David Ben-Gurion speaking at the Knesset, 1957
David Ben-Gurion speaking at the Knesset, 1957 Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Text size

October 20, 1952, is the date that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion came to the home of the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, for what he hoped would be a “summit meeting” between the leader of secular Israel and the man who was then perhaps the country’s most respected arbiter of Torah Judaism.

More specifically, it was reported that the prime minister traveled to Bnei Brak to discuss with the rabbi the matter of national service for religious girls, a proposal that was being bitterly debated at the time. The very fact of the meeting between the 66-year-old founding father of the state and the wizened, 73-year-old sage of Lithuanian Orthodoxy was the subject of great interest among the press, but only one other was actually present in the room with the two. Nonetheless, there have been a variety of accounts regarding what was really said.

Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878-1953) was born and raised in the Brest province of what is today Belarus. He earned the sobriquet of “Hazon Ish” in recognition of his highly regarded 1911 work on the Shulhan Arukh code of Jewish law. In 1933, Karelitz immigrated to Eretz Israel, where he devoted nearly all his time to Torah study. Although he held no official position, his reputation for having an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law made his home a focus of pilgrimage. Because the Hazon Ish had studied a number of fields of secular science, he became an expert in coming up with practical solutions to problems raised by the clash between halakha and life in a modern Jewish state (for example, the milking of cows on the Sabbath.)

At the time of Ben-Gurion’s visit, both political and rabbinical Israel were preoccupied with a proposal to require girls from religiously observant families, who were exempt from army service, to perform some sort of alternate national service. The very discussion of the idea in the Knesset had led to a shaking up of the government coalition and bitter opposition from the country’s Chief Rabbinate. It was presumed that the premier’s journey to the rabbi would afford an opportunity not only to discuss this particular issue, but to further sharpen the definition of the “status quo,” the compromise regarding the place of Jewish law in public life, on which Ben-Gurion had already made significant concessions – including the non-conscription of yeshiva students and the closing of businesses on Shabbat.

'No zealot's anger'

Ben-Gurion recorded his impressions of the meeting in his diary, where he described Rabbi Karelitz as possessing the “face and eyes of a spiritual man.” He noted that the rabbi spoke through the entire encounter “in a good spirit and with much laughter, lacking in a zealot’s anger, even though there is definitely something of the zealot about him, although it’s hidden from view.”

From his notes, it is clear that Ben-Gurion was hoping to find common ground with Karelitz, and that he made several attempts to broach the question of how it might be possible to reach a better form of coexistence between the Torah-observant and those with lesser levels of religious observance. The topic of national service, however, doesn’t seem to have come up at all.

“There’s the question of existence, of preserving human life,” Ben-Gurion recounted saying to the Hazon Ish. “Shouldn’t love of [the People of] Israel take precedence over everything?”

The Hazon Ish responded that, although love of Israel and love of Torah may seem like two separate things, they’re not, because “there is no Torah without Israel, and no Israel without Torah.”   

What has become the part of the conversation most recounted to this day is left out altogether from Ben-Gurion’s account.

Aside from the Hazon Ish and the prime minister, the only other person present in the modest room, was Yitzhak Navon, at the time the premier’s secretary, later a Labor minister and Israel’s president. Navon, writing sometime later about the meeting, recounted how Rabbi Karelitz, responding to Ben-Gurion’s query regarding “how can we live together,” described a scene from the Talmud in which, when “two camels meet on a path, and one of the camels is weighed down with a load, and the other camel is not, the one not carrying the burden must give way to the one who is.” The moral of the parable, suggested Karelitz, was that, “We, the religious Jews, are analogous to the camel with the load – we carry a burden of hundreds of commandments. You” – secular Israel – “have to give way.”

Ben-Gurion, according to Navon, attempted to mount a counter-argument. “And the [second] camel isn’t weighed down with the burden of commandments?” he asked  rhetorically. “The commandment to settle the land isn’t a burden?... And the commandments to defending life aren’t mitzvot? And what those boys whom you are so opposed to do, sitting on the borders and protecting you, that’s not a mitzvah?”

Karelitz was not even able to agree, according to Navon, that the learners’ lives were protected by those serving in the army. Rather, he insisted that, “It is only thanks to the fact that we learn Torah that they [the soldiers] are able to exist.”

A parable of camels – or wagons?

The conversation went on for some 50 minutes, after which the two men examined the rabbi’s bookshelves together. Following that, Ben-Gurion left Karelitz and traveled on to a gathering at Bnei Brak’s city hall. In the days that followed, the encounter was described extensively in the press, with different accounts emerging of what had been said. It became commonplace, for example, that the Hazon Ish’s parable had been about two wagons, one heavily laden, one empty, approaching each other on the road, not camels.

Navon also described one writer, Aharon Mirsky, whom he had briefed on the conversation. Mirsky had gone on to write up an account of the meeting that included a number of remarks that Navon had specifically told him had not been uttered. Mirsky even acknowledged that Navon had denied that the remarks had been made, but added that he “apparently didn’t understand, because they were speaking Yiddish.”

Navon went on to write: “I have two things to say about that: First, they didn’t speak a word of Yiddish, only Hebrew. And second, if they had spoken Yiddish, I would have been fine with that,” since the future president, a Jerusalem-born descendant of two long lines of Sephardi Jews, was conversant in the language.