Lecture #09b: The Holocaust in the Teachings of Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam of Sanz-Klausenburg (Part 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


A.  The Holocaust and Zionism – Initial Comments


     Let us introduce our ideological discussion with a number of short articles by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg, in which he gives expression to his view of the relationship between the Holocaust and Zionism.


a.  The question of active ultra-Orthodox settlement in Eretz Yisrael


     On the first leg of his first journey to Israel, the Rebbe gave a sermon to an audience of Chassidim in London in which he stressed the importance of going to live in Israel and making the desert bloom.  One of the other Chassidic rabbis present commented that perhaps his words had been too "Zionist" in tone.  The Rebbe's reply serves to clarify his new position, as opposed to his stance prior to the Holocaust:


However, we – the religious ones – busy ourselves only with criticizing, while they – the freethinkers… busy themselves with practical action and creating facts… I, too, used to believe in the past that this was our task… I used to curse the heretics [referring to the Zionists – testimony from his own mouth as to his position before the war] with intense concentration… but in vain.  I have realized that they are becoming stronger.  I therefore said to myself: Would it not be better that we exchange roles – that is, I will build Eretz Yisrael and let them, the secular people, be the ones to curse me….[1]


This witty response contains a somewhat critical view of his own previous position, as well as that of other Chassidic leaders of the previous generation (at least in Galicia); it constitutes an abandonment of that position out of recognition that it had failed while Zionism had prospered.  The failure has a simple explanation: The Holy One, blessed be He, prefers those who do something over those who sit by passively, praying and criticizing.  The change in position, as evidenced by the confession of the speaker himself, is the result of a retrospective contemplation of recent history and the conclusion that arises from it concerning the new role of ultra-Orthodox Jewry: building and doing.


b.  Parable of the builders and the king's son


     A chassid once asked the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg how it was possible that the foundation for the building of the land was being laid specifically by secular pioneers, and the Rebbe's support for settling the land was, in ideological terms, a stamp of legitimacy for this enterprise.  The Rebbe answered him with a parable of a king who once employed a team of builders.  He sent his sons to see how the building was coming along, but the builders chased them away from the construction site.  The king's children told him sadly what had happened, and he explained that as soon as the building was complete, the job of the builders would be over; at that point, the entire building would belong to them, the king's children.[2]


     The instrumental view of the secular pioneers as builders preparing the edifice for the king's children – the ultra-Orthodox – is not a complimentary one.  Nevertheless, there is some acknowledgment here of the importance of settling the land, even if only as an instrument to a greater end.  Similar metaphors are to be found among such religious Zionist philosophers as Rabbi Soloveitchik (who compares secular Zionism to the attendants who accompany Avraham - the "religious" one) and Rabbi Kook (who awards the heretical pioneers the role of fermenting the wine).[3] Even if the value of the secular settlement movement is more elementary and instrumental, it is nevertheless valuable, and in relation to the view that negates secular Zionism outright – as expressed above in the citations from the Rebbes of Bobov, Sanz, and Belz - this recognition nevertheless represents a clear and important turning point.


cThe influence of Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger


     Of great significance for our discussion is the testimony of Rabbi Yechezkel Besser.  Rabbi Besser spoke with the Rebbe and asked him why he was so extensively active on behalf of Eretz Yisrael.[4] Obviously, the question was not meant as flattery, but rather as an attempt to understand the almost Zionist nature of the Rebbe's activity, which was surprising and unintelligible to many of his admirers.  In response, the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg opened the drawer of his desk and took out the book Kollel Ha-Ivrim – Machazir Atara Le-Yoshna, by Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger.  He said:


This book and its author have had an enormous influence on me.  It is their words that have led me to be connected, in my soul, with Eretz Yisrael… If only people had listened to him in previous years… for then the whole picture of world Jewry would have been completely different… If all of our brethren, the Jewish nation, had acted at the time as Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger zt"l proposed, it is very likely that hundreds of thousands of Jews from overseas, perhaps even millions, would have survived and remained alive, and our holy land would have looked altogether different… However, unfortunately, the Satan and his arrows succeeded inobstructing him from realizing his plans."


This is a critical testimony for our understanding of how the Rebbe's view of Zionism came to be consolidated.  The formulation is very similar to that of Rabbi Teichtal in Em Ha-Banim Semekha.  The common theme is that many Jews could have been saved through aliya to Eretz Yisrael – a distinctly Zionist argument! – and it was "Satan" who interfered.  In Rabbi Teichtal's formulation: the 'Other Side' blinded the eyes of the leaders of the generation.[5]


     The source upon which the Rebbe chooses to base his argument is also of great importance.  This work by Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger was surrounded by controversy at the time of its writing, and the author was excommunicated by the rabbis of Jerusalem.  In other words, the decision to refer to and endorse his view is not a simple matter.  Rabbi Schlesinger was the disciple and son-in-law of Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein of Kolomey – one of the most extreme opponents to the Enlightenment as it spread through Hungary and western Galicia.  Rabbi Schlesinger became known principally for his work Lev Ha-Ivri, a collection of the bluntest and most popular letters of opposition to the maskilim and their philosophy.


     In the 1860's, the author of Lev Ha-Ivri arrived at the understanding that the true cure for the problem of the Enlightenment was to abandon the whole context in which it had appeared and developed – in other words, the solution was an ultra-Orthodox mass departure from Europe, heading for Eretz Yisrael.  This recognition developed and was consolidated into an entire ideology, including plans for settlement, economic organization, and a transition to the Hebrew language (!), with the creation of an ultra-Orthodox, separatist society faithful to the tradition of its forebears, with no connection to assimilated Jewry and world culture.  Rabbi Schlesinger believed that Eretz Yisrael could and should become the location where these plans would be realized – both because of the land's inherent sanctity, and because of the fact that at the time the Jewish inhabitants of the country were all ultra-Orthodox; the concept of secular Zionism did not yet exist.[6]


     The testimony of the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg as to the influence of Rabbi Schlesinger's book on his thinking is certainly reflected in his intensive activity in the realm of ultra-Orthodox settlement of Eretz Yisrael[7] throughout his life after the Holocaust.  The book represents an ultra-Orthodox source for the ideology obligating settlement of the land, viewing it also as the spiritual hope for ultra-Orthodox Jewry.


     However, the significance of Rabbi Schlesinger's book goes beyond this - and from the Rebbe's words it would seem that this was his intention – in that the book's publication preceded both the Holocaust in Europe and the phenomenon of secular Zionism.  From a retrospective look at the eighty years that had passed since Rabbi Schlesinger set his plans in writing, the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg arrives at two important conclusions:


1.  Had we followed Rabbi Schlesinger's program, Israel's character would have been altogether different.  It would have been predominantly religious in character, rather than secular.  In other words, the secular nature of the State is not a heavenly decree, nor the result of secular manipulation.  It is the result of a mistaken decision by ultra-Orthodox Jewry and its leadership.  Clearly, had the charedi leaders instructed their followers to move to Eretz Yisrael, the country would not have been secular, and there would be no reason to oppose Zionism on these grounds.


2.  Had the program been adopted, it is possible that large portions of European Jewry would have been saved from the Holocaust.  The importance of this argument, too, lies in the assertion that the Holocaust is not only a heavenly decree.  It certainly does have this significance, but had we acted correctly, it is possible that the decree would have been prevented, or its scope would at least have been significantly limited.


     The significance of the position adopted by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg lies not so much in itself – after all, similar views had been expressed previously, and he himself bases his thinking on other rabbis.  Rather, the significance lies in the fact that despite all that had happened in the eighty years that had passed since the publication of Rabbi Schlesinger's book, the Rebbe was still convinced that this was the best program for charedi Jewry and for the Jewish nation as a whole.  Although the secular character of the State of Israel was now a firm fact, the Rebbe believed in the possibility of altering it through massive ultra-Orthodox settlement or, at the very least, in the ability of charedi Jewry to maintain itself in a worthy manner in Eretz Yisrael.


     The Rebbe's attitude towards the author of Lev ha-Ivri should be viewed against two opposite poles.  The one pole is represented by Rabbi Teichtal.  As noted, Rabbi Schlesinger was one of the most important sources for the full Zionist turn-around that led to the publication of Em Ha-Banim Semekha.  However, Rabbi Teichtal pays no attention to the specific details of Rabbi Schlesinger's program; he regards it as a basis for accepting Zionism and for cooperating with the secular pioneers.  At the opposite extreme, the Satmar Rebbe, in his Va-Yoel Moshe, likewise mentions "the zealous one" (ha-kanna'i) - Rabbi Schlesinger, a Hungarian Jew like himself.  The Satmar Rebbe rejects his stance as naןve, and accuses him of committing an ideological error.  The proof of this is that Rabbi Schlesinger spoke (as recorded in one of his books) with the Rabbi of Sighet, the author of Yitav Lev,[8] and the latter opposed his plans – but Rabbi Schlesinger took no heed!


Like the Satmar Rebbe, the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg was a descendant of the Yitav Lev.  Nevertheless, on this issue he sided with Rabbi Schlesinger.  The similarity to Rabbi Teichtal is interesting, although the position that the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg adopted had its reservations: prior to the appearance of secular Zionism, Rabbi Schlesinger's program could have been successful – not because it would bring on the final redemption, but because the redemption of Israel from its exile, in the most fundamental sense of saving lives, is legitimate.  Now, following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State, the Rebbe does not call for full cooperation with the Zionists, but rather for practical charedi activity aimed at building the land.


     This conclusion has significance for modern times.  The fact that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were saved during the Holocaust cannot be coincidental; hence, even today, Eretz Yisrael is the safest place for Jews.  Obviously, the ancestors and teachers of the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg did not operate on the basis of this assessment, for if they had, they would surely have called upon their Chassidim to move to Eretz Yisrael.  Most of the Chassidic leaders regarded Eretz Yisrael as a dangerous place, devoid of both material or spiritual possibilities.  The perception and anticipation of a miraculous redemption prevented them from considering the possibility that the reality of Eretz Yisrael was developing and undergoing transformation.


     Why, then, from a metaphysical or meta-historical point of view, were the Jews of Eretz Yisrael saved, while the Jews of the European Diaspora were not? The Rebbe once responded to a question posed by his Chassidim on the following teaching of Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk:


I have a wonderful insight concerning the Tannaim who could see, with their Divine inspiration, to the end of all generations, and who also wrote of the evil decrees and suffering that would come about prior to the arrival of the Messiah.  But they did not see that there would be an Elimelekh [referring to himself] in the world, and that Elimelekh would sweeten and nullify all of those troubles and evil decrees…[9]


The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg, paraphrasing his Chassidim, posed the question: "Afterwards, when the troubler of all Jews rose up over us, many people asked: What about Rabbi Elimelekh's promise?" And he answered: "I believe that Rabbi Elimelekh's promise was referring to the remnant of Israel here in our holy land."[10]


On the yahrzeit of Rabbi Elimelekh, on the 21st of Adar, 5717, he said:


The blessed God has granted me wisdom, in the holy land, and I declare that it had occurred to me that His holy intention had been to nullify the birth-pangs of the Messiah for those who dwelled in Eretz Yisrael, such that if Esav would happen upon one camp and strike it, then the other would remain… The holy Tannaim wrote about what it appeared (to them) would happen to Eretz Yisrael, but Rabbi Elimelekh came along and removed this (suffering) from Eretz Yisrael, exchanging the other countries for Eretz Yisrael  - and this for me is the complete truth![11]


This is important for our understanding of the Rebbe's historiosophy, according to which the Holocaust represented the birth-pangs of the Messiah.[12] According to Chazal, the birth-pangs of the Messiah are supposed to be felt in Eretz Yisrael.  The inversion of this historical perception – whatever its source – is the understanding that even though the decrees that precede the coming of the Messiah are unavoidable, one may be saved from them specifically in Eretz Yisrael.  We did not know this in advance, but now that it was specifically the Jews of Eretz Yisrael who were saved from the claws of the Nazis, and now that God has prepared a living space for Jews in Eretz Yisrael, it is clear that Eretz Yisrael is "immune" from the birth-pangs of the Messiah. 


This view reflects something of a justification on historiosophic grounds for aliya and a retroactive acceptance of the Zionist argument.  The terms that the Rebbe uses are not rational historical ones, but ultimately he accepts the thesis that even today, Eretz Yisrael must be the safest place for Jews.


With a view to the next lecture:


     How does the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg deal with the position of the Rebbes prior to the Holocaust, and why do his conclusions and his contemplation of recent Jewish history not turn into a criticism and accusation? He consistently avoids casting aspersions on the greatness of these leaders. How can the recognition that there was a mistake – or, at least, a colossal missed opportunity - be reconciled with traditional commitment to and admiration of the sages and Chassidic leaders who made that mistake? These questions will be addressed in the nextlecture.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Lapid Ha-Esh, part II, p. 483

[2] Lapid Ha-Esh, part II. P. 584

[3]Obviously, these metaphors are not meant to represent a full exposition of the views of these thinkers, but the parable proposed by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg is likewise not a comprehensive picture of his views.

[4] Based on Rabbi Besser's article on Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger in Das Yiddische Vort, vol. 337 (New York, Iyar-Sivan, 5756), p. 26.  See also Lapid Ha-Esh, part II, p. 467.

[5] Rabbi Teichtal, too, in his Preface to Em Ha-Banim Semekha (p. 17) refers back to Rabbi Schlesinger and Rabbi Lichtenstein (see below), whom he called "zealous ones" (kanna'im).

[6] Rabbi Schlesinger arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1870 and published his book, including his plans for widespread ultra-Orthodox aliya, in the year 5633.  He was among the founders of the city of Petach Tikva, and he bought its first tracts of land.  A comprehensive discussion of him and his approach is to be found in the article by M. Silber, Y. Salmon, and Y. Bartal in Katedra 73 (5755).

[7] In the opening address at the inauguration ceremony of Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, the Rebbe called to religious Jews throughout the world to come to Eretz Yisrael.  See: Lapid Ha-Esh, p. 527, and in the Rebbe's notes, Divrei Torah, vol.  335.

[8] Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Teitelbaum of Sighet, the great grandfather of the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg, mentioned above.

[9] From Rabbi Y.A. Safrin (of Komarno), Netiv Mitzvotekha (Jeursalem, 5707), 5.

[10] See note 11.

[11]From Divrei Torah, vol. 34, p. 8. See also Lapid Ha-Esh, p. 525, note 9.

[12] This definition does not necessarily entail the Messiah's arrival immediately afterwards.  There may be an intermediate period, which will also involve suffering.