The Grandfather of Israeli Ultra-Orthodoxy and His Complex Attitude toward Zionism

April 3, 2019 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

No figure is more associated with the non-ḥasidic ḥaredi community in Israel than Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, better known by his pen name, the Ḥazon Ish. Born in Russia in 1878 to a rabbinic family, he pursued an ascetic life of study and shunned the spotlight, never assuming any official position. Yet after he left Eastern Europe for the Land of Israel, he became a highly influential figure, whose legendary 1952 meeting with David Ben-Gurion had a lasting impact on religion and government in the Jewish state. Allan Arkush argues that, despite his reputation as a hardliner, Karelitz sought, in his own way, to be a moderate:

Anything but a Zionist, [Karelitz] was nonetheless stirred by the changes wrought by the Balfour Declaration and felt obliged to move to the Holy Land now that it would be feasible for him to devote himself to Torah study there. . . . [When he and his wife did emigrate], they didn’t choose a new home to be near potential customers or to live in proximity to other pious Jews in Jerusalem, since he wanted to settle in the midst of the “wilderness” of the “new yishuv” where he could plant seeds of Torah. . . .

The Ḥaredim with whom the Ḥazon Ish affiliated himself took a very different path from the isolationists who regarded the whole Zionist enterprise as a travesty and strove to minimize their interaction with it. Even though they themselves weren’t Zionists, they lived amicably enough alongside them, participated in the development of the Jewish economy, and even established their own kibbutzim. [Karelitz] slowly became a leader in this community, a favored legal guide. He worked hard to establish and solidify the yeshivas of Bnei Brak and other parts of the country and offered stringent if compassionate advice on how to deal with the halakhic problems arising from agricultural life.

[E]ven after the establishment of the state of Israel by people whom he held in low regard, the Ḥazon Ish remained as convinced as ever that the spiritual strength of the Ḥaredim would ultimately triumph over the coercive power of the secular state.

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