The leaders of the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization wanted to be recognized as the leaders of the entire Jewish people; thus, they sought to gain power and prestige among Torah-committed Jews in Zion and in the Diaspora. As a major step towards this goal, they established a Chief Rabbinate office in Zion. It was actually a two-part process which began with their establishment of a Chief Rabbinate office for Jerusalem which was followed by their establishment of a Chief Rabbinate office for the entire Land. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, a leading sage, was chosen by them to serve as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and he then was chosen to be the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the entire Land.
There were, however, leading sages, such as Rav Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who opposed the W.Z.O.’s attempt to establish a Chief Rabbinate office, and the majority of the Chareidim followed their view. In Part One of this letter, we discussed why the Chareidi men and women of the Old Yishuv were upset that the British government had given the W.Z.O. administrative control over the Jewish communities in Zion, and we cited the following comment of the Zionist historian, Yehudah Slutzki, regarding their opposition to the rule of the secular-dominated W.Z.O.:
“Until the First World War, the Old Yishuv was in control. They had comprised the majority of the Jewish population and now felt like prisoners in their own home.”
As we shall explain, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, at the request of his rabbinic colleagues, became the leader of the Chareidim. The conflict over the establishment of the Chief Rabbinate office by the W.Z.O. therefore became a conflict between Rav Kook and Rav Sonnenfeld, the two great and loving sages who led a rabbinic outreach tour of various settlements of the New Yishuv during 1914, in order to bring the settlers closer to their spiritual heritage.
In this letter, we shall discuss why Rav Kook agreed to accept the offer of the W.Z.O. to become the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazim, and we shall also discuss the major reason why Rav Sonnenfeld opposed the attempt of the W.Z.O. to establish a Chief Rabbinate office.
A history of this dispute appears in the book “Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The author of this well-researched book is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, a great-grandson of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. Although this book defends the perspective of Rav Yosef Chaim and describes his greatness, it also discusses the greatness of Rav Kook. The book also indicates that each of these leading sages had noble motives based on their Torah understanding of the issues. In other words, this was a “dispute for the sake of heaven” – a beautiful Torah concept which we discussed in Part One of this letter.
Just before World War One, Rav Kook went to Europe to attend the conference of the international Chareidi organization, Agudath Israel; however, the outbreak of the war caused him to be stranded in Europe. When the war was over, he returned to the Land of Zion and reassumed his position as the Rav of Jaffa. After his return, there were some Torah-committed Jews who called upon Rav Kook to become the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and to later become the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the Land in the offices established by the World Zionist Organization. Rav Kook initially said that he was not interested; moreover, he was aware that Rav Diskin and Rav Sonnenfeld were opposed to the idea of a secular-sponsored Chief Rabbinate. Rav Kook later changed his mind and agreed to take these positions. One reason was because there were aspects of the proposed Chief Rabbinate structure of the W.Z.O. which went against the “halacha” – the detailed requirements of the Torah path. He therefore felt a responsibility to take the position in order to protect the halacha.
I would like to suggest another reason for Rav Kook’s decision: Rav Kook, who was not a member of Mizrachi, the National Religious faction within the W.Z.O., had tried to start a new Torah-committed organization – “Degel Yerushalayim” – which would also strive to serve as a bridge between Jews committed to secular ideologies and Jews committed to the Torah, the Divine Teaching. He realized that many Torah-committed Jews refused to join and strengthen the W.Z.O., due to its secular ideology; thus, he hoped that this new organization would attract all Torah-committed Jews – both the National Religious and the Chareidim. His attempts to start this new organization, however, did not succeed. It is therefore likely that Rav Kook viewed the invitation to become Chief Rabbi as a new opportunity to serve as a bridge between the secular and religions groups.
A major reason for Rav Sonnenfeld’s opposition to the Chief Rabbinate office of the W.Z.O. is discussed in a report about a delegation of leading Torah sages from Agudath Israel who traveled from Europe to Jerusalem in order to mediate the dispute between Rav Kook and Rav Sonnenfeld. These sages made various attempts to end the dispute, but they were not successful; moreover, Rav Kook and his rabbinical court decided to reject a final compromise proposal which they suggested. Upon returning to Europe, the Rebbe of Sokolov delivered a report to an Agudath Israel conference in Poland on the delegation’s attempts to resolve the dispute, and in this report he discusses a major reason for Rav Sonnenfeld’s opposition to the Chief Rabbinate office. The following are excerpts from his report:
“When the (British) Mandatory government set out to organize the official community structure, they found the Chief Rabbinate office already in existence (from the period under Turkish rule, when it was established by the leading Sephardic sages)… Rav Sonnenfeld was then offered (by the Mandatory government) the position of official Chief Rabbi, but he vehemently refused it, because he opposed in principle the concept of a government-sponsored Chief Rabbi. When he learned of the invitation to Rav Kook to assume the position, he urged Rav Kook to refrain from such a step, since it was liable to divide Orthodox Jewry in Jerusalem and in the entire Land.”
“Rav Sonnenfeld is a tzaddik, one of the senior rabbis of Jerusalem, and the most highly respected authority among the Chareidim. As a native of Hungary and a close disciple of the K’sav Sofer, he follows the path of the Chasam Sofer (the father of the K’sav Sofer) who demanded pure and uncompromising Judaism… Rav Sonnenfeld’s primary opposition is to the concept of an official rabbinate in general, and a government-appointed Chief Rabbi in particular. The Chasam Sofer in his time refused to become the Chief Rabbi of his country and vigorously opposed the idea.”
The report also explained the following view of Rav Sonnenfeld regarding the role of a rav:
“The greatness of a rav should rest on his attainments in Torah, piety, and character, not on government recognition or the size of the country in which he serves as Chief Rabbi. How much more so in Jerusalem, the Holy City – where the impact of such an appointment is not restricted to the local populace but has significance for all Eretz Yisrael, even for all of Jewry…There it is certainly wrong to establish an official rabbinate subject to government influence.”
Decades later, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a leading sage who was affiliated with Mizrachi, expressed a similar reservation regarding the Chief Rabbinate office of the State of Israel. His view is expressed in the following excerpt from an interview with Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik which was published in the Boston Jewish Advocate on April 2, 1964:
“One of the reasons why I did not accept the post of chief rabbi of Israel – and the offer was made to me several times – was that I was afraid to become an officer of the state. A rabbinate linked up with a state cannot be completely free.” (Cited in, “Community, Covenant and Commitment – Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik”)
Although Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was referred to in the report as, “the most highly respected authority among the Chareidim,” he previously had no official rabbinic position! This was because he strenuously avoided official rabbinic positions. He was forced to change his approach, however, when the W.Z.O. established its Chief Rabbinate office. Rav Kook’s first decision to accept the position of Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem under the auspices of the W.Z.O. caused leading sages from the Old Yishuv to officially appoint Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld as the Rav and Chief Judge of the large Ashkenazic community in Jerusalem. In 1920, these sages met in the home of Rav Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin, a major authority on their rabbinical court, and they signed an official document which gave this position to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. Following the signing, Rav Diskin led all those present to the home of Rav Yosef Chaim in the Battei Machseh neighborhood of the Old City. After Rav Yosef Chaim was briefed on the proceedings of the meeting, Rav Diskin rose and extended the document to Rav Yosef Chaim; however, Rav Yosef Chaim was at a loss. How could he accept something in his later years that he had so strenuously avoided all his life? Rav Diskin then proclaimed: “I command you to accept the position as Rav of the Holy City!” Rav Yosef Chaim wept, but Rav Diskin would not relent, and Rav Yosef Chaim finally submitted to the will of the venerable sage.
Rav Kook and Rav Sonnenfeld had a few disagreements about halacha and Torah outlook which made it difficult to resolves the dispute. In addition, there were some zealots among the supporters of both sages who inflamed the atmosphere through personal attacks on the “other” sage. Despite this dispute, the two sages maintained a respectful and friendly relationship with each other, and with the help of Hashem, we shall discuss their relationship in Part Three of this letter.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. In the elections for the Chief Rabbis, the delegates chosen by the W.Z.O. elected Rav Kook as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, and Rav Yaakov Meir as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi. Rav Yaakov Meir, however, was concerned about developments which gave the secularists some influence in the Chief Rabbinate, and he therefore sent a letter to Rav Sonnenfeld asking to meet with him and Rav Diskin. At that meeting, Rav Meir sought their advice as to how to deal with the recent developments in the Chief Rabbinate. After that meeting, a strong bond developed between this Sephardic sage and the sages who guided the Ashkenazic Chareidi communities.
2. For a period, a rabbi needed to be a member of Mizrachi in order to be elected as Chief Rabbi; however, through various contacts, the Chareidi communities had limited influence with the Chief Rabbinate. In addition, most of the Chief Rabbis maintained good relations with the Chareidi communities; moreover, these Chief Rabbis sometimes sided with the Chareidi communities on various issues where the Chareidi position differed from the Mizrachi position. In recent decades, the Chareidi communities increased their influence within the Chief Rabbinate, and an early example was the election of the Chareidi rabbi, Rav Israel Meir Lau, as the Chief Rabbi for the Ashkenazim. Another early example was the election of the Chareidi rabbi, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, as the Chief Rabbi for the Sephardim.
3. The letter, “A Dispute for the Sake of Heaven – Part One,” appears in the archive of our series on our website, and the following is a direct link:
Part One can be sent to you via e-mail upon request.
4. I have cited information from the book, “Guardian of Jerusalem” by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. To learn more about this highly recommended work, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/YCPH .