Is the erosion of faith in spiritual leaders, part and parcel of the redemptive process?
In a previous article I discussed ancient sources which view a pandemic as a stage in Israel’s redemption.
What about the erosion of faith in spiritual leaders? Is this too, part and parcel of the redemptive process? What is there to do when one rabbi or group of rabbis calls out their opposite number? Where then is Daas Torah?
In view of the politicization and polarization of religious thought following the founding of the State of Israel, I prefer to go back a century or more to hear what our greatest true spiritual leaders said about Daas Torah – especially when it comes to Eretz Yisrael.
Rambam (1135-1204) in Igeret Teiman: “Anyone who believes that he can live in his place until Mashiach comes to save him – is a sinner and one who ensnares the public in sin!”
Sforno (1470-1550) – Explaining the passage in Devarim 32:15 referring to the generations before redemption who will get fatter and fatter: “Verily you- “Yeshurun” – the community of Torah keepers and Torah learners have turned to the physical pleasures…and therefore the masses have abandoned the Torah!”
The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) is quoted in “Kol HaTor” (written by his student and close relative Rabbi Hillel Rivlin of Shklov) a number of times where he speaks about the Satan thrashing around in panic towards the end of days, spreading the big Lie as his weapon (see for example the middle of part II of Chapter 5). He clearly states that all that happened to Yosef, will happen to Zion (same Gematria – 156), and just like Yosef’s brothers didn’t recognize him, so too, when the redemption comes – holy brothers will not recognize it. See Kol HaTor Chap. 2, paragraph 39 – “And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they didn’t recognize him.”
The Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) In volume VI of his responsa, Section 59, he writes: “Among students of Torah and even rabbis, distance your path from anyone who does not speak truth in his heart, who does not employ integrity and righteousness as his tools.”
The Sanzer Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam (1793–1876), in the Divrei Chayim (omissions from Parshat Vayakhel) writes: “‘[Israel is inherently holy,] but as for the “Erev Rav” (mixed multitude) any kindness they perform is performed for their own benefit. It appears clearly that most of the rabbis, pious individuals and laymen of this generation are from the “Erev Rav”, due to our many sins, and they wish to dominate the community. All of their deeds are performed for their own sakes, to accrue honor and wealth. Therefore, one should not associate with them, but only with those who serve G-d sincerely and make sacrifices in His Name, not for any selfish benefit.
Rav Eliyahu Gutmacher (1795-1874), the Tzadik of Greiditz (Graetz), was one of the foremost disciples of Rav Akiva Eger and a renowned Kabbalist. He served as the rabbi and Av Bet Din of Pleschen (1822-1841) and later Greiditz (1841-1874). He wrote:
“The great importance of [the settlement movement] is apparent from the fact that the Kelipa (kabbalistic forces of evil) overpowers even the greatest Tzadikim, convincing them to oppose this good. For the entire power of the Kelipa depends on the Galus and this power will be nullified by the termination of the Galus.”
Rav Akiva Yosef Schlesinger (1837-1922), author of Lev HaIvri, a posek of considerable stature and an important spiritual heir to the Chatam Sofer and ordained by the Ktav Sofer wrote: “One who disparages settling Eretz Yisrael because of the involvement of sinners and undesirable elements is the spiritual patron of Edom, whose name is known [i.e., Sama’el – the devil], and … the foolish old king [a term for the Yetzer Hara].” (Shimru Mishpat.)
And in Parshat B’Har we recently read:
The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh (1696-1743) On Vayikra 25,25 he writes:
“And the Torah notifies us that the Geula should come by the hands of a Tzaddik who is close to Hashem….but the Geula will come when the hearts of (common) people are woken up and say to themselves: “How can it be good for you sitting outside, exiled from your Father’s table, How can life be sweet without the high company when we used to sit around our Father’s table?…And it is because of this that all the Gedolei Yisrael the mighty of the world will be punished – Hashem will demand them to pay for the disgrace of his humiliated house!
One’s hands should tremble to copy over this harshest of accusations against the “Gedolim”, but let’s remember just who the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh was. Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar was a Moroccan Talmudist and kabbalist who died in Jerusalem just a year after he arrived to head up the Beit Midrash K’nesses Yisrael. One of his disciples there was Chaim Yosef David Azulay the “Chida”, who wrote of him: “Attar’s heart pulsated with Talmud; he uprooted mountains like a relentless torrent; his holiness was that of an angel of the Lord, having severed all connection with the affairs of this world.” At the moment the Ohr HaChayim passed away, thousands of miles away, the Baal Shem Tov paused during Seuda Shleesheet and exclaimed: “The Western Candle has been extinguished!”
All the Torah giants quoted – Chasidic, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Sephardic lived before the 20th Century and made some very clear statements negating the infallibility of “Daas Torah” – in most cases as it pertains to Eretz Yisrael.
There is no doubt that the Gedolim were not infallible. For example: “We need neither a state nor sovereignty! We need seminaries and Yeshivas, so we can continue our Avodas Hashem!” said the present Belzer Rebbe. These words were spoken exactly seventy years after his father’s words to the Jews of Hungary, in a famous speech which became the subject of widespread controversy: “The Tzaddik foresees peace and tranquility for the residents of this country… because goodness, all goodness and just goodness and mercy will pursue and reach all our brothers from the House of Israel residing in this country!”
A year didn’t pass before over half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered. The previous Belzer Rebbe and his brother, the present Rebbe’s father – fled to Israel under the auspices of certificates supplied by the World Zionist Organization, and here in the Land of Israel, the Belz Dynasty was re-established and has become one of the greatest Chassidic powers in all history – thanks only to those who understood that the Jewish people indeed needed a state and sovereignty!
It is not a question of this Rabbi’s opinion or another – it is the attempt of many of today’s Ultra Orthodox leaders to re-write history in a way which actually negates what our greatest Rabbis said in previous generations.
One unique explanation to this phenomenon was proposed by the great sage, Kabbalist and philospher Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, son of the last Chief Rabbi of Algeria, (nicknamed “Manitou” – world famous to French speaking Jews and even many gentiles, but almost unknown in English speaking circles). In his book “A Eulogy for the Messiah”, he claims that the Baba Sali told him that Ashkenazi Jewry purposely developed an “allergy” to the idea of a merely physical redemption. Ashkenazi Rabbis in the Middle Ages were afraid that the age-old Jewish tradition of Mashiach be Yosef would be confused with Christianity and therefore relegated the study of Mashiach Ben Yosef to only the Kabbalistic circles. On the other hand, the study of the concept of the physical redemption as personified by Mashiach Ben Yosef continued to be accepted in the Sephardic world, where the fear of confusion with Christianity was less relevant.
This is why, when the prophesies of redemption began to be fulfilled in our time via secular means, Sephardic Rabbis felt comfortable in identifying these developments with the predicted Geula, while many Ashkenazi Rabbis are still having problems with it.
We often hear claims such as: “The vast majority of gedolim and poskim from the beginning of the political Zionist movement and until today have been anti-Zionist or non-Zionist.” This is simply twisting the truth. In his book HaTekufa HaGedola, Rabbi Menachem Kasher brings the long list of hundreds of Chassidic and Agudist Rabbis who came out in writing in favor of the State when it was founded. Even at the late date of 1948, there is no doubt that the great majority of Rabbis supported the founding of the State.
It is unfortunate that today many good Jews do not follow Rav Kook’s teachings. Just two examples of how the greatest Rabbis of previous generations related to him: At the cornerstone laying ceremony of the Bais Yosef Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, the Chazon Ish stood the entire time Rav Kook spoke, exhorting others “De Toirah Shteit!”. The Gerer Rebbe said of him: “The greatest mind in the last 100 years” and insisted on relying only on Rav Kook’s hechsher for meat!
Rav Kook did not invent his philosophy – it was largely based on Jerusalem traditions which preceded him – both the Kol HaTor from the Vilan Gaon as well as “Chassidus Eretz Yisrael”. In his room living, he hung two pictures of Rabbis – The Vilna Gaon and the Baal HaTanya. He lived next door to the offices of the United Kollel Knesses Yisrael. In the mid-nineteenth century, the United Kollel Knesset Yisrael was lead by Rabbi Yosef Rivlin, grandson of the author of Kol Hator. Knesset Yisrael was a virtual Jewish municipality of Jerusalem which was formed by a union of 3 groups – the Gra’s students, the Baal HaTanya’s students and the Chasam Sofer’s students, who also formed a strong alliance with the Sephardic establishment in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in “Kol Hator” represented the opinions of authentic Torah Jewry in Jerusalem of all streams until after the mid-nineteenth century and was the basis of the very strenuous activities of “Knesses Yisrael” to further the Geula by natural means.
Hungarian Jews began the split off from this united front. Religious researchers of the period like Professor Arye Morgenstern and Professor Rivlin have advanced various explanations of this split – ranging from a desire to get a larger part of the Halukah money to a delayed over-reaction to the few extremists from the Gra’s students camp who had insisted that Mashiach was sure to come by 1840. The hashkafic backpedaling and excuses came later.
These opinions held by the great Rabbis of previous generations are based on our sources and rooted in deep mystical understanding of the twin redemptive forces of Mashiach Ben Yosef and Mashiach Ben David. These opinions were also based on preceding generations of groups of Talmidei Chachamim who risked their lives to settle in Eretz Yisrael in every generation.
That is why it so crucial to bring the above sources from the last century or two – Chassidic, Lithuanian and Sefardic – which stress the centrality of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. That is why it is so important to bring those sources that specifically refer to the terrible mistakes that will be made by “gedolim” in the times before Mashiach.
The Gemara (Sotah 49b) sums it up short and sweet:
“In the footsteps of Moshiach… the wisdom of scribes will stink, and people who fear sin will be held in disgust, and the truth will be absent, and upon what is there for us to rely on? Only upon our Father in heaven!”