Review of Benny Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish by Etkes

Etkes has done a review of Benny Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish focusing on the historical elements, not the halakhic. Etkes picked out from the nearly 1000 page tome how the Hazon Ish gained his following, what role he played in the construction of simple faith and unscientific theology of Haredi Judaism, and how he related to Ben Gurion. Etkas has a great line in the review that gedolim tales “do not have the power to transmit true greatness. Readers are meant only to internalize the pat moral lessons derived from these rewritten lives, without doubting their veracity.” Etkes also points out the moral lesson of Brown that people want rabbis to address their halakhic issues and to be sensitive to the world they live in- lenient or strict is less important that sensitive and understanding. Hence, the need for contemporary hagiography to falsify that he was understanding of the need for physical work, an essential part of life in the early years of Israel.

Hehazon Ish: Haposek: Hama’amin Vemanhig Hamahapekha Haharedit ‏(The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution‏), by Benjamin Brown (Magnes Press ‏(Hebrew) ‏951 pages,

Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, popularly known as the Hazon Ish ‏(meaning “vision of man,” the title of his most well-known book‏), played a highly significant role in shaping ultra-Orthodox Jewish society in the second half of the 20th century. Benjamin Brown’s book, however, is the first comprehensive work to examine this formative figure in ultra-Orthodox society in a critical and scholarly light.

An intriguing question is how this Lithuanian religious scholar, who lived from 1878 to 1953, became a “gadol hador” − literally, one of the greats of a generation, meaning that he is a widely esteemed authority on Jewish religious law who attracted a large following… The process was gradual, with no indication in the early stages of Karelitz’s life that he would become so renowned. Until he was 55, the Hazon Ish never left Lithuania, where he devoted himself solely to the study of Jewish texts and halakha (religious law).

The revolution in Karelitz’s life began when he immigrated to Palestine, in 1933. Make no mistake about it: He was not a Zionist and he had reservations, if not downright hostility, about the Zionist movement.

The first thing that concerned him upon arrival was the resolution of halakhic doubts about legal strictures related to life in the Land of Israel. At the same time, the move awakened him in a way that led to his involvement with public life.

At first, he served as a religious authority for farmers in communities organized by the Haredi workers’ political party Poalei Agudat Yisrael, giving guidance on questions about, for example, milking cows on Shabbat and adhering to the religious restrictions of the shmita ‏(fallow‏) year. His rulings tended to be strict. He did, nonetheless, become sensitive to the difficulties facing religious farmers, and tried to be of assistance. After a few years, when he had won a reputation as an independent and authoritative arbiter, he began to make rulings in a variety of fields.

Still, it was only after World War II that the Hazon Ish really became a public leader. The destruction of centers of Torah learning in Eastern Europe and the death of leading rabbis, whether naturally or in the Holocaust, created a vacuum in the ultra-Orthodox world. The Hazon Ish attempted to fill the vacuum by building yeshivot anew in Palestine
ironically, of the sort that characterizes the way Hasidim relate to their rebbes. Masses of people crowded his doorstep seeking advice about work, health and matchmaking.

Why the Hazon Ish? The answer appears to be simple: He was seen as truly brilliant. That blazing intelligence, combined with a humble lifestyle and a willingness to receive all comers, bestowed on him an aura of righteousness.
On the other hand, he was a pragmatist, who knew how to be flexible and distinguish between goals that could be achieved and those that could not.

Karelitz’s pragmatic flexibility can be seen clearly in his willingness to work with adherents of the Musar movement after he moved to the Land of Israel. Karelitz was highly critical of the movement, which was founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the mid-19th century and focused on improving one’s ethics and suppressing the “evil inclination,” because he argued that Jewish law should be the sole deciding factor in whether moral conduct was good or bad. All the same, the Hazon Ish worked with followers of the Musar movement, including its most extreme adherents, to rebuild yeshivot in Mandatory Palestine after World War II.

There were also other character traits that may have contributed to the Hazon Ish’s ascendance. He was a scholar with tendencies toward intellectual elitism, but he also showed compassion and understanding in his relations with the public. Another quality that may explain his appeal is his profound inner conviction of the righteousness of his way, and the perfect congruence between the religious ideal he represented and the way he lived.

As Brown makes clear, for all of Karelitz’s abilities as a scholar with a deep understanding of Jewish texts, he was not much of an original thinker and was not particularly interested in theological questions. At the same time, the Hazon Ish did have a religious worldview − what Brown calls an “unscientific theology” that wasn’t made explicit or applied methodically but that is nevertheless the key to understanding his inner world and public works.

Neither philosophy nor mysticism − two approaches that greatly influenced Jewish thought and the Jewish sages − held much appeal for the Hazon Ish. So what does characterize his religious thinking? Brown’s answer: “simple faith.”
The only religious conclusion demanded by the Holocaust was the obligation to rebuild the centers of Torah study that had been destroyed.

Over the last few decades, dozens of such works have been published about the lives of people called, in religious parlance, “gedolei Yisrael” or “the gedolim,” the great Torah scholars. This is a continuing effort to create a pantheon of great rabbis by mythologizing their lives. The process is connected to an idea that has taken hold of the ultra-Orthodox world in recent generations and expressed in the term “da’at Torah.” According to this concept, these Torah scholars have the power and the insight to tell their followers what to do even on non-halakhic matters, without having to cite the basis of their instructions in halakhic sources. Moreover, these instructions have the force of Jewish religious law.

And so the writers, editors and readers of these biographies are completely unable to plumb the depths of their subjects or understand their considerations and motives. Those books don’t have the power to transmit true greatness. Readers are meant only to internalize the pat moral lessons derived from these rewritten lives, without doubting their veracity.

Since the Hazon Ish has come to be seen as one of the great rabbis of the Haredi world, it is no wonder that one of the high points of the mythology surrounding him is his conflict with someone perceived as a dire threat to the ultra-Orthodox community − none other than Israel’s first prime minister, the secular Zionist David Ben-Gurion. In December 1952, when the ultra-Orthodox were conducting a campaign against national service for women, Ben-Gurion visited Karelitz’s modest home in Bnei Brak and presented his host with the following question: “How can we, religious and non-religious Jews, live together in this country without having it explode from within?”

Ben-Gurion did not receive a real answer. But nonetheless, the religious biographical literature has made a choice meal of this meeting. Although there were only three people present ‏(Ben-Gurion’s aide Yitzhak Navon was the third‏), ultra-Orthodox sources provide details of the heroic stance of the Hazon Ish against the Zionist enemy. These include the story that when Ben-Gurion entered the room, the Hazon Ish removed his eyeglasses so he would not have to look evil in the face.

One mark of Brown’s success is the sharpness of the Haredi response to his book. It seems that more than anything else, the ultra-Orthodox cannot forgive Brown for saying the Hazon Ish − whom they consider one of the inspirations for the creation of a “learning society” in which Haredi men learn Torah all day instead of working, regardless of their scholarly aptitude − never believed that men must do nothing but study Torah, and that he was not opposed to army service or participation in the workforce.

Prof. Immanuel Etkes is a historian of religious movements among the Jews of Eastern Europe in modern times.

2 responses to “Review of Benny Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish by Etkes

  1. It is not surprising that Haredi disciples are wont to make up stories about their rabbis especially about those considered Gedolim, nor is it surprising that the Hazon Ish was an anti-Zionist, I’ve heard enough bubbe meises about my great-great-great-grandfather. In general, Orthodoxy was against the re-establishment of the State of Israel. The correct translation of Haposek is The Decisor or the Halkahc Decisor.

  2. Pingback: Rabbis, Their Families, and Hagiography « Menachem Mendel

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