Dear Inroads editors,

It is no surprise that non-Jews would fall for Yakov Rabkin’s book Au nom de la Torah – as would liberally minded Jews such as Michael Benazon, who lauded it in Inroads (“Where have all the rabbis gone?”, Summer/Fall 2005). Rabkin’s history of ultra-Orthodox Jewish enmity toward Zionism is based on the foundation that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and sages believed in a universal message of Judaism, loved humanity and were visionaries. After all, many non-Jews have read the endearing tales of Hasidim by Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel and seen the folksy film Fiddler on the Roof. However, the foundation of Rabkin’s book is totally false. On the contrary, all the rabbis he refers to demonized non-Jews, especially Arabs, and disdained Western values such as secular education and rights for women.

Rabkin’s book glorifying racist fanatics made me reflect on my education in yeshivas (Orthodox Jewish religious schools) in Montreal and New York in the 1960s. I have long silently struggled with ultra-Orthodoxy’s contempt for non-Jews in contrast to other magnificent Torah declarations of the supreme dignity of each human being. There are too many Jewish apologists who are proficient in knowing how to sanitize the ugly teachings for the non-Jewish public.

Let us consider what the ultra-Orthodox rabbis Rabkin mentions – Chafetz Chaim, Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Elhanan Wasserman, Moshe Dov Beck, Israel Eichler and especially Joel Teitelbaum – actually preached. Were they paragons of virtue, as Rabkin claims, or the Jewish counterparts of Wahhabi Islam without the cult of the sword?

The fundamental misunderstanding that Rabkin perpetuates is that ultra-Orthodox Jews believe in a universal code of ethics that applies to Jews and non-Jews alike. In fact, there are countless hostile laws against Gentiles in Orthodox Judaism, some of them astonishing. All the classical texts of Judaic law state that the beneficiaries of ethical commandments – love your neighbour, return a lost object, don’t stand idly by when your friend’s life is in danger – are only fellow Jews. A Jew who hits a Jew pays damages; a non-Jew who hits a Jew is liable for heavenly death.1 Even though any mother’s milk is kosher, a Jewish baby should not be breastfed by a non-Jew because her milk spiritually contaminates him.2 In Torah commentaries, a non-Jewish woman is called a zona, a prostitute.3

It is only in the past two centuries, when the Conservative and Reform movements originated, that Judaism was liberalized and its ethics were universalized. There is an unbridgeable chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Because liberal Jews do not read the Jewish sacred writings in rabbinical Hebrew, they are unaware that the discourse of ultra-Orthodoxy is a universe apart. Moreover, less objectionable words such as “heathen”, “Canaanite” and “Cuthean” were substituted for “non-Jew” by censors centuries ago to disguise the racism in the Talmud and other sacred books. Although some Modern Orthodox rabbis are uncomfortable with extremist interpretations of the Torah, a taboo against washing our dirty linen in public renders the public unaware. Extremist Muslims also were able to live under the radar until the 9/11 attacks and suicide bombings.

One of the fundamentals of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a distancing as much as possible from the goyim (Gentiles), derived from Leviticus 20:26: “And I have severed you from other people.” For example, ultra-Orthodox Jews wear long black coats and wide black felt hats, even under the broiling summer sun, because clothing is the most visible sign of a distinction between them and the Other: non-Jews are regarded as prone to murder, sexual immorality and theft.4 There is a direct correlation between their abhorrence of the Gentiles and their hatred of the Zionists because the founders of Zionism were secular Jews who wanted to normalize the situation of the Jews in relation to other nations.

Rabkin’s major mistakes are that  he relies too much on secondary sources, such as books by Aviezer Ravitzky and Yeshayahu Leibowitz; that his quotes from the primary sources are highly selective; and that, as he admits, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, the lingua franca of Hasidic Judaism. As sociologist and educator George Kranzler wrote in the Modern Orthodox journal Tradition, the Brooklyn, New York, weekly Der Yid, the official Yiddish voice of the Satmar Hasidim, is “perhaps the most influential Jewish publication today.”5 Without the Satmars – the largest Hasidic group in the world – and particularly their revered leader, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism would now be a footnote to Jewish history. Rabkin devotes much of his book to Teitelbaum and the Neturei Karta, an extremist and weird faction of the Satmars numbering only a few hundred. Understanding their doctrine is of prime importance.

As with all ultra-Orthodox newspapers – which ban pictures of women, sensationalism and sports articles – Der Yid serves as a vehicle to transmit “ethical values” to its readers, especially children. Here are some of the items that have appeared in Der Yid over the years:

Rabbinical proclamation, September 19, 1969: All God-fearing Jews must not study in university. They must avoid its “teachings of heresy” so as not to destroy the “vineyard of the House of Israel.”

Story, April 23, 1986: Teitelbaum was angry that a Gentile overcharged him in a transaction: “God helped me and the goy was struck down by an unnatural death … So should all your enemies be destroyed, O God.”

Rabbinical proclamation, July 8, 1988: Women are strictly forbidden to drive a car because of licentiousness, just as they are forbidden to ride an animal.

Instruction, October 7, 1988: “We are not allowed during the Exile a light unto the nations. We are not allowed to teach Torah to the goyim to convince them of the truth that God is King of the world. Let them be deluded and leave us in peace.”

Prophecy of a top rabbi, February 21, 1997: “When the Messiah will arrive, the world will be filled with God’s knowledge … then God will exterminate all the goyim with the wicked people.”

Story, March 31, 2000: The late Shinover Rabbi saw a letter of a non-Jewish alphabet scrawled on his bench. He screamed, “Help! Do you know how much filth there is within that single letter?!”

Quote from the Kabbalistic book Zohar, January 11, 2002: Before the Messiah arrives, God will exterminate the Arabs in the Land of Israel.

From Teitelbaum’s scholarly output: Gentiles are prone to sodomy; Gentiles are created only to serve God-fearing Jews; Gentiles will die natural deaths while Jews will live eternally (comment on the Messianic hope in Isaiah 25:8: “He will swallow up death in victory”); repentance for sins benefits only Jews, not Gentiles.6

Teitelbaum was not alone. When the Chafetz Chaim – who lived in Poland and was the preeminent ultra-Orthodox sage until he died in 1933 – heard of the earthquake in Tokyo in 1923, which killed 100,000 people, he declared that they were punished because they were not observers of the Torah, and God’s purpose in causing it was to rouse Jews to repent.7 Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, explaining the biblical verse in which Sarah demands that Ishmael (patriarch of the Arabs) be expelled from Abraham’s household (Genesis 21:9–10), said that since the Arabs live a life of idolatry and sexual immorality, the Jews must separate from them.8

Moshe Dov Beck, whom Rabkin interviewed at his home in Monsey, New York, wrote that the soul of a non-Jew is all evil. While a Jew is a unique creation whose purpose is to observe God’s Torah, a non-Jew is naught before God.9 Rabkin quotes Israel Eichler, editor of HaMachne HaChareidi, the weekly of the Belzer Hasidim, on guarding the “holy Torah.” However, Eichler recently published a Talmudic law in his “holy Torah” column that, although it is forbidden to defraud or steal from a Gentile, it is permitted to keep his financial loss in a business if he errs, just as one does not have to return his lost item.10

Rabkin relates a story about the anti-Zionist sage Chazon Ish: when he met Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, he refused to shake Ben-Gurion’s hand or look in his eyes. He might have been interested in a similar story reported last November in the ultra-Orthodox weekly HaModia. Anti-Zionist Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe, was worried about his vision: “During the checkup, the doctor told him to look at a bird that flew above them. But the Rebbe said that he doesn’t know what a bird looks like for he had never seen one. The reason he never looked up is because he guarded himself from seeing the face of a goy.”11

Rabkin mistranslates Elhanan Wasserman’s statement that the Torah is emphatic that one has to be solicitous of and love the ger, meaning the stranger. Although the word does also mean stranger, in this context the ultra-Orthodox define ger as a convert to Judaism. Indeed, it is heresy to love the alien because it violates the prohibition not to give a gift to a non-Jew, gratuitously, and not to admire him.12 Although one must not cause animosity toward Gentiles, since according to the Talmud one must act “for the ways of peace,” there is absolutely no love for Gentiles in ultra-Orthodoxy. All non-Jews are considered idolaters in the voluminous ultra-Orthodox Responsa.

How on earth can Rabkin repeatedly describe these rabbis, who abided by a theology of hatred, as engaged in the “humanitarian preoccupation” and “global dimension” of Judaism, and possessed with political acumen? Then again, the august New York Times – whose journalists also do not read Yiddish – was duped when it published a prominent, respectful obituary of Rabbi Sender Deutsch, the founder and editor of Der Yid, in 1998.13

One of the very few courageous individuals battling the wall of silence surrounding racism in Judaism is a former ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Yaron Yadan, who founded the organization Daat Emet (True Knowledge) in Israel, and was profiled in a five-page article in the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Achronot.14 He has received death threats but nonetheless perseveres. As the ghettos and persecutions are long gone and Jews now thrive in vibrant democracies, we can also fight the good fight.

— Jacob Mendlovic

The author replies

Dear Inroads editors,

I wish to thank Mr. Mendlovic forhis illuminating and thought-provoking letter. I have three points to make in reply.

The issues Mr. Mendlovic raises are irrelevant to what Professor Rabkin is attempting to do in his book: to show that traditional Jewish thought has been opposed to Zionism. Mr. Mendlovic may or may not be correct in his view that the ultra-Orthodox are both racist and sexist. This is not the point. Professor Rabkin argues that the rabbis of all the major Jewish denominations opposed Zionism until they became aware of the Holocaust and the plight of the survivors, and then most Reform, Conservative and some of the Orthodox Jews changed their minds about Zionism. Mr. Mendlovic does not dispute Professor Rabkin’s careful marshalling of the evidence.

Mr. Mendlovic presents a basically ad hominem argument. He wishes to press his charge that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis were and still are racist and sexist. But even if he is correct, his charges do not and cannot detract from Professor Rabkin’s argument. The rabbis can be racist and still oppose Zionism on legitimate religious and practical grounds. Moreover, Professor Rabkin’s book goes well beyond the ultra-Orthodox and encompasses Reform and other liberal Jewish arguments against Zionism.

Mr. Mendlovic’s views, as briefly set down in his letter, are of great interest. But to be effective and convincing, his arguments need to be elaborated and reorganized. The quotations cited should be analyzed and their context explained. We need to know how modern ultra-Orthodox rabbis interpret statements made in the Middle Ages or earlier. And Mr. Mendlovic has to learn to hold his resentments in check and to present his arguments in a balanced and fair manner.

Readers who wish to judge for themselves can now read Professor Rabkin’s book in the recently published English translation, A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Black Point, NS: Fernwood/Zed Books, 2006.

Continue reading “Where Has All The Truth Gone?”

Yakov M. Rabkin, Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme.

Quebec City: Laval University Press, 2004. 274 pages.

Have you ever wondered why, despite the controversial nature of contemporary Zionism, we hear so little criticism of it from the rabbis? It would appear from Professor Yakov Rabkin’s latest book that there is no shortage of criticism, just the lack of a common language between the rabbis and the media.

Rabkin has set out to demonstrate that a substantial number of rabbis have always had much to say about Zionism, the state of Israel and their relation to Judaism. He is admirably qualified to bring traditional Jewish attitudes to the attention of a wide public. Born and educated in the Soviet Union, he has taught Jewish and Soviet history at the University of Montreal for many years. He is also an Orthodox Jew with a wide range of contacts in Canada, the United States, Europe and North Africa, and he has sojourned for long periods in Israel studying, researching and talking with people from the religious and secular communities.


Au nom de la Torah has been well received in France, Morocco, Switzerland and French Quebec. Curiously, the book has not been noticed in English Canada. It is to be hoped that this will change with the appearance of an English edition, scheduled for the fall.

Readers interested in the tangled Middle East conundrum will want to know how traditional Jewish thinkers regarded and continue to view the Zionist enterprise. But Au nom de la Torah is not simply a survey of such views. Rabkin organizes Jewish commentary on Zionism into a number of categories and makes it available to academic scholars who might not be aware of its depth and complexity, while at the same time he enables the ultra-Orthodox writers to come to grips with the way academics deal with the subject.

Scholars in both camps have much to learn from each other. The ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews live a somewhat isolated life, unfamiliar with how the media and academic researchers function and how to write for them. They may also be unaware how close their conclusions are to those of the “new historians” – that group of young and middle-aged historians, sociologists and journalists, mainly based in Israel, who have been challenging traditional Zionist historiography for close to 20 years. The new historians, for their part, tend to disregard rabbinical writing because it does not follow the customary academic rules and niceties. The general reader, on the other hand, will be fascinated by a variety of thoughtful views that rarely come to public attention. Thus Rabkin prepares the ground for a long-overdue public debate on the merits and consequences of Zionism.

In presenting the arguments of traditional Jewish thinkers, Rabkin shows why Zionism is not to be identified with Judaism. Zionism has adopted and transformed Jewish festivals and even the Hebrew language to bolster its claim to be an integral part of Judaism. But in the view of many scholars and Jewish religious thinkers, the Zionists have created a secular religion, antithetical to the tenets of traditional Judaism.

The religious opponents of Zionism do not oppose the desire of individual Jews to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel so long as the local authorities adopt a welcoming attitude, but they do oppose collective attempts to return to Zion. They consequently regard Jewish life in the Diaspora as perfectly valid until such time as the Messiah appears and leads the return. Diaspora Jews, they feel, should not mortgage their future on the uncertain fate of the present state of Israel.

Who are these non-Zionist thinkers? As the title implies, Au nom de la Torah is a Torah-based criticism of Zionism. But the word Torah does not refer only to the Bible. In Judaism, much depends on the interpretation of Sacred Writ as it emerged through the ages in the Oral Law, including more recent rabbinical responses to issues of the day. Rabkin does not attempt to survey the work of the new historians, although he often quotes from them to explain various developments in the history of Zionism. He chooses rather to focus on the four principal dissenting groups: the Shas (Sephardi Jews as organized in the well-known Israeli political grouping), along with the Lithuanian, Hasidic and Reform rabbis who have reacted adversely to Zionism from the time of its origins in the middle of the 19th century.

Secular Jews often dismiss the views of the religious opponents of Zionism, who they tend to assume are mired in a world view more in tune with the 18th century than with the world in which we live today. Although the Orthodox groups take different positions and make different accommodations (or non-accommodations) with Israel, there is a common approach with which all of them agree. Their rabbis hold that the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel because of sins they committed. Until such time as God decides that the sins have been sufficiently expiated and sends the Messiah to lead the return to Zion, the Jews are to remain in exile. (Many religious Zionists continue to believe that theologically the Jews are still in exile, even if their ancestors have lived in Israel for several generations.)

Individuals are permitted to return so long as they lead exemplary lives, but Jews are not permitted to make any collective or organized attempt to hasten God’s work. Such activity will bring on further divine punishment as occurred in the unfortunate episode of the false messiah, Shabbetai Zvi, in the 17th century and as is now occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The effect of Zionism, they argue, has been to distort traditional Jewish teaching and replace traditional Judaism with a secular Godless religion, which can only bring disaster on Judaism and its adherents. The religious dissidents regard the creation of the state as a form of idolatry, as is the current vogue of elevating the land into a mystical symbol of messianic redemption.

These attitudes may strike some readers as very strange indeed, but as Rabkin shows, they have emerged out of the Jewish Diaspora experience of at least 2,000 years, and as such they are an integral part of Jewish thought. Rabkin quotes extensively from the work of Jewish thinkers past and present, and their writings often reveal remarkable depths of insight and prescience. Take, for example, the following comment from Rabbi Amram Blau (1894–1974), the founder and leader of the Neturei Karta movement, as presented by his second wife, Ruth Blau (1920–2000), in her 1978 book Les gardiens de la cité: Histoire d’une guerre sainte. Blau was writing shortly after the Six Day War of 1967:

If the Zionists had had a modicum of common sense, they would have proposed to the Arab states that they join with the Arabs in a confederation which would include the Palestinians who would then have been able to recover their rights. We make peace when we are strong. And that is what the Zionists are at the moment. But they won’t do so because they are arrogant and refuse any concession. They prefer to put the lives of millions of Jews in permanent danger rather than see an Arab as president of such a confederation.

By this spectacular lightning war, they imagine they have won. Today, they are no doubt at the height of their power. But they have begun their decline. They will not be long in discovering all the problems that their conquests are going to bring them. The hatred of the Arabs will increase, and they will seek their revenge. The Zionists now possess hundreds of thousands of enemies within their borders. We are all of us here in very great danger.

How is it that despite the uniformity, consistency and weight of religious thinking that opposed a return to Zion, Zionism suddenly emerged? In Rabkin’s view, Zionism is an ideology that grew out of the 19th-century Emancipation movement and is associated primarily with his former compatriots, the Russian Jews. Whereas in western and central Europe many Jews were able to integrate into the life of the countries they inhabited, in imperial Russia Jews were not only denied the possibility of integration but were also subjected to vicious persecution and pogroms. Many secular-minded Jews joined the revolutionaries and adopted the violent measures that the latter employed against the Czarist police and army. But there were also many who joined the Zionist movement and imbued it with the doctrines and the militancy that they had absorbed from Russian revolutionaries. Rabkin has no difficulty in pointing to David Ben-Gurion and his comrades, as well as Vladimir Jabotinsky and his followers, who, he argues, set the basic tone, tactics and acceptance of violence in the Zionist movement, especially as it developed in Mandate Palestine.

Although the majority of Zionist settlers were secularists, and they were the ones who assumed the leadership roles, there were a number of religious people who immigrated during the Mandate period. Many of these were from the Mizrahi (= eastern in Hebrew, but also an acronym derived from Hebrew merkaz ruhani = spiritual centre) movement founded in 1904. And there were, to be sure, some religious Jews from the old Palestinian community who joined forces with them. These were people who sought a means of reconciling Judaism with the Zionist ideal.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who had immigrated to Palestine as early as 1904, continued the work of seeking to mesh Zionism with traditional Judaism in the hope of bringing the secular Zionists back into the fold – a hope that is yet to be realized – and founded a yeshiva (religious college) to promote his views. The Zionist leadership encouraged this approach, and in 1923 the British administration appointed Rabbi Kook to be Palestine’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. While hardly a Mizrahi himself – he was a traditional and mystical Jew – Kook, in the often daring interpretation of his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, came to serve as an inspiration for the Mizrahi movement many years after his death. The Mizrahi rabbis wholeheartedly participated in the coalition governments after the founding of the state in 1948. Unlike the other religious movements, they encouraged their young men to serve in the Israeli army. They now call themselves the National Religious Party, and it is they who nourish the Gush Emunim and other right-wing settler groups in the Occupied Territories. These people are not a majority, even among Israeli religious Jews, but their messianic fervour and commitment make them a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics.

It is not part of Rabkin’s intention in this book to discuss the reaction of Diaspora Jews to Jewish religious thought. But for the sake of the general reader, who may wonder how it is that Diaspora Jews seem to project a wall of solidarity with Israel while their traditional religion denies the validity of the Zionist state, Rabkin does provide a few explanatory remarks. He assumes that non-Jewish readers will understand that thousands of Diaspora Jews, secular as well as religious, were not in the least attracted to Zionism. However, Rabkin argues, the Zionist movement used the Holocaust and the overwhelming need to provide a shelter for thousands of survivors who could not or would not return to their countries of birth as a powerful tool to advance the Zionist cause. The Holocaust created a wave of support for Zionism among Jews and gentiles alike.

The change of heart was particularly striking among the Liberal or Reform Jews, who form the largest synagogue group in America. The Reform movement continues to support Israel, although a few of their rabbis do not, as Rabkin demonstrates in his book. But the fact is that today most Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are not observant, even if some of them are nominal synagogue members. For these Jews, Zionism and the Jewish state represent their only link to Judaism. The traditional rabbis were right: for millions of Jews Zionism has displaced Judaism, and giving it up would sever their last links to the religion of their ancestors.

As the opponents of Zionism see it, the present situation is dangerous. Zionism is a negation of traditional Judaism for it ignores traditional Jewish ethics and morality. It is an outmoded ideology that has at its core a colonial mentality more appropriate to the 19th century than to the 21st. The rabbis believe that Zionism has utterly changed the character of the Jew, but not for the better. In its aggressive pursuit of more and more Arab land, Israel has brought on a desperate conflict with the Muslim world and exposes Jews everywhere to a new form of anti-Semitism. By claiming to represent and speak for Diaspora Jews, Israel makes Jews vulnerable to charges of dual loyalty. But worst of all it endangers Jewish lives at home and abroad; it threatens to bring on a series of wars that endanger not only Israel itself, but also the Middle East and parts of the surrounding world. The traditional rabbis point the way: the Zionist state must be dismantled. Jews could continue to live in the Holy Land, but as cocitizens, not as masters of the Palestinians.

Au nom de la Torah is an academic book, accessible to general readers with some knowledge of the subject. There are plans afoot to have it translated into Spanish and Italian as well as English. This is to be welcomed because the book brings together and presents several threads that are not easily available to English-speaking readers interested in the Middle East conflict. Although many books and articles have been written on Zionism, the ordinary reader will find it difficult to locate informed critiques of the subject. Since the average reader is not familiar with all the terms, institutions and movements referred to in the book, it would be useful in subsequent editions to expand the glossary to include brief accounts of the principal trends within Judaism.

Of course, many readers will not accept the conclusions Rabkin presents in his last chapter. We know that independent states do not willingly agree to their own dissolution. But Au nom de la Torah will force many Jews to come to terms with the contradictions between the religion they profess to believe in and the ideology that has in fact taken hold of them. Professor Rabkin is to be congratulated for explaining to us why Zionism is not identical with Judaism.