(Photo: Israeli GPO Photographer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Yosef Burg z”l

The elder statesman of Religious Zionism, Dr. Yosef Burg was president of the World Mizrachi Movement and head of the National Religious Party for over three decades. Born in Germany in 1909, Burg played a key role in the German Mizrachi movement during the Nazi era, arranging secret minyanim in private homes and working underground to help Jews escape to Britain and the Netherlands. Escaping to Palestine in 1939, he later led Mizrachi efforts in post-war France to rescue Jewish children who were adopted or hidden during the war.

Returning to Israel in 1949, Burg led the National Religious Party and served as a minister in every Knesset until his retirement in 1987. In commemoration of his 23rd yahrzeit on the 5th of Marcheshvan, we share words of eulogy given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm on the occasion of Dr. Burg’s shloshim on November 14, 1999. May his memory be a blessing for all of Am Yisrael.


וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף, בֶּן-מֵאָה וָעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים; וַיַּחַנְטוּ אֹתוֹ, וַיִּישֶׂם בָּאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָיִם.

“So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (Bereishit 50:26).

So ends the Book of Bereishit, with the death and the burial of Joseph. The Zohar, commenting on this verse, is intrigued by the spelling of the word וַיִּישֶׂם, “and he was put”, which occurs only this one time in the Torah. Why two yuds? “[The two letters signify] that Joseph observed two covenants, a Higher Covenant and a Lower Covenant. When he passed on from this world, he was placed in two receptacles; one was a casket for [his body which kept] the Lower Covenant, and one was [the Holy Ark] for his fealty to the Higher Covenant.” The two covenants refer to Joseph’s obedience to G-d, the Higher Covenant, and to his rectitude towards his fellow man, the Lower Covenant.

Our Joseph, Dr. Yosef Burg, lived to the age of 90, not 110; he was not embalmed; and he was buried in Israel and not in Egypt. But the rest of the Zohar’s commentary holds for him as it did for the Biblical Joseph. His was a double covenant, and he was true to both of them…

Dr. Burg dedicated his life to his people – an aspect of his Lower Covenant – and this dedication did not stem from a mere nationalist perspective, but from a profoundly religious one. It was a spiritual perception that motivated him throughout his illustrious career. His Religious Zionism was not a synthesis in which Zionism was somehow superadded to his religion; rather, the nationalism grew organically out of his religious convictions. He was superbly qualified to lead World Mizrachi as its president and foremost ideologue.

As a leading statesman of Israel and a minister in various posts and under various governments in the course of more than 35 years, he distinguished himself by sheer competence and scrupulous loyalty… He was a man of probity and decency, and he was never afraid to admit that he had made a mistake. As a result, he earned the confidence of Israeli leaders both to the right and to the left of him. So, for instance, when Prime Minister Begin looked for someone reliable to conduct the autonomy talks with the Palestinians, he did not choose General Moshe Dayan – who very much coveted that task – but to Dr. Burg. And it was Dr. Burg who, at that occasion, reminded his Arab interlocutors that Jerusalem was mentioned in the Torah 625 times – and not once in the Koran!

A student of the renowned Gaon, Rabbi Ya’akov Yechiel Weinberg zt”l, he began his career as a teacher – and, in a sense, remained a teacher, but in a larger and far more influential classroom: the entire country, the entire nation. A combination of circumstances and personal inclinations and interests led him into progressively more involvement in politics, in government, and in Hapoel HaMizrachi. Yet he remained throughout a highly learned, erudite man. Even in the ranks of the Zionist movement of his day, when the movement proudly counted scientists and poets, scholars and writers and Talmudists in its ranks, during and after the establishment of the State, he was acknowledged as a talmid chacham. But the great majority of his time and efforts went into the struggle for the State and his unrelenting efforts to carve out a religious – a Jewish! – complexion for the State of Israel. We are all the poorer for the further scholarship he never achieved, even as we are so much richer for the political and social accomplishments that will remain to his eternal credit. Throughout, he remained one of finest representatives of religious Jewry. People who met him were impressed with his combination of faith and culture, the sacred and the worldly…

Dr. Burg was always accessible, possessed of a common touch, usually irreverent and charming. Like the Biblical Joseph, a high minister in Egypt, our Joseph, a high minister in Israel, had about him a streak of beguiling boyishness – a kind of benevolent tendency to mischief, a friendly playfulness – that kept him and those about him in a constant state of happy alert…

But most of all, we shall miss him for his essential, overarching public philosophy – ­that of moderation. Believe me when I tell you from personal experience: it is difficult to be a moderate. Extremists from both sides are often relentless and indiscriminate in their attacks; and there are even more rational people who sneer and repeat the usual platitudes as if they were revelations of new critique: moderation lacks passion, compromise is undignified, it manifests a lack of principle. There is a grain of truth in these criticisms – but when offered as blanket, indiscriminate condemnations of moderation, when the attacks are immoderate, they are wrong-headed and cannot, and should not, be taken seriously…

Such shallow assaults on the Burg policy of moderation – his most characteristic ambition in politics – did not deter him. He was a moderate both by disposition and by conviction, applying it in all phases of his activity – in religion, in politics, in government, and in society.

Yet, truth to tell, in the end he did not prevail. Moderation took a back seat to more radical and extremist views that began to dominate both his Religious Zionist political camp and our Orthodox community generally.

Was he really a failure – this unusual man possessed of a fabulous memory; this polyglot; this Joseph of our day who sported a metaphoric ketonet passim, a “coat of many colors”, many hues and subtleties, a wide variety of talents, interests, a colorful personality… Was he really a failure in this important quest in his career? If the answer is that it was, does that diminish his stature as he recedes from the contemporary scene and folds into the long stream of Jewish history? How will history judge him?

I suggest that we search for an answer in the early history of our people, the lives of the founders of Judaism and the people of Israel. Let us consider how they succeeded and perhaps failed in their most cherished ambitions, whether collective or private…

Consider our Teacher, Moses. His influence was exceedingly great for all the history of our people and, indeed, at least half the civilized world. Yet his dream of liberating his people from idolatry was not entirely successful, and his cherished ambition to lead them to the Promised Land was an abysmal failure.

David was the greatest of our kings, one who solidified the monarchy. Yet his ambition of building the Beit HaMikdash was denied to him; it was left to his son to erect the Temple.

Judah became the leader of the family, progenitor of King David and the ancestor of leaders. But he leaves the stage of biblical history with a stain attached to his dealings with the woman he did not recognize as his daughter-in-law.

Joseph was the beloved of his father, the favorite of his twelve sons, who realized his ambition to rise to enormous eminence. However, his status was recognized only among the Egyptians; the gift of malchut, of sovereignty over his brothers, was denied to him by his doting father and transferred to Judah. Indeed, the late Zionist publicist and author, Maurice Samuels, refers to Joseph as “The Brilliant Failure”.

Jacob was involved, from his birth, in an antagonistic relationship with his twin brother Esav. In the famous encounter with a mysterious stranger, whom tradition identifies as the guardian angel of Esav and his descendants, prefiguring the millennial battle with Rome and its heirs, Jacob emerges safe – but not sound. Despite his survival of this fateful wrestling match, his victory is incomplete, it leaves him scarred. He retains a limp and we, for generations after, are bidden to refrain from eating the sinew of an animal, the gid hanashe, as a symbol of that failure to complete the battle against Esav. Jacob’s failure is thus memorialized for all posterity…

So, all the above giants of our mesorah were successes in some ways, failures in others. Each attained great triumphs, yet tasted as well the bitterness of failure! They emerged scarred, blind, emotionally wounded, frustrated, rejected. Why so? What is the Torah teaching us? The lesson, I submit, is that perfection has not been granted to basar v’dam, to merely mortal man. And this is so for two related reasons.

First, just as the experience of divine revelation is fraught with danger; every encounter with greatness… is filled with mortal peril and leaves its painful mark. The prophet is singed by proximity to G-d Whose presence appears as a consuming fire. Genius often warps one’s personality and afflicts various quirks upon one so gifted. Superior talent is often acquired at the expense of an outsized ego. Wisdom, that precious gift, sometimes results in a deficit of personal happiness and fulfillment. Excessive wealth often conjures up the illusion of

wisdom and also masks the dark fears of defeat. Every high excellence exacts a high price. Only G-d is perfect and without blemish. This is a law of the spirit, inscribed in our very existence as humans.

Second, man must not falsely convince himself of his omnipotence, of being capable of the perfect fulfillment of his every ambition, lest he accelerate his own disastrous end. He must know that every success breeds its own home-grown failure. Such scars are the sacrifice that success offers up on the altar of humility, and such defeats are the tributes that excellence pays to our very humanity. As the Midrash taught us, “a man does not leave this world having achieved even half of his ambitions” (Kohelet Rabbah 1:13). If one is truly an adam, a mensch, then his ambitions exceed his ability to realize them. Know in advance: there is no perfect success in life. Failure is programmed, as we would say today, in the very structure of human existence.

So how will history judge Dr. Yosef Burg? It will, I believe, grant him admiration for his espousal of moderation, the derech Hashem as the Rambam termed it, and count his failure to achieve it in our bewildering and contradictory age as inevitable, as a sign that his dreams surpassed the ability of himself as well as his peers to realize them; that, as Robert Browning wrote,

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, 
Or what’s a heaven for?

Dr. Burg is one who reached for the heavens. His goal was a polity that conducted itself peacefully and rationally and eschewed all manifestations of extremism… But, in the grand tradition of our forefathers, what he wanted and valued most was denied to him. Politically, his party went to self-defeating extremes, and his/our community to this day shows signs of transforming unreasonableness, exclusiveness, and ignorance of all worldly culture into veritable virtues.

So we who have gathered here to say our last farewells to him declare that his frustrated ambitions for us should not be forgotten. They should be revived and allowed to inspire another generation all over again. Dr. Burg was honorable in his successes and brilliant in his failure. Learn from him: Quick successes are doomed to vanish; noble failures ultimately prevail, and in the fullness of time may yet prove to be successes…

One aron, the casket, carried his earthly remains to interment in Israel. The second is carried in the hearts of all Jews, especially those of us who cherished the spiritual-intellectual dimensions of this extraordinary Jew whose life was dedicated to the people of Israel, the State of Israel, and the Torah of Israel – in a word, to us.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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