After I moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1986, I used to visit libraries in Jerusalem, and in one library, I came across some historical information about the Torah-committed Jews who lived in Jerusalem before the birth of the modern Zionist movement. The information revealed that these Torah-committed Jews, who became known as Chareidim, began to build new Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City walls. They also began to establish some agricultural settlements, and I later learned more about the following example:
During the late 1870’s – before the establishment of settlements by the modern Zionist movement – a group of Torah sages in Jerusalem, led by Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, began a religious agricultural movement aimed at developing the Land and providing some relief from the overcrowded conditions of Jerusalem. A group was formed to develop the area that was given the name “Petach Tikva” – the Portal of Hope. After much difficulty and one failed attempt, the agricultural settlement of Petach Tikva was finally established in 1881. It is now a city in Israel.
Through further research, I became more aware of the following information: Throughout the centuries of our exile, there were some Jews living in the Land of Zion, and Jewish communities emerged in various cities, such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Gaza, Tiberias, and Tsfas (Safed). In fact, by the middle of the 19th century, the Jews were the majority of Jerusalem’s population
In the early 1880’s, the pioneers of the modern Zionist movement began to arrive in the Land, and they referred to the Jewish communities which preceded them as “the Old Yishuv” – the Old Settlement. The immigrants from the modern Zionist movement established communities which became known as “the New Yishuv” – the New Settlement. Although some of the immigrants of the New Yishuv were religious, militant secular activists became the major leaders of the New Yishuv, and they began to clash with the spiritual leaders of the Old Yishuv. These secular activists sought to have nationalism become the ideology which defines the raison d’etre of our people, while the spiritual leaders of the Old Yishuv stressed that the fulfillment of the Torah, the Divine Teaching, is the raison d’etre of our people.
During this period of research, I read articles in the Jerusalem Post about the the Chareidi men and women of the Old Yishuv by the noted journalist, Moshe Kohn. He was a Religious Zionist who wrote about our ongoing presence in the Land of Zion; moreover, he described the pioneering work of these Torah-committed men and women of the Old Yishuv. His articles, as well as similar articles by a new generation of Israeli historians, were a “revelation” for many Israeli Jews, as they were unaware of the contributions of the Old Yishuv towards the strengthening of Jewish life in Zion. Why were these articles such a revelation? The majority of the previous leaders and historians of the modern Zionist movement tended to ignore the contributions of the Jewish men and women in Zion who preceded them, and in a future letter, I hope to discuss the ideological reasons and the prejudices which caused these earlier contributions to be ignored.
As I continued my research, I came across new books which gave a detailed account of the beliefs and accomplishments of the Jewish men and women of the Old Yishuv – both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. My study led to an inner spiritual renewal, as these early lovers of Zion had a pure Torah vision of the purpose of Zion – one which was not influenced by the nationalistic ideologies and movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And through this pure vision, I developed a deeper love for the Land of Zion, and a deeper understanding of the “soul” of Zion.
As we have begun to discuss in this series, a deeper understanding of the soul of Zion reveals that the presence of our people in Zion has a universal goal. In this spirit, I will share with you a quote from Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, one of the spiritual leaders of “Old Jerusalem” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a call for peace between Arabs and Jews, he described Zion as, “the Holy Land to which God affords special supervision, from which blessing emanates to the rest of the world, and in which God’s prophets foresaw the future happiness of all humanity.” (Guardian of Jerusalem, p. 456)
With the help of Hashem, I will take you on a “tour” of Old Jerusalem during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and we will meet some of the great spiritual leaders of this period. There is no need for baggage or passports on this tour, and all that we need to take along for the journey is our open minds and understanding hearts.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
1. Among the great spiritual leaders that we will meet on our “tour” will be Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, mentioned above, who came to Eretz Yisrael in 1873, and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, who arrived in 1904. Rabbi Sonnenfeld first settled in Jerusalem and he eventually became a major leader of the Old Yishuv, as well as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of its large community in Jerusalem. Rabbi Kook first settled in Jaffa, in order to serve as the rabbi of this city on the Mediterranean coast. The Jaffa region had many members of the New Yishuv. Rabbi Kook was not a member of the World Zionist Organization, nor was he even a member of its national-religious branch known as Mizrachi; however, he felt that he had a mission to serve as a bridge between the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv. This sense of mission was a major reason why he later accepted the offer of the World Zionist Organization to serve as the Chief Ashkenazic Rav of the Chief Rabbinate Office which this secular-dominated organization established in an attempt to gain support for the W.Z.O. from religious Jews around the world.
Rabbi Sonnenfeld and Rabbi Kook developed a warm and respectful relationship; moreover, they worked together on various occasions to strengthen Torah life in Eretz Yisrael. For example, both of them, together with other leading sages of the Old Yishuv, went on a tour of the settlements of the New Yishuv before World War I, in order to bring the settlers closer to Torah.
Although both Rabbi Sonnenfeld and Rabbi Kook demonstrated great love for all the Family of Israel, they later had a very strong disagreement – “a dispute for the sake of Heaven” – regarding the best way to relate to the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization which was attempting to take over the leadership of the Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael. We will discuss aspects of this dispute – one which involved leading sages of that era; moreover, we will tell stories about how Rabbi Sonnenfeld and Rabbi Kook managed to maintain a friendly and respectful relationship during the period of this strong dispute, even though this dispute increased divisions and rancor within the Torah-committed communities.
2. A number of years ago, we discussed some aspects of the Old Yishuv in a previous series titled, “Renewing the Vision of Zion.” In our new series, “My Search for the Soul of Zion,” we will include new information and stories about the Old Yishuv, as well as some deeper insights regarding the origins of the following modern conflicts in Eretz Yisrael: the conflict between secular and religious, between Chareidi and National Religious, between the political left and the political right, and between our people and the Arabs.
3. We will also discuss Torah ethics regarding protest demonstrations, as well as the problem of police brutality in response to protests. A major theme of this discussion will be the need to avoid behavior at any kind of Jewish protest gathering – political right or political left, Chareidi or National Religious – which is not in accordance with Torah ethics and which therefore creates a chillul Hashem – a desecration of the Divine Name before other Jews and the world.
4. In addition, we will review some new developments in Israel which offer hope that the internal conflicts in our land can be resolved in a way which will lead to spiritual renewal; moreover, we will explore how this spiritual renewal can lead to a resolution of the conflict with the Arabs in a way which brings true shalom for Israel and all the nations.