Lecture #08c: Rabbi Teichtal's World View: Conservative or Innovative?

  • Rav Tamir Granot


C. Foundations of Rabbi Teichtal's World View


I shall now attempt to summarize some of the main elements of Rabbi Teichtal's world view.


1. The commandment of settling Eretz Yisrael is an obligation that applies to every Jew at all times.


2. There is a redemption "track" that comes about through natural processes; it is initiated by man, and then the private commandment becomes an integral part of the process. In other words, by fulfilling one's private commandment to settle Eretz Yisrael, a Jew thereby participates in the process of redemption.


3. Our era is the era of redemption. More Jews have come together in Eretz Yisrael than have been seen here since the Second Temple period, and the country is continually growing and developing. The status of "redemption" should not be withheld from this era just because there are no miracles or prophecy; our Sages did speak of the possibility of redemption through human processes that would encounter difficulties and setbacks.


4. The "freethinkers" who built up the land should not be viewed as heretics and apostates, for three reasons. Firstly, they are like "captive children" – Jews who, for reasons outside of their own control, have been brought up ignorant of much of their Jewish heritage and its laws. Secondly, they are fulfilling the important commandment of settling the land. Thirdly, they are countering and repairing the damage effected by the Enlightenment, which led to assimilation; in this sense, they may be viewed as engaging in repentance.


5. Even if we do not accept the defense set out in no. 4 above, the common mission and the importance of Jewish unity at the time of redemption make it essential to work in favor of the Jewish settlement of the land despite misgivings. There is certainly no room for preventing aliya and settlement of the land just because there are heretics there.


6. The Holocaust represents the "footsteps of the Messiah" preceding the redemption, and therefore the troubles are necessary. Rabbi Teichtal offers many explanations for this necessity, as discussed in the previous two lectures.


7. The mistake on the part of the ultra-Orthodox community in its negative attitude towards Zionism and its adoption of a policy of "sit and do nothing," arising inter alia from excessive caution, led indirectly to the deaths of many Jews in the Holocaust. The ultra-Orthodox leadership is responsible for this, as well as for the secular character of the Zionist endeavor.


As to the connection between opposition to Zionism and the Holocaust, I would like to state clearly that in Rabbi Teichtal's words I find no argument corresponding (inversely) to that of the Satmar Rebbe, claiming that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sin of opposition. The Holocaust happened for other, independent reasons. However, in His great mercy God prepared an escape route, which came to be blocked by the anti-Zionist position. From this perspective, this position bears responsibility, on the leadership and religious level, albeit indirect and certainly unintentional.



D. Conservatism or Innovation?


Rabbi Teichtal's philosophical turn-around may be viewed from two perspectives.


From the one perspective, his theology or historiosophy is conservative. Ideologically, Rabbi Teichtal became a Zionist, but in terms of theology he continued to maintain the same fundamental ultra-Orthodox assumptions: he employs the concepts of sin and punishment; he perceives the Holocaust as part of God's direction of reality; and he offers no criticism of the fundamental assumptions of religious thought in the wake of the Holocaust. All of these indicators point to a conservative way of thinking.


The change occurs only in the ideological dimension, while the fundamentals of his philosophy remain as they were. Rabbi Teichtal argues that Am Yisrael should behave differently from the way in which they did until now, because an analysis of reality demands this, and he backs up this demand by adopting a perception of the process of redemption ("at its time," "a poor man riding upon a donkey") which has its foundations in classical Jewish sources and which, in his view, is almost obvious. But his religious point of departure, his view of Divine Providence, his theology, his concepts of good and evil, and his cultural perception – all of these remain outside of the scope of his book and the turn-around that it represents.


The other perspective from which we may view Rabbi Teichtal's change is that of "religious existence." What does his view tell us about "religiosity" itself, about a religious standpoint? I offer the following thoughts on the difference between the ultra-Orthodox reaction to the Holocaust and the Zionist reaction, from the point of view of a psychological movement within a religious person.


The ultra-Orthodox position seeks acceptance of God's judgment. Acceptance is an active movement on the inside, but outwardly it is passive. The view of exile as a punishment and the faith in a miraculous redemption necessarily mold a religious stance that accepts anything that happens as a Divine decree that must be viewed as part of a religious test. Exile turned the historical situation of the Jews into a one-way street: history does not await or expect our reaction; all that is left to us is acceptance. Acceptance of God's judgment has therapeutic power because it denies the arbitrariness of history, and because it is an important element in the spiritual repair that is necessary prior to redemption. The attempt to change reality itself in the general sense (on the individual level a person is obviously permitted to try to escape, since perhaps God's decree is not aimed at him specifically) – for example, by a revolt against the Nazis, or by establishing a Jewish state – is therefore an anti-religious act by definition, since it conflicts with the Divine decree.


To clarify this, let us consider a parable on the individual level. Let us imagine the case of a person who is diagnosed, heaven forefend, with a fatal disease. One religious reaction to this would be to accept the situation and to live with it, attempting to elevate it to the highest possible spiritual experience – not to try to escape it or change it.


The opposite reaction is a lack of acceptance of the decree. I once heard of a well-known Zionist figure who was informed that he was suffering from fatal condition. Until the very end he fought, refusing to recognize his illness, not uttering a word about death and not agreeing even to recite the "vidui" since he viewed it as a capitulation. According to this view, reality is an arena for fighting. Or, in religious terms, reality is a religious test in the practical arena. According to this view, the future is not decreed and dictated in advance; rather, it is open to change. A Zionist views history as an opportunity, and views whatever happens as signals or calls to action, not as decrees.


From the ultra-Orthodox perspective there is therefore something un-religious about the phenomenon of religious Zionism. It is a sort of paradox: religiosity means acceptance, while Zionism means rebellion and acting for change. Faith in God's Providence should lead to acceptance and reconcilement, not struggle.


From this perspective we may describe the change that Rabbi Teichtal underwent as an all-encompassing, revolutionary change of heart. The religious test is carried over from the inner dimension – from submission to events and justification of God's decree – to the realm of history. Without human action, history will not move forward – as Rabbi Teichtal argues in several places.[1] I believe this to be an accurate analysis of the religious Zionist revolution in general.


As to Rabbi Teichtal, we stand at an exegetical crossroads. One way to understand the change of position brought about by the Holocaust is that he meant it to apply only from now on, as formulated in the words, "Once, the anti-Zionism position was appropriate; now, even the Rebbe of Munkacz would agree that it is no longer." Another understanding is that he meant the change to be retroactive – "Now we know that those who were opposed, at the time, were wrong;" "we should have been Zionists from the outset."


According to the second possibility, Rabbi Teichtal truly abandons the religiosity of acceptance and reconcilement, in favor of the battle.  According to the first view, we must say that the very recommendation of and support for aliya after the Holocaust is itself an acceptance of history. While history's message may have changed, the fundamental movement of response remains one of acceptance: the Holocaust forces us, by Divine decree, to abandon the exile, but it does not create a new consciousness of taking responsibility for reality.


I am inclined towards the second view, according to which the change applies retroactively. In other words, the Zionist approach conformed with God's will from the outset, and therefore the main message of Em Ha-Banim Semekha is a transition from a religious position of acceptance and submission to one of historical activism with a view to changing reality.


It is fascinating to compare the spiritual, ideological change in Rabbi Teichtal with the move that appears to arise in the Rebbe of Piasetzno's Esh Kodesh (which we will address in greater detail in a future lecture). In both cases the reaction arises from within the Holocaust, as the events are taking place. The relationship between Rabbi Teichtal's position and that of the Rebbe of Piasetzno is not one of conflict – as, for example, with the Satmar Rebbe. Rather, they are two reactions that follow parallel tracks without ever meeting. For the Rebbe of Piasetzno, almost everything is internal and subjective. The suffering, breakdown, the religious act – all of these are directed inward, and this is the significance that is awarded to them. For Rabbi Teichtal, the repair is not to be found in some subjective, internal place, but rather is objective and external and to be found in history: settling Eretz Yisrael is the greatest possible repair.[2]



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] A good illustration is his argument with the Rebbe of Belz and his brother concerning the teaching of Rabbi Elimelekh, "Speak to Bnei Yisrael, and let them journey on, as discussed in a previous lecture.

[2]    In recent years the work Esh Kodesh has enjoyed considerable attention amongst the religious Zionist public, whereas twenty years ago it was almost never mentioned. In contrast, Em Ha-Banim Semekha has been relegated to the sidelines. It would seem that this phenomenon reflects the general movement in this public – and among the youth – away from the activist approach espoused by Rabbi Teichtal, and toward an inward, individual, existential approach that complements ideological activism.