The theme of this letter is expressed in the following prophetic message:
your walls, O Jerusalem, I
have posted guardians; all
the day and all the night,
continuously, they will not
be silent” (Isaiah 62:6).
”I have posted guardians” – They are all those who are in the service of the ideals of Israel. The enemies that threaten are lack of knowledge and neglect of the Jewish task. (Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
Sir Moses Montefiore was a Torah-committed Jew in 19th century England who was also a well-known and influential philanthropist. He used his wealth and political connections to help Jews in various countries during periods of economic stress and/or persecution. He had a deep love of Zion, and he also made seven visits to Zion. He made his last trip at the age of 91. He developed a deep respect for the Torah sages who led the Jewish communities in Zion, and he began to support the following efforts of these sages to renew Jewish life in Zion: establishing new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside the walls of the Old City, and establishing innovative economic, agricultural, and educational projects in the spirit of the Torah. These pioneering activities began before the rise of the secular Zionist movement.
In honor of Sir Moses Montefiore’s 90th birthday, a group of wealthy British Jews established a charitable fund which they called, “the Moses Montefiore Testimonial Fund.” Sir Moses Montefiore, however, did not control the decisions of the committee that managed this fund; moreover, Montefiore disagreed with various decisions of the committee which he felt were not in harmony with Torah values and goals. For example, the committee was uncomfortable with the traditional Torah culture of Jerusalem’s Jews; thus, the committee attempted to start a new school in Jerusalem with the goal of “westernizing” its Jewish residents. The committee chose Rabbi Michael Pines to direct their affairs in Jerusalem, as they felt that he was a “modern” rabbi with some scholarly credentials who would be supportive of their ultimate goal.
The committee also sought the support of Western European foreign consuls in Jerusalem in their efforts to westernize the city’s Jewish residents, as these consuls wanted to increase western influence in the region in order to gain more political power; in fact, one of the tactics of the British Empire of that period was to dominate native peoples through undermining their traditional culture and religion. It is therefore not surprising that a group of leading Torah sages in Jerusalem opposed these attempts to weaken the traditional Torah culture of the Holy City. In addition, Sir Moses Montefiore was deeply disturbed by the Fund’s attempts to interfere in the spiritual life of Jerusalem. As Pines himself recorded in his memoirs, Montefiore conveyed to him the following criticism regarding the Fund’s committee:
“From the day the committee was formed, they have caused me nothing but distress. Had the Fund never been established, I would not now suffer anguish over the great chilul Hashem (desecration of the Divine Name) which they caused. I personally know Jerusalem’s people very well and I do not need to ask the consuls’ opinions. What need do we have for the advice of these gentile consuls whose sole desire is to draw our Jewish brethren away from their Father in Heaven!”
The opposition to Pines and his sponsors was led by Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, a leading sage who was also known as the Brisker Rav, as before he moved to Jerusalem, he was the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian Jewish community in the city of Brisk. In response to the opposition led by the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Pines sent a letter to Torah leaders in Europe, and he asked them to take his part in the dispute. The Torah leaders, however, were fully acquainted with the Brisker Rav’s great wisdom and righteousness, and they understood the reasons for his concern. For example, the Netziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin), a leading sage who headed the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, sent a letter in 1882 to a relative in Jerusalem defending the Brisker Rav’s opposition to Pines and his wealthy sponsors. The Netziv refers to these sponsors as, “the lords of London” who wish to make Jerusalem into a center of Western European culture. And he discusses the following insight:
“Pines should also have realized that, although God has historically allowed the development of extreme evil in Jerusalem, He has always balanced it by the flourishing of extreme good there. The very city of the Temple was also at times a hotbed of idolatry. During the period of the Second Temple, the heretical Sadducees met with considerable success there. But Jerusalem correspondingly nurtured zealots who sacrificed their lives to preserve its sanctity.”
The Netziv adds:
“History has proven time and time again that Jerusalem rebels against those sons who attempt to adorn her with the jewels of other nations. Herod (the king), out of concern for Jerusalem’s status, wanted to fill her with stadiums and theaters; it is common knowledge that many loyal Jews actually gave up their lives to oppose his policies. Despite Herod’s huge contributions to the beautification of the Holy Temple, the people were not mollified and they opposed him strenuously.”
Regarding the Fund’s attempt to “reform” and westernize” Torah education, the Netziv writes:
“Pines should have understood that such is not the approach to the Tree of Life in the Holy Land that enjoys God’s special attention.”
The activities of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin – the Brisker Rav – were not restricted to the preservation of the spiritual purity of Jerusalem’s Jewish communities. He also made major contributions to the renewal of Jewish life in Zion. For example, soon after he arrived in Jerusalem, he guided and greatly encouraged chareidi activists who started a Torah-committed agricultural movement which would also help alleviate the crowded living conditions in the Old City of Jerusalem. The first agricultural settlement that these chareidi pioneers founded was Petach Tikva.
Another contribution was his founding of an orphanage in Jerusalem called, “The Orphan Home for Torah and Vocation.” This was a difficult period for the Jews of Jerusalem, as the city was poorly governed by corrupt representatives of the Turkish government, and there was economic discrimination against the Jews. Government officials also failed to improve heath conditions in the city, and this led to the spread of fatal diseases. During this period, the plight of the orphans was especially severe, and many were roaming the streets. Jewish families tried to take in orphans, but many large families had cramped living conditions and bare subsistence level income which often made it impossible to take the orphans into their homes. These orphans were especially vulnerable to the many well-funded Christian missionaries from western countries that stalked the neighborhoods of the city. The missionaries believed that the souls of Jews were eternally damned since they did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior; thus, the missionaries were prepared to care for orphaned Jewish children in order to “convert” them to the Christian religion.
In 1880, three years after his arrival in Jerusalem, Rav Yehoshua Leib founded his orphanage. The home was forced to move from one rented premise to another in order to accommodate the increasing number of residents. In 1894, Rav Yeshohua Leib acquired a hill on the outskirts of western Jerusalem, in what is now the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Jerusalem. It was here that the orphanage’s permanent home was eventually constructed. From its very beginning, the young leading sage, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, was heavily involved in the management of the orphanage; moreover, both the spiritual and physical well-being of its children were of major concern for him throughout his life. Just how much this orphanage meant to him in his later years can be seen from the following account of the opening of the new orphanage building that appeared in the Agudah weekly Der Yid (Warsaw) in Iyar, 1927:
“The opening of the spacious new orphanage building on Sunday, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 1927, was celebrated with appropriate fanfare and tremendous community participation. The procession began at 11:A.M., led by eighteen dignitaries marching with Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls). Among this group of elders was the venerated Rav of Jerusalem, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, shlita. The many protests to the aged Rav to ride in one of the automobiles, instead of making his way on foot, were of no avail. He refused, saying, ‘If I have merited to witness this great day and the celebration of this wonderful mitzvah, then nothing seems too difficult for me.’ The Rav continued to walk the entire route, which went from Rechov Helene Hamalkah and Rechov Yaffo, to the hilltop at the entrance of Jerusalem where the magnificent new structure of the Orphan Home stands.”
In general, Rav Yosef Chaim assisted the Brisker Rav in his efforts to renew Jewish life in Zion, and in his efforts to protect the pure Torah atmosphere of Jerusalem.
Be well, my friends, and much shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. During the 20th century, there was another leading sage who was known as the Brisker Rav, and he managed to escape from Europe during World War II and settle in Jerusalem. He was Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev HaLevi Soloveitchik, the son of the leading sage who was known as Rav Chaim of Brisk.
2. For additional information about the loving involvement of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld with the orphanage founded by Rav Diskin, see a previous letter – “The Rebbe of Jerusalem’s Children” – which appears in the archive of our series on our website. The following is a direct link: http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/rebbe.htm
A copy can also be sent to you via e-mail upon request.
3. The information in the above letter is from “Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The well-documented historical accounts in this book can help us to understand the roots of current conflicts and problems within Israeli society. For information on this highly recommended work, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/Books/GUAH.html