(Artwork: Jessica Zemble)

Rav Soloveitchik and Religious Zionism


For over half a century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l was the leading voice of the Religious Zionist community in America. A talmudic master, profound philosopher, and a stirring orator, the Rav was one of the greatest leaders and thinkers in 20th century American Orthodoxy, leaving an indelible mark on the many institutions he led and served.

In 1944, Rav Soloveitchik became the chairman of the Central Committee of the Religious Zionists of America, assuming the leadership of Mizrachi in America. Over the next fifty years, he would develop a unique and profound philosophy of Religious Zionism that continues to influence generations of students throughout the world.

As we mark his thirtieth yahrzeit on 18 Nissan, the fourth day of Pesach, we are honored to dedicate this edition of HaMizrachi to a study and celebration of Rav Soloveitchik’s Religious Zionist legacy and philosophy.

In this introductory essay, Rabbi Menachem Genack, a close student of the Rav who has dedicated years to publishing the Rav’s writings, captures the complexity of the Rav’s approach to Zionism.

The Rav’s Zionist orientation did not stem from his upbringing or early home environment. His grandfather Rav Chaim was an opponent of Zionism – yet the Rav stated that Rav Chaim was perhaps the greatest lover of Zion in his generation. Rav Moshe, the Rav’s father, was not a Zionist, but nevertheless became the head of the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw, which was affiliated with Rav Reines’ Mizrachi movement. Early in his life, the Rav was an Agudist, participating in the first Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah of the Agudah in America. When the Rav shifted his affiliation from Agudah to the Mizrachi, he paid a price among his rabbinic colleagues. In the first of his Chamesh Derashot (published in English as The Rav Speaks), he describes those joining the Mizrachi as aligning with Joseph the dreamer, whose brothers, Levi and Judah, bearers of the crowns of Torah and leadership, distanced themselves from him. “Joseph himself possessed greatness in Torah learning, leadership, and saintliness, and the yawning gap which had grown between him and his brothers caused him much sorrow. To be separated from his outstanding brothers, ostracized, as it were, not only by ‘part of the Sanhedrin’ but by the majority of them, was a tragedy for Joseph.”

Ironically, the Rav had also paid a price for his membership in the Agudah. He was one of three candidates for the chief rabbinate of Tel Aviv in 1935; the other two contestants for the position were Rav Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel, a truly impressive field. During the elections for this position, Rav Kook passed away, and Rav Herzog was chosen to be Rav Kook’s successor as Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Of the two remaining candidates, Rav Amiel was elected as Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. My uncle Eliyahu Moshe Genachowski, a member of the first Knesset, told me that Rav Meir Bar-Ilan (himself the Rav’s great-great uncle) gave his support to Rav Amiel’s candidacy because the Rav was then affiliated with the Agudah, while Rav Amiel was affiliated with the Mizrachi. My uncle reported Rav Bar-Ilan’s evaluation of the three candidates: “Rav Herzog is the most pious; Rav Soloveitchik knows best how to learn, but Rav Amiel – he will be the next Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.”

The Rav, as far as I know, did not detail how he came to change his mind about this topic, but he offered his view of the dispute between “Joseph and his brothers.” “Joseph’s brothers,” the non-Zionist majority of Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe, related to the future as a continuation of the present, whereas “Joseph,” the Mizrachi “dreamer,” foresaw that the Eastern European world he knew was coming to an end, and he began to prepare a new world in the Land of Israel. “In this dispute in the name of Heaven,” the Rav remarked, “Divine Providence decided in favor of Joseph, and the house of Jacob was saved only due to Joseph’s dreams.”

For the Rav, achieving Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel was the fulfillment of a religious imperative, not merely a nationalist aspiration. He did not refrain from criticizing secularist policies of the State with which he disagreed, but none of that negated the religious value of statehood itself. On the other hand, the Rav, an ardent individualist, focused more on the seeking individual than on nationhood. On one of my visits to the Rav in Boston, I gave him a copy of the matriculation examination from the Israeli high school system, proudly telling him that his essay Kol Dodi Dofek was required reading for the students, and directing his attention to one of the questions on the exam about the six “defikot” – divine knocks on the door, i.e., signals of G-d’s providence contained in Israel’s founding. The Rav sighed and said, “Everybody ignores the real significance of Kol Dodi Dofek. Its real significance deals with Job and suffering.” His focus was on the uniqueness of the individual, hence his preoccupation with Job, the archetype of the suffering individual. This was typical of the Rav’s more lachrymose existentialism, but despite the Rav’s view of his essay, it is a powerful expression of the divine message of redemption embedded in the State’s founding.

“We admire the State with all our heart, we pray for her welfare, we send her our sons and stand united to defend her,” the Rav wrote in Chamesh Derashot. “But it is not the highest good. Our highest ideal is our faith; the basic foundation of our existence is that ‘beyond the river’ which symbolizes the people in its confrontation with G-d and with its unique way of life.”

In Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav distinguishes between the covenants of fate and destiny. For two millennia, the Jewish people were governed by fate; they were acted upon but were not actors, objects, not subjects. For the Rav, the State of Israel represents a turning point in G-d’s relationship with His people, transforming their covenant to one of destiny, and elevating their status to active partners in shaping that destiny. This gives their suffering new meaning as well. I remember hearing the Rav speak about the Israeli flag, which made a deep impression on me (this is printed in Chamesh Derashot as well):

I do not hold at all with the magical attraction of a flag or of similar symbolic ceremonies… Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of a law in the Shulchan Aruch to the effect that “one who has been killed by non-Jews is buried in his clothes, so that his blood may be seen and avenged…” In other words, the clothes of the Jew acquire a certain sanctity when spattered with the blood of a martyr. How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence defending the country and the population (religious and irreligious alike; the enemy did not differentiate between them). It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice.

I remember how the Rav was visibly filled with pride for his grandson Rav Moshe Lichtenstein who was then serving in the IDF. In 1982, Professor Robert Aumann lost his son Shlomo, a teacher and soldier, who died fighting on behalf of Israel. The great rosh yeshiva Rav Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman, who survived the War in the forests surrounding Vilna, paid a shiva visit to Prof. Aumann, and said the following (as recorded by Rabbi Ari Kahn):

I am sure that you don’t know this, but I had a son named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed. I escaped. I later bartered my child’s shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food – I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadosh – he and all the six million who perished are holy. I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth, in Gan Eden. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him, “I died because I am a Jew – but I wasn’t able to save anyone else. But you – Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.” My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy – but your Shlomo is a sheliach tzibbur – a cantor in that holy, heavenly minyan.

This moving anecdote illustrates the Rav’s view. The State of Israel did not eradicate the suffering of the Jewish people, but it nevertheless transformed that suffering and changed its meaning.

In the end, the attachment of the Jew to Israel, the Rav says, belongs to “the world of intimate relations between us and between the G-d of Israel. It is part of the Jewish mysterium and the hidden lot of the stranger-resident. In Eretz Yisrael, there is sanctity, and we long for sanctity, for the Creator whose Divine Presence rests upon the stones and sands of the desert.” 


Rabbi Menachem Genack is the Rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, New Jersey and serves as the Rabbinic Administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division. A close student of Rav Soloveitchik, he is the editor of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: Man of Halacha, Man of Faith, and the author of Birkat Yitzchak, Gan Shoshanim, and Chazon Nachum.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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