Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)
The Worldview of Rabbi Eleazar Schach
The Man of Vision: The Ultra-Orthodox Ideology of Rabbi Shach (Ish Ha-Hashkafah: Ha-Ideologia Ha-Haredit al pi HaRav Shach), by Avishay Ben Haim, Mosaica Publishers, 179 pp. [in Hebrew].
Reviewed by Rivkah Duker Fishman
During the final decades of the twentieth century, Rabbi Eleazar Menachem Shach (1989-2001) emerged as one of the major leaders and thinkers of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewry. Rabbi Shach served as head of the Ponevitz Yeshiva, which was transplanted from Lithuania and reconstituted in B’nai Brak, Israel.
As a Lithuanian Torah scholar, Rabbi Shach was a misnaged-not a Hasidic, charismatic type of rabbi but a figure who advocated diligent, continuous study of the Talmud, meticulous observance of Jewish law, scrupulous morality based on the Torah and the Talmud, and an uncompromising vision of the unique place of the Jewish people and of haredi Jewry in the world. He did not eschew political involvement, despite belonging to a world that, destroyed during the Holocaust and rebuilt in the state of Israel, was remote from the concerns of daily life and the customary language of social and political discourse.
Rabbi Shach founded the haredi political party Degel HaTorah (The Banner of the Torah) and urged the faithful to vote in the Knesset elections of 1984 and subsequently so as to ensure funding for Torah institutions and representation of haredi Jews and advancement of their interests. His party broke away from the Agudat Yisrael party and then rejoined it in a bloc called United Torah Judaism.
In this brief study, Avishay Ben Haim, religious-affairs reporter for the Ma’ariv Hebrew daily, describes Rabbi Shach’s worldview. Because Rabbi Shach did not write a book coherently expounding his philosophy, Ben Haim analyzed his sermons, public statements, newspaper articles in the haredi press, and bulletins devoted to commentaries on the weekly Torah readings available in synagogues. Ben Haim concludes that Rabbi Shach viewed himself and his flock as “guardians of the threshold” (shomrei hasaf), not closed off entirely from society like haredi groups such as the Neturei Karta (“the Guardians of Walls”) but participating in the system, though not sharing its culture and values.
A Traditional Standpoint
According to Ben Haim’s selection of articles, speeches, and comments, Rabbi Shach took the classic view of the Jewish people as a “people that dwells alone” (Numbers 23:9), whom God preserved because of and in order to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. Shach rejects secular Zionism and nationalism and regards Torah observance as the only valid means of preserving the Jewish people. He also rejects the view of religious Zionism that the state is the “beginning of the redemption.”
Zionism, Rabbi Shach asserts, did not end anti-Semitism, and becoming a “normal people” cannot give Israel security and continuity. He mistrusts Gentiles in general and has no faith in their promises. Hence, he doubted the worth of the peace process of the 1990s.
However, his disdain for the secular leadership of Israel and its ideology, which encompassed hatred of religion and haredi Jews, led him to prefer the Right over the Left. For him, the Right (embodied in the Likud Party) represented the “simple people,” and the Left, the anti-Torah elite. According to Rabbi Shach, it is the haredi Jews who are the true lovers of Zion. They love the Land and the Torah and are true to the spirit of Judaism. Therefore, they will prosper and multiply while others will not.
Ben Haim places Rabbi Shach in the context of Orthodox Jewish thought of the past century and of Israeli society and politics. Above all, Man of Vision presents the outlook of a leading haredi thinker and not simply his individual legal decisions or random accusations of his opponents. Ben Haim quotes Shach’s statements amply, albeit selectively, and offers illuminating commentaries. He also commendably brings sources to light that are not readily available, although some are difficult for non-haredi readers to understand.
Rabbi Shach’s vision deserves to be taken seriously by thinkers of the different movements of Judaism and Zionism. Accordingly, Ben Haim has made an important contribution by making Rabbi Shach’s rigorous views accessible to the Hebrew-reading public.
* * *
RIVKAH DUKER FISHMAN is lecturer in Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.