Vive la difference -Merkaz HaRav

He entered the lioness’s den and came out unscathed.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss of Merkaz HaRav Kook, Rosh Yeshiva L’Tzeirim was interviewed by Ilana Dayan three days after the terror attack, on her regular Sunday TV program. Secular Ilana Dayan usually plays hardball so it was surprising that Rav Weiss agreed. He displayed the sterling qualities that make him a leader: sensitivity, deep faith despite grief, patience and complexity. Parts of the interview were broadcast the next day on a haredi radio station. R. Hillel Fendel translated the interview into English “Faith Through Tears.” It is a good idea to skim the English translation first, the better to understand the Hebrew of Rav Weiss.

The interview, in Hebrew, can be seen and heard.. If you read some of the 150 comments posted beside the interview, you will see what a Kiddush Hashem this was.

“What makes Merkaz Harav unique?” was the question posed to me by several American Beis Yaakov seminary girls here for their gap year as we stood on the sidewalk outside of Merkaz HaRav. On the seventh day of the shiva for the eight precious masmidim of Yeshivat HaRav Kook, there was an evening of eulogies at the Yeshiva. Knowing there would be an overflow crowd the yeshiva set up screens in the street so those of us who could not get inside could watch/listen. The previous writers have expressed eloquently what all segments of the Orthodox world have in common with Merkaz HaRav. I think it is also important to touch on what makes Merkaz HaRav unique.

I have been pondering this question for two decades. I have friends in the circles of Merkaz Harav, I visit the settlements, I read the publications, and I attend their yearly women’s study days of Binyan Shalem. I admire tremendously their devotion to study, idealism, modesty in dress and living standards, and their educational initiatives from Kiryat Shmona to Sderot.
To answer the seminary girls’ question I touched on some of the elements that characterize Merkaz HaRav circles- the view of ikvisa demeshicha; the view that the State of Israel is the as’halta degeula ; and I gave them some of the background about Rav A.I. Kook and his son Rav Zvi Yehuda,ztz”l, including the latters’ encouragement of settlement in Judea and Samaria after 1967. BTW, I just came across an article on Israel’s 57th Independence Day, where Haaretz listed R. Zvi Yehuda as seventh among the „Ten who made Israel what it is.”

When explaining to the Sem girls, I didn’t go into the deeper aspects of R. Kook’s theology. If I had to pinpoint one element that underlies the Rav Kook approach I would say it is his view that there is intrinsic, inherent kedusha in the Jewish people, in the land and in some of the institutions. One could almost say the kedusha is in the molecules. From this basis flows a special emphasis on the Land of Israel. To better highlight this, juxtapose it with the view of R. Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk (d.1926, author of Ohr Somayach) in his Meshech Chochma. In a long commentary on the breaking of the Tablets (Ex. 32:19) he wrote the following.

Even the Tablets – the writing of G-d – were not intrinsically holy, but only on account of the mitzvot. The moment Israel sinned and transgressed what was written on them, they became mere bri- a-brac devoid of sanctity. …There is nothing intrinsically holy in the world except for the L-rd…Moses feared they would deify the Tablets as they had done the calf. Had he brought them intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not have reformed their ways. Do not imagine that the Temple and Tabernacle are intrinsically holy. No holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of Torah and mitzvot.

Note also that Rashi praises Moses for breaking the tablets in his last comment on the Torah (Deut.34:12).

One might express the difference between these two approaches in terms of a spectrum of understanding of kedusha. At one end would be Rav Kook (and Maharal and Yehuda Halevi-Kuzari) where kedusha is intrinsic. At the other end would be the Meshech Chochma where the commandments engender kedusha. No observance, no kedusha.
This is an oversimplification, but I think it captures the essence of the difference. The difference then leads to different approaches to settling the Land of Israel and to political Zionism.

Several CC writers wrote about unity. I would like to stress unity in diversity. Rabbi Adlerstein wrote below about “an op-ed columnist in Yated, whose headline read, “We Are All Mercaz Harav.”
A slightly different, complementary, op-ed in Yated was expressed by their columnist M. Shotland, who wrote on the Tuesday (4 b Adar II) following the attack that he criticized the secular media for labeling this a “sectorial attack” and not showing as much commiseration as the dati and haredi publics. After expressing deep condolences, Shortland wrote, “For several years the government, accompanied by the media, has been harming all that is holy to the National Religious who see themselves as loyal to Zionism and the State. Despite the fact that we don’t by any means identify with their [the National Religious] approach, it is hard to see how something as tragic as the death of eight young men cut down so cruelly, does not stop the the Israeli left from their pursuit and their criticism.”

On a more practical level, I wanted to understand how the haredi press reacted to the attack. I surveyed all the papers that terrible week. Mishpacha had cover stories in the Hebrew and English editions. Hebrew headline: “Death of kedoshim in the tent of Torah” ; English : “Eight Lost Lights, Faith through Fire at Mercaz HaRav.” Bekehila devoted the entire front page to large headlines: “Grief Cuts Through all the Camps” and in their magazine cover there was a gloved Zaka rescue worker’s hand holding a bloodied crocheted kippa with the headline “Tevah b’Hechal” (Slaughter in the Temple);their Kolot magazine cover showed a photo of the Merkaz Harav students making havdala on the first Shabbat after the attack; the Arba Kanfot cover showed a picture of the funeral, “Avodas hakorbanos.”

Among the writers in Haaretz, a reasonable analysis was written the morning after the attack by Yair Sheleg (a graduate of the hesder in the Gush) titled, “The flagship of national-religious yeshivas.” A week later he wrote a longer piece on the reactions of leaders and students “Days of Awe.” Yair Ettinger who also covers the religious world for Haaretz addressed the reactions of the haredi world in “A moderna yeshiva but still a yeshiva.” In the printed edition the article was accompanied by a poignant photo of the Belzer Rebbe holding the hand of one of the hospitalized surviving boys.

Why do I admire Merkaz Harav even though I tend towards the Meshech Chochma end of the spectrum? Because of stories like that of Doron,the young Ethiopian scholar who was murdered.
See Rabbi Adlerstein’s A Hillel for Our Time on March 16 below. I hope readers don’t mind if I repeat the paragraph that moved me the most.

Doron wanted to learn Torah in Mercaz HaRav, one of the best of Israel’s yeshivas. But…he lacked a strong background in Gemara. The Yeshiva rejected him. He asked, “If you won’t let me learn Torah, will you let me wash the dishes in the mess hall?” Doron washed dishes. But, he spent every spare minute in the study hall. …One day, the “dish washer” asked the Rosh Yeshiva to test him. The Rosh Yeshiva politely smiled and tried to gently dismiss Doron, but Doron wouldn’t budge. He forced the Rosh Yeshiva into a Torah discussion; the next day, he was no longer a dish washer but a full-fledged “yeshiva bachur”.

Yehe zichram baruch.


Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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14 Responses

  1. nachum klafter, md says:

    What is interesting is that even though the Or Sameach and the Meshekh Hokhma are considered mainstream works in the Haredi yeshiva world while Rav Kook’s Orot, his writings aggadah, and his shu”t are not part of the Haredi cannon, in reality the Haredi world is much closer to Rav Kook’s hashkafa than to that of R. Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen. It was specifically Rav Kook’s attitude toward collaboration with the secularists and his ability to conceptualize a state created by non-believers which nevertheless has redemptive significance. This is what put him outside the acceptable hashkafos of the Haredi world. However, in terms of actual beliefs about HaShem, the Torah, the mitzvos, and the Jewish People, there is little disagreement between him and even the Hassidim.

    Yes, I think you are correct that the difference between their views of kedusha (the Or Sameach and Rav Kook) shows a profoundly and essentially different understanding of the kelal yisrael, eretz yisrael, and our relationship with HaShem through Torah and mitzvos. It is akin to the difference between Yehuda HaLevi and the Rambam. In short, Yehuda HaLevi and Rav Kook believe that the mitzvos have theurgic properties and that there is something fundamentally different about Jews than non-Jews, whereas the Rambam and the Or Sameach believe that it is only the Torah via our study and observance of it that make us holy; the mitzvos trasnform us because they are symbolic enactments of ideas which impact our psyche and soul. For Rav Kook and Yehuda HaLevi, our holiness is a prerequesite which allows us to relate to HaShem through Torah and mitzvos. For the Rambam and the Or Sameach, we are holy only to the extent that we relate to HaShem. Holiness is the consequence of that relationship (i.e., Torah study and observance), and not a prerequesite for it. In a nutshell, this is the difference between rationalism and mysticism. Even within “kabbala” the Or Sameach would have very different understandings of things than Rav Kook. (I.e., it’s not simply that the kabbala is “mystical” vs. rational. Rather, Rav Kook’s kabbala is completely mystical, and the Or Sameach’s kabbala is rationalistic.) Both approaches can be coherently and consistently elaborated from our primary sources. Mysticism has the upper hand right now. But I, like you, am a rationalist.

  2. joel rich says:

    Perhaps the difference is how they see the endgame of history – do we do mitzvot and study torah and wait for the “miracle” or do we hear the knock of the beloved at the door and get up and open it (Yes my construction shows my bias but I’m reminded of a cartoon of a mathematical proof which ends in “and then there was a miracle” – perhaps in a way this describes a very basic philosophical issue – how much weight do we focus on the individual/micro halachik issues (the knife is not tamei vs. whether the knifee is dead) and say hkb”h will take care of the big picture and how much on the community/macro issues (yes you all gave tzedaka but we still need to feed the hungry)). In any event historical data implies that the debate will live on with both sides fervently believing that it is the other’s lack of vision that prolongs the exile.


  3. Steve Brizel says:

    I thought that the Yated and Mishpacha, but especially the Yated, had very moving coverage of the Piguah, its aftermath and who were these young Kedoshim, HaShem Yimkam Damam. The Federation/secular press had a “human profile” story on the family of the perpretrator of this assault on anyone who learns Torah and seemingly adopted a blame the victim mentality solely because of their hashkafa.

  4. cvmay says:

    Shira, some additional antidotes to share with the female seminary students whose acquired knowledge of Harav Kook is close to zero are:
    1. Rav Aryeh Levine zt”l, the father in law of Harav Elyashiv was the permanent baal tefilah for the Yomim Tovim at Mercaz Harav, and chever naaman of Rav Kook.
    2. Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l spent time learning at Mercaz Harav (and a Hutner cousin was married to Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook).
    3. Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt”l was the shadchan for Rav Shalom Elyashiv and the daughter of Rav Aryeh Levin.
    4. Rav Avrohom Yitzchak Hakohen Kook zt”l was the mesedar kiddushim for Rav Shlomo Zalman Averbuch zt”l, and was his guardian after his father passed away.
    5. Sefrei Kaballah were learnt by these three gaonim together, Rav AY Kook, and the fathers of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Averbuch.
    Yeshiva and Seminary students should be aware of the interconnection between Harav Kook and the gedolim of the past generation, how the Aderet was his fatherinlaw, and Harav Isser Zalman was in attendance at his immediate passing. Their hashgafa’s uniqueness is the belief that am yisrael is am segulah, no matter what!!!!!

  5. L Oberstein says:

    March 23, 2008
    Vive le difference -Merkaz HaRav
    Filed by Shira Schmidt @ 6:37 am

    “He entered the lioness’s den and came out unscathed.
    Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss of Merkaz HaRav Kook, Rosh Yeshiva L’Tzeirim was interviewed by Ilana Dayan three days after the terror attack, on her regular Sunday TV program. Secular Ilana Dayan usually plays hardball so it was surprising that Rav Weiss agreed. He displayed the sterling qualities that make him a leader: sensitivity, deep faith despite grief, patience and complexity.”
    I just finished watching this interview, thank you for sharing it. Through my tears, I had another thought, :”even the sinners of Israel are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is of seeds” I saw Ilana Dayan as a Jewish person, respectfully seeking some understanding, not only as a reporter but as a Jew. She never had the benefit of a Torah education, but she is sincerely trying to understand. Only in a Jewish State would a reporter and her station devote that much time to an in depth interview. The questions she asked are those of the whole country. I am in awe of Rav Weiss, who is an Ish Emet, who really believes in what he is teaching, a man of depth . He was speaking deep words of hashkafa and Ilana Dayan gave him the time and the respect he deserved.

  6. Ada Jacobowitz says:

    Shira Schmidt’s article ” Vive le Difference” was quite moving.
    The grief and pain we felt at the horror that was perpetrated at Merkaz Harav had nothing to do with labels.
    The murdered and wounded were, and are, our sons, brothers, cousins and nephews.

    The article also discusses Rav A.Y. hakohen Kook. He was a very complex person and thinker. I could not label my own husband. Is he a: pianist, musicologist, mathematician, grandfather etc. Yet, with that caveat, I would label Rav Kook as a ohayv Yisrael who pushed for ahavat hinam.
    Ada Jacobowitz

  7. Dovid H. says:

    Some additions to CVMAY’s comments (#4)

    1 – Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook was mesader Kiddushin at Rav Elyashiv’s wedding to the daughter of Rav Aryeh Levin.

    2- Rav Kook studied with Rav Elyashiv’s Grandfather (the Leshem), both in Europe and in Eretz Yisrael.

    3 – Rav Kook enabled the Leshem’s alliyah to Eretz Yisrael, together with the Leshem’s daughter, son-in-law, and their young son, Yosef Sholom (today’s Rav Elyashiv).

    4 – The Aderet was Rav Kook’s father-in-law twice over: After the Aderet’s daughter passed away at a young age, shortly after marrying Rav Kook, the Aderet said that it would be unbearable to lose not only a daughter but to lose Rav Kook as his son-in-law as well. He therefore asked Rav Kook to marry the niece (daughter of his brother) he had raised in his own home, so that their connection not be lost. Rav Kook complied.

  8. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >Perhaps the difference is how they see the endgame of history – do we do mitzvot and study torah and wait for the “miracle” or do we hear the knock of the beloved at the door and get up and open it<

    Both Rav Kook and the Meshech Chochma were supporters of redemptive action through the institutions of Zionism. Your distinction does not hold water.

  9. mb says:

    Why, all of a sudden, are people trying to prove Rav Kook’s Cheredi credentials? Do you know how ridiculous it sounds?

  10. cvmay says:

    The time has arrived to address the razing and rewriting of history re: Rav AY KOOK and the Yeshivish world. (Shira, prime reason #1 that almost all American Yeshiva & Seminary students are clueless (and frequently negative)re Rav Kook and his yeshiva).
    EXAMPLES: There are 5+ biographic sefarim on the life of Rav Shlomo Zalman Averbuch zt”l, by the major publication houses for English readers, only one includes the NONDISPUTABLE fact that Rav Kook was his meseder kiddushim** and colleage of his father. Several years ago, the YATED had an extensive biography of the “ADERET”, covering 4-5 pages, not to be mentioned was his esteemed son-in-law, chosen from the creme de la creme of Volozhin Yeshiva bochurim, who was RAV KOOK.
    Why this fear of honesty and truth? Is Rav Kook and what he represents so powerful, that any tool to disember and delegitimize his chashivus is acceptable. If so, this is a sorry chapter of our current-day Jewish life.
    **normally the chosen individual to be MK is the Rav Mehudar and Daas Torah of the choson and family. (dont we all ask at weddings, who was the MK?)

  11. joel rich says:

    Both Rav Kook and the Meshech Chochma were supporters of redemptive action through the institutions of Zionism. Your distinction does not hold water.

    Actually I was opining on the title of the post and what I saw the current differences between Merkaz Harav type Yeshivot and Charedi Yeshivot.



    cvmay: Are you really so surprised by Haredi censorship? What else is new? You sound like Claude Rains in Casablanca!

  13. cvmay says:

    Att: LK
    Surprised, not at all. 100% aware of the purposefull rewritting of Jewish history to fit the times.
    Shira writes “I have been pondering this question for two decades”. Now that 20 yrs have passed, have you reached a conclusion?

    I had the privilege of spending Purim in Sderot, hearing the megillah at the Hesder Yeshiva under the tutelage of Rav D. Fendel, and joining with the averichim families in a city-wide Purim mesiba and seudah the next day. The limud of Harav Kook is an essential part of the derek hachaim of these special families. They are totally dedicated to harbatos hatorah in the development city of Sderot, bringing simchas hachaim to families, offering shiurim to adults and teens, and on-hand assistance in any way needed. The AHAVAH for klal yisroel in Eretz Yisroel is their avodas hakodesh, as each individual is treated as a ‘holy soul’, gently, carefully and with pleasantness. The children are brought up with strong EMUNAH, this foundation is fortified and strengthened with learning and personal examples. There is not the ‘fear of the rechov’, experienced by other segments of the Torah Community of Israel rather a committed achreius to bring kedusha within the realm of learning, teaching, cooperation and ‘noshei be’ol chavericha’.

  14. Ori says:

    Does Halacha allow to present part of the truth in a misleading manner, so as to cause people to come to a false conclusion?

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