(Photo: Rabbi Yaakov Friedman with Rabbi Zev Gold, President of Mizrachi USA.)

Chassidut and Zionism

One of the unique personalities of the twentieth century, Rabbi Yaakov Friedman of Husiatyn–Tel-Aviv (1878–1956) was a Chassidic Rebbe who actively supported the Mizrachi movement. A great-grandson of the holy Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, Rabbi Friedman was a passionate Religious Zionist who moved with his family to Israel in 1937. Many of his powerful sermons in support of Religious Zionism, delivered between 1937 and 1956 in Tel Aviv, are collected in his sefer Ohalei Yaakov.

Now translated into English for the first time, the following essay by Rabbi Friedman was originally published in Hebrew in Warsaw in 1919, in the fifth edition of HaMizrachi.

In Jewish tradition, the word Chassidut originally meant the desire to attach oneself to Hashem by observing Torah and mitzvot and through the purification of one’s character traits and thoughts. The chassid goes beyond the letter of the law in order to reach his goal, treating the mundane as if it were holy to train himself to be sensitive to holiness.

The Chassidut of the Ba’al Shem Tov was fully aligned with this classical definition, with one difference: the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students were not satisfied with pursuing the wholeness of their own souls but also believed that they had an obligation to bind every Jew to the Source of eternal life, each person according to his level. These Chassidim went down to the nation, which was groaning under a terrible burden of suffering and despair, drew close to them in love, brotherhood and friendship, strengthened their faith, purified their character traits and through the light of their holiness dispelled their darkness. And for those Jews who lacked the strength to walk themselves on “the path that goes up from Beit El” without constant guidance, they remained in constant contact, always caring for their welfare. 

The number of those who followed the ways of the Chassidim grew ever greater. The leaders became known as tzaddikim while the followers were called Chassidim. Following the ways of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the tzaddikim tried always to draw those who were far from the ways of Torah closer. Even if they saw a Jew drawn by his evil inclination to extreme temptation and sin, they refused to give up hope. With a deep understanding of psychology and the inner workings of man, they worked hard to find the good in every Jew. They did not disgrace, reject or separate from any Jew. A spark of goodness in the heart of a Jew, even if it is weak and flickering, is worthy of the attention of the tzaddik, who will work with all of his strength and wisdom to fan the spark into a healthy flame. 

The response of the holy tzaddik of Ruzhin to one of his Chassidim is typical of the approach of the tzaddikim: “You wonder why I work so hard to be melamed zechut, to judge even great sinners positively? It is written in Tehillim: “וְעוֹד מְעַט, וְאֵין רָשָׁע; וְהִתְבּוֹנַנְתָּ עַל-מְקוֹמוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ” (Tehillim 37:10) (simply translated as “A little longer and there will be no wicked man; you will look at where he was – he will be gone”). What is the true meaning of this verse? If you look at a man who still has “מְעַט,” who still has a little bit of good in him, “וְאֵין רָשָׁע,” and he is not yet completely evil, “וְהִתְבּוֹנַנְתָּ,” you should think carefully and say to yourself, “עַל-מְקוֹמוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ,” if I were in this wicked person’s place I wouldn’t possess even the little bit of good that he has!”

Those who know this beautiful aspect of Chassidut will be shocked by the strong hatred and vigorous resistance that modern Zionism has encountered, from the moment of its inception through the Balfour Declaration, from the majority of Chassidim and their leaders. 

Rabbi Yaakov Friedman at his Beit Midrash in Tel Aviv.

Imagine a Jew whose education and way of thinking led him very far from Torah and faith. This man (Theodor Herzl), despite his great economic success and despite the great rewards that await him if he assimilates, suddenly awakens and realizes that this is not the correct path for a Jew like him! He begins to understand that the only path forward for him is to return to his Judaism, and that the only path forward for his people is to return to the land of its fathers. WIthout delay, he moves from thought to action, and the nation responds to the sound of his call. A popular movement springs up, yearning for the revival of the nation and the return to Zion. Many well-known and distinguished Jews joined the movement, people who until this moment considered assimilation to be the only viable answer to the Jewish question.

Does not Chassidut, faithful to its heritage, have an obligation to look more kindly upon this wondrous vision (of Zionism), despite the fact that the Zionist movement is sullied with impurities and imperfections because it was born among assimilated Jews and a foreign culture? It would require great patience and caution at first, but nevertheless – is there not an obligation to recognize the sparks of holiness in Zionism, to clarify them and excite them, to separate the precious and holy from the filth?

In order to understand the opposition of the Chassidim to Zionism we must remember their views on the redemption of Israel and its return to its land, and to consider the way Zionism developed in that time. 

The terrible disasters that befell our nation when we tried to throw off the yoke of the nations following the destruction of the Second Temple, and the great sufferings and persecutions that we have borne over the long and bitter exile have weakened our hands and our spirits, and have led to a mistaken belief: that the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is not possible before the messianic redemption. There were great rabbis in Israel who foretold a natural return of the nation before the final redemption (Radak, Tehillim 146:3; Ramban, Shir Hashirim 5:12, etc.), but these views did not find a path to the hearts of the nation, who could only find comfort by believing in a redemption of open miracles. And so they came to believe that the return of Israel to Zion and the final messianic redemption would be one and the same.

When word arrived in the Chassidic community that a certain Jewish doctor (Herzl) said it was time to bring the people of Israel back to their land, it became a joke: a “doctor” making pronouncements about Mashiach?! But the humor quickly turned into anger and hatred. Zionist speakers and agitators, among them irreligious people, began to propagandize in the Charedi community, and they did not hide their religious views. Zionist organizations were established in every city, transforming Chanukah into the “Holiday of the Maccabees” and replacing candle lighting with mixed dancing. The anger of the Chassidim grew and in Zionism they saw only heresy, incitement and mischief. In their anger, they did not realize that they were throwing out the baby with the bath water.

As the national idea grew and developed, so did the opposition. Zionists in many lands put forth candidates in elections for parliaments and city councils, arousing the ire of the gentiles who were accustomed to thinking of the Jews as (merely a religious group and) citizens of the lands they are living in. Assimilationist Jews declared war on the Zionists, for Zionism is a stumbling block in the way of assimilation. And the “powerful” Jews in every city and town, whose importance in the eyes of the local (gentile) poritz (nobleman) is the source of their livelihood and honor – they too stood up against the Zionists in anger, accusing them of disgracing our religion and inciting the gentiles against us, which can only lead to the destruction of our livelihoods and disaster.

The leaders of the Chassidim generally saw things no differently. Even the few among them who recognized that Zionism is not all evil, but rather something precious that is covered in dirt, did not have the courage to share their opinions with the community. For not every generation merits leaders with personal initiative and the strength to guide the nation in the direction they wish to. At a time when the nation suffers from קַטְנוּת הַמּוֹחִין, from smallness of perspective, “her prophets find no vision from Hashem” (Eichah 2:9). And so the fighting increased and Zionism became something small in the eyes of the Chassidim. In those days, every ignoramus who sought honor in the eyes of the people would speak with fire and brimstone against the hated “tziyonim.”

But then the Great War came, ultimately bringing the Balfour Declaration, and in its wake there was also a change for the better in the relationship of the Chassidim towards Zionism. Little by little, many began to see the finger of G-d in these events. Many became attached to Mizrachi, and some tzaddikim, though not formally joining the Zionist movement, began to support it by paying dues to Mizrachi and contributing to Keren HaYesod and Keren HaKayemet.

There are still many angry and quarrelsome people who battle against Zionism, some (with pure motivations) who do so l’shem shamayim, some because of a ridiculous sense of patriotism (toward their host countries) and still others because of their allegiance to foreign ideologies. These people ignore the sufferings of our people and the great dangers that threaten our very existence. How true are the words of Rav Shlomo Efrayim ben Aharon Luntshitz, in his sefer, the Kli Yakar:

For between the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies, he has fallen, “they are thrust down, and are not able to rise” (Tehillim 36:13). For by the way of nature, there are only two ways for (Am Yisrael) to be saved from the sting of the enemy: either through the providence of Hashem, Who saves all those who cling to Him even if they are not naturally strong, because they fulfill “and you shall love Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 6:5); or because the people fulfill “and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), and help each other (against the enemy) even if they are sinners…

During these two times, the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, the people of Israel lost both of these merits, and therefore had no one to turn to. For on the 17th of Tammuz, they made the golden calf, turning away from Hashem… and on the 9th of Av occurred the episode of the spies, and on that day sinat chinam, baseless hatred, was born among the people of Israel, a hatred that would later destroy the First and Second Temples… and so natural salvation was also lost to our people. Therefore, “all her pursuers overtook her within the straits” (Eichah 1:3). The word “all” implies that even a weak enemy will succeed in defeating our people, for we have profaned the holiness of Israel which depends upon the unity of the nation and we have turned away from G-d’s presence, and so who is left for us to turn to for help? (Kli Yakar, Devarim 1:1)

Jerusalem Groundbreaking Ceremony for Yeshivat Tiferet Yisrael (Ruzhin), August 7, 1955. Rabbi Yaakov Friedman is third from the left.

But as the voices of the antisemites grow stronger, many Jews, even among the assimilated, have awakened from their slumber; they see the fruits of their assimilation, and they are ashamed! Little by little, all the camps of Israel are becoming aware of the need to unify our people, to strengthen it and to bring it back to life and renew its youth in the land of our forefathers! The interest of even non-Zionist parties in the building up of Eretz Yisrael is a sign that the unity of the nation is beginning to be realized. 

Let us hope that in the merit of this growing unity and in the merit of the building up of the land, which is a tikkun, a fixing, of the sin of baseless hatred described by the Kli Yakar, we will soon fix the second sin (and return to Hashem), Who will send us Eliyahu HaNavi; “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Micha 3:24).


Special thanks to Rabbi Yosef Ginsberg for providing photos of Rabbi Yaakov Friedman for this article.

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