By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro’s “The Empty Wagon” is one of the most controversial books to hit the Orthodox world in decades. Its 1,373 pages deal with the reaction to the Zionist movement within the Orthodox Jewish world and attempt to debunk much of what the Torah community believes about Israel’s modern history.
Most interesting to me is Rabbi Shapiro’s claim throughout the book that the Six Day War was not “miraculous” at all and involved no nissim whatsoever. Rabbi Shapiro attempts to back this up through Internet searches, citations of a few U.S intelligence reports, and quotes from the Satmar Rebbe, zt’l.
I choose to believe other sources, especially Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt’l, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva.
In Az Yashir we read the reaction of the nations in the aftermath of the exodus from Egypt: “Then the chieftains of Edom were startled; as for the powerful men of Moab, trembling seized them.” Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt’l, notes that this pasuk seems to be revealing some great chiddush or insight. Yet is it not obvious that when faced with open miracles people are startled and tremble? (Hagaddah of the Roshei Yeshiva of Mir, p. 226)
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz answers that it is not. It is the nature of people not to change themselves even after seeing open miracles. “This explains why people around us now are not changing after seeing the open miracles of the Six Day War,” adds Rav Shmulevitz. This shmuess was delivered in June 1967 in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. The Mir experienced an open miracle when a bomb that crashed through the ceiling did not explode.
So there we have it. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt’l, says straight out that there were open miracles. He also explains exactly why Rabbi Shapiro refuses to recognize the open miracles of the Six Day War.
So who do we go with: Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt’l, or the author of this book?
Reb Dan Waldman, who fought in 1967, recollects the following:
“We had 200 planes. They had three entire air forces. Rabim b’yad me’atim — we had 2.5 million Jews; they had four entire nations. There were numerous miracles.
“There was no feeling like it in the world. I remember soldiers saying that they will not liberate Yerushalayim from Shaar HaAshpa [Dung Gate]; they went in through the Lions’ Gate. Everyone realized that these were open miracles — chareidim in Bnei Brak and even the most secular people.
“Hashem won us this war not in six days but in six hours. There were such nissim. The Jordanians knew that our planes were bombing those of the Egyptians. They sent a message to Egypt. Hashem made it that they changed the codes the previous day and did not inform the Jordanians. This was Yad Hashem. The complete destruction of the Egyptian Air Force in hours. This was Yad Hashem.”
On a personal note, my entire family and I were in Yerushalayim at the time, and my parents, aleihem ha’shalom, never stopped talking about what happened in Yerushalayim that week. My mother and uncle were hit by shrapnel on their way to the bunker we stayed in while being shelled. The entire nation, both religious and irreligious, experienced nissim and niflaos — from the soldiers who liberated the Kosel to the Jewish families in the bunkers.
Thus, the author’s abnegation of the opinions of gedolei olam, the bomb in the Mir miraculously not exploding, the experiences of soldiers and run-of-the-mill citizens, and my parents’ personal experience, leaves me with an unpleasant aftertaste.
Throughout the book, Rabbi Shapiro attempts to demonstrate that the strongly anti-Zionistic view of the Satmar Rebbe, zt’l, was the same view of the gedolim of the past and the yeshiva world. In this reviewer’s opinion, his analysis is fundamentally flawed. To say that this premise is grossly inaccurate is a serious understatement.
There were, historically, five major reactions to Zionism, which we can label as categories, in the observant Jewish world. There was the reaction of the Satmar Rebbe, zt’l, that Zionism was essentially a movement that ran counter to Torah-true Judaism and came from the Sitra Achra. This category was the position espoused mostly by rabbis in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is associated with both the Neturei Karta and Satmar, although many in this movement have tempered this position.
The second category was also an anti-Zionist position, but not to the extent of category one. This position rather reflects a “hold our nose and deal with them” attitude. Primarily, the espousers of this category belonged to the Agudath Israel camp in its earlier stages. After the Holocaust and the rise of the state of Israel, many in this group modified their prewar, pre-state stance.
A third category comprises people who identify with categories #1 and #2 socially, but look at Zionism and the State of Israel much as Orthodox religious Jews look at a hospital or a volunteer ambulance company. Many observant Jews in the United States identify with this third category. They bear no ill will toward the State of Israel and often show a desire to help it. They also have a sense of appreciation toward it. Many gedolim and roshei yeshiva hold this view but only voice it to their close talmidim.
Category four is composed of people who are chareidi in their halachic observance and Torah study, but identify with something called religious Zionism. They look at the development of the State of Israel as part of G-d’s Divine plan of redemption.
Category five’s subscribers are people who are religious but markedly more secular and modern in their observance. They are more likely to have television sets and partake in cultural activities of secular society. Their outlook on the State of Israel is also that it is part of a Divine plan of redemption.
Rabbi Shapiro runs roughshod through the subtle and nuanced views of gedolei Torah and misrepresents those views as being in full agreement with that of the Satmar Rebbe. They are decidedly not.
Rav Yosef Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, told Rabbi Berel Wein that he flew the Israeli flag from the roof of the Ponevezh Yeshivah building in Bnei Brak on Yom HaAtzmaut. When faced with complaints, Rav Kahaneman responded, “I flew the Lithuanian flag on the roof of my yeshiva in Ponevezh on Lithuanian Independence Day. My friends, it is no worse here.”
Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky, zt’l, attested to his talmidim that his father, Rav Yaakov, zt’l, recited the Shehecheyanu blessing when the UN adopted Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947. Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, when told of the passing of Resolution 181, said, “Baruch Hashem.”
Let us also not forget that Agudath Israel signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is disingenuous and deceptive to lump these divergent views together in one category. Yet this is what the author does throughout the book.
Let us also recall that both Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l — among numerous other gedolim — signed a Kol Koreh that stated: “Nodeh L’Hashem al she’zachinu b’rov rachamav v’chasadav lir’os es ha’nitzagim ha’rishonim shel kibbutz galiyos im hakamasah shel medinas Yisrael … k’dei she’artzeinu u’medinasainu tivneh v’tischonen al taharas ha’kodesh.”
It is inconceivable that our gedolei Torah would write such things if they shared the Satmar Rebbe’s position on Zionism. Rather, it is clear that these gedolim were in the second or third category, or perhaps somewhere in between.
The book is filled with fascinating information and vignettes of leading gedolim. Much of the material is accurately researched. The material, however, is combined with conjecture as to the motivations of people in an entire movement. Yes, many Zionists were atheists and tried to replace Torah-true Judaism with nationalism. But it is inaccurate and deceptive to claim that all Zionists shared this agenda.
Shockingly, the author deals with great gedolim in a disrespectful manner. Rav Kook, zt’l, was one of the leading gedolim of Klal Yisrael. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt’l, took a trip around Eretz Yisrael with him to spread Torah.
There are also errors of attribution in the book (p. 539). The Chofetz Chaim never said the words “Kook Shmook” — no matter what Rabbi Shapiro says. (Someone else said this and the author’s source confused the two.) Rav Hutner, zt’l, was also a talmid of Rav Kook, and for a former student of Chaim Berlin to deal with Rav Kook in such a disparaging manner is unnerving.
The author’s attack on Rav Teichtal, zt’l, the author of Eim HaBanim Semeichah, and his disparagement of him, is most unbecoming. Rav Teichtal’s sefer has a haskamah from Rav Zalman Nechemya Goldberg, shlita, that states:
“I was happy to hear from my dear friend, R’ Chaim Menachem Teichtal, shlita, that the wonderful book written by his brilliant, righteous, and saintly father, R’ Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, ztvk’l … author of Responsa Mishneh Sachir, [was being published in English]. This book, which is completely holy, arouses the hearts of Israel to their Father in Heaven and inspires them to cherish the great mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel.
“For some time now, this book, Eim HaBanim Semeichah, has been renowned throughout the Jewish world. Recently, R’ Moshe Lichtman, shlita, took the initiative to translate this book into English, so that the Jewish masses who do not understand the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) can benefit [from it]. The translator has expertise in this field and, undoubtedly, will produce a proper work for the benefit of Klal Yisrael.”
Rav Teichtal, zt’l, was murdered in the Holocaust. He had an extraordinary reputation — even greater than that of the Satmar Rebbe, zt’l, when they were both in Europe. His responsa are world-class teshuvos.
This book has haskamos, but two of those writers do not read English and it is almost certain that the third did not read the work in its entirety. There is no question that there were and still are numerous secular Zionists who can be characterized as anti-Torah, but is it not better to adopt the attitude of those who hope to bring them around to a Torah lifestyle rather than to harp on the negative issues of long ago?
The author felt close to the Satmar Rebbe and felt the need to bring out his thoughts to the world. There is no question that the Satmar Rebbe was a tzaddik who built a broken nation after the war. But let’s not forget that the Satmar Rebbe himself did not want his views on the matter espoused to the gentile world in English. The author should have spent the four years he took to write this book to spread the brilliance of the Satmar Rebbe’s other Torah instead.
One’s time and effort should be placed upon building Torah and Klal Yisrael through chesed, more Torah, and genuine ahavas Yisrael, rather than sowing further discord in Klal Yisrael. It is disheartening that this book is being sold in yeshivos; even putting aside the sinas chinam that the book will engender, what about all the bitul Torah it is causing?
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.