R. Weinberg and the Jewish State
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
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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
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.
A careful reading of the above quote reveals that R. Weinbergs 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
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. Weinbergs words, anyone with a clear head and an honest heart would admit to these things.
This may also explain R. Weinbergs 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. 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. Hirschs 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
This last point reflects another important theme in R. Weinbergs 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 antiSemitism. R. Weinberg argues that progressive Judaism was destined to fail since imitation is a lowly character trait.
The same theme appears in R. Weinbergs essay on Mikha Yosef
Berdyczewski. While in
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
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. 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. Weinbergs response to David Ben Gurion. In the late 1950s, 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.
According to R. Weinberg, our States 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.
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
A 1966 letter to R. Simha Elberg, editor of Ha-Pardes, conveys R.
Weinbergs 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 countrys 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
Haazmaut, 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
Does R. Weinbergs emphasis on the governments 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 peoples collective existence.
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.
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 colleagues 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.
This issue also highlights the complexity of R. Weinbergs 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.
 Lifrakim, p. 293. The translation is my own.
 See the letters published by Marc Shapiro in KItvei Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, vol. 2, pp 307-308.
 Ibid., p. 330.
 Ibid., pp. 298-306.
 Lifrakim, p. 302.
 Kitvei Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, vol. 2, pp. 264-282.
 Lifrakim, 297-299.
 Ibid. p. 298.
 Ibid., 301- 311.
 Ibid., p. 330.
 Ibid., p. 294
 Kitvei Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, vol. 2, pp. 308-309.
 Lifrakim, p. 331.
 Ibid., p. 296
 Ibid., pp. 140-150.