From Near and Far: Reflecting on the Life of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever

BY RABBI MEIR BAR ILAN zt”l

Though he was only seventeen years old at the time of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever’s death in 1898, Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan, son of the illustrious Netziv and one of the Mizrachi movement’s greatest thinkers and activists, was well aware of the debt that the nascent Religious Zionist movement owed to Rav Mohilever. In his memoir, From Volozhin to Jerusalem (1939), Rabbi Bar Ilan reflects upon Rav Mohilever’s hidden greatness. It is translated here, by David B. Greenberg, for the first time.

A great many events and important people are of entirely different appearance when viewed from up close instead of from afar, though what is seen from afar is not necessarily better or worse. There are other times when both perspectives, from both up close and afar, reflect someone truly great, yet each perspective offers a different insight. Such a man was Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever. 

He was an exceptional man, a nationalist Jew in the full meaning of the word. He had a very limited tie to Białystok, the city he served as rabbi. Białystok, one of the most important Jewish communities in Russia of the time, was known not so much for the quantity of its Jewish population – though this was more numerous and significant than in other cities of such type – as for the quality of its Jews: students, aristocrats, wealthy individuals, and community operatives. Materially, Białystok was one of the affluent cities, a place of great factories and great enterprises. The city of Białystok was deemed in economic terms to be second only to Łódź. A minority of the great emporia and factories were owned by Germans, while the bulk of them were owned by Jews. Yet unlike Łódź, Białystok had a great and long tradition of Jewish life. The Jewish community there was stable and ordered. The spirit of the great rabbis who dwelled there and the numerous great men of Torah who lived there struck deep roots in the cultural life of the community. In the days of Rav Shmuel Mohilever as well, there were eminent community operatives in Białystok, some of them illustrious in Torah, who in character and in wisdom stood above the common man. 

Despite all this, Rav Shmuel Mohilever was tied more to the wider Jewish world than to his own city. Not all those who knew him on account of his fame knew him as the rabbi of Białystok. He was less influential in his own city than he was in other places. Despite all the honor that they accorded him and the veneration that the Jews of Białystok felt for their rabbi, his work for the Jewish collective and his Zionist ideas did not influence the leaders of the local community. His circle of devotees and disciples in Warsaw and Vilna was larger than that in Białystok, and in his city he was closer to a few young people than he was to the esteemed elders of the congregation.

In this respect, Rav Shmuel Mohilever was a hidden individual. He was held in less high regard in his own city than outside Białystok, and he was not appreciated in the wider world of Torah scholarship to the degree he was revered by those who knew him closely. His work as an operative in public matters, particularly in Chibbat Zion, overshadowed his rabbinate and his scholarly virtuosity. When he came to Brisk for a visit, during the time when Rav Chaim Soloveitchik occupied the rabbinical throne in that place, Rav Chaim took the initiative to go and greet Rav Shmuel. When several of those close to Rav Chaim expressed surprise, because Rav Chaim was the greatest of his generation [and it was beneath his honor to go and greet Rav Shmuel], Rav Chaim responded that Rav Shmuel Mohilever was a great man to be regarded as a rabbinical giant and worthy of having others take the initiative to greet him. After Rav Shmuel passed away, Rav Refael Shapiro, then a rabbi in Babruysk, arose and delivered a great eulogy for him. Rav Refael, who was among the greatest giants of his day and kept a distance from the political world, underscored in his eulogy that Rav Shmuel Mohilever had not been appreciated as would befit his greatness in Torah, as a “prodigy” – just as in his youth he had been dubbed the Prodigy from Hlybokaye – and a great giant.

In truth, not only in the world of scholars – other than among a select few – was Rav Shmuel Mohilever not known, but even in the world of activists and Chovevei Zion, he was not seen in the correct light. It may be presumed that in the future too, when people come to write the history of Chibbat Zion and its notables, Rav Shmuel Mohilever will be recognized for his actions, but not his essence. Between these actions, whose renown has gone far and wide, and his true self, which was familiar only to individuals close to him, there was a great divide.

In the history of Chibbat Zion and the great rabbis and giants of the generation who assisted the movement, without whose assistance it would not have attained the level that it did, the place of honor is occupied by three great men and to some extent, a fourth: Rav Mordechai Eliasberg, the philosopher; Rav Shmuel Mohilever, the doer; my father, may his memory be blessed, the halachist; and to some extent, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, the approbator. The first three names were almost always signed on all the posters of the Odessa Council and on all things relating to Chibbat Zion. Sometimes they included the name of Rav Yitzchak Elchanan as well. However, Rav Yitzchak served more in the role of one signaling his approval, just as he did on several other issues – and his approval was highly valuable, because he was a very great authority. 

Not so the first three. Rav Mordechai Eliasberg, or as they called him, Rav Mordechai of Bauska, wrote extensively on the idea of the settlement of the Land of Israel. His book Shevil haZahav (The Golden Path) is a masterpiece in this field. Regrettably, he is very little known both in the religious world and in Zionist circles. The manner in which Rav Mordechai perceived the Chibbat Zion movement in that time was politically and culturally Zionist in the fullest sense, as conceived by Zionist rabbis today. In his time, Achad haAm wrote of him and contended with him to some extent, but he understood and appreciated his greatness as a deep scholar. My father, may his memory be blessed, being busy and dedicated to the affairs of the [Volozhin] yeshiva, committed much time and effort to support the idea of the settlement of the Land of Israel. He wrote a few articles about its importance as well as many letters, in which he explained the idea of settling the Land of Israel in a different manner, with greater depth, than by other rabbis. Father, may his memory be blessed, based the idea of love of Zion on verses and Talmudic dicta and raised it to the level of “atchalta d’geulah,” “the onset of the redemption,” and compared the movement and the enterprise, with associated phenomena positive and negative, to the time of Ezra and Nechemiah.

The doer in this field, among those giants of the generation, was Rav Shmuel Mohilever. He was an activist in the simple sense of the word. He would travel to conventions in Odessa, Druskininkai, Katowice, and the like. He held conventions in his city of Białystok, traveled throughout Western Europe, and in his old age succeeded in visiting the Land of Israel itself. He did all this for the sake of practical acts of love of Zion. He greatly influenced Baron Rothschild, and there is quite a bit of evidence that it was he, Rav Shmuel Mohilever, who influenced the baron to support the settlements of the Land of Israel, ensuring he would have the privilege of becoming “the Noted Patron.” 

Rav Shmuel Mohilever will be titled in the chronicles of our time as the doer, or as such is termed nowadays, a practical politician. Those who heard of him or read of him imagine that this individual, who was such a practical man and dealt with people as varied as Dr. Pinsker, Lilienblum, Baron Rothschild and Herzl, surely was a “modern” man. One might assume that he was different in appearance from all the other rabbis, that he must have known foreign languages, was liberal in his outlook, and so forth. Yet in reality he was entirely removed from this imaginary description. Very few rabbis, even of the previous generation, were of such “untended” appearance as Rav Shmuel Mohilever. His gait was bent, his words few, his manner extremely simple, his appearance and garb were of the old generation, and he made not the least effort to spruce himself up – but in his eyes was a bold radiance. 

When I met Rav Shmuel Mohilever in Warsaw, when he came to one of the conventions, I expected to meet an activist and politician, but instead I discovered a rabbi and a scholar. He talked with me not about other matters, but about Torah study, and took an interest in what and where I was studying. It was evident that of the idea of chibbat Zion, of love of Zion (in other public matters, his participation was very meager) he thought much more than he spoke. After becoming acquainted with him more closely, people recognized that he was a man of extraordinary depth, and his advocacy for the settlement of the Land of Israel was the fruit of many thoughts, internal struggles, and deep contemplation. He did not approach the question of Zionism based upon the influences and ideas of others, but rather through his own understanding of Torah. After years of thought and study, he was certain of the great importance of practically building up the Land of Israel.

Rav Shmuel Mohilever lived in his own domain; he was not a man of conversation or particularly social. Only because of his great commitment to the Land of Israel was he constantly surrounded by all sorts of people, and frequently by individuals who were different from him in every way. He participated in everything relating to the settlement of the Land of Israel because of his constant awareness of and dedication to a single ideal. For the sake of that ideal, nothing was too difficult for him, whether preaching to the masses, traveling great distances or participating in conventions.

The many wars that Rav Shmuel Mohilever had to endure, waged by those opposed to Chibbat Zion, were far removed from him emotionally. His soul, as it were, was untouched by them. Notwithstanding that he was a practical politician, the world of action was of little interest to him, and he had no affinity with politics. He was closed up within himself and boldly made whatever decision he saw fit. He would take action but not argue, strive to influence but not seek to wage war against anyone. Though his dedication to Chibbat Zion and Zionism was unparalleled, he had little to do with his surroundings. As noted, as the rabbi of Białystok he was not particularly close with its citizens, nor was he deeply involved with the average members of the Jewish people. They knew him but little. He was close only to a select few, who were able to appreciate the depth of his thought and personality. His practical actions reflected only a fraction of his unexpressed thoughts. 

Notwithstanding the jubilee festivities held in his honor – and this too was a great novelty in those days – and all his travels and conventions, he was in essence an individual more hidden than revealed.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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