I have always thought it one of the advantages of Modern Orthodoxy that we see value outside of our own orbit. We celebrate the profound thinking of R. Yitzchak Hutner, the bold and sensitive halakhic rulings of R. Moshe Feinstein, and the saintly personality of R. Shomo Zalman Auerbach. Contrast this with how the Charedi world tends to talk about R. Soloveitchik or R. Kook. The same applies in terms of communal evaluations. We candidly admit that the narrow focus of Charedi ideology has advantages in fostering passion for Talmud Torah and commitment to halakha.
That being said, we should retain the right to reject and the ability to refuse. We need not endorse the legitimacy of every Charedi position, accept every work in their pantheon, and support each Rav they consider a gadol. For example, an entire community not serving in the army without showing gratitude to those who do cannot be morally justified. Such matters are not subject to elu v’elu. It should be legitimate for us to say that R. Elchonon Wasserman was an outstanding lamdan but that his Jewish thought does not reflect the same greatness. Given that background, I would like to analyze the work of a twentieth century Hasidic rebbe who has recently drawn internet attention. In Tablet magazine, Professor Shaul Magid called for serious engagement with the thought of R. Yoel Teitelbaum, including suggesting that his anti Zionist thought is more rooted in our tradition than Zionism. Professors James A. Diamond and Menachem Kellner wrote a critical response which stimulated a reply from Magid (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/belief/articles/shaul-magid-teigelbaum-reply). This inspired me to read through Vayoel Moshe for the first time and I would like to share some thoughts.
Although this essay discusses the work rather than the individual, some points about the person merit mention. Menachem Keren-Krantz’s biography, Hakanai, depicts R. Yoel as a contentious person who engaged in all kinds of internal Hasidic squabbles before he channeled his energy into attacking Zionism. Furthermore, his never expressing any gratitude for the Zionists who saved him during the Holocaust is morally troubling. On the other hand, R. Yoel lived an extremely hard life which included burying a wife and three children and he deserves sympathy.
Moving to his magnum opus, every thinker brings a worldview to his reading of texts and it is legitimate to emphasize those texts that support his ideology. However, there must be some threshold where the reading of sources becomes so one sided as to render the idea of working within a tradition meaningless. Let us explore how Vayoel Moshe fares in this regard.
We will begin with the question of proportion. R. Yoel not only sees human political initiative to bring about redemption before the messiah arrives as a rebellion against God; he views it as the cardinal sin. It is worse than all other transgressions put together (p. 11 in the 5721 Brooklyn edition), the Holocaust is punishment for violating it (7), and one must be a martyr rather than participate in political activism (38). Better to die a martyr than to affirm an oath of loyalty to the Israeli Knesset (104). Now many writers have wondered about building an entire ideology on the aggada of the three oaths in Ketubot 110b. However, even if one accepts such an ideology, it is bizarre to take a sin barely mentioned in our tradition and to turn it into the worst iniquity in Judaism. It is not an accident that the many pages dedicated to martyrdom by R. Yosef Babad do not even bring up dehikat hakez (hastening the end) as a relevant category.
Though the gates of interpretation open wide, some readings remain preposterous. Traditional sources talk of respect for the Jewish sovereign even if he is evil as Ahab and Jeroboam. In theory, this would call for showing some respect towards the contemporary Jewish government. R. Yoel deflects this point by asserting that Ahab and Jeroboam were truly great zadikim (136,139). Contrast this with scripture relating that “Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him” (I Kings 16:30). The prophet Ahijah informs Jeroboam that he has done evil above all that were before you, and have gone and made you other gods, and molten images, to provoke Me, and have cast Me behind your back; therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam every man-child, and him that is shut up and him that is left at large in Israel, and will utterly sweep away the house of Jeroboam, as a man sweeps away dung, until it is all gone. He that dies of Jeroboam in the city the dogs shall eat; and he that dies in the field the fowls of the air shall eat; for the Lord has spoken (I Kings 14: 9-11).
Not exactly a speech honoring the righteous. Chazal enumerate these two kings among the short list of individuals without a share in the world to come (Sanhedrin 10:1).
R. Yoel endorses any position that makes the Zionists look bad. A Jew only receives reward for fulfilling the commandment to settle the land of Israel if he does so “for the sake of heaven” (330). Therefore, the Zionists deserve no religious credit for their heroic efforts to renew the Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Not clear why this mizva alone requires absolute purity of motivation. He also either distorts or ignores sources against his position. Reish Lakish harshly criticizes the Babylonians for not returning to Israel at the time of Ezra (Yoma 9b). In R. Yoel’s interpretation, the problem was not the decision to stay in Babylon but rather other sins preventing them from meriting return (31). Of course, he does not mention the famous passage from R. Yehuda Levi, utilizing imagery from the Song of Songs, in which God knocks on the door but the Babylonian Jews remain in bed and fail to heed the call (Kuzari 2:24). Note also his rereading of a midrash in which God wishes the Jews would reside in the Land of Israel even if they defile it (114).
His analytical method involves a good deal of inconsistency. When confronted by the absence of the three oaths in the classical poskim, he says that they were not so relevant during the middle ages when Jews were, for the most part, not moving to Israel but that the principles are still operative (10). However, he states that the poskim do not cite “A man should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city of which the majority are idolaters, and not live outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city where the majority is Jewish for whoever lives in the Land of Israel, it is as if he has a God. And whoever lives outside of the Land of Israel, it is as if he has no God” (Ketubot 110b) because this idea exists only when the temple is standing (25). This latter idea, unlike the three oaths, has no impact today.
Theologically, R. Yoel attributes remarkable power to demonic forces. The incredible successes of the Jewish state reflect a demonic temptation to give up our ideals of political quietism. Think about the implications of accepting this. It is hard enough for a religious Jew to confront the immense horrors of the Holocaust; now we are supposed to believe that God’s emissary created a significant measure of false hope and consolation immediately afterward as a snare for catching Jews in an ultimate sin. What kind of God does R. Yoel believe in?
This work’s presentation of history also proves problematic. R. Yoel writes that the Zionists were not only theologically responsible for the Holocaust (140); they were practically responsible as well since they took action promoting the destruction of European Jewry to further their Zionist plans (7). The Zionists slandered the Jewish people to gentile governments (352) and they are the reason why countries closed their doors to European Jewish émigrés (123). The English only sealed their borders to Jewish refugees because the Jews wanted to form their own state (124). None of this has solid basis in historical fact but we can apparently accept any theory that slanders the Zionist enemy. Hasidic rebbes who instructed their flocks to stay in Europe receive no mention.
Due its incredible one sidedness, Vayoel Moshe is, contra Magid, not “a cogent political theology deeply rooted in traditional sources”. Its author has great erudition but lacks any sense of balance and fairness. Magid’s response to Kellner and Diamond indicates that this is not a purely objective scholarly study for him. He hopes it will serve as a counterpoint to current trends in Religious Zionist thought. Furthermore, it matches his Facebook posts which consistently castigate the state of Israel. Magid recently signed a letter defending a teacher at a Reform synagogue who had written a blog post blaming Israel for genocide, apartheid, and for the brutality of American policeman (https://sandervswrt.weebly.com/). His attraction to Vayoel Moshe appears personal. It is ironic to find contemporary liberal voices championing this work. It claims that we cannot teach women even Rashi’s commentary on the Torah because that commentary teaches the oral law (452), that the state of Israel deserves severe blame for not destroying all the churches in the country (110), and that the secular Zionists have the souls of demons and spirits (430). Hardly the stuff of up to date progressive thought. It seems that, in these circles, hatred for Zionism outweighs almost any flaws.