When Our Rabbis are Wrong

From the moment I picked it up, I could not put the book down. What had been a regular Shabbos, changed as I read Ben Hecht’s “Perfidy” from cover to cover. The book tells the story of the Kastner Affai and the role Kastner and other Zionist leaders played in collaborating with the Nazis. When I was done, my view of some of the founding fathers of Israel had changed forever. No longer could I see them in the way I had before. They had gone from quasi-angelic figures to complex humans, humans who had done both great and terrible things. I was not surprised, but still disappointed to know that the book had, at one time, been banned in Israel. I was relieved to discover that the ban had been removed. Coming to grips with the reality of the complexity of her founding fathers, was a sign that Israel had “grown up”.

Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal ztvk”l hy’d was a Sanzer chasid, who before World War II had been fervently anti-Zionist. During the war, he came to realize that he and those leaders he had followed had been wrong about Zionism. He wrote “Eim Habanim Sameicha” a comprehensive sefer explaining the reasons for his change of heart, before he was brutally murdered towards the end of the war. It must have been quite difficult for Rav Teichtal to essentially repudiate some of the ideas with which he’d grown up and in the process, indirectly criticize some of his teachers. Still, his commitment to truth trumped his respect and admiration for his teachers.

There are certain questions which I am afraid to ask. However, I am even more scared to not ask them. Echoing Rav Soloveitchik in “Kol Dodi Dofeik”, I find myself wondering, what would the State of Israel look like had more observant Jews had joined in building the State. How many Jews might have been saved, if more rabbonim in Europe had been advocates of Aliyah? What would the population of Israel be, if other Chassidic rebbes had followed the path of the Admor HaChalutz?

I do not ask these questions, God forbid, to accuse or to cast blame. It is easy and wrong to find fault after the tragic results of the Holocaust are known. I do ask these questions, as a Jew with deep respect for Torah and its teachers, who respects great rabbis because they are human. I hold them in high esteem not because they are angels, but precisely because they are flesh and blood, and are usually able to overcome their yetzer hara, which the gemara teaches is greater than for those who are on a lower spiritual level. At the same time, their very humanity reminds me that they do not, indeed can not, have all the answers, particularly in areas outside the immediate area of Torah.

Many of us are familiar with the talmudic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza found in the gemara in maseches Gittin. After Bar Kamtza was humiliated at a party in the presence of some of the leading rabbis who failed to protest, he decided to take revenge. He told the Roman leaders that the Jews were rebelling against Rome. He suggested a test that would prove his point. He told the leader to send an animal to the Beis HaMikdash to be sacrificed. If it was accepted, the Jews would show themselves to still be loyal. If it was not, it was sign that they wished to rebel. As Bar Kamtza accompanied the animal to the Beis HaMikdash, he made a blemish on the animal which meant that it was ineligible to be sacrificed. When the rabbis realized what had happened, they suggested that the animal be sacrificed despite the blemish. Rebbe Zecharyah ben Avkulas explained why this could not be done. Other suggestions of how to prevent a disaster were shot down by him as well. Later on, Rebbe Yochanan said that Rebbe Zecharyah ben Avkulas was responsible for all of the destruction and tragedy that followed. How could Rebbe Yochanan say this? Hadn’t Rebbe Zecharyah thought he was doing the right thing based on halacha? With the utmost respect, Rebbe Yochanon said that Rebbe Zecharyah had been wrong despite being a great sage.

The God of history has spoken. The Jewish people have been given a great gift. While I do not blame those rabbis who did not recognize the great opportunity we were given, I can not say they were not wrong. We can hold our religious leaders in great esteem and recognize that they are not infallible. Rabbi Teichtal has shown us the way. Let us have the courage to learn from him.



About the Author
Pesach Sommer is an Orthodox Rabbi, fundraiser, educator and runner. He is married and has eight children. He currently works for Just One Life, where he directs special projects including their charity running program Team Just One Life. Pesach is 42 years young.