Benjamin Brown, Hehazon Ish: Haposek: Hama’amin Vemanhig Hamahapekha Haharedit (The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution): Magnes Press, NIS 128

Immanuel Etkes

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 twentieth century. It’s not surprising that he is the subject of at least six biographies by ultra-Orthodox writers. 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.

‘The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution’ is a monumental work that includes elements of biography, while also describing and analyzing this leading rabbi’s philosophy, providing a history of his involvement in ultra-Orthodox society, and offering an in-depth discussion of his writings.

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. Brown, a lecturer in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, deals with this question historically, a method expressed in the division of the biography into periods and sub-periods. 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). He held no office, was not involved in public matters and had few connections even to the great religious scholars of his age. He invested all his energies in Torah study, and his wife bore the burden of supporting them. Only during his last years in Lithuania, when he lived in Vilna, did he meet important rabbis, including the leading rabbi of the city, Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.

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. Unlike some Haredim, who, contrary to the public perception today, had been excited by the Balfour Declaration and looked forward to the redemption it promised, the Hazon Ish did not consider it an act of God. 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. This elderly Lithuanian scholar, who had previously been seen as retiring but now began to display a heretofore hidden charisma, found sudden popularity − 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. His status as a scholar grew, as did his reputation as an important figure whose advice was sought by leading ultra-Orthodox leaders and politicians.


Brilliance, humility and charisma

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. However, while these are necessary factors, they are not sufficient to fully explain how the Hazon Ish came to be seen as a leading member of the Haredi pantheon of great rabbis.

In order to fully explain the phenomenon of the Hazon Ish, Brown must explain his appeal − both its nature and its source. It seems to me that the answer is rooted partly in the rabbi’s personality. As Brown shows repeatedly, it was complex. On the one hand, Karelitz was a stern conservative who at times tended toward extremism. 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-nineteenth 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.


Simple faith

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.’This was an idea that spread among Orthodox Jews at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. It means accepting the basic principles of faith and steering away from thorny theological questions like how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. The only religious conclusion demanded by the Holocaust was the obligation to rebuild the centers of Torah study that had been destroyed.


The rabbinical pantheon

Brown correctly argues that the Hazon Ish became an icon while he was still alive, and even more of one after he died. The six books about him written from within the ultra-Orthodox community are part of a broader phenomenon of mythologizing the lives of rabbis and ignoring or falsifying any aspects of their lives that do not conform to the ideals set by the religious elites of the day. 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. The myth of the greats is meant, therefore, to grant authority. The Hazon Ish himself encouraged the development of this idea, and Haredim see him as one of those leaders whose da’at Torah is valued.

It should be noted that the portraits of the greats in ultra-Orthodox biographical literature are deeply entrenched in idealization and glorification. Their lives are removed from reality, with its temptations, doubts and errors. The towns in which they were born, the homes in which their parents raised them and the educators to whom they were exposed are depicted in glowing terms and described as espousing the highest level of Torah values.

It is taken for granted that the greats were never contaminated by higher education or Zionism. The authors of the books about the Hazon Ish exalt in his mastery of science, but they never discuss how he acquired this wonderful knowledge. And it goes without saying that there is not one word about the fact that the Hazon Ish recommended the study of science in order to understand halakhic issues, just as the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, did.

On the contrary, this hagiographic literature is abundant with sayings from the gedolim suggesting that it is improper to study anything other than Torah. 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.


The man, not the myth

It is to Brown’s credit that he has rescued the Hazon Ish from ultra-Orthodox hagiography. Brown treats his subject with the respect he deserves and with more than a little empathy. At the same time, he views him as flesh and blood, and does not refrain from disclosing moments of weakness in his life. 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.

While it may seem that it’s the gedolim who shaped the Haredi ethos as we know it today, the society is influenced by many more dynamics and constraints than the greats could have foreseen. The object of the hagiography, then, is to reinvent the images of the greats to suit the needs of the ultra-Orthodox ethos as it stands today. And woe is the critical scholar who reveals the gap between myth and reality.

In response to Brown’s book, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Bergman wrote in the Haredi newspaper Yated Neeman: ‘These people [critical scholars] who have not ever read and have not studied and have never gotten close to Torah scholars, and think that they have touched an angel of God even though they have not come close at all ... I say to them: You who are coming to trample my courts, who are you to come here with donkeys [which can never become kosher animals]? ... Let the source of living water [a reference to God and the Torah] be’.

Benjamin Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish is an impressive scholarly achievement, an important signpost in the study of ultra-Orthodox society. Anyone who wants to understand the Haredi world, with its obvious implications for Israeli society in general, must not miss this book.


First published in Ha’aretz 25 June 2012; reproduced by permisson of Professor Etkes.