Lecture #07a: A Zionist Change of Heart – Rabbi Teichtal Hy"d Part 1

  • Rav Tamir Granot




This shiur will be devoted to Rabbi Teichtal and his monumental work, "Em ha-Banim Semekha."[1]


In historical terms, Rabbi Teichtal's adoption of Zionism was not a major event. Rabbi Teichtal's change of heart took place during a calamitous period for Hungarian Jewry, and he himself was killed, such that he was not able to continue leading a congregation in accordance with his convictions. Likewise, his book – while considered an important statement of the religious-Zionist position – had relatively little impact; its main contribution would appear to be a presentation of the religious-Zionist viewpoint from the perspective of the Holocaust, thus giving expression to the recognition that the process of redemption involves not only ascent, but also terrible crises, as well as setting forth an attempt to understand the reason for this (more on this in the next lecture).


 Rav Teichtal


  I believe that the story of Rabbi Teichtal should not be judged in terms of its historical influence, but rather in terms of its own inherent importance. To put it differently: there was once an ultra-Orthodox Hungarian Jew, a disciple of the Rebbes of Belz and Munkacz, who was a fierce opponent of Zionism, but in light of – and in the very midst of - the events of the Holocaust, he courageously reexamined his position and decided in favor of Zionism. This is an important event for Holocaust history and for Jewish thinkers confronting it, but more importantly this individual story is perhaps also a testimony to what might have happened but did not. Rabbi Teichtal's solitary change of heart serves to emphasize the negative or passive approach on the part of most of the rabbinic and Chassidic leadership towards the Holocaust and its significance. I shall highlight the fundamental claims that Rabbi Teichtal proposes by virtue of his change of view, with less attention to his specific Zionist teachings, which have received much attention but which are, for the most, part not unique.


A.   Biography


Rabbi Yissakhar Shelomo Teichtal was born in 1885 (5645) in Hungary, and studied in Pressburg (today Bratislava, capital of Slovakia). He served as rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva, Av Beit Din and teacher in the small Jewish community of Pishtian in western Slovakia (a town famous for its mineral baths). He is the author of the halakhic responsa known as "Mishneh Sakhir."


Like most Hungarian Jews, up until the Holocaust Rabbi Teichtal was firmly anti-Zionist, negating the idea of cooperating with secular Jews even for the purpose of building up Eretz Yisrael. He served as assistant to Rabbi Chayim Elazar Shapira, the Rebbe of Munkacz (author of Minchat Elazar), who was one of the fiercest opponents of Zionism, and in 1936 he published an article in the Yiddische Zeitung newspaper (published in Munkacz) supporting the Rebbe's view that the building up of Eretz Yisrael was a desecration of sanctity and would lead to the land being defiled.


In 1942, Rabbi Teichtal fled Slovakia for Hungary for fear of the Nazi occupation. The events of the Holocaust led him to reexamine his views. At first, according to his own testimony, he began to explore the subjects of exile, redemption that comes about through natural means, settling the Land of Israel, and the proper attitude towards the non-observant Jews engaged in this endeavor. Following all of this, he changed his approach and began supporting Zionism and aliya. He committed his new views to writing in his work "Em ha-Banim Semekha." Most of the book was written in the attic where he hid from the Nazis, and the hundreds of citations in the book are based only on memory. The book was published in Budapest in 5703 (1943). In the spring of 1944, the Hungarians began deportations of Jews to the camps, and Rabbi Teichtal, who received word that deportations from Slovakia had meanwhile ceased, decided to head back to Slovakia. In September 1944, following the crushing of the Slovakian revolt, he was transferred, together with the other Jews who remained from the community of Pishtian, to the camp at Serd, and from there to Auschwitz. Eyewitnesses attested that he was murdered on the 10th of Shevat 5705 (1945), because he had defended another Jew who was desperate for water (or, according to a different account, bread) against a Ukrainian guard. According to one of the witnesses, his final words were, "Disseminate my teachings further."


B.   The Change of Heart


Let us begin with a citation from his introduction to a book of teachings that he published in 1936 and from an endorsement that was added to it, both of which serve to represent his view - up until the Holocaust - as a faithful disciple of Rabbi Chayim Elazar of Munkacz, zt"l:


This book contains sermons that I have given here in the community of Pishtian to strengthen Torah and faith. This is a real need at this time, since for our many sins, in our generation there has been a growth in heresy and a casting off of the yoke of Torah and the commandments, which has caused all the troubles that have befallen us. With God's help, I have gathered some articles that are a salve for the eyes, and every Jew who reads this book will, with God's help, find himself reinforced in his faith like a stake that will not falter, and all the words of heresy that have been spread in our times, for our many sins, by new "sages" who are springing up all the time will be regarded by him as chaff for the wind; the wind will carry them all away and bury them in the depths of oblivion.


The book is awarded an endorsement by the Gaon Rabbi Yoshia Buchsbaum of Galanta, with the following words:


With splendor and eloquence … [the author] has proved the mistake of many of our generation who regard themselves and call themselves "charedim" but who join themselves to and associate with men of evil who have cast away the words of our Sages, of blessed memory, and build themselves an altar and go after vanity and become worthless, offering sacrifices and incense to the "nationalist" idol in calling themselves nationalist Jews. Indeed, [the author] has denounced their end on the basis of their point of departure, for all of their hope and desire and intention is to remove the yoke of the words of our Sages, of blessed memory, from upon them, and the yoke of Torah and the yoke of faith. The author has noted quite correctly in his important book that in this generation it is necessary to make an even greater effort to reinforce faith, etc. It is my hope that all who read the author's book will find words of favor and will exercise proper judgment, for there is a great need to distance oneself from the tents of people who are all inventing new ideas, digging broken wells, as it is written: "All that come to her shall not return" (Mishlei 2:19).


7a-2nd photo


Rav Teichtal was well aware of the reversal that his views had undergone, and he devotes considerable effort to legitimizing it, from two angles: 1. a justification for adopting the Zionist approach, and 2. legitimization for the very idea of a change of view, both in terms of his commitment to the Torah sages of the previous generations – including his own teachers – who had negated Zionism, and in terms of the fundamental question of whether a change in one's religious world view is possible.


On a personal note, Rabbi Teichtal describes the inner process that he underwent, causing the change in his views:


I must confess the truth and declare my sin.  I, too, despised the rebuilding of the Land, because I heard unqualified statements made by many Orthodox Jews, which became firmly implanted in my heart.  I did not concern myself with this matter at all, because I was preoccupied with learning, teaching, and writing volumes on the Talmud and its commentaries, as well as responses to questions regarding the word of HaShem.  I only delved into this halachah after we suffered afflictions in this bitter exile.  HaShem enlightened me, and I saw that I and all those who opposed this movement were mistaken.  I admit and say, "That which I previously told you was mistaken," just like Rava and other great Talmudic Sages did. [See Mesoret HaShas on Shabbat 63b.]  When rabbis admit their mistakes, they are praiseworthy.


Thank God, I have no qualms about publicly expressing the truth that is in my heart.  I am not afraid of any man, for I studied under great and righteous gedolim and was raised among the genuinely holy wise men of the generation.  Thank God, I also studied Torah early on and was married young.  At the age of nineteen, I was united with the daughter of the foremost Torah scholar of the generation.  Since then, Torah has never ceased from my table.  I will not revoke my Torah opinion because of any gadol or rebbe or our generation, unless he debates the issues with me in the manner of Torah dialogue, using proofs from the words of Chazal.  I will then concede to his words, if they are correct, but not if they are unfounded. (Em ha-Banim Semekha, p. 28 in the M. Lichtman translation)


The difficulty of coming out against the prevailing view is evident in Rabbi Teichtal's frank statement in the above selection; it is equally clear that the change in his position is controversial, and represents something of a rebellion against his teachers. Why, according to his own testimony, did he previously oppose Zionism?


a.      Dogmatic thinking – everyone thought that way, that's how I was taught, etc.

b.      Lack of interest – the intensive involvement in Torah study pushed ideological questions aside, and hence proper attention was not devoted to a clarification of the subject.



 Rav Shapiro

 Rabbi Chayim Elazar Shapira zt"l, in a film about his daughter's wedding, Munkacz 1931[2]


[1]   Interested readers can find the film on the Internet, and see the Rabbi's address on camera to American Jews concerning Shabbat observance:


I believe that the above is certainly representative of the situation amongst the ultra-Orthodox public, and even its leadership - at least at the second tier. It is certain that the "Minchat Elazar" of Munkacz (Rabbi Teichtal's teacher), for example, did not oppose Zionism merely for traditional reasons; he developed and formulated weighty ideological considerations. But for the "masses," and even among the rabbis and yeshiva heads, anti-Zionism was integral to social belonging and to tradition; it was not a subject requiring examination.


And suddenly, says Rabbi Teichtal, even before the Holocaust provided positive proof in favor of Zionism, it shook us out of our dogmatic slumber and led us to a discussion of issues that we had left on the sidelines. In other words, it is now a fault not to re-examine ideological questions, and the lack of willingness to analyze and criticize existing views may lead to terrible mistakes.


We learn of another reason for his earlier opposition to Zionism from testimony as to a sermon that he delivered to a congregation in Slovakia, when he returned there during some stage of his hiding:


"What can we say; how can we speak, and how shall we justify ourselves? God has found the sin of your servant." I shall tell you a story.


In a small town there was a shamash (sexton) of a synagogue who died, leaving behind a widow. The people of the community thought about how they could provide her some financial support, for at that time there was no pension for widows. Perhaps it would be possible to allow her to continue the work of her late husband. On the other hand - it is not proper for a woman to serve as the shamash of a synagogue. Eventually it was decided that she would carry out those activities that could be performed outside the synagogue, while the tasks of the shamash during prayer times would be filled by the worshippers themselves, on a voluntary basis. Thus the woman would be able to continue earning the salary that her husband had received.


It came time for "selichot," and as part of her job the woman had to get up and go about from house to house in the village, waking the people for selichot. She took the special "selichot stick" in her hand and headed for the most distant house in the village – the home of Weiss Shendor. When she knocked on the door, Weiss Shendor awoke, alarmed at the disturbance at such an unusual hour. When he opened the door and saw the wife of the shamash, he asked what she wanted. She explained that as part of her duties she had to go from house to house, waking everyone for selichot. When Weiss Shendor heard this, he tried to persuade her that it was not seemly for a woman to go about outside so early in the morning, in such cold and wet weather, and that it would be better if he did the job in her stead. The woman accepted the offer and handed him the "selichot stick," and Weiss Shendor set off to waken the people.


Upon knocking at the first house he was asked to identify himself. He answered, "I am Weiss Shendor, and I have taken it upon myself to waken the people for selichot."


The house owner was incensed. "Weiss Shendor? A pork-eater like you isn't going to wake me for selichot!" With that he slammed the door and went back to sleep.


He went off to the second house and again came the question, "Who is it?" Again he gave the same reply, and again the same response: "Weiss Shendor? A Shabbat desecrator like you will not come and wake me for selichot!" Again a door was slammed in his face.


The same thing happened at the next house: "A swindler and gambler like you will not wake me for selichot!" – and so on, at every house throughout the entire village. The wake-up round ended with nothing more to show for itself than a trail of scorn and disdain. Not a single person got up for selichot.


When the congregation was gathered for the morning prayers, the rabbi asked: "What happened this year, that no one came to the synagogue for selichot?" The people started justifying themselves and explaining that it was all Weiss Shendor's fault. He was a shady character who was notorious throughout the village; it was he who had come to awaken them for selichot, and that was why none of them had come.


"Fools!" responded the rabbi. "It's true that Weiss Shendor is guilty of everything that you've accused him of, but this time he was waking you for selichot; he wasn't doing any of the bad things that he's known for. So why didn't you get up?"


[Here Rabbi Teichtal burst into tears and shouted:] It's true that the Zionists desecrate Shabbat and so forth, but it was they who awakened the nation and shouted, "Get out of the rubble; the gentiles hate us, there is no place for us except in Eretz Yisrael" – and we didn't listen!


Let us only hope to be worthy of correcting the distortion and having God accept us in the promised land.[2]


In other words: "Since the main spokesmen for Zionism were secular, liberal people, we closed our ears and refused to listen to the truth that they spoke." We recall from the previous lecture (#6) that the Rabbi of Bilgoraj referred to the Zionist leaders as "false prophets," as if to say: "If that is their status, then one cannot listen to anything that they say." Why are they false prophets? Isn't that precisely the question – whether it is their vision that is correct, or that of the Rebbes? Clearly, in the opinion of the Rebbe of Belz and of his brother, the Rabbi of Bilgoraj, it was unthinkable that people who desecrated Shabbat and ate non-kosher food could be bearing the true word of God, while the vision of the great Torah sages and righteous tzaddikim was misguided. Indeed, a review of the chapters in Yirmiyahu that speak about false prophets (such as chapter 23 and chapter 29) shows that prophets were indeed disqualified because of improper behavior. It was to this claim that Rabbi Teichtal's parable sought to respond. We must accept the truth from wherever it comes. It is possible that God's true word is being conveyed by apostates and heretics.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]   This work has been translated into English twice: Dr. Pesach Schindler, trans., Em Habanim Semeha: Restorationof Zion as a Response During the Holocaust (Hoboken: Ktav, 1999) andR. Moshe Lichtman, trans., Eim Habanim Semeichah: On EretzYisrael, Redemption, and Unity (Jerusalem: Urim, 2000).  Each translation has its own advantages; see the review by R. Berel Wein: http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5761summer/BOOKS.PDF. We will cite R. Lichtman's unabridged translation, which is available on the web: http://www.tsel.org/torah/emhabanim-eng/contents.html#link.

[2]   Based on the testimony of Mordekhai Rosenfeld, a member of Rabbi Teichtal's audience, as recorded in Be-Sheva, vol. 163, 3 Tishrei 5766.