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I've seen the Chofetz Chaim and the Ohr Somayach quoted as pro-Zionists.

Dear Rabbi,

i am confused.
i have seen in the writings of the chofetz chaim that upon hearing about increased [nonetheless secular] aliyah to palestine, he said "the geulah has finally come.
i want to have a serious dialect with you, bcause i think it's absurd that the chofetz chaim would have hippocratical statements. i have also seen in the writings of the ohr samayach, statements that propogate the zionist cause. i would like to view the actual sources for the statements recorded on your website. in addition to exchanging some pro-zionist torah sources that i have been exposed to. as a searching jew, i want to arrive at the correct maskanah. the one complaint that i have about your website is that it doesn't show religious zionist sources and then rebut them. i think it's important that you distinguish between religious and secular zionism. please keepin touch.

Moshe H.

Dear Moshe,

Here is some information about Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohein of Dvinsk, the Ohr Somayach.

In 1892 Avraham Yaakov Slutzky, a leader in the Chovevei Tzion movement, published a sefer entitled Shivas Tzion. He asked various gedolim for letters of support. The following is the letter sent to him by the Ohr Somayach in 1891, taken from Mara DAra Yisroel, v. 2 p. 22):

You have asked me, my friend, and pleaded with me to express my opinion about the new movement that has arisen in our times, combining writing and action to found settlements and plant vineyards in the Land of the Deer. Its members are known as Chovevei Tzion, and you wish to know my opinion of them.

Know, my friend, that it is unnecessary to stress the greatness of this mitzvah, for what Jew would entertain a doubt about this& (here he continues to speak of the greatness of Eretz Yisroel and the Jewish peoples connection with it).

But although the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisroel may be considered equal to all the mitzvos, the mitzvah of learning Torah is equal to all the mitzvos&

To take away from the support of the scholars who learn day and night from the Kupas Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, from every penny the scholars learn a hundred chapters is a tremendous sin, too great to bear. Both things are acts holy to Hashem and one should not infringe on the other. If the settling of Eretz Yisroel is holy to Hashem, the study of Torah and the support of scholars in the Land is holy of holies. Seek out the welfare of the Land, may Jerusalem be on your hearts. But the spirit is embittered to see that when a man supports the thousands of poor Jews who live from the Kupas Haramban, or one rov who, based on his study of halacha, is stringent about work in Shemittah, the writers come out against him and heap disdain and hate upon him, calling him a hater of Zion.

Imagine, my friend, if Rav Yehudah, who held it was forbidden to go back to Eretz Yisroel until the redemption, were alive today. What would they think of him? Even though the sages of his generation did not agree with him, they did not come out against him with insults, but rather, when they went to Eretz Yisroel they would keep it a secret from him. They said, Rav Yehudah is different, for Eretz Yisroel is dear to him. (Berachos 43a) That is, since due to his halachic opinion he was not able to go up to the Land, he strived always to think of it and remind himself of it. Perhaps this is why they said that Ulla was beloved to Rav Yehudah (Chullin 94a), because Ulla would go to Eretz Yisroel and then go to Bavel, so much that he was called Ulla the descender and from his mouth Rav Yehudah would hear all the news from the Land, which was the joy of his soul all day. This is what they said, One who has bread in his basket is different from one who has no bread in his basket. That is why it was more dear to him.

And while I am speaking about his, I cannot withhold myself from revealing what is in my heart: one who looks carefully at the history of the Jewish people in exile will see that several times there have arisen in our people deranged, imaginative people who thought about future [redemption]. One with his strong hand, one with false miracles, and one with repentance and fasting each one led the people astray, to belief that the redemption was near. And when their words melted away, and all their efforts crushed like a spiders web, many left the congregation of Hashem, left their Torah and their people. They lost faith in the future redemption, and became a stumbling block for the house of Israel. All the warnings of the Rambam in his Book of Shoftim and in the Letter to Yemen not to pay attention to any false ideas, and not to plan actions and ways to reach the awaited redemption, were not enough for the weak-hearted and the downtrodden spirits who, when they smelled from afar something that looked like the sprouting of the redemption promised by Hashem, they followed like a herd of animals and were trampled down, for they forgot the words of Hashem through his prophet, The master for whom you ask will come suddenly to his palace& (Malachi 3:1)

How terrible was the scene when the enthusiasts came out saying, this is the way that leads to the future redemption. Among them were the sages and pious men of Germany, who said imaginatively, There is no more clear end than this. (The Gemora in Sanhedrin 98a says, There is no clearer end this: And you, mountains of Israel, give your branches, and bear your fruit to my people Israel. Rashi says: When Eretz Yisroel bears its fruit in generous amounts, then the end will draw nearer, and there is no clearer end than this. The founders of the Chovevei Tzion movement used this Gemora as a proof that working the land in Eretz Yisroel would bring the redemption closer. For a refutation, see Vayoel Moshe 1:66.) They found statements of Chazal on which to base themselves. At that time, every understanding person looked at this in the same way the wisest men looked at that terrible period in the year 5420 (1660), when [the Sabbateans] wreaked havoc on the spirit of Israel and the heart of its sages for about a hundred years. The error at that time arose from incorrect reading of the words of the G-dly sages. And so it was in this picturing [of the redemption], a product of haskalah they said, this is the redemption, this is the substitute. They called him [Reb Hirsch Kalischer] names like Ezra the Second and other such things. A little more, and a terrible danger would have awaited the Torah and the whole Jewish people, for if, G-d forbid, they did not succeed, they would fall a hundred degrees backward from Torah and the principles of belief that we have by tradition. Thanks to Divine Providence, the rabbonim and sages of the generation were given the wisdom to stand back. They looked at these enthusiastic groups with a weak spirit, and tolerated the arrows and missiles that the journalists shot at them, until the thing took on a different form: a center of commerce for the wealthy. What did it become? A commercial enterprise, bearing fruit to its owners, and holy to Hashem as well, provided that you [Slutzky, a leader of Chovevei Tzion] have not come to smooth out a path for the righteous redeemer. Rather, if he tarry, wait for him. He does not ask for any help from any man. The future Temple will descend built and complete, without any labor by a mortal. Do not say, This is a preparation for the future hope, for that is a great danger to the Torah and the people. Even if this idea does arise in someones heart, let him emulate his Creator, Whose heart did not tell His mouth. (A reference to Yalkut, Yishaya 507: If someone tells you when the final redemption will come, do not believe him, for it says, For the day of revenge is in My heart (Yishaya 63:4) if the heart does not tell the mouth, who can the mouth tell?)

Whether or not we were accurate in the above comments, it is our wealthy brothers obligation to expand the boundaries of the Land with permission from the exalted governments. If the gentiles of Germany plant vineyards, why should the Jews not do what is proper according to the present time and approved of by the exalted government, may it be blessed by Hashem? And at every step of the way they will find many mitzvos, the holiness of the Land, and the love of the people.

But they should not speak of high matters or in an arrogant manner: those on one side [the followers of the movement] should make no mention of the future and the dreams, and those on the other side [the leaders] should not seduce the hearts of the poor and hapless people who are in the borders [of Eretz Yisroel]. The pressure is great on both sides. The poor should not make the mistake of moving to the holy mountain, for even if gold be scattered to them as dust, would they be able to make a living? Experience teaches that if they travel to a faraway land, like the cities of Kavakaz and the extremes of Russia, they will succeed and sent support to their children, but what will masses of such people do in the ruined and desolate land? If it is very good, that is only for the wealthy, and from them will live the poor who have already found their refuge in Hashems land.

But, my brothers, please do not do evil with the entire nation. Wise men, be cautious with your words! Let not the powerful writers place a stumbling block before the servants of Hashem, who are comparable to a blind man on the road. Let not the poor and downhearted be your playthings, for you are speaking of their very lives&

If they do so, they will be successful in their endeavors, and Hashems favor will be upon them, and their vines will flower in the holy mountains, and the tree will give its fruit. The mountains will give their branches and the bear their fruit to the people of Hashem, and their eyes and our eyes will see the uplifting of the pride of Zion and Jerusalem and the salvation of Hashem&Respectfully, Meir Simcha Kohein.

In summary, the Ohr Somayach approves of the idea of settling Eretz Yisroel, but expresses several criticisms of the Chovevei Tzion movement: 1) In the zeal to promote settlement, they have forgotten the paramount importance of Torah study, and have encouraged people to give to them instead of to the scholars supported by the regular charity funds sent to Eretz Yisroel. 2) The original founders of the movement claimed that their efforts would bring the redemption. This was a great danger, akin to messianic movements of the past. He says that since the movement did not gather too much support, that danger was averted. Still, it may be that this was a polite criticism directed at Rabbi Slutzky, who may have stressed the idea of bringing the redemption in his book Shivas Tzion. 3) They encouraged everyone to go, even the poor who would not succeed there.

The author of Mara Dara Yisroel notes that this letter was published later in the periodicals Dos Vort (14 Cheshvan 5697) and Kol Yisroel (5697 issue 9), but it was not printed by Rabbi Slutzky in his book. Apparently the Ohr Somayachs criticisms of his movement were too much for him and he preferred not to publicize them.

So we see that the Ohr Somayach is against the position that views the creation of a state with favor and sees it in the context of the redemption process.

The statement you read by the Ohr Somayach supposedly in favor of Zionism is probably the letter published by the followers of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook in the book Torat Eretz Yisrael, p. 234:

In this century, the rays of light shine forth with a great awakening through the channels of the great men of action such as Montefiore and those like him; and from the rabbis, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh (Kalisher) from Talyron, and Rabbi Eliahu (Guttmacher) from Gridetz, to build and to develop Jerusalem, and to remove its desolation, almost to the extent which the enthusiasts (the non-religious Zionists) have widened the cause. Many rabbis stood in opposition, and even many rabbis who praised the matter (Zionism) in their hearts, put their hands to their mouths, in fear of the enthusiast zeal, and in fear of the Three Oaths which Hashem made the daughters of Jerusalem swear. Now, however, Divine providence has brought together the League of intelligent Nations in San Remo, and a dictate was established that the Land of Israel shall be for the Jewish people. Since the fear of the Oaths has been removed with the permission of the nations, the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel arises, a mitzvah equal to all of the other precepts in the Torah, and this mitzvah returns to its place. It is a mitzvah on everyone to help with all of their power to observe this mitzvah, and if Hashem, may His Name be blessed, will allow this to come about, and if the matter will increase and expand, then surely it is a matter which stands at the zenith of the universe.

This letter was also published by the Zionist author Menachem Mendel Kasher in his Hatekufah Hagedolah p. 174. It is also printed in Guardian of Jerusalem, p. 410 and there in the footnote the author writes that it appeared in the Chareidi press at the time of its writing, and was printed in full in Ha-hed, Cheshvan, 1935.

Firstly, the authenticity of this letter has not yet been established. Secondly, even if the Ohr Somayach really wrote those words, it would not prove that the he would have approved of what happened in 1947-48. There are many important distinctions between what he was permitting and what happened later. He permitted Jews to travel to Eretz Yisroel in large numbers, with permission from the Turkish or British governments, to buy land and set up farms. With permission from the ruling power, they said, there was no prohibition of going up as a wall. But making a government of our own constitutes an attempt to formally end the exile, which is the oath that they should not force the end. This oath carries with it no conditions. Any effort toward bringing the geulah, with or without permission (according to Rashi, even excessive praying), is forbidden.

Secondly, the alleged letter of the Ohr Somayach permitted settlement with permission of the nations. But which nations permission is it that matters? Since they understand the oath of not settling Eretz Yisroel as a kind of prohibition on rebellion (although rebelling against the nations was already covered by another oath, a specific prohibition was added in the case of this special type of rebellion), clearly we need the permission of all nations affected by the matter. Thus if Jews leave Russia and travel to Turkish-ruled Palestine, they would need permission from Russia and Turkey, but not from an unrelated nation like the United States or Saudi Arabia. Now, the Ohr Somayachs letter was clearly written after the British had committed themselves to the terms of the Mandate, viz. to facilitate a homeland for the Jewish people (but perhaps not an independent state; this was never spoken of openly). They were the ruling power, so their permission satisfied the conditions. But todays Zionist state does not rest on British permission, since the British took back their promise. It rests on the U.N.s recommendation. The nations in the U.N. who voted for partition were not the owners of Palestine, nor did the British commit themselves to enforce the U.N.s decision in any way. They simply said that they were leaving on May 15, and whoever won the war would get the land. In fact, in the end the U.N.s recommendation was not followed: Jerusalem, which was supposed to be an international zone, was split between the Zionists and Transjordan, and the West Bank, which was supposed to be an independent Palestinian State, was also split between the Zionists and Transjordan. Thus it does not really seem that a power whose permission mattered gave the Land to the Zionists.

Thirdly, as mentioned, the U.N.s recommendations were not followed, and the Zionists ended up with considerably more than they were allotted. Besides that, by May 15, the U.N. was not officially recommending partition, due to a conflict between Truman and his cabinet. So it is not clear at all that the Zionists acted on their permission. On the contrary, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion both planned to proclaim the state no matter what. The Ohr Somayach's words do not apply to this at all.

The historical fact is that in the end, the State was not founded by the British or the UN, but by force of arms. Perhaps the Arab nations who invaded after the declaration of the state had no right to the land, but the Palestinians themselves certainly did, and for many months prior to and following the declaration of the state the Zionists fought them. Many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out or deported outright by the Zionists see "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," by Benny Morris. See also his article in "The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948," pp. 37-59. See also "Blaming the Victims," pp. 85-96. If what the Zionists did is not called starting a fight with the gentile nations, I don't know what is.

Certain gedolim in the pre-State era seem to have thought, or hoped, that the State would come about peacefully, with no loss of Jewish lives. Whatever we say about the Three Oaths, it is clear that no one in his right mind would advocate sacrificing 20,000 Jewish lives just for the sake of having an independent political state. But that is exactly what the Zionists did in 1948. I will illustrate what I mean, that they didn't realize there would be a war, with the following story, printed in Peninei Maran Hagriz, p. 148:

In the year 1937, Englands Peel Commission visited Eretz Yisroel and proposed partition between the Jews and the Arabs. The Zionist congress debated whether to accept partition and give up on a part of Eretz Yisroel. The Knessia Gedolah of Agudath Israel, which assembled then, also debated whether it is permitted according to Torah law to give up on a part of Eretz Yisroel. Rabbanim and rebbes sat and exchanged Torah proofs and logic as to whether it was permitted or forbidden. The Brisker Rav was then in a certain town two hours away from the place of the Knessia, and he was very angry when he heard that they were considering the idea of a Jewish state, which would bring bloodshed, G-d forbid. He lamented, "They are sitting and discussing whether it is permitted to give up on part of Eretz Yisroel, but to give up on one Jewish life is definitely forbidden!"

Reb Avrohom Kalmanovitz visited the Brisker Rav and tried to calm him, saying, "What difference does it make what the Agudah says? The British aren't going to take the opinion of rabbis into consideration in any case." The Brisker Rav replied, "The Gemora in Sanhedrin 26a says that Chizkiyah was afraid that the Holy One, blessed is He, would go after the majority, the followers of Shevna, who wanted to surrender to the Assyrians. But the prophet told him, a conspiracy of wicked people does not count. Here also, G-d does not care about the plans of the secular Zionists, who are the majority. He looks only at what the Torah Jews say. At this Knessia the majority of the gedolim of our generation are present, and G-d goes after the majority - we cannot call them "a conspiracy of wicked people." And the majority is in favor of a state, only they disagree on whether we may settle for smaller borders. If they decide that there should be a state, then I am afraid that there will be a state.

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.

"But," said Reb Avrohom, "why does the Rav say that there will be bloodshed? The plan is that the British and the League of Nations will carry out the partition peacefully, with the agreement of the Arabs."

"It will never be so," said the Brisker Rav. "The Arabs will never agree to the establishment of a Jewish state. There will definitely be bloodshed. Even if there were only a possibility of bloodshed it would be forbidden, all the more so now that it is definite bloodshed."

Let's turn now to the Chofetz Chaim. Like Reb Meir Simcha, he did not live to see 1948, so whatever quotes they can come up with from him have to be taken in the context in which they were said. There was no Jewish state, only a British colony into which a certain number of Jews were officially permitted to immigrate every year. The Chofetz Chaim, it is said, wanted to go live in Palestine at the end of his life. This shows nothing about his attitude to a state. The Satmar Rav immigrated to Palestine in 1945, with the full intention of staying. No one can claim that he was a Zionist!

Rabbi Menachem Kasher in "Hatekufah Hagedolah," starting on page 201, brings stories about the Chofetz Chaim told by his son, Reb Aryeh Leib Kagan (who admits in the midst of this piece that he himself was a strong Zionist, who believed that the religious should jump on the bandwagon right at the beginning and try to dominate the movement). The stories portray the Chofetz Chaim as hopeful that the redemption would soon come, seeing the aliyah as possibly the beginning of the ingathering of the exiles, and asking only that the people coming to Palestine keep the Torah. This all has nothing to do with permitting a state; even Kasher does not claim that it does.

What is misleading about a writer like Kasher is that he characaturizes the anti-Zionists, and then brings quotations and stories to prove them wrong. He paints the anti-Zionists as opposing any aliyah but look, the Chofetz Chaim approved of aliyah. By doing this he distracts the reader's attention from the fact that the real central question of Zionism whether a state is permitted was never touched by the Chofetz Chaim or anyone else in that time.

Now to the Balfour Declaration. The story about the Chofetz Chaim's response to the declaration comes in many renditions; let me copy here three of them, with their sources.

1. In the winter of 5678 (1917-1918) when they told the Chofetz Chaim about the simcha that had spread in the Jewish world because of the Balfour Declaration, the Chofetz Chaim burst out crying and said, "What is the point of this simcha? Hakadosh Baruch Hu promised us, 'And you shall spread out west and east and north and south," here is a sure promisory note that Hakadosh Baruch Hu will pay us when the time comes. Now some people come and admit to a small part of that promisory note, and everyone is happy about this declaration, and they want a sort of redemption! Oy, what has become of us" and he continued crying. The Chofetz Chaim also said, "Many times there has already been a time of favor for the redemption, but those generations ruined it. And now I am afraid that the irreligious will ruin this arousal." (Mara D'ara Yisroel, v. 2 p. 49, footnote, quoting from Chofetz Chaim Al Hatorah, Parshas Bo)
2. At the time of the Balfour Declaration, the Chofetz Chaim said that it was an arousal for the true redemption, but the Other Side (Heb. Sitra Achra) in its cleverness snatched away the End, and switched the redemption with a redemption from the Unclean Side. (Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 207, quoting Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik)
3. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohein, son of the Chofetz Chaim, said that they asked his father: "Why aren't you excited about the current building of Eretz Yisroel?" He answered that if a rich man goes bankrupt and penniless, and someone gives him a few pennies, he is happy. But if you hand a few pennies to a man who is still rich, he will laugh at you. Here also, the irreligious who have left Torah and Jewish belief behind have nothing left, so when they get something little building Eretz Yisroel they rejoice over it. But we believe in the Torah and the Neviim and Chazal and all their great promises about the days of Moshiach and their splendor and glory, so for us there is no reason to be happy. (Mishkenos Haro'im p. 846)

In short, he said that the declaration might be a sign from Heaven of arousal for the redemption, but he did not say that if the British were to say at some point, "Now we're going to help you set up a Jewish state" that it would be allowed to found a state. He certainly did not say that if the British were to leave and say, "You Jews and Arabs fight it out yourselves" (which is what actually ended up happening) that it would be permitted.