Reviewing: “The Empty Wagon: Zionism’s Journey From Identity Crisis to Identity Theft,” By Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro. 2018. Hardcover. Primedia eLaunch LLC. ISBN-13: 978-1642555547.
Imagine it’s 1941 and Hitler gives the remaining Jews an ultimatum: emigrate en masse to Israel immediately. If not, they’ll be sent to their deaths in the concentration camps.
For this reviewer, and I think most people, the choice is eminently clear: Go to Israel. But if one takes the approach detailed in “The Empty Wagon: Zionism’s Journey From Identity Crisis to Identity Theft” by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, the choice would be for the remaining millions of Jews to die in the gas chambers rather than violate the oath of exile, which forbids mass emigration to Israel.
Shapiro is related through marriage to the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum. In Va’yoel Moshe the Rebbe laid out the Satmar doctrine on Zionism. While Va’yoel Moshe is strictly a scholarly rabbinic text, “Empty Wagon” takes a very altered approach, and is a disingenuous religious and political polemic that blames nearly all of the failings in the Jewish world of the past 150 years, including the Holocaust, on Zionism. While Shapiro quotes extensively from Va’yoel Moshe, there’s no connection between these two works.
“The Empty Wagon” is a seriously flawed work, and Shapiro’s approach is histrionic rather than logical. A full disputation would take more space than I’m allotted, so I’ll focus on a few of the fundamental problems with this book.
Eretz Yisrael: The vilest aspect, and one that makes this book wastebasket worthy, is the author’s minimization of the inherent and innate importance of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish nation, and to disassociate it from Judaism. Attempting to separate the Jews and their land is to separate the Jews from their heart and soul.
Shapiro rightfully notes the preeminence and centrality of Torah to the Jewish people, but continuously attempts to downgrade the importance of Eretz Yisrael.
We live in a time where Torah is the central part of Jewish life. Yet that approach is akin to Judaism 2.0. Judaism 1.0 existed from the time the Jews entered Israel until the destruction of the Second Temple. The 1,400-year period saw the central experience of Judaism not as just the Torah, but as the Temple and the land.
The survivors saw the destruction of the Second Temple as the theological equivalent of being mathematically eliminated in baseball. Judaism without a Temple was incomprehensible and unfathomable to them. A people exiled from their homeland was perceived as the corpse of a once-great nation. The survivors thought that without a Temple and land their covenantal relationship with God was negated.
It was Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel who corrected that mistaken belief. Chaggai, Zechariah and Malachi later took the people out of their malaise and preached to them of a future redemption.
It was then, in the post-Temple people, when Torah became the surrogate for the Holy Temple. Yet during those 1,400 years the Jews lived a Temple-based existence that was intrinsically connected to the land. It’s not that the land merely served as a place for the Temple; it was that the land was intrinsically holy.
From very beginning to end, the Torah is the attempt to found a nation with the Torah and settle them in the Land of Israel. Nothing states that more eloquently than the just released “The Israel Bible” by Rabbi Tuly Weisz.
Shapiro’s failed attempt to negate the inherent and fundamental importance of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people is a polemic device, and a horrendous and flawed one at that.
Condemning Zionism, but never defining it: By defining key terms, an author shows they know what they’re writing about. More importantly, it avoids misunderstandings by settling on a single understanding of the terms. But Shapiro never provides a cogent definition of what he considers Zionism. Zionism is not monolithic, and any meaningful discussion requires a basic definition.
It’s not that he doesn’t define other terms. On page 919 he makes sure to define the term Nazi.
No context to the success of Zionism: At its most general level, Zionism is a secular movement, created by non-religious, and often anti-religious, people. Such a movement undoubtedly sets the stage for a culture clash with religious Jews, whose meaning in life is religious observance.
But Shapiro seems oblivious as to why Zionism was so successful. Notwithstanding the overabundance of great European Torah scholars and chasidic leaders, the reality was Eastern Europe was an abominable environment. Extreme poverty, malnourishment, disease, rabid anti-Semitism and more were the norm. The Age of Enlightenment, along with a Judaism that had lost its meaning to many people, created a perfect storm for Jews to leave the fold.
Be it any of the isms (communism, socialism, Zionism, etc.), Jews were fleeing religion and the Jewish ghettos in droves. The lifeless Judaism they experienced couldn’t compete with those isms. It was in that context that the isms, and most specifically Zionism, found great success. Judaism has significant meaning, but the masses failed to find it. Instead, they found that meaning in Zionism.
There’s inherent problems with secular Zionism from a religious perspective. But blanket condemnation of the movement, without understanding its historical, political and social contexts, is simply intellectual dishonesty.
Playing both sides of the table: Shapiro often tries to sit on both sides of the fence. He quotes halachic authorities who state that one must give up their life rather than making mass aliya. Yet he criticizes Zionist leaders for not doing enough during the war to get the Jews out of Europe.
This results in a bizarre Kierkegaardian logic that the Zionists were in fact beneficent in not taking these Torah-true Jews out of Europe—as it would be better they die in Europe pure rather than making mass aliya to Israel and then be sinners in the hands of an angry God, Whose sacred oath was violated.
Shapiro reiterates that in exile Jews must take a quietest approach; be unassuming, and stay under the radar of the gentiles. But one of the most above-the-radar groups in America is Satmar. A stop at the Rebbe of Satmar (now Rebbes) has long been de rigueur for New York politicians.
The United States is a democracy and Satmar has every right to maximize that system of government. But in doing so they have been anything but quiet and unassuming.
Quoting the Rav: Shapiro quotes often from “The Rav Thinking Aloud: Transcripts of Personal Conversations With Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.” The accuracy of that book has been called into question. A friend of mine, a close student of the Rav, a talmid chacham in his own right, says he considers that book muktze machmas mius. Rabbi Soloveitchik was speaking casually, and the discussions detailed in this work were meant to be private, and off the record.
Blaming Zionists for everything: In hundreds of pages after hundreds of pages Shapiro blames the Zionists for nearly every evil that has befallen the Jewish people. The Zionist movement, like every movement, will have a reckoning to deal with. But the irrational approach to blame all of the ills of the Jewish world on Zionism is simply unsupported. But this is the path of unrestrained polemic.
Not crediting Ben Gurion for creating the status quo: David Ben-Gurion didn’t like and openly disdained religion. His relationship with the Rabbinate was certain to be strained.
But what Ben-Gurion understood was that the power of unity was needed for the fledgling state to survive. The religious community was a small minority. Ben-Gurion didn’t need them, but needed them to be on board so as not to create disharmony.
With that, Ben-Gurion agreed to the status quo. Including provisions that the state agrees that Shabbos would be the Jewish state’s day of rest, kitchens of official institutions would be kosher, and that marriage and divorce would be in the hands of the rabbinate. That was a huge consolatory act that goes entirely unnoticed in this book.
A world that was: Shapiro paints the picture of Jewish life in Europe as simpler times, where men and women wanted to live a simple Jewish life, straight out of the pages of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The reality was that Europe was hemorrhaging for the Jews. With or without the Zionists, it was an era of turmoil and strife.
When playing on Broadway, the village of Anatevka was a quaint and charming little hamlet. For those who had to live in the Pale of Settlement, it was anything but attractive.
Rav Kook: Those who blindly condemn Rav Kook generally lack the sophistication to understand his nuanced words. Shapiro uses the same diatribes against Rav Kook as his predecessors. The fact that he misconstrues Rav Kook’s Hebrew University invocation nearly 100 years after the fact is expected, as it simply furthers his agenda.
Writing style: The book is atrociously long at nearly 1,400 pages and screams out for a competent editor. Shapiro could have made his point in 300 pages with an additional 100 pages of appendices. Combined with an overly pontificating writing style, far too many multi-page footnotes and often irrelevant quotes, this is a tedious read.
He also has collected what seems to be every rabbinic, academic and scholarly reference against Zionism. Yet without a bibliography or index, any practical benefit of this book has been negated.
“The Empty Wagon” is an illogical and histrionic attempt to blame the evils of the Jewish world on Zionism. Reading this book was like reading Nazi, Hamas or similar anti-Semitic propaganda. Zionists are treated as demons whose only goal is to destroy Judaism. Shapiro’s complete contempt for Zionism comes across as an immature rant. His narrow-minded perspective comes across in every page, along with a sneering and anti-intellectual approach to the topic.
By Ben Rothke
Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science.