Joseph Soloveitchik and Zionism – Not to be believed

I hesitate before publicly criticizing the words of a prominent figure such as Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Boston but "Religious" Zionism has become such a monster and so threatens the future of Torah observance that I feel obligated to speak up if I have something to point out. Quite simply, he was not to be believed on the topic of Zionism. Witness his thoughts on David Ben Gurion as depicted in an article by Jeffrey Saks:

When Wiesel asked him who was responsible for this state of affairs, the Rav would not answer, but stated that it was unfortunate that David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minster, didn't appreciate the potential of Judaism-as-religion to draw young Jews to Israel, and encourage self-sacrifice on its behalf. This despite the fact that he Rav saw in Ben-Gurion someone with a "religious connection," albeit one that was generally not properly articulated. "In my eyes," said the Rav, "he is a religious Jew -- even though he doesn't know it himself.” (Jeffrey Saks, "Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the Chief Rabbinate, Biographical Notes," BDD 17, Sept. 2006)

This assessment of DBG is so far from reality that it does not qualify as "judging someone for the good." It's closer to delusional.

Here's the Wikipedia depiction of DBG:

....David also described himself as an irreligious person who developed atheism in his youth and who demonstrated no great sympathy for the elements of traditional Judaism, though he quoted the Bible extensively in his speeches and writings. (Wikipedia, “David Ben Gurion”)

And then there's the assessment of someone who knew him, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who considered Ben Gurion "to have hated Judaism more than any other man he had met". (Wikipedia)

What about concessions with the Orthodox. Why did he do that?

Ben-Gurion was aware that world Jewry could and would only feel comfortable to throw their support behind the nascent state, if it was shrouded with religious mystique. That would include an orthodox tacit acquiescence to the entity. Therefore, in September 1947 Ben-Gurion decided to reach a status quo formal agreement with the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party. (Wikipedia)

In other words, he was conning the religious community. A wise man is supposed to see through that.

Let DBG speak for himself: "Since I invoke Torah so often, let me state that I don't personally believe in the God it postulates ... I am not religious, nor were the majority of the early builders of Israel believers." That's pretty clear. Why not take him at this word? This was a man who lead the public to sin. About such a person the Mishnah says, "One who causes the community to sin, is not given the opportunity to repent. ... Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and caused the community to sin, so the community's sin is attributed to him; as is stated, "For the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and caused Israel to sin" (I Kings 15:30). (Avos 5:18)

It is pretty far fetched to call a denier of God a religious man. Was he so shaken by antisemitism in Europe that he was motivated non-the-less to help the Jewish people?

For many of us, anti-Semitic feeling had little to do with our dedication [to Zionism]. I personally never suffered anti-Semitic persecution. Płońsk was remarkably free of it ... Nevertheless, and I think this very significant, it was Płońsk that sent the highest proportion of Jews to Eretz Israel from any town in Poland of comparable size. We emigrated not for negative reasons of escape but for the positive purpose of rebuilding a homeland ... Life in Płońsk was peaceful enough. There were three main communities: Russians, Jews and Poles. ... The number of Jews and Poles in the city were roughly equal, about five thousand each. The Jews, however, formed a compact, centralized group occupying the innermost districts whilst the Poles were more scattered, living in outlying areas and shading off into the peasantry. Consequently, when a gang of Jewish boys met a Polish gang the latter would almost inevitably represent a single suburb and thus be poorer in fighting potential than the Jews who even if their numbers were initially fewer could quickly call on reinforcements from the entire quarter. Far from being afraid of them, they were rather afraid of us. In general, however, relations were amicable, though distant. (Memoirs : David Ben-Gurion,1970, p. 36 in Wikipedia)

Not a believer in God or Torah. Not motivated by antisemitism. Could he nevertheless have been a lover of Jews? Witness this quote from Ben Gurion: "If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative." (Attributed to Ben-Gurion pre-War 1939 by Martin Gilbert in "Israel was everything" in The New York Times 21 June 1987) Sounds like he was a megalomaniac who lived for political ambitions to an extent so alarming that all obligations to look for the good in him are off the table.

And what about his treatment of the Arabs? We are all so used to fearing and hating them, even though Jews lived relatively peacefully in Arab countries and in Palestine for more than a thousand years. Their animosity started when the preparations for not just a state but for a state covering the whole land became glaring. In his words:

Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves ... politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves... The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country. (David Ben Gurion)

Did he only want his little piece of land and be happy to allow the Arabs theirs?

The present map of Palestine was drawn by the British mandate. The Jewish people have another map which our youth and adults should strive to fulfill: from the Nile to the Euphrates. (David Ben Gurion)

How many people died because of his ambitions? And how many did he kill?

During the first weeks of Israel's independence, he ordered all militias to be replaced by one national army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). To that end, Ben-Gurion used a firm hand during the Altalena Affair, a ship carrying arms purchased by the Irgun led by Menachem Begin. He insisted that all weapons be handed over to the IDF. When fighting broke out on the Tel Aviv beach he ordered it be taken by force and to shell the ship. Sixteen Irgun fighters and three IDF soldiers were killed in this battle. Wikipedia

Religious person? Was he human? He was after all the head of the country during the expulsion of 700,000 Arabs, half the country, from their homes in '47-48. Here's what happened in Lydda after he ordered the expulsion of 50,000 Arabs:

From Lydda, the inhabitants left on foot, some being stripped of money and jewelry by the IDF troops at checkpoints on the way out....During the following days, suffering from hunger and thirst, dozens probably died on the way to Ramallah. An Israeli trooper later described the spoor of the refugee columns, "to begin with [jettisoning] utensils and furniture and in the end, bodies of men, women, and children, scattered along the way. Old people sat beside their carts begging for a drop of water -- but there was none." Another soldier recorded vivid impressions of how "children got lost" and how a child fell into a well, and presumably drowned, ignored as his fellow refugees fought over water. "Nobody will ever know how many children died" in the trek, wrote the legion's commander, John Glugg. (Israeli historian Benny Morris, "1948", p. 290)

250 men, women, and children died that day. Religious man?

Safe to say, Soloveitchik was not to be believed on the subject of David Ben Gurion. And what about his thoughts on his uncle, the Brisker Rav. Again we return to Jeffrey Saks:

In addressing his uncle’s anti-Zionism, the Rav explained: “They said of him [Reb Velvel] that he was opposed to the State of Israel. This is not correct. Opposition to a State emanates from adopting a position regarding a political body, which is itself a political act. My uncle was completely removed from all socio-political thought or response. What may be said of him is that the State found no place within his halakhic thought system nor on his halakhic value scale. He was unable to ‘translate’ the idea of a sovereign, secular State to halakhic properties and values.” It is not that Reb Velvel was an anti-Zionist, per se, but that, as a halakhic matter the secular State of Israel did not register on his radar screen. Upon reaching the disappointing conclusion that there was no way to integrate the State into the a priori ideals of the halakha, Reb Velvel was forced to retreat and ignore (not oppose) the State. At this point in his presentation, we must pay close attention to the Rav’s words: “This disappointment led to my uncle separating himself from the most important event in modern Jewish history [i.e., the establishment of the State].  (Jeffrey Saks, The Rav Between Halakhic Men and Lachrymose Lubavitchers)

Talk about spinning a yarn. The Brisker Rav was consumed with opposition to the State. The Brisker Rav in commenting on how the Satmar Rebbe said the founding of the State violates the Talmudic rule of Three Oaths said, just three? It violates every precept in the Torah. The Brisker Rav was completely anti-Zionistic as was his father, Joseph Soloveitchik's grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker. The biography by Shimon Meller dedicates more than 100 pages to the topic of the Brisker Rav's anti-Zionism. The Brisker Rav was asked if we should daven for the Zionists. He said, we should say the bracha in the Amidah concerning the heretics. He said the entire purpose of Zionism was to eradicate the Jewish religion. He was asked where in Gemara or Shulchan Aruch do we see that the idea of Zionism is illegitimate?” He replied “Gemara? Shulchan Aruch?” “Bring me a siddur and I will show you where it is written.” He pointed to the words of Shmoneh Esrei, “‘And may our eyes see when You return to Zion…’ In other words, we are waiting for Hashem to reveal Himself again, and we must not hope to be redeemed on our own, before the building of the Temple and the revelation of the honor of Heaven upon us.” (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 195)

Stories about the Brisker Rav's opposition to Zionism are so numerous and so varied. He said it in so many different ways that it is impossible for anybody with a normal mind, with any intellectual honesty to miss it. Witness:

At the Keren Hatzalah gathering in Tamuz 5754 (1994) during the Beirach Moshe’s visit to Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch told the following story: In the months preceding the establishment of the Zionist State, the Brisker Rav was very worried and he asked many rabbanim to work hard to prevent the new state from coming into being. After the State was established, the Chazon Ish heard that the Brisker Rav was feeling ill. He sent him a message, “You need not fear the State, for we have a rule that ‘a decree usually becomes annulled’ (Kesubos 3b). So the State will not last long.” The Brisker Rav told the messenger, “Go back and tell the Chazon Ish that it is true that a decree is usually annulled, but that would only apply here if the community considered the State an evil decree. However, I fear that the community does not think of it as a decree at all, and religious Jews will join the Zionists in running their state. Not only that, I fear that the wicked will be nourished from our holiness, from the yeshivos and chadarim that they support. If so, it will be a bitter decree for us. Go and tell the Chazon Ish that I fear that this evil decree will remain until the coming of moshiach!” (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk v. 4, p. 209)” (TorahJews.org)

The Brisker Rav also said: "The Rambam (Melachim 12:2 and Teshuva 9:2) says that moshiach will redeem the Jewish people from their subjugation to the nations. Anyone who believes that it is possible to be redeemed from subjugation to the nations without moshiach is lacking in full belief in moshiach." (Yalkut Divrei Torah)

The Brisker Rav once said to Reb Zalman Sorotzkin, “Why does the Torah say, ‘And Esav despised the birthright,’ implying that that was his main sin? The Gemora (Bava Basra 16b) says that he committed five sins that day: he violated a betrothed girl, he murdered, he denied the revival of the dead, he denied Hashem, and he despised the birthright. How could despising the birthright be considered the worst of those sins? The answer is that it is understandable that a person can stumble in sin. But to sell a birthright for lentil soup – that shows that all service of Hashem is worth nothing to him. The same is true of Zionism and the State. The Jewish people has lived throughout history relying on the promise of Hashem through true and just prophets, and on their faith in the coming of moshiach and the open miracles that will take place then. The founding of the state came to destroy all of that, like lentil soup in place of the birthright. There is no other sin like it!” (Teshuvos Vehanhagos, v. 2, siman 140)

Once activists who were working for the observance of Shabbos in the Zionist state came to discuss an issue with the Brisker Rav. He said to them, “You are happy with the state; you see it as an achievement and a place of refuge for the Jewish people. Only, you want to make it better, that it should at least have a religious character. But in my book the whole thing is wrong. When it comes to pork, it makes no difference if there is a lesion on the lungs or not!” (ibid. p. 198)

Reb Dovid Soloveitchik reports that his father, the Brisker Rav, once said, "Those who keep far away from the Zionist movement – from their deeds, their money and all that is theirs – need not fear, G-d forbid, the evil that will befall those who support Zionism." (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 203)

He said: “In our holy Torah, it makes no difference what character this Jewish state will have. Even if it would be a Jewish state run completely according to the Torah law, even if the president and prime minister would be Reb Chaim Ozer, and everything would be done according to the Torah – even then it is forbidden that even one Jew be killed in order to establish a Jewish state. That is the crux of the issue here. The issue is not how the Jewish state will be run, religiously or secularly. The point is that it is forbidden for Jewish blood to be spilled for the purpose of establishing a Jewish state. And since it is impossible to accomplish the partition without spilling Jewish blood, it is forbidden to accept this plan.”

When the Brisker Rav would be called up for the Haftorah during the Seven Weeks of Consolation, he would always cry. He explained, "Throughout history, the hope of every Jew was always hanging on the words of the prophet, "Console, console My people" and "It is I, it is I, Who consoles you" (51:12) – and all the other verses of consolation spoken by Hashem through His true prophets, promising that Hashem Himself will redeem us. This promise breathed life into every Jew. But now, the Zionists have come and created a new vision, claiming that there is a natural solution to the "Jewish problem." Jews must take their fate into their own hands, they say. They think that their state somehow saves the Jewish people, when in reality it is the worst exile of all." (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 189)

The Gemora says (Sanhedrin 63b): “The righteous Eliyahu walked among the people dying of hunger in Jerusalem. He found a child who was swollen from hunger, lying in the garbage heaps. ‘From which family are you?’ he asked. ‘From such-and-such a family,’ he said. ‘Is there anyone surviving from that family?’ ‘No, except for me.’ ‘If I teach you something through which you will live, are you willing to learn it?’ ‘Yes,’ said the child. ‘Say every day, “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.”’ The child said, ‘Be quiet, do not mention the name of Hashem!’ For his father and mother did not teach him that. Immediately, he took out his idol from his bosom and hugged it and kissed it until his stomach split, and his idol fell on the ground and he fell on top of it, to fulfill the verse, 'I will place your corpses on the corpses of your idols.'" The Brisker Rav used to repeat this passage often, and he would say, “This is the situation today. People see that rebelling against Hashem will not succeed, and that because of the establishment of the State we are suffering bitterly from our Arab neighbors. Every day people are killed and wounded, may Hashem have mercy. All the arms of the Zionists do not help to stop terror. And still people continue to support the State and think that it is the salvation of Hashem and the redemption of the Jewish people. They do not understand that this is a threat of destruction to the Jewish people!” (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk v. 4, 191)

When the Zionists campaigned in the United Nations for permission to establish their state, the Agudath Israel lay leaders worked alongside them. The Brisker Rav, fearing the great bloodshed the state would bring about, tried to dissuade them from these diplomatic missions. "But," someone said to the Brisker Rav, "it says in the works of Kabbalah that before the coming of moshiach there will be a government in the hands of the eirev rav." "I don't believe that," said the Brisker Rav. The man persisted, "The words of the prophets, too, contain a hint that the Land will be partitioned and governed by a Jewish government before the coming of moshiach." The Brisker Rav replied, "The Gemora states explicitly that even when something is foretold by prophecy, it is forbidden to violate the law of the Torah. It says in Berachos 10a that Chizkiyahu foresaw that he would have wicked children, and because of this he refrained from having children. Why? If he saw prophetically that he would have children, it would happen no matter what, so why did he try to avoid it? The answer is, since - according to what Chizkiyahu held - it was forbidden to bring bad children into the world, he was obligated to make all efforts to avoid doing it, despite the knowledge that his efforts would fail and the children would be born anyway. So too here, it is forbidden to found a state, for it will cause bloodshed. Even if the prophets say it will happen anyway, it is forbidden for us to help." The Brisker Rav gave another example to illustrate this point: "The Rambam writes that we can see the hand of Hashem even in the spreading of the major religions of the gentiles. These religions serve to prepare the world for the Days of Moshiach, by bringing belief in Hashem and the Torah – albeit in a corrupted form - to the whole world. Does that mean that we should go and help spread these religions?" (Teshuvos Vehanhagos v. 2, siman 140)

A religious politician once came to the Brisker Rav to request his approval to take a certain action, promising that this action would bring much benefit to the yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel. The Brisker Rav said, "It is written (Devarim 10:17) that G-d does not take bribes. What does this mean? How could anyone give a bribe to G-d, Who owns the entire world? The answer is that when one strengthens Torah study by giving in on other areas, when one tries to cover up a sin with a mitzvah, that is a bribe to G-d. And G-d does not accept bribes."

During the fight over the drafting of girls, one rosh yeshiva suggested to the Brisker Rav that the Zionists might be so angry at the charedim's refusal that they would begin drafting yeshiva boys. It might be wise to be more lenient on the issue of national service for girls, in order to keep the yeshivos strong. The Brisker Rav said, "Heaven forbid to permit the forbidden in order to strengthen Torah study. We find that when the Beis Hamikdash was burning, the kohanim went up on the roof and threw the keys up to the sky, saying, 'Since we did not merit to be trusted caretakers, we are giving the keys back to You.' A hand came out of the sky and took the keys (Taanis 29a). So too, if we cannot continue the study of the Torah except by permitting serious sins, then we are not responsible to continue it. We leave Hashem responsible to fulfill His own promise that the Torah will never be forgotten." (Mishkenos Haro'im, p. 842)

Source: TorahJews.org

To call the Brisker Rav neutral on the topic of Zionism is as delusional as calling David Ben Gurion religious. And side note, I believe the most important events in modern Jewish history would be the emancipation of European Jewry and the haskalah drawing 90% of Ashkenazic Jewry from Torah observance (the State did the same to Sephardim), the Holocaust which arguably served as a punishment for that, and the rebuilding of Torah after the Holocaust. That Soloveitchik would place the state at the top of the list is pretty alarming.

The Brisker Rav said two things are certain. Zionism is idol worship and all Jews in Israel are entrapped by Zionism. Joseph Soloveitchik only came to the Holy Land one time but it seems he was caught up in the foolishness of Zionism like a person who lives there. One cannot trust his words on the topic. It is understandable if anyone wants to take this conclusion a step further. We were warned in Pirkei Avos:

Avtalyon would say: Scholars, be careful with your words. For you may be exiled to a place inhabited by evil elements [who will distort your words to suit their negative purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.


Joseph Soloveitchik is often held up as a religious Zionist but by people whose approach to the topic would be unacceptable to him. Religious Zionism has changed considerably since the days of Isaac Herzog and Joseph Soloveitchik. It has become extremely militant and super confident in a way that would likely shock both of these men. See below some quotes from Soloveitchik and compare to the dogmatic Zionism that is the norm today.

"… if the State of Israel will become a secular kingdom without Torah, without sanctity, without the Sabbath, without Jewish education, without family purity, a State in which Jewish uniqueness will be erased, then the price we are paying for her in blood and tears is too heavy." (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rav Speaks, pp. 138-9.)

Question by student: "What do you do with the Ramban in Devarim which says the kiyum miztvos in chutz l'aretz is not on the same level as in Eretz Yisrael" ?

Soloveitchik: "I knew that Ramban before you were born! [audience laughter] Kook comes out with the Ramban as if he is the only one to whom the Ramban has entrusted the text. I knew about it, and I sweated out the Ramban. I sweated out the Ramban, and the Ramban never said it. This is a Sifri, a difficult Sifri in limadatem osem ess binachem, v'ha'aretz yitan ess yevula, and we don't know exactly the text of the Sifri. And no matter who says it, I don't care. The three words כי לי כל הארץ settles everything. Ramban, Kuzari -- כי לי כל הארץ . It means chovos ha'mitzvos in chutz l'aretz is not to be considered a prologue or introduction to kiyum ha'mitzvos in Eretz Yisrael. They are the same importance. A Jew who takes an esrog in chutz l'aretz has the same reward, the same schar, as the Jew who take an esrog in Eretz Yisrael. It's a difficult Ramban, it's a difficult Rashi - but don't frighten me with it."

Student: Can't we say instead כי מציון תצה תורה, that davka b'Yerushalayim you'll accomplish more, even from galus?

Soloveitchik: I'll tell you frankly, I believe that I interpret a shitckl gemara besser fun asach in Eretz Yisraei [Yiddish: a piece of Gemara better than many in א'י]. [audience laughter]. When I don't have to go into temporary structures. Ay, avira d'Eretz Yisrael machkim? Ay, ain Torah k'Toras Eretz Yisrael? I know all those ma'amarim, which are used by the Mizrachi uprights. (The Rav Thinking Aloud, pp. 229-231)

"It is ridiculous to tell a young man, who does a good job, or has prepared or trained himself to do a good job [here in the U.S., that he must instead go to ארצ ישראל]. "Good job" means to spread Torah, or to lead an exemplary life which serves as an example to others through personal contact - there are many ways to convert and educate Jews. I am not giving up on American Jews. If I feel that in my town, or in my village, I will accomplish a lot, and when I come to Eretz Yisrael so I or my influence will be reduced to zero, my place is here, not there. Some who went to Eretz Yisrael achieved the same objectives they would have in the Diaspora. But only some! I know of many who fail. They don't admit it. It's nice on their part not to admit it." (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rav Thinking Aloud, pp. 242-3).

"Now there is an official public opinion which is molded not by religious, but by secular, Jews. People used to accuse us Orthodox Jews that we are intolerant. We are very tolerant, in comparison to Zionists. Let somebody try to say anything not in agreement with Begin -- אחת דתו להמית. You can say a lot not in agreement with Moshe Rabbeinu, but you must not deny Begin's theories. I am not joking. I can't yield to that. I am not a politician." (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rav Thinking Aloud, pp. 239-40)

"The aftermath of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the attack on the Palestinian refugee camps by Lebanese Christians, left a moral stain on Israel. In the Knesset there was a demand for a thorough inquiry into the massacres and a clarification if Israel was in any way responsible. The left wing political parties were in favor of the inquiry. The right wing parties were opposed to it. Mizrachi joined them in opposing any inquiry. Rav Soloveitchik was informed of the position taken by Mizrachi. A vote was scheduled for a Sunday. The Rav called Rabbi Friedman at the Jewish Agency and instructed him to call Israel in his name and to demand that Mizrachi vote for the resolution. The Rav said that it is not a political issue but a moral one and Mizrachi had to act morally. So insistent was the Rav that he told Rabbi Friedman to call Israel on Shabbat to convey his message! The call was an halachic order by the Rav to Rabbi Friedman. The call was made on Shabbat. Mizrachi voted for the inquiry." (Orthodoxy Awakens, The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University, Victor Geller, p. 258)

Student: Is there any place for Yom Ha'Shoah commemoration?

Soloveitchik: I am very bad as far as aveilus is concerned. That's one of the reason why I have not been elected a pulpit rabbi. Tisha b'Av...Rashi in Shmuel Bais says all yimay aveilus, pertaining to all disastrous events which took place in our history, all expressions of aveilus should take place on Tisha b'Av, not a separate Yom Ha'Shoah. Rashi says it.

Not in Shmuel Bais, excuse me, it's in Divrei HaYamim.

(Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rav Thinking Aloud, p. 244.)