Daily Israel Report

Judaism: The True Followers of the Chatam Sofer

A close look at the Chatam Sofer's beliefs, in response to a question from a skeptical hareidi reader.
Published: Sunday, June 09, 2013 2:17 PM


    
Q: Occasionally I read your column, sir, and I am amazed at your confidence in the path of the National-Religious community, which is diametrically opposed to the path of our rabbis, Gedolei HaTorah (eminent Torah scholars). After all, everyone is familiar with the statement of the Chatam Sofer that “chadash assur m’ha’Torah” (“ 'new' is forbidden by the Torah”, referring literally to eating chadash, "new grain", before the Omer offering is given, but figuratively referring to the banning of all innovation). In utter contrast, you have changed everything customary among religious Jews for generations! Influenced by the chilonim (secular Jews), you invented new mitzvoth such as ‘Zionism’ and ‘nationalism’. You changed the tradition of learning by introducing secular studies, which the Gedolei Yisrael vigorously fought. How can you dare claim that you represent the path of Torah?

Rabbi Kook’s Students are the True Followers of the Chatam Sofer


A: Once again, we are witness to an awful distortion, based on false slander of the students of our teacher, Rabbi Kook ZT”L.


For the benefit of some readers who might not be aware of the greatness of Rabbi Moshe Sofer ZT”L, also known as Chatam Sofer after his illustrious book on Jewish law, let me preface by saying that the Chatam Sofer, who lived approximately two hundred years ago (1762–1839), was one of the greatest Gedolei HaTorah of recent generations. Till this day, his responses in Jewish law carry great weight in deciding halacha. Up till now, Jews from Hungary, Slovakia, and Transylvania still consider him to be their prominent rabbi. He served for over thirty years as Rabbi of Pressburg, and headed the great yeshiva he founded there.


It can be concluded that in most of the key issues, the students of Rabbi Kook continue his path (as well as the path of other Gedolei Yisrael), far more than the Haredi sector. I will now elaborate:


His Attitude towards Work and Secular Studies


Out of concern for their livelihood, the Chatam Sofer encouraged most of his students to work and set times for Torah study – unlike the practice today among Hareidi society, which encourages the majority of men to learn in Kollel. True, he did believe that in chutz la’aretz (outside of the Land of Israel), it was preferable for someone who could make ends meet without working and without having to rely on the public coffers, to engage in Torah study, similar to the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Talmud (Berachot 35b).


He did not object to the study of the sciences themselves, let alone for the sake of making a living, but was apprehensive about their possible merger with heretical ideas. Consequently, he took care to hire private tutors for his sons to educate them in secular studies, under his supervision. Additionally, his greatest students, Rabbi Yehuda Aszod, and Rabbi Moshe Schick (Maharam Schick), sent their sons to learn in the yeshiva of Rabbi Dr. Azriel Hildesheimer in Eisenstadt, which included secular studies. Even the Chatam Sofer’s son and successor, the author of Ktav Sofer, had originally considered appointing Rabbi Hildesheimer as his assistant (later, Rabbi Dr. Hildesheimer became one of the Gedolei Torah, and the leader of rabbis and religious Jews in Germany).


Which Type of Modernism did He Denounce?


The Chatam Sofer feared, and rightfully so, the influence of Gentile culture on Jewish communities, who were but a small minority among the non-Jews, and succeeded in maintaining themselves only by means of tradition, centered around the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvoth. Therefore, he strongly rejected all initiatives by Reform Jews, whose main goal was to create conditions enabling Jews to integrate with the Gentiles and the Diaspora. However, he did not rule out new initiatives whose roots stemmed from Jewish sources, in order to advance the public spiritually, or materially.


Needless to say, he denounced the ways of Moses Mendelssohn, who had been influenced by Gentile culture, but unlike many Hareidim, he referred to him respectfully. In one of his responses in which he rejects Mendelssohn’s opinion, influenced by Gentile thinking, in favor of allowing the delaying of burial for three days, he refers to him as a chacham (wise man). He also defended Rabbi Shlomo Yehudah Rappaport, (otherwise known by his Hebrew acronym ‘Shir’), who was the Rabbi of Prague, and had strong leanings towards haskalah [enlightenment]).


The Chatam Sofer’s Attitude towards Eretz Yisrael


As far as his attitude towards Eretz Yisrael is concerned, there are no two ways about it – the Chatam Sofer was one of greatest admirers of the Land of Israel. If all his comments on the importance of Eretz Yisrael were gathered, they would comprise an entire book. Following in the path of Chazal and Ramban, he wrote that the main fulfillment of Torah and mitzvoth is in the Land of Israel (Drashot Chatam Sofer 18:1), and compared chutz la’aretz to a grave (ibid. 76:1). He also wrote that “the ground of Eretz Yisrael is holier than the skies of chutz la’aretz” (ibid. 324:2).


All this coincides with his wonderful explanation of the importance of work in the Land of Israel, which I mentioned last week.

“Working the land and producing its holy fruit is itself a mitzvah – the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, settling the Land of Israel…” But not only that, he also wrote: “It is possible that other trades which involve social welfare are also included in the mitzvah.”  Now, as a posek halacha (adjudicator of Jewish law) who chooses his words precisely, we see that he was not content writing that the other trades are machshirei mitzvot (the performance of tasks that are necessary to enable a mitzvah to be performed), rather, he wrote that they are possibly an actual mitzvah. In other words, if these trades are considered machshirei mitzvah, then their importance is measured only according to their degree of benefit in settling the Land, but if the same outcome can be achieved by other people doing the job, there is no need specifically for Jews to fill all these trades. But if the trades themselves are a mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, they inherently possess kedusha (holiness). In any event, his remarks indicate that anyone who contributes to the prosperity of the State of Israel fulfills an absolute mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel (Chiddushei Chatam Sofer, Sukkah 36b).


In his book ‘Torat Moshe’ on the Torah portion Shoftim, he added that even vocational studies are a mitzvah: “"Not only working the land [is the fulfillment of a commandment] but also studying all trades, because of the settlement and honor of the land of Israel, so that no one should say that in all of the land of Israel there is no qualified shoemaker or builder and so on, and they would need to bring them from other lands, consequently, studying all the trades are a mitzvah…"


It should be noted that his approach had an influence on his disciples and their students, seeing as a relatively high percentage of them immigrated to Eretz Yisrael.


Another point worth mentioning is that the Lithuanian method of Torah study prevalent among Hareidi society today, is also radically different from the method of the Chatam Sofer, who emphasized learning aliba d’hilchata (straightforward and practical explanations).

The Distraction of Emancipation


Regarding his attitude towards emancipation (the granting of equal rights for Jews in Europe), he told the following parable: “A prince was once driven far away from his father's palace, suffering many tribulations along his journeys. Nonetheless, as the years rolled on, he never lost hope that his father would eventually call him back. One day, a royal wagon arrived and a team of architects and workers jumped out and began building the prince a beautiful mansion in his remote village. "Woe is me!" cried the prince. "It seems that my father intends me to stay here for ever!"

“We too,” the Chatam Sofer continued, “on account of our many sins, have suffered exiles, persecution, and numerous troubles and evils, for almost two thousand years. We suffered it all, because we said: Our deliverance is near! And now, Hashem has inclined the hearts of ministers and kings around the world to view us approvingly, introducing positive decrees. We thank Hashem for all the good, and thank the kings of all the countries in which we reside for considering us favorably. But secretly, our souls cry, for our nation is not getting any younger… How much longer will we be dispersed, without hope of returning to Zion?... Nothing further need be said, the issue is clear.”


His students said this drasha (sermon) was given in 1833, following a meeting of the heads of state in which it was decided to grant the Jews rights. As a result, the leaders of the Jewish community turned to the Me’or Hagolah (the light of the exile), the Chatam Sofer, requesting him to give a speech thanking the ministers. And so he did. At the end of the drasha, he sobbingly told this parable, and in conclusion, said: “My brothers and my people, let us lift up our hearts and hands to Our Father in Heaven: ‘Please have mercy on us, to return us to our Land! There, we will rely on You, Aveinu.’ For Hashem will not abandon us forever, the Eternal of Israel will not lie, and the Redeemer shall come to Zion, speedily in our days. Amen.” (‘Chut Hamishulash’ by Rabbi Shlomo Sofer).


This all runs contrary to the attitude of some Hareidim who consider themselves students of the Chatam Sofer, but refuse to reject the galut (exile), with some of them l’chatchila (in the first place) travelling to America to build palaces there, despise Eretz Chemda (the cherished Land), and blaspheme the State of Israel. What the Chatam Sofer wept about, they celebrate.

The Rabbi of Pressburg and Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav


Thus, it was no wonder that Rabbi Akiva Sofer ZT”L, the author of ‘Daat Sofer’, grandson of the Chatam Sofer, and his primary successor as Rabbi of Pressburg, chose to associate with Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav after immigrating to Eretz Yisrael, where he regularly prayed shacharit (the morning prayers) for nearly twenty years. He praised the davening and yirat Shamayim of the students, as well.


Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ZT”L related that in the final days of his mother’s illness, the Rabbi of Pressburg came to visit her a number of times. When asked what a talmid chacham was doing visiting an elderly woman, he answered: “Eyshet chaver k’chaver” (the wife of a scholar is like a scholar herself).


Who Continues the Path of the Chatam Sofer Today?


Despite all this, I must confess that the majority of the National-Religious community are not as meticulous in all the details of halakha in the manner of the Chatam Sofer, and do not regard the task of settling the Land with adequate sacredness, but rather, are greatly influenced by the environment of secular society.


However, the Torani public (Hareidi-National Religious) are truly the faithful successors of the Chatam Sofer. This is evident in a number of ways: in the importance it ascribes to Torah study and yishuv ha’aretz; by the necessary precautions it takes towards secular surroundings; by providing Torah assistance for soldiers in the framework of Hesder yeshiva’s, and by accompanying soldiers who chose the regular military framework, via the rabbis of the Mechinot (preparatory army academies); through the establishment of educational frameworks that combine Torah study and the sciences, such as ‘Machon Lev’; and providing a supportive Torah environment in the universities and colleges.


And the results of such upbringing coincide: The percentage of those who go off the path of Torah and mitzvoth among the Torani (Chardali) population is lower than both the National-Religious, and the Hareidi sectors.