within the Mizrachi movement, Rabbi Bar-Ilan became its travelling spokesman, helping to establish Mizrachi groups in various other countries of Western Europe.
In this capacity, he was to fight a two-sided battle; one against the religious sectors which rejected Zionism in total, and one against the secularists who threatened the entire future of the religious factions within the Zionist Organization.
Prior to World War I, Bar-Ilan visited the United States for the first time and laid the groundwork for the American Mizrachi party, becoming the central figure of the Mizrachi convention held in American in 1914. He returned to Europe after a stay of many months, but when World War I engulfed Europe, he traveled back to the United States in 1915, where he resided for the next ten years. Here he became the recognized head of the Mizrachi party and established an American counterpart to his “ha’Ivri” paper. He devoted a great deal of his efforts to education and established the ‘Beit Midrash Le’Morim’ – Teacher’s Institute, which in time became part of YeshivaUniversity.
In 1920, at the First Mizrachi Congress, after the war, he served in the capacity of president and from that time on was recognized as the world leader of Mizrachi. In 1926, he came on aliya, one of the first Zionist spokesman from the United Statesto realize the dream of living in Eretz Israel. In Israel, Bar-Ilan carried a strong voice within the Mizrachi leadership, and served in the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish National Fund. In 1937, at the Twentieth Zionist Congress, he was among those few who fought against the plan to partition Eretz Yisrael.
Bar-Ilan left an indelible impression upon Mizrachi in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora, being the first to coin the phrase ‘Am Yisrael B’Eretz Israel al pi Torat Yisrael’ – The Nation of Israel in the Landof Israelaccording to the Torah of Israel. In regard to this statement he wrote: “The direction of the Mizrachi movement is not to remain hidden within Judaism, nor to seek out a hidden corner even if that is where the Torah can be found, but to capture the Jewish way of life, to spread the spirit of Torah in the thoroughfare, on the street, upon the masses and within the State.” He understood that the spiritual composition of the Jewish State must be decided not through ideas and advice, nor through promises or decisions made from afar, but rather through the participation of the religious community in building the land itself. He also understood very clearly that future generations would decide upon their dedication to the State and the values of Judaism based upon the participation and contribution of the religious community towards the re-establishment of the State and the national reawakening.
In 1927, Rabbi Bar-Ilan made the then remarkable announcement that Mizrachi would see the fruits of its labor not when most Jews were living in Eretz Yisrael, but when Judaism would be seen in most places or Eretz Israel.
Because of his attitude towards practical work in the land of Israel, Bar-Ilan supported the goals of Ha’Poel Ha’Mizrachi and the Bnei Akiva movement. To realize the dream of a Jewish Eretz Yisrael, emphasis was placed upon education and towards this end, he fought and won permission for the Mizrachi to set up an educational system of its own. He also established the religious daily newspaper “Ha Zofe” in 1937, which he edited until he died. He fought hard to better the situation of those who learned Torah and to raise the standard of the Yeshivot. “Miphal H’Torah” was established which offered aid to all types of yeshivot. He is also accredited with the original idea of establishing Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, one of the first yeshivot with a nationalistic orientation. Among the various Torah-related projects which were started by Rabbi Bar-Ilan is the Encyclopedia Talmudit – an encyclopedia of the entire Talmud which is still undergoing compilation and revisions and stands as a major work in the field of Torah and scholarship.
Before his death, Rabbi Bar-Ilan saw the realization of his dream – the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel. In the last year of his life, the first of the new State, he fought hard to have Jerusalem declared the capital of Eretz Yisrael. His name has been memorialized in various places in Israel, such as Bar-Ilan university in Ramat Gan, and the Moshav Beit Meir, situated near Jerusalem.
|From His Writings:
Daily Life in Eretz Israel according to the Laws of the Torah
“…Our Torah more than touches upon state and public life; it provides rules and regulations governing these aspects of life. These laws, indeed are basic and essential parts of the Torah and our religious legislation. The very sections of our laws which deal with man’s relation to his conscience and to his Maker also offer general and specific guidance on the conduct of the state and social life and on our relations with other countries – how to wage war on them and how to live at peace with them. Neither when we dwelt in our homeland nor during the exile have we ever had laws that were of an exclusively “secular” nature. We have no “church” that is not also concerned with matters of state, just as we have no state which is not also concerned with “church” matters – in Jewish life these are not two separate spheres.
…If we wish to continue our spiritual heritage and not create a new Judaism, we must make of our schools in our homeland places where more than language and vocations are taught; they must be real educational institutions in keeping with the nation’s ideals and principles. Knowledge of talmudic law and all that this implies should play an important role in these studies. The Talmud and its literature must remain, to some degree, the heritage of the whole House of Israel and should not constitute a science and discipline only for those who are professional scholars of the Torah. Naturally, we also need experts who will devote their lives to the study of the Talmud – and these should be of the highest caliber. But the spirit of the Talmud and some knowledge of talmudic laws and literature should be part of the schooling of every educated Jew. It is customary among the gentiles that every schoolboy have some basic knowledge of physics and mathematics, and even though he may not utilize these studies in his lifework, these basic disciplines are regarded as indispensable. Our attitude to the knowledge of talmudic law should be comparable: Every schoolboy should be required to master certain sections of the Talmud and to imbibe its spirit, even though he may not make this field of study his life’s work.
This demand, which many may regard as too extreme, requires us not to be satisfied with establishing the type of yeshivot and Hebrew schools now prevalent both in the Diaspora and in Israel. We must realize that our homeland will be, and should be, a progressive and enlightened country, and that cannot isolate ourselves. The Chinese people boasts of a culture that is older that any in Europe, and yet when one of its sons wants to become “cultured,” he goes to Europe or to America. Therefore, if we want to be a modern people, we, too, must not allow that our entire education be reduced to those national or religious studies peculiar to us, so that when we need doctors, architects and engineers, we shall have to import them from other countries or send our children abroad to study. Nor do we have the right to segregate the schools, so that “ours” will be devoted only to the Torah and Jewish subjects, and “theirs” (meaning the schools of those who do not accept our views) will teach general culture. If we do this, we will lower the standards of our schools and their pupils will achieve less than pupils in the secular schools. We must not permit this to happen not merely for economic but also for moral reasons. Life has taught us: “He who increases in wealth, increases his dignity.” If the secular schools are to produce the wealthy and enlightened class, whereas the pupils of our schools will be merely God-fearing scholars of the Torah, the influence of the secularists will predominate in everything. The same sad pattern that prevailed in the Diaspora will recur again: The yeshiva students are poor in material wealth and downtrodden in spirit, while the college students are successful and their influence, both direct and indirect, is every greater.
If it is our wholehearted desire that all our children know the Torah and follow its teachings, we must establish schools which combine both Jewish and secular studies. The Jewish studies should consist not only of literature and language; they must include the entire religious heritage, so that our children know more than just the Bible.
These views on how we should organize the communal life now coming into being in the homeland should be the yardstick for all who deal with the rebuilding of our country, for all those who really want to see the Hebrew nation revitalized on its land and in the spirit of its Torah.
Mizrachi, which was the first, in recent times, to raise the banner of a national-religious renaissance, must now accept the further task of implementing these views with deeds.”
Building the Land in Accordance with the Spirit of the Torah
“…The Mizrachi party feels that Eretz Israel can only be built in a complete manner and not by choosing one part over the other. Enough of division and halves, we require completeness and totality! The totality of the Torah, where even the small crown of the Yud cannot be removed. Totality in spirit, through which we shall be purified and united within the totality of our land. Torah, our heritage, is a bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.”
Source: Speech to the 13th Zionist Congress – Vienna1923
“Our Zionism is not a forty year old innovation, but rather an expression of national desire developed over a period of thousands of years…For us the building of Eretz Yisrael does not serve as an answer for spiritual or material but rather it is a necessity, part of the internal soul of Judaism. Our desire is to live in our homeland, the land of Israel, is our inherent right…”
Source: Speech to the 20th World Zionist Congress – 1937
There can be no Compromise on Partition
“Each and every Jew, no matter how pacifist his political position may be, knows and feels what it means to divide and partition Eretz Israel. Who can tell what will come of such a policy if we acquiesce to it? No one will deny that the Zionist idea demands a great sacrifice from our people. We must be prepared for any and all problems and above all we must remain true to ourselves. We should be ready to accept harsh conditions and even war if that is what is needed to inherit the complete and Biblical Eretz Israel. We will not take part in the compromise to partition our land. It is not a question of trust in those who are leading the talks on our behalf for partition, but rather it is our belief that Eretz Israel in its totality belongs to us. We believe in the redemption of the entire landof Israeland not just a section of it.”
Source: Speech to the 20th World Zionist Congress – 1937
The Nature of our Sacrifice in the War of Independence
“When we read in the press of the news coming from Israel, specifically in regard to the great number of wounded and dead among the Jewish population in Israelas a result of this war, we are encompassed by overwhelming sorrow and mourning. And, yet, if we allow ourselves the luxury of perspective and look upon the historical phenomenon which is taking place today, we are forced to note the veracity of the verse “Within Me you will be sanctified” For religious Zionist Jewry has contributed in no less a degree than other segments towards building Eretz Israel, in that the call to sacrifice has been answered by our youth as well. It would not have been natural if those Religious Zionists who had returned with the rest of our people to rebuild the land had not been among the fighters and thus sadly among the wounded and dead of our people. How would it be possible for our sons and daughters to sit in their houses in peace while others went out to fight for them?
If Mizrachi has accomplished but this, i.e., that we have become partners in the building of Eretz Israel, as well as part and parcel of its sacrifice, then our right to participate as total and equal partners in the Zionist dream has been assured.”
Source: Speech to the Mizrachi European conference – Antwerp, Belgium, 1948
The Army of Israel
“The army of Israelis unique among the armies of the world. It is certainly required that our army be courageous and strong, yet we must also remain steadfast in our faith and belief. It serves not only to guard and protect others, but to guard and protect itself as well. We do not wear our uniforms as other armies do, but rather they serve to mark us part of the Kingdom of Israel that has been reestablished after two thousand years and retains in its soul the knowledge that the Jewish religion is part of its essence.”
Source: Openin Ceremony – Beit Hayal – 1948
|The Living Land
Bar-Ilan University, named after Rabbi Bar-Ilan, is Israel’s largest academic community of students, scientists and staff (32,000 in total). The university seeks to produce students of moral and intellectual aptitude; students who adopt the highest standards of excellence in scientific and academic research; and students who bear a deep commitment to Jewish community.
The unique Bar-Ilan formula: blend tradition with modern technologies and scholarship, and teach the compelling ethics of Jewish heritage to all. The university’s leading resources of Jewish knowledge create a special responsibility: to place the expertise of its researchers at the disposal of the global Jewish and academic communities. Indeed, Bar-IlanU.stands at the vanguard of efforts to revitalize Jewish learning for the twenty-first century and to rebuild Jewish identity.
Bar-IlanUniversity: a peerless congregation of scientists and Jewish studies scholars toiling to synthesize the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the material, the spiritual and the scientific.
Moshav Beit Meir, named after Rav Bar-Ilan, is a religious moshav of some 90 families, located in the midst of a nature reserve in the Jerusalem hills (about nine miles from Jerusalem) off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. It enjoys a panoramic view of the country stretching some 35 miles to the Mediterranean.
The Beit Meir building, named after Rav Bar-Ilan, is the world headquarters of the Mizrachi-Hapoel Mizrachi Organization. Located in the center of Jerusalem, the building houses the offices of: World Mizrachi, World Bnei Akiva (Youth), Yavneh Olami (Students), Kollel Torah Mitzion(Chinuch), Tehilla (Aliyah), Merkaz Hachinuch and Gmach Olei Ma’arav (Charity). The building is a hive of religious Zionist activity.