Book review: The Chazon Ish and Israeli society

The life of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, who emerged from World War I to have a profound impact on Israel.

The Chazon Ish: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Chazon Ish: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although the Holocaust was the greatest horror for the Jewish people, the suffering and atrocities endured by Jews during the First World War, and the Russian Civil War that followed, were devastating to European Jewry.
The Great War – the name of World War I before there was World War II – also caused massive deaths and unspeakable destruction in Europe, and against American soldiers who fought in the latter part of that gigantic military conflict. World War I was followed by a massive worldwide flu pandemic, with millions of deaths. One illustration of the horrors of the First World War is related by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, when the Chazon Ish and his wife, Basya, planned to returned to their “hometown” of Keidan, from where they had taken refuge:
“The city that had been the scene of their tranquil first years of marriage was now a city of the dead. Some Jews, like the Chazon Ish, had managed to flee to safety during the war. The rest – every last one – were no longer alive.”
Finkelman also relates that the Jews of Russia were blamed for Russian military defeats; and that young Russian Jewish men, many of them yeshiva students, were not only subject to the draft but were often grabbed off the streets by Czarist soldiers and policemen, and sent to the army without any notice to their families. That war was devastating to Russia. Russia was bled white. Journalist John Reed, who covered the First World War, wrote about the persecution of Jews in Czarist Russia during the war, and how Russian Jews adhered closely to their religion and their faith in God.
How people endured that war was a wonder. Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, endured through studying Torah, his deep faith in God, and his religious writing, which he engaged in despite what was happening all around him.
The period between the two world wars was excruciating for the Jews of Eastern Europe. In the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by White Russian armies, Polish troops and gangs, all of whom were fighting against the Bolshevik revolutionary government. Antisemitism was on the increase in Eastern Europe. The Polish government had a policy of pushing Jews into poverty, and many Jews in Poland were totally dependent on relief from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There were pogroms in Eastern Europe, where Hitler’s German antisemitism became a stimulus for antisemites. Despite all this, it was a period of scholarly development for Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, and his reputation was growing.
Karelitz’s writings were important to him; he did not seek fame from them. Containing profound Torah insights, they were originally published anonymously under the title Chazon Ish, the name by which he eventually became known. In addition to his Torah knowledge, he was very learned in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, ancient history, geography, and zoology.
During the early period of the Second World War, many Jews from Lithuania and Poland were able to escape the Holocaust by traveling through the Soviet Union to Japan. (Japan and Soviet Russia were not at war till the very end of World War II.) Many of the Jewish refugees in Japan were sent to Shanghai, then under Japanese control, and among those using that path to life was the Mir Yeshiva with its students, rabbis, teachers, and other workers.
The Mir Yeshiva’s travels and sustenance were supported by Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, first from Europe and then from America, after he immigrated to the United States. Many other Jews escaped to Shanghai, which was then an “open city,” meaning it accepted refugees. Jewish refugees in Shanghai lived in an area called the Shanghai Ghetto. The emperor of Japan was favorably disposed to the Jewish refugees, and when there were disputes within the Japanese government, the emperor decided in the Jews’ favor.
A question facing the rabbis was when the Sabbath in Japan and Shanghai should be observed. Through detailed calculations shown in the book – calculations I do not understand – the Chazon Ish determined that Shabbat in Japan and Shanghai was on Sunday. No, this is not a typographical error.
The Chazon Ish moved to Israel in 1933 and lived in Bnei Brak till his death in 1953, an instrumental figure in building the city into a vibrant Torah center. After the death in 1940 of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who helped spread the Chazon Ish’s fame in Israel, the Chazon Ish emerged as the gadol hador, the top rabbinic authority among Orthodox Jews – and this, despite his craving anonymity.
The Chazon Ish played an instrumental role in creating yeshivot for boys, and girls’ schools for Orthodox Jewish girls, in pre-state Israel and post-independence Israel. He also arranged marriages for many young Holocaust survivors.
Another of the Chazon Ish’s activities in Israel was helping the poor. In accordance with Torah law, he did this without causing embarrassment to the people he helped. In one case money was put in a person’s house while he was not there.
The Chazon Ish: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz is much more than an excellent book. It contains Torah, history, and biography, as well as a lot of insights and information you are unlikely to get from other histories. This involves the history of Jews in modern Europe, pre-state Israel, and the early days of the State of Israel.
Among the features of this book are the meeting between the Chazon Ish and David Ben-Gurion, especially detailing their dispute over drafting women; the Chazon Ish’s discussions with the Satmar rebbe; the help provided to the Chazon Ish by his wife, Basya; pictures of early Bnei Brak; pictures of Agudat Yisrael rabbis; how the Chazon Ish had the 48 qualities enumerated in Ethics of the Fathers by which one acquires Torah; evidence that the Chazon Ish gained the benefits one acquires by studying Torah for its own sake; stories about the early life of the Chazon Ish; the pledge made by the Chazon Ish at his bar mitzvah; a picture of the front cover of the first of the 23 volumes of the book series Chazon Ish; part of the Chazon Ish’s letter to Israeli Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, in which he opposed the drafting of girls into the Israeli military; and excerpts from books by the Chazon Ish.
One of the most important relationships, both personal and religious, that the Chazon Ish had was with the Ponevezher rav, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1940. Although the Chazon Ish was interested in all yeshivot in the Land of Israel, he had a special interest in the Ponevezh yeshiva. In turn, as Finkelman relates, Kahaneman said that while he lived in Europe the Chofetz Chaim was his religious authority; in the Land of Israel the Chazon Ish was his religious authority.
Kahaneman was very interested in increasing yeshiva education in post-Holocaust Israel, after the destruction of the great centers of Torah learning during the Shoah. Many rabbis were pessimistic whether great and widespread Torah learning could ever reach the level of pre-war Eastern Europe, but today there are great centers of Torah learning in the United States and in Israel.
Included among the many rabbis involved in rebuilding Torah centers were the Chazon Ish, Kalmanowitz, Kahaneman, Chaim Dov Bar Weissmandl, Moshe Feinstein, Moshe Tendler, Chaim Plato, Sholom Klass, the Satmar rebbe, and the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Being a part of Agudat Yisrael, the Chazon Ish was often in conflict with secular leaders, and sometimes with the Mizrachi (modern-Orthodox) leaders. The issues included his opposition to drafting Orthodox Jewish girls for national service, observance of the Sabbatical (shmita) year, and Labor authorities placing previously religious Holocaust orphans in secular and often anti-religious education on Labor kibbutzim. Part of the tragedy of modern Jewish history has been the conflict between religious Jews and Jews in the labor movement – both Zionist and non-Zionists.
While the Chazon Ish wanted the shmita for the Jewish year 5698 (1937-1938) strictly observed, there were various proposals for circumventing it. These included the proposed sale of the land to Arabs. Was this similar to the sale of hametz for Passover? The Chazon Ish said no. The sale of hametz for Passover was a sale in good faith, though probably never acted on by the non-Jew. The sale of the land to Arabs to circumvent the shmita would not be a sale in good faith. Rabbi Finkelman narrates:
“It was also during this period that a delegation comprised of Chief Rabbinate followers sought the Chazon Ish’s signature on a document protesting the partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs. The Chazon Ish refused, commenting, ‘They are concerned over half the Land being given away to Arabs; yet they find nothing wrong with selling the entire land to Arabs in order to circumvent the shmita.’”
During that year the three Agudat Yisrael kibbutzim observed the shmita. This was the influence of the Chazon Ish, who was also interested in other land-related laws that had not been observed for centuries.
At the time of the state’s founding, he and Ben-Gurion agreed that yeshiva students would not be drafted into the Israeli military. There were few yeshiva students in Israel at the time, while today there are many. That the many Agudat Yisrael yeshiva students do not serve in the military is one of many bones of contention between the Orthodox Jews and the non-Orthodox majority in Israel. Many modern-Orthodox and Lubavitcher Hasidim do serve in the Israeli military.
It is recounted in 9½ Mystics by Reform Rabbi Herbert Weiner that when he met the great Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in 1967, that Weiner expressed his dismay over the intensity of this non-Orthodox versus Orthodox conflict. It did not seem to bother Kook, who saw it as part of the process of redemption. Secular Jews were important in building the new state, as they were in building the Second Temple. To paraphrase Rabbi Kook: More faith for believers, and more respect for freedom of thought for free thinkers. 
Raymond S. Solomon and Thomas Crater, Jr. co-authored the small book, Biafra to Darfur: Genocide and Revolution in Africa