By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Yaakov Shapiro’s “Empty Wagon” is certainly one of the most controversial books to hit the Orthodox world in decades. Its 1373 pages of text deal with the reaction to the Zionist movement within the Orthodox Jewish world, as well as an attempt to negate much of what the Torah community believes about Israel’s modern history.
For example, Rabbi Shapiro claims 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 some quotes of the Satmar Rov zt”l. The majority of those with firsthand knowledge of the Six Day War, both observant and non-observant, is that there were numerous nissim.
So here we have a bizarre scenario in which secular non-observant Israelis believe that we obtained the makom haMikdash miraculously, while an Orthodox rabbi does not.
Most people’s preference, however, is to believe the view of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz writes that in Az Yashir we observe 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 Moas, trembling seized them..”
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz(Haggaddh of the Roshei Yeshiva of Mir, p. 226), asks that this posuk seems to be revealing some great chiddush or insight. Yet is this not obvious that when faced with open miracles people are startled and tremble?
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz answers that, in fact, it is not. It is the nature of people not to change themselves even after seeing open miracles. “This explains,” said Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, “why people around us now are not changing after seeing the open miracles of the Six Day War.” That’s right – the open miracles of the Six Day War. This shmuess was delivered in June of 1967 in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. The Mir too experienced an open miracle when a bomb that crashed through the ceiling did not explode.
So there we have it. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz says straight out that there were open miracles. He also explains to us exactly why those like Rabbi Shapiro refuse to recognize the open miracles of the Six Day War.
So who do we go with, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz or the author of this book?
Reb Dan Waldman who had actually fought in 1967 recollects the following:
“We had 200 planes. They had three entire air forces. Rabim beyad me’atim – We had 2 and ½ million Jews – they had four entire nations. There were numerous, numerous miracles.
“There was no feeling like it in the world. I remember though soldiers saying that they will not liberate Yerushalayim from Shaar haAshpa – they went in through Shaar HaAriot – the Lions’ Gate. Everyone realized that these were open miracles. Chareidim in Bnei Brak, and even the most secular people.
“The truth is that Hashem won us this war, not in six days, but in six hours. There were such nissim. The Jordanians new that our plains 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, I and my entire family were in Yerushalayim at the time, and my parents aleihem hashalom had never stopped talking about what happened in Yerushalayim that week. My mother and uncle had both been hit by shrapnel on their way to the bunker that we stayed in while being shelled. There were nissim and niflaos that the entire nation, religious and irreligious experienced and completely recognized by all – from the soldiers that liberated the Kosel to the Jewish families within the bunkers.
Thus, the author’s abnegation of 1] the opinions of gedolei olam, 2] the bomb in the Mir miraculously not exploding, 3] the experiences of soldiers, 4] run of the mill citizens, 5] those of my parents’ personal experience leaves this reviewer with an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Throughout the book, the author attempts to demonstrate a premise which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is fundamentally flawed. His premise is that the strongly anti-Zionistic view of the Satmar Rov was, in fact, the exact same view of the gedolim of the past and of the Torah world.
To say that this premise is grossly inaccurate would be a serious understatement.
There were, historically, five major reactions [which we can label as categories] in the observant Jewish world to Zionism. There was the reaction of the Satmar Rov 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 many in the Agudas Yisroel camp in its earlier stages. After the Holocaust and the rise of the state of Israel, many in this group modified their pre-war, pre state stance.
A third category is comprised of 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 to this view, but only voice it to their close talmidim.
Category Four is comprised of people who are chareidi in their halachic observance and Torah study, but who 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. The year 1948 played a key role in G-d’s Master plan of redemption.
Category Five is comprised of people who are religiously observant 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.
What Rabbi Shapiro does in his book is to run roughshod through the subtle and nuanced views of gedolei Torah and misrepresent those views as being in full agreement with that of the Satmar Rov. They are decidedly not.
Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponovezher Rav, told Rabbi Berel Wein that he flew the Israeli flag from the roof of the Ponovezh Yeshivah building in Bnei Brak on Yom Ha’atzmaut. When faced with complaints, Rav Kahaneman responded, “I flew the Lithuanian flag on the roof of my yeshiva in Ponovezh on Lithuanian Independence Day. My friends, it is no worse here.”
Rav Binyomin Kamenetsky attested to his talmidim that his father, Rav Yaakov, recited shehecheyanu when the UN adopted resolution 181 on November 29, 1947. Rav Aharon Kotler, when told of the passing of resolution 181 said, “Boruch Hashem..”
Let us also not forget that Agudas Yisroel 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 Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, among numerous other gedolim, signed a Kol Koreh that stated, “Nodeh Lashem al shezachinu b’rov rachamav v’chasadav liros es haNitzagim harishonim shel kibutz galuios im hakamasa shel medinas Yisroel… kedai sh’artzeinu umedinasainu tivne vetischonen al taharas hakodesh..” published in El Am Hashem B’tzion 5708.
It is inconceivable that our gedolei Torah would write such things if they shared the Satmar Rov’s position on Zionism.
Rather, it is clear that these gedolim were in the second or third category, or 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 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 very disrespectful manner.
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. His source confused the Chofetz Chaim with someone else (someone else did, in fact, say this and the author’s source had confused the two).
The truth of the matter is that Rav Yitzchok Hutner was a talmid of Rav Kook, and for a former student of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin to deal with Rav Kook in such a disparaging manner also is unnerving.
The author’s attack on Rav Teichtal, the author of Eim HaBanim Smeicha, and his disparagement of him is also most unbecoming. Rav Teichtal’s sefer has a haskama from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg that states:
“I was happy to hear from my dear friend, R. Chayim Menachem Teichtal shlita, that the wonderful book written by his brilliant, righteous, and saintly father, R. Yisachar 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, entitled 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.
Written in honor of the Torah and in honor of the brilliant tzaddik zt”l, Zalman Nechemyah Goldberg
Rav Teichtal was murdered in the Holocaust. He had an extraordinary reputation, even greater than that of the Satmar Rebbe when they were both in Europe. His responsum are world class Teshuvos. The Sefer does have haskamos, but two of those that wrote it 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 that hope to bring them around to a Torah lifestyle rather than to harp on the negative issues of long ago?
I consider the author a friend (who will probably not reciprocate after he reads this review). It is true that the author felt close to the Satmar Rov and felt the need to bring out his thoughts to the world. But let’s not forget that the Satmar Rov himself did not want his views on the matter espoused to the gentile world in English. The author instead should have spent the four years he took to write it to instead spread the brilliance of the Satmar Rov’s other Torah.
There is no question that the Satmar Rov was a tzaddik who built a broken nation after the war. But one’s time and effort should be placed upon building Torah and Klal Yisroel through chessed, more Torah and genuine Ahavas Yisroel rather than sowing further discord in Klal Yisroel. It is disheartening that this book is being sold in some Yeshivos – even forgetting about the sinas chinan that the book will certainly engender, what about all the bitul Torah that it is causing – above all in the Yeshivos themselves.
The reviewer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.