Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovitch (1875-1940)

In the 1930's Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the greatest European Jewish Torah scholars and head of the Yeshiva of Baranowitz, Poland, published a series of essays entitled "Ikvesa D'meshicha" on the problems facing Jewry at that time. He deals with the subject of Zionism and much of what he writes could apply equally today. In 1965, his son Rabbi Elazar Simcha Wasserman published an English translation of these essays in booklet form. Now this translation has been edited and improved and we have made it available online.

Epoch of the Messiah, by Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman

In the summer of 1937, the third convention of the rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel was held in Marienbad. It was attended by hundreds of rabbis, heads of yeshivas and grand rabbis of Chassidic communities from a number of countries. Reb Elchonon attended this convention.

The periodical Hapardes (Year 11, Issue 7) reports that “Rabbi [Elchonon] Wasserman, Rabbi [Aharon] Kotler, Rabbi [Mordechai] Rottenberg from Antwerp and rabbis from Czechoslovakia and Hungary were unanimous in rejecting any proposal for a Jewish State on either side of the Jordan River, even if it were established as a religious statebecause such a regime would be a form of heresy in our faith in the belief in the coming of the Messiah, and especially since this little Jewish state would be built on heresy and desecration of the Name of G-d."

Reb Elchonon wrote:

The Torah teaches here that the war against Amalek exists in all generations until the coming of the messiah. However, the "Amalek" is not always the same. In the olden days when the Jewish people was ruled only by Torah, the enemies were the descendants of Amalek in the gentile world. But ever since we have thrown off the yoke of the Torah, the seed of Amalek thrives in our midst. We now have many who violate the Torah out of spite, such as the Yevsekses – Jewish Communists – who live not only in the Soviet Union but in all of the world, wherever there are Jews, and also in Palestine. The Hellenizers there are the same Yevsekses – there is no difference between them, except that these write in Yiddish and those write in modern Hebrew…

People are so ignorant today, that a large percentage of Jews support them with money, so that they might be bigger and stronger. They do not know or understand the word of Hashem, "When the wicked blossom like grass, when all sinners flower, it is in order to destroy them forever." (Tehillim 92:8) And when that time comes, woe to those who support them or flatter them! And it is as clear as the sun that the Land will vomit them out, for it is the King's palace and it does not support sinners, much less those who sin out of spite. (I am not coming here to curse or to bless, but since these things are written in the Torah we must admit that they will come true.)

We must not err and think that all those who follow the Zionists are from the seed of Amalek. G-d forbid to say so; we are talking here only about their heads and leaders, teachers and guides, writers and speakers – these are from the seed of Amalek, standing at the front of their armies to do battle with the Holy One, blessed is He. But all the multitudes of Jews who join them are merely following like a herd of animals. (Omer Ani Maasai Lemelech, paragraphs 5-6)

What our tactic should be in relation to the nations of the world is stated many times by our Sages, based on the Torah in Parshas Vayishlach – see the Ramban’s commentary there. In generations past, Jews followed the Torah’s faithful advice, which is tailor-made to fit the situation of Israel among the nations, the one sheep among seventy wolves. But the secularists, whose whole ideology is “let us be like the gentiles,” use the same political methods as the gentiles, which do not apply at all to our unique situation. Therefore, even when they mean to act for our benefit, they harm us and damage us with their plans which are, for our situation, foolhardy.”

In his Ikvesa Demeshicha, he writes more at length about the difference between the Torah view of exile and Zionism. He quotes his teacher, the Chofetz Chaim, as saying that even nowadays, in the absence of prophets, we can consult with Hashem when facing a hard decision. How is that possible? The Torah is the word of Hashem, and aside from laws, it contains advice – for the private individual, and for the Jewish people as a whole. If we do not follow the Torah’s advice during exile, we place the Jewish people in great danger.

Until recently, Jews followed the Torah’s advice. Before going to Rome to ask the emperor to annul anti-Semitic decrees, the Sages would study the story of Yaakov and Esav in the Torah. But in our time the honor of the Torah has been degraded. People only come to the Torah authorities with questions about saying Kaddish. But “political questions” (i.e. questions that involve the entire Jewish people) have been removed from the domain of the Torah and given over to the politicians and journalists. They have become the leaders of the generation. From what source do they derive their opinions? From their ideology of being like the gentiles. They do not know, or, more correctly, refuse to know that if Jews had always imitated the gentile methods of politics, there would be nothing left of them today, just as there is no remnant of stronger and mightier nations that once existed.

To a thinking man, it is clear that the history of the Jewish people follows a path that has no parallel in any other people. He who applies the gentile approach to politics to the Jewish people is like one who measures cloth by the gallon or milk by the yard.

The right approach to politics for the Jewish people is written in the Torah, which foresaw everything. Thousands of years of history attest to its correctness. What is that approach? “Three oaths G-d made the Jewish people swear…” (Kesubos 111a) and one of them is not to rebel against the nations: that Jews should not be revolutionaries. “Fear Hashem, my son, and the king, and do not mix with changers” (Mishlei 24:21). G-d warned us: “If you fulfill the oaths, good, but if not, you will be ownerless like the gazelle and the deer, which everyone chases and hunts.”

When we speak to the nations of the world, we must beg, not demand. “A soft tongue breaks a bone” (Mishlei 25:15). When our Sages came to Rome to protest a decree, they said, “Are we not children of one father and one mother? Why are we different from all other nations, that you pass harsh decrees against us?” (Rosh Hashanah 19a).

Yaakov said to his sons, “Why do you show yourselves?” (Bereishis 42:1). The Gemara (Taanis 10b) explains, “Why do you show yourselves in front your brethren, the children of Esav and the children of Yishmoel?” This is a clear directive that we should not keep a high profile everywhere before the eyes of the gentiles. We must not cause the gentiles to talk about us. The less the gentiles talk about us, the better.

Only when the gentiles make decrees against the laws of the Torah must we stand up against them and not bend a hair’s breadth.

These are, in short, the Torah’s guidelines for our dealings with gentiles; the Jews followed these guidelines until recently. Now new leaders have arisen who refuse to hear the Torah and its advice. They conduct their politics in the exact opposite of the Torah way. “Jews must fight and demand,” they say. Against whom? “Against the strongest nations of the world. We must boycott them, hold congresses, and fire at them through newspaper articles. That is how we will strike fear into their hearts.”

They cry incessantly, “Zion, Zion” when they should be crying “Torah, Torah! What will become of Torah?” Without Torah, we are defenseless and helpless. With the Torah, we are the strongest nation in the world. This is not a mere proverb; it is the truth, proven by three thousand years of history. Furthermore, the taking of Eretz Yisroel is not up to us. “If Hashem does not build a house, in vain do its builders toil on it” (Tehillim 127:1). But spreading Torah is up to us, and only us.

In another place, Reb Elchonon comments on the words of Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:12): When Israel heard the 98 curses at the end of last week's parsha, in addition to the 49 curses in Vayikra, their faces turned green and they said, "Who can survive these?" Moshe then began to comfort them: "You have already angered G-d a lot, yet He has not totally destroyed you. Just as the day gets brighter and darker at various times, so too G-d shined His light upon you and in the future will again shine His light upon you. These curses and afflictions are what keep you alive and allow you to stand before Him."

Reb Elchonon explained that the reason affliction allows the Jewish people to survive is because of the principle stated in the book of Koheles (3:15), "G-d looks after the pursued." "At a time when anti-Semites raise their voices against the Jewish people," he wrote in the 1930's, "and advocate our total destruction, G-d forbid, then we begin to be persecuted and chased, and this triggers the principle that 'G-d looks after the pursued' – which applies no matter what, even when the pursuer is righteous and the pursued is wicked. Whatever claims G-d's attribute of justice may have against the Jewish people, it cannot argue with this principle. It is silenced, and thus the Jews are saved from total destruction.

"We see from this that our whole strength and survival depends on us being in the role of the persecuted. G-d forbid for us to try to become persecutors! One of the three oaths that G-d made the Jewish people swear is "do not rebel against the nations" (Kesubos 111a). "Some come with chariots and some with horses, but we call in the name of Hashem our G-d." (Tehillim 20:8) (Article entitled "The Calm Words of the Wise are Heard," printed in Yalkut Maamarim Umichtavim, pp. 101-102)