Today, according to the Jewish calendar, is the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Ḥayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853–1918), and next Monday that of his colleague, friend, and relative-by-marriage Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1816–1893). Considered leading scholars in the Lithuanian-misnagdic school, the two men had very different attitudes toward talmudic methodology, halakhic decision making, and the nascent Zionist movement. Berlin’s youngest son, Meir Bar-Ilan, took his father’s Zionist sympathies much further, becoming a leader of the Religious Zionist movement, as well as a talmudic scholar in his own right.
In his memoir, Bar-Ilan describes these two rabbis’ differing approaches to the resurrection of the Jewish state:
My father was not just a supporter of Eretz Yisrael in spirit; he also acted practically to strengthen the Yishuv. He was very involved in the Odessa [council, which coordinated Russian Zionism at the time]—to the extent that on the eve of Yom Kippur during afternoon prayer, when the yeshiva students put out various “bowls” for tzedakah, he ordered me to sit next to the bowl for “settlement of the Land of Israel,” and he himself dropped money into this bowl several times. The students noticed this, and more than nine rubles were collected in the bowl—a significant amount of money in those days.
When my father received a telegram stating that the Zionist activist Leon Pinsker had died, he was very upset. As a side point, the telegram was written in Russian and used a Russian phrase that essentially meant, “Pinsker is finished.” My father said, “This is not a Jewish idea. When a person dies, he is not ‘finished.’ On the contrary, it is a beginning.”
And while Soloveitchik remained opposed to Zionism as such, Bar-Ilan writes, there was some nuance to his stance:
He was afraid of any new movement in Judaism, fearful that any step off the beaten path was likely to cause people to stray from Judaism. He lived and conducted himself without considering all of the aspects of the issue, because the one thing that was [paramount] in his eyes was this: to grasp onto the old without any change whatsoever. In Zionism, he saw not only the desire to build up the Land, but also the cause of new theories and new problems in Jewish life and thought.
But despite all this, the “air of Eretz Yisrael,” permeated Rabbi Ḥayyim’s home. His spirit was so great that he could oppose Zionism while recognizing the urgency of practical work on behalf of Eretz Yisrael. With the exception of a few extraordinary activists, Soloveitchik did more for the good of Eretz Yisrael than any other rabbi, focusing his efforts, obviously, on helping the Old Yishuv, [the deeply religious communities that originated in the late 18th century]. Almost all of the large yeshivas in Jerusalem had representatives in Brisk, [where Soloveitchik was rabbi].
There were certain emissaries [from these yeshivas] whom Rabbi Ḥayyim would spend time with for several days, simply because it gave him so much pleasure to hear about life in the Land of Israel.