R. Weinberg and the Jewish State

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


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Lecture #34:  R. Weinberg and the Jewish State



            R. Weinberg combined tremendous pride in the fledgling Jewish State with disappointment in its secular character.  Medinat Yisrael filled him with both joy and pain.  An essay published in Sinai in 1958 begins with an eloquent expression of the positive elements in his orientation to the State.  Due to the significance and force of the passage, I feel justified including a long citation.


To a Jewish person whose heart has not yet fully frozen, there is no need to explain the full blessing brought to us by Medinat Yisrael.  Our State, which has been renewed in the land of our fathers, brought revival and political independence to the Jewish nation residing in Zion and brought glory and honor to the Jews of foreign lands.  The debate whether or not to recognize a secular state, not founded, to our dismay, on the basis of Torah and mitzvot, dissipates like smoke when facing the live reality of a nation of Jewish sovereignty with a powerful security apparatus that guards, with unparalleled dedication, our lives and the lives of our children in Israel and preserves our honor and our rights outside of Israel.


This renewed land is sanctified for us.  Beyond its inherent sanctity from the word of God, the God of our fathers, and due to the holy mitzvot that depend upon the Land, it has also been sanctified as a result of the holy Jewish blood, the blood of the first pioneers, who sacrificed their bodies in the malaria filled swamps, in order to drain them and convert them into a lush paradises for us and our descendents.  It has been sanctified with the blood of our heroes who fought to conquer and free this land, to provide refuge in the land of our fathers for an afflicted and persecuted nation.  I doubt that anyone with a clear head and an honest heart could close his eyes to the wonder appearing before our eyes or could think to denigrate the holiness of those heroes who dedicated their lives to God, his people, and his land.[1]


            A careful reading of the above quote reveals that R. Weinberg’s pride in the State of Israel encompasses several themes.  He values political independence and the dignity which it brings.  He appreciates the historically long connection Jews have with their homeland and the fact that the Jewish State enables myriads of Jews to return to that land.  Additionally, the Jewish State fills Jews around the world with pride and hope. 


This last point has particular resonance given the chronological proximity of the founding of Israel and the Holocaust.  In several letters, R. Weinberg emphasizes how the Jewish State provides his sole consolation following the destruction of European Jewry.[2]  The point also gains force given the modern context of Jewish assimilation.  In an essay on education, R. Weinberg writes that the Jewish State stands as a bulwark against assimilation.  “The mere fact of the Jewish State’s existence inspires national pride in the heart of very Jew.”[3]  


            Another important theme emerges from the cited paragraphs.  We saw in an earlier lecture how much R. Weinberg valued dedication, idealism, and self-sacrifice.  R. Weinberg admired such traits even when exhibited by avowed secularists.  Thus, we must praise the efforts of those who drained the swamps and of those who fought for the Jewish State irrespective of their religious beliefs.  In R. Weinberg’s words, anyone with a “clear head and an honest heart” would admit to these things.


            This may also explain R. Weinberg’s admiration for Herzl.  He wrote an essay praising Herzl, portraying the Zionist leader as a religious person who had not yet found his way back to religion.  Externally, Herzl was a politician; internally, there beat a religious heart.  Jews did not revere Herzl because of his impressive appearances in gentile halls of power, but rather because of his good will, selflessness, and message of hope.[4]  R. Weinberg esteemed a person who dedicated his life to improving the lot of the Jewish People.


            At the same time, R. Weinberg expressed dismay at the irreligious character of the Jewish State.  A the end of an essay on R. Hirsch’s thought, he writes that a state cannot survive if it merely serves an administrative function; to flourish, a state must have an animating spirit.  Endorsing this assumption generates concern regarding the young Jewish State, since Israel currently lacks a deep connection with Judaism, the eternal spirit of Jewish nationalism.  Due to the absence of authentic Jewish ideas, the secular state ultimately simply follows the winds blowing from Europe or America. 


This last point reflects another important theme in R. Weinberg’s thought, a degree of disdain for Jewish ideology that merely mimics that of other peoples.  In his letter to David Ben Gurion, he characterizes Reform and liberal Judaism as lacking religious faith and national vigor while distorting Judaism in order to find favor in the eyes of the gentiles and to mimic their Christian counterparts.  Ultimately, this attempt failed to stem the tide of either assimilation or anti–Semitism.  R. Weinberg argues that progressive Judaism was destined to fail since “imitation is a lowly character trait.”[5]


            The same theme appears in R. Weinberg’s essay on Mikha Yosef Berdyczewski.  While in Germany in the 1920’s, R. Weinberg wrote essays for the Jewish periodical Yeshurun on both Achad Ha’am and Berdyczewski.[6]  In the course of his essay on the latter, R. Weinberg faults Modern Hebrew literature for lacking originality and copying European writers. Strikingly, R. Weinberg prefers Berdyczewski to Ahad Ha’am, since the former’s writings indicate a stormy and struggling spirit, while the latter abandons religion with a cold heart.  It was not Achad Ha’am heresy that upset R. Weinberg, but rather the cold tone in which he expresses it.  Achad Ha’am’s religious and moral choices lacked tears and suffering. The preference for Berdyczewski coheres with R. Weinberg’s emphasis on sacrifice and suffering. 


We cannot compare Jewish nationalism with that of any other nation because only our nationalism is inherently intertwined with a religious vision.  English, French, and German nationalism lack this religious dimension: therefore, different religious groups can jointly share in their nationalistic aspirations. Since R. Weinberg links nationalism with matters of race and bloodlines, he assumes that a person can not truly adopt a different nation as his own.  As much as an Irishmen admires France, he cannot truly become a Frenchman.  Yet none of this applies to Jewish national identity.  Since such an identity ultimately depends upon our religious message, any gentile who converts assumes full Jewish national identity.  R. Weinberg cites R. Yehuda’s position in the Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 1:4) that a convert can bring the bikkurim and make the accompanying declaration, including the relevant biblical passage, which includes a reference to “God swearing to our forefathers.”  Once the convert enters the Jewish religion, he fully identifies with our nation and its history.[7]


            Of course, the point can be taken too far.  After all, a born Jew who abandons his religion does not forfeit his Jewish identity.  In reference to such Jews, R. Weinberg writes that “the sanctity of his father and grandfather falls upon him against his will and in opposition to his mistaken consciousness.”[8]  Those born into a Jewish home maintain their national status irrespective of their religious choices, but those who wish to join from afar must adopt our religion.


This idea animates R. Weinberg’s response to David Ben Gurion.  In the late 1950’s, Prime Minister Ben Gurion wrote to many prominent Jewish figures for advice regarding the “Who is a Jew” controversy.  Some members of government wanted to grant Israeli citizenship to interested gentiles who did not accept Torah and mitzvot.  R. Weinberg categorically rejected this notion.  Our national identify depends upon our Jewish religion, and accepting the responsibilities of that religion remains the sole path to taking on a Jewish identity.[9]   


            According to R. Weinberg, our State’s political leaders have not successfully utilized the resources of our great tradition.  Talking about the Jewish heritage and citing biblical verses alone do not constitute an authentic encounter with Judaism.  Lacking any commitment to Torah and mitzvot renders phrases about our Jewish heritage as empty.[10]


            R. Weinberg compares the current situation of religious Jewry to the reaction of the elders at the time of the return from the Babylonian exile.  Those who remembered the first Temple cried upon seeing the newly built Temple (Ezra 3:12).  Why did they cry?  R. Weinberg asserts that they surely took joy in the return of Jews to the Holy Land and in the rebuilt Temple.  On the other hand, they worried that the second Temple would not match the glory of the first.  More specifically, they were concerned that “the joy and celebration of the earthly, material renewal will not diminish the thirst and yearning for a spiritual revival.”[11]  The parallel to twentieth-century Jewish life rings clear.  With all the joy in our physical return to the land and to sovereignty, the danger remains that the Jewish spirit will remain neglected in the Jewish State.


            A 1966 letter to R. Simha Elberg, editor of Ha-Pardes, conveys R. Weinberg’s mixed feelings.  On the one hand, R. Weinberg expresses joy about renewed Jewish life in the Jewish State.  “This is my joy in life that I merited to see the building of Eretz Yisrael after years of anger and the flames of hell which I passed through.  This is the one consolation in my life.”  Here, joy in our country’s founding and its significance given the historical context find powerful expression.  On the other hand, the very same letter sates that R. Weinberg instructed his congregation not to celebrate Yom Ha’azmaut, and he mentions three objections.  First, Rabbinic giants such as the Chazon Ish and R. Isser Zalman Meltzer opposed this innovation.  Second, the chief rabbinate in Israel lacks the authority to make such decisions for Diaspora Jewry unless it consults with the broader rabbinic world.  Finally, a secular state should not have a hand in religious matters.  The last reason highlights his disappointment that Israel did not adopt a more religious character.[12]  


            Does R. Weinberg’s emphasis on the government’s need for religious ideals mean that he envisioned state enforced religious coercion?   


No one demands that a democratic government will act coercively in the lives of individuals.  Yet a cultured state must take upon itself the responsibility of spiritual guidance and forging a spiritual-national character in the people’s collective existence.[13]


While he did not offer a fully worked-out theory, it sounds like R. Weinberg would oppose legislation forcing individuals to keep mitzvoth, but he would be in favor of the Jewish government adopting national policies that reflect our tradition, such as Shabbat as a day of rest.


            R. Weinberg also contends that a government promoting particular religious messages does not violate norms of freedom and democracy.  Every state is founded on certain principles that are not open to democratic revision.  Such principles reflect the essential character of the state; therefore, they do not depend on popular vote.  For example, Hebrew remains the national language of the Jewish People and the government will not call for a vote deciding between Hebrew, English, and Yiddish.  The same idea justifies the state standing for religious ideas.[14]


            Finally, we should take note of an essay R. Weinberg wrote in memory of R. Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, the founder on Mizrachi.  He praises his older rabbinic colleague’s idealism and willingness to follow his convictions even when they created conflict with R. Rienes’ rabbinic peers.  R. Reines started a yeshiva that incorporated secular studies and he joined forces with the secular Zionist movement.  Although the essay does not endorse all of R. Reines’ positions, it coveys significant esteem for this courageous rabbi.[15]


            This issue also highlights the complexity of R. Weinberg’s views and the difficulty in placing him squarely in a given camp.  He stresses the immense significance of the Jewish State even as he harshly criticizes its secular nature.  Both themes emerge forcefully from his writing.  

[1] Lifrakim, p. 293.  The translation is my own.

[2] See the letters published by Marc Shapiro in KItvei Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, vol. 2, pp 307-308.

[3] Ibid., p. 330.

[4] Ibid., pp. 298-306. 

[5] Lifrakim, p. 302.

[6] Kitvei Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, vol. 2, pp. 264-282.

[7] Lifrakim, 297-299.

[8] Ibid. p. 298.

[9] Ibid., 301- 311.

[10] Ibid., p. 330.

[11] Ibid., p. 294

[12] Kitvei Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, vol. 2, pp. 308-309.

[13] Lifrakim, p. 331.

[14] Ibid., p. 296

[15] Ibid., pp. 140-150.