Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Leader of the Pioneers

Even more than Rabbi Kook, Levinger inspired and led the religious Zionist settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria – not with the words of the Torah, but with sheer dedication.

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Rabbi Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat celebrating the establishment of the first West Bank settlement in 1975.
Rabbi Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat celebrating the establishment of the first West Bank settlement in 1975.Credit: Moshe Milner
Israel Harel
Israel Harel

Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who passed away this week, was a charismatic leader who swept up the masses and fomented change. Since the days of the First Aliyah, the wave of Jewish immigration that began in the 1880s, there hasn’t been another mass movement of practical action in Israel’s history that could match the scope and intensity of the one he launched.

Alongside his many admirers, Levinger had bitter detractors, who were panicked, genuinely panicked, by the strength of his movement. In those days, back in the mid-1970s, (almost) no obstacle could stop it from realizing its vision. Israeli television, which assailed the movement blatantly and out of all proportion, portrayed Levinger as a demonic lunatic. The press persecuted him in equal measure.

But in the eyes of those who streamed in his wake, this persecution was viewed as being to his credit. If the left-wing media portrayed him in such a humiliating fashion, then he and his path must be right.

Only recently, exactly 40 years later, it was once again proven that media overkill can boomerang, and on those who rejoice in its unprofessional, biased practices.

It’s customary to think that the doctrines of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, where Rabbi Levinger studied, are what prepared hearts and minds for the great settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria. But that isn’t so. The preparation was done by dozens of years of being educated to pioneering action in the Bnei Akiva youth movement.

The decisive majority, and the most prominent, of the early settlers in Judea and Samaria, from the first days at Sebastia in 1974 until the 1990s, didn’t carry Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s doctrines in their ideological and cultural kitbags. What they carried were the images, songs and stories of the heroism and dedication personified by Israel’s secular founding fathers and the heroes of the pre-state Jewish undergrounds and the Israel Defense Forces.

The doctrines of Rabbi Kook, who founded Mercaz HaRav, were studied in a small yeshiva devoid of influence. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, there were never more than about 50 people studying there at any given time.

Levinger, thanks to his stubbornness and persistence, and to the new model of leadership he personified – one that differed fundamentally from the leadership of the National Religious Party, with which Bnei Akiva was affiliated – won people’s hearts. It wasn’t words of Torah that their hearts followed, but adherence to a mission.

This fact – that it wasn’t the doctrines of Mercaz Harav, but those of Bnei Akiva that swept up the masses – hasn’t been understood to this day by Levinger’s opponents, and even not by some of his disciples. Certainly not by academic researchers, who connected this mass movement to Rabbi Kook’s mysticism.

Rabbi Levinger, who served in the IDF’s Nahal Brigade and was the rabbi of a kibbutz (Lavi), released a spring that had been coiled for generations in the youth movement: that of practical action in the service of an ideal. And where could these generations express a unique form of such action? In Judea and Samaria.

Until Levinger came – along with his comrades Hanan Porat, Benny Katzover, Menachem Felix, Uri Elitzur and many others – there were virtually no religious Zionist leaders who acted on the ideal they propounded with their own bodies. Haim Moshe Shapira and Yosef Burg, the NRP’s leaders, wore suits and ties and liked the good life; they did not and could not set a personal example to the young people who were throbbing with pioneering spirit. Neither could the rabbis of that era.

Once the settlement enterprise had become well established, Levinger’s influence waned. And there were more than a few cases in which he even caused damage to the enterprise he started.

Particularly noteworthy was his failed run for Knesset in 1992. His party competed against Tehiya, and both failed to cross the electoral threshold. As a result, Likud, headed by Yitzhak Shamir, lost power and Yitzhak Rabin won. Rabin then brought the disaster of the Oslo Accords down upon the country. And the rest is written on the pages of history in Jewish blood.

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