(Photo: Howie Mischel)
The Netziv vs. Rav Chaim: Zionism and Love of the Land
BY RABBI MEIR BAR ILAN zt”l
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin zt”l (1816–1893), commonly known as the Netziv, led the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva for nearly four decades. Overcoming many destructive fires, internal conflicts and government opposition, the yeshiva thrived under the Netziv, becoming the greatest center of Torah learning in the world. Ultimately, the oppressive demands of the Czarist government, including a ban on Torah study during certain hours, led the Netziv to close down the yeshiva rather than compromise its principles.
The Netziv’s contributions to Torah scholarship extended beyond the traditional yeshiva curriculum. He actively responded to attacks on Jewish tradition through his writings in Jewish publications. His collection of responsa, Meishiv Davar, is an essential work of practical halacha, while his Ha’amek Davar has become a modern classic on Chumash.
Though he died a few years before the emergence of Herzl and modern Zionism, the Netziv was an early advocate for the Chovevei Zion movement and staunchly supported the resettlement of Eretz Yisrael. He was one of the three esteemed rabbis who served as formal advisors to the movement. Secret Religious Zionist cells operated within the Volozhin Yeshiva under his watchful eye. His younger son, Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan, would become one of the great Religious Zionist leaders of the 20th century.
To those who opposed the New Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael because secular Jews were involved in its rebuilding, the Netziv wrote: “We must awaken to the call of G-d’s will, which has been heard from one end of the world to the other… [all of us,] every type of Jew, are called to do that which is in our hands, whether a little or a lot.” He held this view throughout his life, and encouraged all those involved in the holy work of redeeming the Land.
Students traveled from all over the world to study at the Volozhin Yeshiva. After the yeshiva closed down, they migrated to the one place where the Volozhin Yeshiva still, in some way, lived on: to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l (1853–1918) in Brisk.
A scion of the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty, Rav Chaim developed the famed “Brisker Method,” a highly analytical method of Talmud study focusing on precise definitions and categorizations of halacha which would shape the way much of the Torah world studies the Talmud. During the yeshiva’s final years in Volozhin, Rav Chaim’s shiur attracted the greatest students of the era. In Rav Bar Ilan’s words, “he was the Rav of the generation, and a guide for future generations.”
Unlike the Netziv, Rav Chaim was a staunch opponent of Zionism, viewing it as a movement that sought to destroy traditional Judaism and replace it with nationalism. His opposition to Zionism, however, did not lessen his love for Eretz Yisrael or his support for the traditional Old Yishuv centered in Jerusalem.
In honor of the Netziv’s 130th yahrzeit (28 Av) and Rav Chaim’s 105th yahrzeit (21 Av), we are honored to translate several passages from Rav Meir Bar Ilan’s memoir, From Volozhin to Jerusalem, in which he describes his father’s and Rav Chaim’s opposing views of the nascent Zionist movement. Despite their differences, the two great leaders of the generation shared a deep love for the Land, evident in Rav Bar Ilan’s firsthand account.
The Netziv: A Chovev Zion
By nature, my father did everything necessary, with iron strength, to actualize his dreams – though he did so in a pleasant manner, with grace. Just as he lifted the ideal of love of Torah to an extraordinarily high level through the Volozhin Yeshiva, so too did he intensely desire to realize his ideals in regard to Eretz Yisrael. He was not satisfied, as most other rabbis were, with giving his approval to the settling of Eretz Yisrael or even by making efforts to encourage others to make Aliyah. His wholeness of soul brought him to the conclusion that he and his family must settle in the Land. Sadly, however, he suffered the same decree as the teacher of all of Israel, Moshe Rabbeinu: “but you will not come there” (Devarim 32:52).
Though the challenges facing the Volozhin Yeshiva in those days were very difficult and complex, and my father was completely immersed in those issues, he nevertheless spoke constantly about the settlements in Israel among our family. The “air of Eretz Yisrael,” the “אֲוִירָא דְּאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל,” was felt throughout our home. When we received the mail, there were always several letters among the dozens that arrived that were related to Eretz Yisrael and the Chibbat Zion movement. He received letters from the Vaad in Odessa, of which my father was one of the “gabbaim,” and he would receive letters from activists like Rav Shmuel Mohilever, Rav Mordechai of Brisk, Tzadok HaCohen and Erlanger from Paris. He also received letters from well known rabbis and activists in Eretz Yisrael, as well as from simple people…
There was no lack of letters from those who opposed the idea of settling the Land. As was his way, my father responded to everyone. Sadly, the letters he wrote were not preserved or gathered, and only a few letters here and there have been saved and publicized.
My father reacted strongly to news of people acting “freely” [not in accordance with Torah] in some of the new settlements, and gave direction on how to address and remedy the situation. But his dedication to Eretz Yisrael never wavered, even for a moment. Quite the opposite was true; he couldn’t bear it when people spoke badly about Eretz Yisrael, even when he didn’t suspect the speaker of any bad intentions.
When a Jew from Eretz Yisrael would occasionally arrive at our home, he was immediately surrounded, and everyone would sit with him for hours to ask him questions about all matters big and small. These guests would then enter my father’s room and speak with him without interruption. One time, a meshulach from a yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, Yechiel Michel the Yerushalmi, came to visit. He was a pleasant Jew, moderate, and because he had been to Eretz Yisrael several times, he was a distinguished guest in our home. This time, he entered my father’s office as he normally did to tell him the latest news from Eretz Yisrael, based on what he had seen and heard. After about an hour, we heard my father yell with anger – something that almost never happened – at the meshulach: “Get out of here, you meragel, you spy!”
The meshulach, standing by the door, was pale and afraid, and, struggling to get the words out, asked: “Rebbe, do you not believe me? Do you suspect that I am a liar?”
My father responded: “No. The meraglim also did not tell lies. But it is forbidden to speak of the disgrace of Eretz Yisrael, even if these things are true. One who speaks negatively about the Land is like a meragel!” The Jew asked forgiveness, promised that he would not tell any more negative stories about the Land and quickly and quietly left the house.
One of the most distinguished students at the Volozhin Yeshiva, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, was particularly beloved to my father. He was once asked, “How do you feel in [the Volozhin] Yeshiva?” He answered, “I feel as if I am in Eretz Yisrael,” an answer that was very significant in my father’s eyes.
My father was not just a supporter of Eretz Yisrael in spirit; he also acted practically to strengthen the Yishuv. He was very involved in the Odessa Vaad, to the extent that on Erev Yom Kippur during Mincha, when the yeshiva students put out various “bowls” for tzedakah, he ordered me to sit next to the bowl for “Yishuv Eretz Yisrael,” and he himself dropped money into this bowl several times. The students noticed this, and more than 9 rubles were collected in the bowl – a significant amount of money in those days.
When my father received a telegram stating that the Zionist activist Dr. Leon Pinsker had died, he was very upset. As a side point, the telegram was written in Russian and used a Russian phrase that essentially said “Pinsker is finished.” My father said, “This is not a Jewish idea. When a person dies, he is not ‘finished.’ On the contrary, it is a beginning.”
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik: Eretz Yisrael vs. Zionism
By nature, Rav Chaim was the kind of person who was burdened with spiritual suffering. He was always afraid of the day of judgment, of tomorrow. Every thought about illness and death depressed him. Every bad tiding about someone’s death had a terrible impact upon him. Even more so, he was gripped with unusual dread over the future of his soul, afraid that it would come to spiritual destruction.
He was afraid of any new movement in Judaism, fearful that any step off the beaten path was likely to cause people to stray from Judaism. He lived and conducted himself without considering all of the aspects of the issue, because the one thing that was certain in his eyes was this: to grasp onto the old without any change whatsoever. In Zionism, he saw not only the desire to build up the Land, but also the cause of new theories and new problems in Jewish life and thought. This alone was enough to make Zionism frighten him, just as he was afraid of all modern learning, newspapers and books, and anything that contained something new and was not accepted and passed down through the generations.
His opposition, therefore, was respectable, if also painful, for it came from anxiety, inner fear, and spiritual suffering. Suffering generally has the power to increase a person’s holiness, and this is true, many times over, when it comes to the spiritual suffering of a lofty person like Rav Chaim. And so when Rav Chaim would speak negatively about Zionism or Zionist leaders, whom the young people of the time admired, it caused pain, though not of the kind caused by others who disparaged the Zionists. The opposition of the average anti-Zionist did not derive from fear but rather from smug satisfaction and self confidence…
But despite all this, the “air of Eretz Yisrael,” the “אֲוִירָא דְּאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל,” permeated Rav Chaim’s home. His spirit was so great that he could oppose Zionism while recognizing the urgency of practically working on behalf of Eretz Yisrael. With the exception of a few extraordinary activists, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik did more for the good of Eretz Yisrael than any other rabbi, focusing his efforts, obviously, on helping the Old Yishuv. Almost all of the large yeshivot in Yerushalayim had representatives in Brisk. Meshulachim for tens of Torah and charity organizations would come at set times to give him financial updates. Hundreds of letters concerning the organizations in Eretz Yisrael came and went in Brisk every week. Every difficult issue in the Old Yishuv, whether it concerned Toras Chaim, Ohel Moshe or the Diskin Orphanage, was brought before Rav Chaim in Brisk, and they would follow his guidance…
There were certain meshulachim that Rav Chaim would spend time with for several days, simply because it gave him so much pleasure to hear about life in Eretz Yisrael. The more details the meshulach could offer, the more pleasure Rav Chaim had in listening to him. He was interested not only in the spiritual Eretz Yisrael, but he also yearned to hear about the physical, tangible Eretz Yisrael, specifically about Yerushalayim – what life was like there, how people make a living, how they dressed, what its streets looked like, and so on. Every detail, every bit of information he heard, gave him great pleasure, enriching his soul and gladdening his heart.