December 1, 1848, is the birthdate of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the founder and first leader of the Edah Hareidit – the umbrella body of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community – in the decades preceding the birth of the State of Israel.
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Sonnenfeld, the author of several books on Jewish law, was known for his unyielding opposition to political Zionism and to the official rabbinical establishment of the Zionist movement, headed then by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Sonnenfeld and Kook had a relationship that combined both mutual antipathy and mutual respect.
Chaim Sonnenfeld (the name “Yosef” was added by his mentor, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Diskin, when the younger man had a grave illness, a tradition intended to fool the angel of death) was born in Verbo, in what was then Hungary, today Vrbove, Slovakia. His father, Avraham Shlomo Zonnenfeld, was a rabbi, and his mother the former Zelda Gindel.
As a young man, Sonnenfeld studied with Rabbi Avraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer, whose father, the Hatam Sofer, was founder of the son of the Pressburg Yeshiva, in Bratislava. His other principal teacher was Rabbi Abraham Schaag, from the Kabold (later Kobersdorf, Austria) Yeshiva.
Jews in Israel yes, Zionism no
In 1873, Sonnenfeld, by now married (to Sarah Zaltzer, who died in 1919, after which he married a second time, to Cheila Deutsch), traveled to Jerusalem, together with his teacher Rabbi Schaag. This was in the pre-Zionist period, when the Jewish community in the city was referred to as the Old Yishuv. There he became an aide to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Diskin, and helped him run an orphanage. In 1891, he was instrumental in establishing the Batei Ungarin quarter, one of the earliest Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City, now part of Me’a She’arim.
Diskin was a firm opponent to both secularism and Zionism, and Sonnenfeld followed in his footsteps here too. He didn’t object to Jews settling or living in the Land of Israel, but rather to the presumption of their setting up a state there without the intervention of God.
When Diskin died, in 1898, Sonnenfeld took over his role as leader of Jerusalem’s Haredi Jews, and as head of their rabbinical court.
Rabbi Kook, frenemy
The Edah Hahareidit (called the Orthodox Jewish Council in English) was founded in 1921, shortly before the recognition of the British Mandatory authorities of the Chief Rabbinate as the official representative of Palestine’s Jews.
Sonnenfeld’s counterpart – and in many ways his nemesis – at the Chief Rabbinate was Rabbi Kook, the country’s first chief Ashkenazi rabbi.
Sonnenfeld tried to convince the British not to go forward with recognizing a Zionist rabbinate, and he filed various petitions of complaint against the Chief Rabbinate over time. He also attacked Rav Kook, with the type of hyperbolic language that has apparently long characterized ultra-Orthodox public dialogue.
Yet, on the personal level, the two men were said to engage in long conversations when they happened to meet, on the street or at public events, and Sonnenfeld joined Kook when he traveled to the Northern Galilee to do Jewish outreach work.
After his arrival in Palestine, Jacob Israel de Haan, the formerly secular and Zionist, newly religious and anti-Zionist, gay lawyer and poet, began working with Rabbi Sonnenfeld. Eventually, de Haan became one of the rabbi's closest political advisors, representing him in his diplomatic contacts with figures outside Israel in Sonnenfeld’s efforts to foil the progress of the Zionist movement. De Haan arranged a meeting between the rabbi and the Hashemite emir, and later King, Abdullah, of Jordan, and also became an influential journalistic commentator in the United Kingdom.
By 1924, de Haan had become enough of a liability to the Zionist movement that some branch of it carried out his assassination. The Haganah pre-state militia was widely suspected of ordering the murder, but no one was charged: It was only in the 1980s that a man named Avraham Tehomi, then living in Hong Kong confessed to two Israeli journalists that he was the killer. Tehomi claimed he was acting on the orders of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, an officer in the Haganah, and later Israel’s second president.
Rabbi Sonnenfeld was shocked, as were many others, by de Haan’s murder. He himself lived on for another eight years, until February 26, 1932.