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Walking a tightrope: Chabad’s complicated relationship with Zionism
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement is one of the fastest-growing and most influential denominations of Judaism, spanning across the world and heavily impacting the religion’s future.
You may know it from the stand outside the supermarket, offering you an opportunity to put on tefillin, or from the kosher food it provided while you were traveling in Thailand. You may have encountered it because it was the only synagogue in the country, or because it organized a public menorah lighting in the center of your town.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement is one of the fastest-growing and most influential denominations of Judaism, spanning across the world and heavily impacting the religion’s future. Its stated goal is to bring Jews closer to Jewish tradition and philosophy, particularly stressing the importance of performing even one mitzvah (commandment) and understanding the way Judaism in general and hassidism in particular view the world.
But while the hassidic group puts itself out into the secular world in its quest to influence it, it still shares many aspects with those other, more closed-off hassidic factions it most closely resembles. Its black and white, strictly modest garb, its ultra-Orthodox values, and its unapologetic belief in the literal truth of the Torah are just some of the ways in which this group differs from more mainstream Jewish communities.
The movement’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was known as the Rebbe by his followers and died in 1994. The movement he led, however, is still very much alive, active and growing worldwide.
But what does Chabad, what did its leader, believe about Zionism and the Jewish state?
While certain Jewish groups, such as the Satmar Hassidim, famously oppose the state, and others, such as religious Zionists, strongly value it, Chabad’s view seems to be much more complex.
“When I grew up in the 1970s,” explains Chaim Rapoport, a British Chabad rabbi, author and scholar, “my friends to the Right – from Satmar or Brisk – would harass me by saying the Rebbe was a Zionist, whereas my friends from the Left would taunt me that the Rebbe was anti-Israel. Still today one hears both of these arguments. For me, as a Lubavitcher, I see the Rebbe as having espoused an extremely nuanced position, often walking a tightrope.”
Chabad schools across the world do not mark Independence Day. They are adamantly opposed to the national anthem, “Hatikvah.” Even waving an Israeli flag or having one in a Chabad center is frowned upon.
“Throughout the years, the Rebbe received correspondence from, and was frequently visited by, senior officials in the Israeli government and Israel Defense Forces,” Rapoport writes in his book The Afterlife of Scholarship. “The visitors included five of Israel’s prime ministers – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu – [who] visited the Rebbe in Brooklyn at various stages of their careers. In addition, there was a steady stream of visiting military and intelligence leaders, as well as ministers and Knesset members from the entire gamut of the Israeli political spectrum.”
In fact, the Rebbe’s support was not just by offering advice and blessings. As Rapoport tells The Jerusalem Post, “the Rebbe once gave $10,000 to Rabin as a contribution for building the land. So he recognized that the State of Israel was good for the Jews, and that it provided a homeland for our people in the Holy Land.”
SO WHY the opposition to the state’s Independence Day, national anthem and flag?
“The Rebbe once met with yeshiva students in the 1960s, and they asked him point-blank if he was a Zionist,” says Rapoport. “He responded: ‘If Israel is a state of Jews, then I am not a Zionist, but if it’s a Jewish state, then I am a Zionist.’”
“The Rebbe had a problem with the government of the State of Israel,” Rapoport explains, “because it was a secular government and excluded – and, in some cases, violated – Jewish law. So any religious Jew will, by definition, not be able to identify with a government, particularly in the Holy Land, which is not in keeping with the Torah.”
But while the government may be seen as secular from an extremely religious perspective, a secular citizen of Israel cannot ignore the strong religious elements in the country, specifically the Chief Rabbinate, which controls basic rights such as marriage.
At the same time, however, it may also be due to this very system that Jews in Israel are far more likely to marry Jews than their tribesmen in the Diaspora. The Jewish state is also chock full of yeshivot, which teach Torah, and the country collectively celebrates Jewish holidays. In fact, there are countless examples to be offered for instances in which Jews in Israel are more closely connected to their Judaism than those in the Diaspora – a quality that Chabad pushes and values arguably more than any other Jewish group.
So then why the hang-up?
“If you’re asking, ‘Did the Rebbe recognize how much good has been achieved by the modern State of Israel?’ then the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes,’” says Rapoport. “There are many letters and other communications that illustrate that. And he wouldn’t have supported and fought for its causes so much, if he didn’t believe that.
“If your starting point is that Israel is a secular state, then whatever the state does for Judaism is an added bonus,” he says. “Yet if your axiom is that the Land of Israel is ours by virtue of the Torah, it is axiomatic that it must be run in accordance with the Torah. The Rebbe was coming from that [latter] point of view.
“So the question is not whether the country does good or deserves our support. The question is whether I can identify as a Zionist…. Do I see myself in sync, in tune, with the State of Israel, the governing body of Israel? So long as that state contains within it attitudes and legislation that are antithetical to Judaism, then a person whose whole worldview is perceived through a religious lens can never forge a full identity with it…. Therefore, for the Rebbe, there was always a dichotomy.”
Rapoport also suggested that in the initial stages following the founding of the state, “there was consideration for it to be much more in accordance with Jewish law. Instead, its laws often oppose Jewish law.
“Once Israel clearly indicated that it is essentially a secular country, the Rebbe, as an uncompromising believer, couldn’t be identified with a state that separated Judaism from its governance,” Rapoport says.
Therefore, he explains, “if you have an aversion to the constitution, even things like the Israeli flag will also be problematic.”
This aversion was especially true regarding “Hatikvah,” meaning “the hope.” The song is based on a poem by Naftali Herz Imber that depicts a longing to return to the land.
“When it comes to things like Chabad’s issue with ‘Hatikvah,’ there is a very simple reason,” Rapoport says. “Even some Zionist rabbis were against it. ‘Hatikvah’ is not only a symbol of the state, it is a very clearly enunciated secular symbol of the state.
“Even if you look at the English anthem, it starts with ‘God save our gracious queen.’ ‘Hatikvah’ has no element of God, Torah or Judaism. Here, the silence is thundering. ‘Hatikvah’ as a national anthem, in my opinion, is the strongest articulation of the State of Israel’s disassociation with the Torah and its Giver.”
BUT WHILE the leader of the Chabad movement opposed numerous aspects regarding the symbology and governmental institutions in the state, the Rebbe was also very appreciative of the country and the positivity he felt it brought to the world.
“Therefore the Rebbe was faced with a tremendous dilemma,” says Rapoport. “Because he believed [Israel] was a heavenly gift, he believed the Jewish people should be living there, and he expressed tremendous gratitude and admiration for its defense forces, who risked their very lives to protect the land and its inhabitants.
“So what did he do? He tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in expressing his support on a pragmatic level. Therefore, he supported its economy, its educational infrastructure and its welfare organizations. When it came to the army – supporting the army, encouraging people to go the army, sending out his Hassidim to go and support the army – or giving advice to all these [diplomatic] visitors, that was on a pragmatic level.”
Much of this support has rippled down to the present day, when hundreds of Chabad youth book flights from places like New York or Los Angeles in order to come to Israel and serve in the IDF.
“I would say that up to 50 new guys and girls from Chabad backgrounds come through our doors while serving in the army each year,” says Mordy Botnick, the Chabad founder of Chayal el Chayal, a Jerusalem organization that works to “provide a warm and welcoming family for the young Jewish men and women who come to Israel from around the world to serve in the IDF,” according to its website.
“And that number is just the ones who come to our events,” Botnick says. “There is more than that. And the numbers are growing.”
Like most of the haredi communities in Israel today, the Rebbe strongly believed in the importance of young men studying Torah in yeshivot, even more than the importance of serving in the army. Yet, at the same time, the Rebbe wrote that “when it comes to Jews who give up their lives and bodies in order to protect the Holy Land and all its inhabitants, their merits are the greatest, and they are at the highest spiritual level….”
Therefore, Botnick said, in cases where the young Chabad men are not studying Torah, “I feel like there is no reason to not come and serve in the army. And we find that, for the most part, they come because they feel a strong sense of responsibility to help protect the Jewish people.”
This was seen particularly following the kidnapping of the three boys in 2014 that led to Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, he says. “I think people realized that something was happening, and they wanted to be a part of it. There was an incredible unity from all over the world when those three boys were kidnapped that made people feel like they wanted to do something. And for a lot of boys, that way of doing something was coming to Israel and joining the army.”
While the Rebbe highly valued those risking their lives in order to protect Jewish people, he also strongly believed in the importance of protecting and ensuring Jewish presence in the ancient, sacred land itself.
Likewise, as an Orthodox rabbi, the Rebbe believed in the Torah commandment and importance of living in the Holy Land as a Jew and spoke often about how the land rightfully belongs to the Jewish people due to the Torah. However, he did not encourage his following to immigrate to Israel, except in specific instances.
While he agreed that it is a mitzvah to live in the land, he believed that the commandment falls into the category of an “optional mitzvah,” an opinion shared by other halachic authorities, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
“His opinion was that, of course, it is a mitzvah; and like all other mitzvahs, it is great if you did it,” Rapoport says. “Yet like other mitzvahs that are not absolute obligations, it has to be weighed against other opportunities…. Will there be the right education for your children? Will you be able to make a living? What are you leaving behind? If you are a rabbi or a teacher: Are you deserting your flock? Do you have a pivotal role to play outside of Israel? All of these things come into consideration.
“The Talmud declares that one of the reasons the Jewish people were exiled to the Diaspora was in order to influence the universal communities. Probably, as far he was concerned, that mission was not over yet,” he says.
Yet he still considered it a great value to live in the land, says Rapoport, and on an individual basis “he encouraged many people to make aliyah.”
And it was exactly this message of acceptance of the individual path, while remaining firm in his belief system, that seems to be the strongest among the lessons taught by the leader of the Chabad movement.
Despite not feeling it time for Jews to resettle in Israel en masse, he respected those who did and believed they were performing a mitzvah. Despite believing young men should ideally spend their time studying Torah, he held those who risked their lives as soldiers in the highest esteem. Despite disagreeing on certain issues with the Israeli government, he supported its people and governmental officials on an individual basis. Despite disagreeing with the founding of the secular state, he even offered money to fund its building.
It was this ability to tread this tightrope that surprised even his followers and earned him the recognition of ardent Zionists.
And it was this ability to find the common ground and show respect to those with whom he strongly disagreed that also deeply impacted many people, including Yehiel Kadishai, the former secretary of the late prime minister Menachem Begin.
In a video published by JEM Jewish Media, Kadishai tells of a 1977 visit by Begin to the Rebbe in his office in Brooklyn. The prime minister was in the United States to meet with then-US president Jimmy Carter, one of many meetings between the two leaders that eventually led to the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel – a move the Rebbe deeply opposed due to Israel’s need to give up land in Sinai.
When the prime minister’s limousine pulled up to the Rebbe’s office, the elderly hassidic rabbi was standing outside, waiting to receive him.
After a warm greeting, the two men walked side by side toward the building where the Rebbe’s office was located. But as they stood before the entrance, Kadishai says, the two men with wildly different worldviews suddenly stopped short.
Looking at each other, the two Menachems – one an ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic rabbi and the other a secular elected leader of the Jewish state – both waited. Each insisted that the other walk in first, each acknowledging the other’s unique role within the Jewish people’s story by displaying the utmost respect.