One of the oddest incidents during The Religion Guy’s decades on the beat was an annual Nation of Islam rally in Chicago led by Minister Louis Farrakhan (who was notably entangled with President Barack Obama’s former United Church of Christ pastor).
The oddity was that Farrakhan, America’s most prominent anti-Semite, invited Jewish rabbis to speak.
Not routine rabbis, of course, but spokesmen for Neturei Karta of Monsey, NY, a fierce faction of Orthodox Jews that condemns Zionism as “heresy” and accuses Israel of committing “aggression against all peoples.”
Orthodox Judaism’s traditional opposition to Zionism was a theme in Chaim Potok’s beloved 1967 novel “The Chosen” (a must-read for religion writers of all kinds). Potok depicted a friendship after World War Two between two Orthodox boys, the son of an ardent Zionist educator, and the heir to a Hasidic dynasty opposed to establishment of modern Israel.
Reporters on foreign affairs, politics, and religion should be aware of Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University, whose latest column for the interfaith journal First Things discusses Orthodoxy and Zionism. If not there already, firstname.lastname@example.org belongs on your prime source list, since Orthodoxy is trickier to cover than Judaism’s other branches.
Carmy makes a key point: “Secular journalists typically ascribe pockets of rigorously Orthodox antagonism to Zionism to the belief that Jews will only govern themselves in the land of Israel when the Messiah comes.”
That’s true for some Hasidic groups, he says. But historically, the rest of Orthodoxy had a different objection. Zionism’s leadership “was not God-fearing,” and secular nationalism was considered the opponent of Torah-true Judaism.
A pivotal personality was Carmy’s revered mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who died 25 years ago this month. He was called “the Rav” with a definite article, signifying his status as the pre-eminent authority in America’s “modern Orthodox” movement (as opposed to more sectarian Orthodoxy and Hasidism).
The Religion Guy conducted a lengthy discussion with Soloveitchik for Time magazine’s 1972 cover story “What It Means To Be Jewish,” and ranks him equal in eminence to others he’s interviewed such as the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa or Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).
Soloveitchik came from a distinguished line of East European rabbis. Young Joseph broke with the family’s opposition to secular studies (another theme in “The Chosen”) to be one of the last Jews to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin, in philosophy, before the Nazi takeover. He moved to the U.S. and became the leading personality at Yeshiva University’s seminary.
During and after World War Two, Soloveitchik broke with Orthodox opposition to modern Israel and served for decades as the honorary president of Orthodoxy’s Religious Zionists of America. Rejection of esteemed forebears “caused him a great deal of soul-searching and pain,” Carmy reports, but he decided change was essential for Jewish survival. Much of U.S. Orthodoxy agreed.
However, Carmy underscores that his mentor was no kneejerk supporter of Israeli actions. He resisted Jews who “exalted the state and its military prowess.” After the Six Day War, Soloveitchik believed occupation of new Holy Land territory fulfilled the Hebrew Bible and yet asked Jews to defer to military experts in deciding on “land for peace” swaps. In 1982, he urged a special investigation of Israel’s complicity in the massacres at two Lebanon refugee camps.
“The Rav” also championed admission of women to Talmud study (though not rabbinical ordination, of course). And he set Orthodoxy’s policy on relations with Christianity in the era when the Second Vatican Council was revising Catholicism’s attitude toward Jews.
His important 1964 article (.pdf here) in the Orthodox thought journal Tradition (of which Carmy is now the editor) favored interfaith talks on ethics and public policy but declared that dialogues about religious beliefs are unwise. Similarly, see the 2009 policy statement from modern Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America, in which Soloveitchik was a major influence.