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Why did sages like Rav Shach get into Israeli politics?

May 18, 2008

Dear Rabbi,

I fail to understand why those late sages who fiercely opposed Zionism eventually got themselves involved in Israeli politics.

Rav Shach, for example, permitted participation in the Knesset elections and used to be spiritual leader of the Agudah party for many decades. He also created "Shas" party in 1984, and called to vote for it. The Chozon Ish, as far as I understand, agreed to the participation of Agudah in the Knesset elections and also permitted an Agudah representative to sign the so called "Independence" Declaration.

It appears that this attitude stands in contradiction to their own statements against the Zionist State and its illegitimacy. What is the explanation ?

Thank you for the answer.

B. Grodzensky

Dear Mr. Grodzensky,

The Agudah's supreme body, Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, actually never met during the years from 1937 to 1949, and the decisions to enter the Zionist provisional government and sign the declaration of independence were made by Agudah activists such as Yitzchok Meir Levine, Eliezer Sirkes, Yaakov Rosenheim, Meir David Levinstein and Yehuda Meir Abramowitz (Mikatowitz Ad Hei Beiyar pp. 85-124; p. 401). Some of the rabbis who later signed on proclamations to vote for Agudah explained that their intent was that if one plans to vote at all, he should vote for Agudah. The Chazon Ish in particular never actually ruled that one should vote in Knesset elections (ibid. pp. 159-164). He did not permit the signing of the declaration of independence, but his brother Rabbi Meir Karelitz did so without consulting him (p. 401).

Still, it is true that later the rabbis of the Moetzes did convene and permit the elections, and Rav Shach certainly did tell his followers to vote. Reasons included the need for money for yeshivos and the need to have representatives in government to fight against the draft.

A similar logic is behind the flying of the Zionist flag over Ponevecz Yeshiva every year on Independece Day. The reason is simply because the government gives more money to yeshivos that flew the flag. The Poneveczer Rav was anti-Zionist but he held that he had to take their money in order to rebuild Torah.

The Poneveczer Rav built many yeshivos using money from the Zionist government. Every time he made a gathering to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of one of his buildings, a small group of Neturei Karta members would attend, holding signs saying that they protested against the acceptance of the money. Their protests often disturbed the festivities. Someone asked the Poneveczer Rav, "Why don't you do something about it? Make sure they don't come!" "If they wouldn't come on their own," answered the Poneveczcer Rav, "I would pay them to come! I want everyone to know that what I'm doing is only bedieved - not the right way to do things, but necessary because of the difficulty of the times."

Perhaps in consistency with the Poneveczer Rav's wishes, a few students always go up on the roof and take down the flag and burn it.

Thank you for the answer. Unfortunately, I come to a grim conclusion after reading your email. It is sad to hear that so many chose to sell their values (and souls) for the sake of money, honor and political power. The situation is even worse, since those are the wise and righteous people of the generation.

It is amazing that this situation could have happened in the first place. After all, is not it obvious to every person with a clear mind and common sense that one cannot achieve a good cause by way of a crime ?

I believe there is a Talmudic saying regarding "Mitzva Ha Baa Be Aveira", which may be applied in this case. Exactly as a person is not permitted to rob and murder in order to fulfill a mitzva (for example, rob passers by and give their money to yeshivos), so a person may not be in one company with heretics and use their money. Is there a greater Chilul Hashem than sitting with those wicked pagans and, inter alia, give them power, strength and legitimacy (even if one's intentions are good and he does so for the sake of Torah) ?
Moreover, what could be worse than causing others to sin by encouraging them to participate in the pagan cult of state and military ?

After all, Jews are obliged to give up their lives but not to participate in idol worshiping, bloodshed or similar abominations. And here, they do it voluntarily.

By the way, as you can see toady in the case of "Shas" party, those so called "observant" sephardic Jews, are actually more Zionists than the Zionists themselves. Just look at their words and deeds.

Let us pray for the rapid dissolution of the wicked state.

Yours faithfully,

B. Grodzensky

I agree with you, but still you shouldn't judge the gedolim who permitted accepted money so harshly. They were and are great people, and they gave some reasons for their decision. And it certainly wasn't for honor or power, as you say.

Here are some of the rationales used by those who permitted taking money:

1) It's a bedieved and I want everyone to know that it is (Poneveczer Rav, see above)

2) It is not really taking money from them because we're just getting back our tax money (I heard this answer from a magid shiur in the Mirrer Yeshiva, Jerusalem).

3) The Zionists collect much money from the world in the name of the Jewish people. The Yeshivos are the true Jewish people, so they really deserve the money. But ignorant, secularized Jews in America think that by giving to the JNF, the Jewish Federations and so on they are giving to the Jewish people. We are just redirecting the money. (I heard this as well from the same magid shiur in the Mirrer Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

4) The government is like a band of robbers and nothing they have really belongs to them, so why not take it? (Chazon Ish)

5) If a band of robbers holds you up, and you bargain with them to save some of your possessions, no one will think you approve of robbery. (Chazon Ish, quoted in Artscroll's biography of him).

This last quote from the Chazon Ish was probably said in reference to dealing with Israeli officials to get them to exempt girls and yeshiva boys from the army. It is incorrectly used to justify taking money, because in fact many people have been led to believe that the gedolim would be happy with Zionism in some form, precisely because of the money they receive.

Rabbi Gil Student of Yeshiva University writes in his pro-Zionist essay:

"In my opinion, for what little it is worth, history needs to have a voice in distinguishing between the different views. What might have seemed tenable when the state of Israel was first declared may be seem quite implausible after 57 years of existence. It seems hard to me to consider the state of Israel a satanic creation when it allows, and supports!, the study and living of Torah on an unprecedented scale. I am not aware of any other country in history that has funded through tax dollars so vast a number of people studying Torah. The extent of such support is simply staggering."

The argument that the State turned out to be good because "they support so much Torah" is something I hear again and again. Therefore, I think it should be clear by now that the drawbacks of taking money outweigh the benefits. The gedolim who began the practice of taking money did so in a different era, at the beginning of the State's existence, when the State was much more anti-religious and they saw no chance of any good Jew thinking that the State was good because of the few dollars they gave to the yeshivos. After all, at the same time the Zionists were bringing in hundreds of thousands of Sephardic and Yemenite children and putting them in anti-religious kibbutzim!