The Chareidi Critique of Secular Zionism

The following letter is dedicated to one of my first Torah teachers, Rabbi Gabriel Beer, who lives in Jerusalem. When I was eight years old, my family moved to Rockaway Beach, New York, and Rabbi Beer was then the rabbi of our neighborhood synagogue. He persuaded my parents to take me out of public school and send me to a Torah-committed day school, for which I will always be grateful. Rabbi Beer has been an activist in the organization, Agudath Israel, and I will begin to discuss Agudath Israel in this letter.


The Chareidi Critique of Secular Zionism:




The Hebrew word chareid can connote fervent concern or zeal, and it can also refer to the “trembling” that may result from intense loving concern or awe. This word appears in the verse where Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, promises to be close to “the poor and broken-spirited person who is chareid regarding My word” (Isaiah 66:2). The Prophet Isaiah uses the related term chareidim to describe those who are fervently loyal to the Torah – the Divine Teaching – in an age when many of our people were ignoring the Divine Teaching; thus, the Prophet refers to these loyal souls as those who are “chareidim regarding His word” (Isaiah 66:5).


Dear Friends,


In the previous letter, we discussed the views of two noted dissidents within the World Zionist Organization, Ahad HaAm and Martin Buber, who opposed the dominant Zionist ideology which proclaimed that “nationalism” should be the raison d’etre of our people in order to become a “nation like all other nations.” In this letter, I will begin to discuss with you the early critique of this Zionist ideology by Torah-committed Jews who became known as “Chareidim.”


The Chareidim viewed the secular Zionist ideology of nationalism for its own sake as a form of idolatry which has no place in the Land of Zion, which is destined to serve as the Temple of the Shechinah – the Divine Presence that seeks to dwell among us. As Hashem proclaimed:


“Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, spoke Hashem.” (Zechariah 2:14)


“I will dwell in your midst” – I will place My Shechinah in your midst. (Targum)


The Chareidim therefore felt that strengthening the power and influence of this secular organization in the Land of Zion was akin to bringing an idol into the Temple. This spiritual perspective led many Chareidim to engage in the renewal of Jewish life in the Land of Zion independently of the World Zionist Organization which was founded in 1897, and as we shall later discuss, some of the pioneering work of the Chareidim in the Land preceded the rise of the modern Zionist movement.


The majority of Chareidim joined a new international organization, Agudath Israel, which was founded by leading Torah sages in 1912 on the following principle: The fulfillment of the Torah is the raison d’etre of our people. The founding conference of Agudath Israel therefore proclaimed that its goal was nothing less than “the solution of all problems facing the Jewish people in the spirit of Torah.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)


One of these leading Torah sages was the Chofetz Chaim. As we discussed, the Chofetz Chaim taught that the Torah serves as the “soul” of our people and that the Land of Israel serves as the “body” of our people; thus, the Land of Israel without the Torah is like a body without a soul. The Chofetz Chaim and the other leading Torah sages who founded Agudath Israel felt that Torah-committed Jews should not strengthen the power and influence of the World Zionist Organization, especially after this organization adopted the following resolution in 1911: “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” In addition, the W.Z.O. had also begun cultural programs and schools which stressed a secular and nationalistic definition of the Jewish people.


Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen, a son of the Chofetz Chaim, tells the story of how someone once read to his father an article from the newspaper HaMelitz in which the hope was expressed that the Jews of Palestine would emulate the people of Bulgaria, whose people had risen up against the Turks and gained their independence to become a nation like any other. Rabbi Aryeh Leib writes that his elderly father began to weep, and he cried out: “Is this why Jewish blood has been spilled during the past eighteen hundred years – so that we could become another Bulgaria?”


Dr. Isaac Breuer was a leader and activist in the Jerusalem branch of Agudath Israel. In his response to the Zionist leaders who said, “Let us be like all the nations,” he wrote:


“From remotest centuries there rings out to political Zionism the word of the Prophet Ezekiel (20:32), valid to all eternity: ‘What enters your thoughts - it shall not be! That you say: Let us be like all the nations, like the families of the lands, to serve wood and stone.’  In the eyes of Judaism, self-idolization in the form of absolute nationalism is also service to wood and stone.” (This quote is from his book, Concepts of Judaism.)


Dr. Isaac Breuer was a grandson and follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading Torah sage who helped create a renewal of Torah life in Germany. The followers of Rabbi Hirsch had a major role in the establishment of Agudath Israel, and Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, a follower of Rabbi Hirsch, became the first president of Agudath Israel. When he spoke at the founding conference in 1912, he said:


“The aim of Agudath Israel is to revive an ancient Jewish possession: the traditional concept of Klal Yisrael – Israel’s collective body, animated and sustained by its Torah as the organizing soul.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)


Torah-committed members of the W.Z.O. opposed the resolution of 1911 which declared that Zionism has nothing to do with religion. When the resolution passed, many of them resigned from the W.Z.O. and later joined Agudath Israel. There was, however, a Torah-committed organization which decided to remain within the World Zionist Organization. This organization was called Mizrachi – a term derived from the Hebrew word for “East”; however, today, most of its members describe themselves as Dati-Leumi – a term which literally means “Religious-Nationalistic.” English-speaking members tend to call themselves, “National Religious” or “Religious Zionists.” (There will be more information on this organization in future letters.)


After the W.Z.O. founded the State of Israel in 1948, most Chareidim recognized the State and supported its right to exist. Chareidim in the Diaspora – including the minority of Chareidim that do not recognize the State – urge the governments of the countries in which they live to help strengthen Israel’s security and economy. All Chareidi communities have therefore strongly condemned a very tiny fringe group of Chareidi zealots who join our enemies in demonstrating against the State of Israel. It is relevant to mention that the Satmar Rebbe, a leading Torah sage who did not recognize the secular State of Israel when it was established, later expelled from his Chassidic community a group of young men who joined a P.L.O. demonstration against the State of Israel.


Most Religious Zionists have stressed that the establishment of the State of Israel was definitely the beginning of our final redemption; however, most Chareidim have taken a more cautious approach regarding whether the establishment of the State was definitely the beginning of the final redemption. For example, when the State of Israel was established with the approval of the United Nations, Agudath Israel responded with the following proclamation:


“The world Agudath Israel sees as a historic event the decision of the nations of the world to return to us, after 2,000 years, a portion of the Holy Land, there to establish a Jewish State and to encompass within its borders the banished and scattered members of our people.

This historic event must bring home to every Jew the realization that the Almighty has brought this about in an act of Divine Providence which presents us with a great task and a great test.

We must face up to this test and establish our life as a people upon the basis of Torah. While we are sorely grieved that the Land has been divided and sections of the Holy Land have been torn asunder, especially Jerusalem, the Holy City, while we still yearn for the aid of our righteous Messiah, who will bring us total redemption, we nevertheless see the Hand of Providence offering us the opportunity to prepare for the complete redemption, if we will walk into the future as God’s people.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)


Another example of a Chareidi view on the religious significance of the establishment of the State of Israel are the following statements of the Chazon Ish, a leading Torah sage who was one of the major guides of most Chareidim in the Land of Israel. The Chazon Ish said, “We are not witnessing the beginning of the redemption, but the conclusion of the exile.” The Chazon Ish also told Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, “Perhaps it (the State) is the final test before the coming of the Messiah.” (The Chazon Ish by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman)


The ongoing attacks of enemies seeking our destruction and the loss of some of the land which we regained during the Six-Day War are causing a number of Religious Zionists to reevaluate their belief that the establishment of the State of Israel was definitely the beginning of the final redemption. For example, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, a noted Religious Zionist who serves as the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, has made a small change in the way he recites the Religious Zionist prayer for the State: Instead of asking Hashem to bless the State of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption,” he asks for a blessing “so that it will be the first flowering of our redemption” (cited in The Forward, May 5. 2006).


Since I moved to Jerusalem, I have lived and studied in both Religious Zionist and Chareidi communities; moreover, I have had dialogues with teachers from both communities regarding the similarities and the differences between the Religious Zionists and the Chareidim. At a later stage of our series, I hope to share with you the insights which I gained from these dialogues. In addition, I hope to discuss some signs of a future reconciliation between Religious Zionists and Chareidim, as both groups strengthen their efforts to lovingly reach out to our brethren in the Land of Israel who are not yet Torah-committed. As the Chazon Ish wrote regarding our brethren who are far from Torah:


“It is incumbent upon us to draw them to us with bonds of love, so that the light of truth will illuminate their ways to whatever degree possible.” (Cited in The Chazon Ish by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman – ArtScroll.)


 Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was a leading Torah sage who moved to the Land of Israel in 1904, and I hope to discuss aspects of his approach to the modern Zionist movement in future letters. There were Zionist leaders who viewed the Chareidim as being in the “wilderness”; however, Rabbi Kook offered a defense of the Chareidim. In an essay which discusses the modern Zionist movement (Igrot R’iah 871), Rabbi Kook writes that this movement “will never be a stronghold for the whole nation, because it intrinsically fails to grasp the holy eternal light of the nation’s soul, the spirit of the true God in its midst; thus, it will do well in the external area of building up the nation, but will never be able to deal with its inner side.” Rabbi Kook adds: “That inner building stands ready for other workers of an entirely different type. These will develop, from all places, out of the ‘wilderness’ of the Chareidim, those who faithfully and truthfully opposed Zionism because of their pure zealousness regarding the spirit of Hashem, His people, and the foundation of its existence.”


2. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was a major leader of the Chareidi communities in the Land of Zion. In 1928, he described the Land of Zion as, “The Holy Land, to which God affords special supervision, from which blessing emanates to the rest of the world, and in which God’s prophets foresaw the future happiness of all humanity.”


The above quote is from the biography of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Guardian of Jerusalem by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld:


3. The term “Zionism” was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization. He began to question the movement’s stress on political goals, and he felt that there needed to be greater emphasis on the cultural strengths of the Jewish people. In 1898, he left the Zionist movement in order to become involved with activists who focused on strengthening Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and who viewed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazic Jewish culture.


He then developed an inner awareness of the spiritual goal of the Jewish people, and he returned to the path of the Torah. He began to challenge the modern paganism of his era, but he also challenged Torah-observant Jews to renew their commitment to the messianic and revolutionary vision of the Torah through developing holy and holistic communities. His activism became inspired by Torah, and he became the Secretary General of Agudath Israel. This gifted leader had previously dedicated his life to strengthening organizations that sought to secularize our people, and he now began to dedicate his life to strengthening an organization that sought to spiritually renew our people.


4. For information on Agudath Israel of America and its excellent magazine, the Jewish Observer, contact the main office in New York at: 212-797-9000. During this very difficult and challenging period of history, I find the Jewish Observer to be a source of clarity, inspiration, and strength.

The subscription cost is $25.00 a year. (Outside of the United States, there is a $15.00 surcharge – U.S. funds drawn on a U.S. bank.) The main office is at 42 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10004.


Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, and he sends out via e-mail a weekly article to the media which offers a Torah perspective on a contemporary issue or on a problem facing our people. In addition, some of his articles offer a deeper and broader perspective regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of Torah-committed Jews. I receive his well-written, thoughtful, and challenging articles, and if you would also like to receive them, write to:  .


5. Excerpts from the memoirs of the Chofetz Chaim’s son appear at the end of the ArtScroll book, Chofetz Chaim - A Lesson A Day:

Hazon - Our Universal Vision