I was walking along Rechov HaGra in the Jerusalem community of Shaarei Chesed and it reminded me of a fascinating class that I heard regarding the street’s namesake.
When one thinks about modern Zionism, the first name that comes to mind is Theodor Herzl. However, a century before Herzl and his colleagues spread their Zionist vision, another revolution took place through a very different visionary.
Spheres of Influence
Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), who was known as the Vilna Gaon (genius) and the Gra, an acronym for Hagaon Rabbeinu Eliyahu, spent his life immersed in Torah study. His influence reverberates in the yeshiva world, which he originated through his student Rav Chaim, who founded the Volozhin Yeshiva based on the ideals of the Gra’s beit midrash (study hall).
Another significant area where the Gra left his mark was regarding the issue of aliyah, as his strong focus on the importance of emigrating to Israel was instrumental in his students’—and their students’—creation of the religious Zionist movement.
None of the classic codifiers of Jewish law—the Rambam, the Halachot Gedolot, the Rif, the Rosh, the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch—mention any law preventing Jews from establishing their own state. In fact, most of them considered moving to the Land of Israel a religious obligation. Moreover, many halachic (Jewish law) giants—including the Arizal, the Bartenura, the Ramban, Rav Yehuda Halevi and Rav Yosef Karo, to name a few—put their words into action and moved to Eretz Yisrael.
Based on normative halacha, the Gra developed a comprehensive worldview with the overarching objective of hastening the coming of the Messiah, and encouraged his students to invest their energy in building the land and bringing about the ingathering of the exiles. Numerous students of the Gra immigrated in the early 19th century and paved the way for the masses who made aliyah starting in the 1880s.
Swimming Against the Tide
Several rabbis who studied in Volozhin in the second half of the 19th century—such as Rav Shmuel Mohilever, who helped found the Hovevei Zion movement (the precursor to Herzl’s political Zionism); Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, who became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in pre-state Israel; and Rav Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, who founded the mizrachi religious Zionist movement—encouraged observant Jews to join forces with secular Jews who were leading the drive to create the Jewish state.
The rabbinic giants who championed the Zionist cause were adhering to the values promulgated by the Gra and espoused by some of their teachers in the Volozhin Yeshiva. However, their association with the Zionist movement was considered somewhat radical, as most European rabbis toward the end of the 19th century discouraged observant Jews from moving to the Holy Land due to (1) their concerns that secular nationalism would replace religious observance, and (2) their finding it inconceivable that the Almighty would fulfill the redemption through secular activism. Consequently, when confronted with pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitism, the majority of religious leaders would urge their followers to accept the hardships of exile and pray for the Messiah’s miraculous arrival.
Although the Gra was unsuccessful in his attempt to move to Eretz Yisrael, his legacy is flourishing in the country’s numerous synagogues that have adopted his unique minhagim; in the countless batei midrash where his critical study approach is being taught; in Israel’s streets, as half a dozen cities have his name emblazoned on street signs; and in the Knesset, where many values promoted by the religious Zionist parties emanate from the Gra’s worldview.
By Gedaliah Borvick