AGUDAT YISRAʾEL is the world movement of Orthodox Jewry, founded in 1912. The name Agudat Yisraʾel, or Agudath Israel (Union of Israel), commonly abbreviated as "Agudah," is derived from a passage in Jewish High Holy Day liturgy that speaks of all creatures forming "one union" to do God's will. Established in order to preserve the traditional Jewish way of life and to counter the influence of competing secular or religious ideologies, Agudat Yisraʾel nevertheless adopted a series of ideological and organizational innovations. The very act of organizing an Orthodox political party was in itself a concession to the sociopolitical exigencies of the time, which more extreme Orthodox elements opposed on principle.
The initiative for the formation of Agudat Yisraʾel came from the separatist Orthodox communities of Germany united in the Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums. They envisioned a worldwide union of Orthodox Jewry that would enlist the great rabbinical figures of eastern Europe and the Orthodox masses there in the fight against Zionism and Reform Judaism. At about the same time (early twentieth century), some eastern European rabbis made abortive attempts at providing an Orthodox alternative to the Zionist and Jewish socialist parties. Orthodox rabbi and historian Yitsḥaq Eiziḳ ha-Levi brought together representatives of the Freie Vereinigung and the eastern European rabbinate at Bad Homburg (1909), a meeting that laid the groundwork for what became Agudat Yisraʾel. The decision of the Tenth Zionist Congress (1911) to embark on a full-fledged educational and cultural program in the Diaspora gave further impetus for an Orthodox countereffort. Elements of the religious Zionist Mizraḥi movement that broke with the Zionist Organization over this decision joined the groups founding Agudat Yisraʾel.
The founding conference of the world Agudat Yisraʾel was held in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia (now Katowice, Poland) in May 1912, with some three hundred delegates in attendance. This conference began the delicate task of uniting under one organizational roof representatives of Orthodox communities from Germany, from Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, and from Hungary. Though these communities shared opposition to Zionism and other secular ideologies, they divided over many religious issues of both style and substance. Beginning at Kattowitz, the compromise view that prevailed granted autonomy within the framework of Agudah to each brand of Orthodoxy to follow its path on the local and regional level with no coercion on the part of other brands to accept their views. Thus the Frankfurt Orthodox allowed wide secular education, adopted German speech and dress, but demanded a separatist Orthodox community; their Polish counterparts clung to Yiddish, preferred traditional Jewish dress and education, and refused to secede from qehillah (Jewish community) boards, where they often constituted the largest group.
The Kattowitz Conference set up a temporary council, whose task would be to stimulate Orthodox organization in Germany and other countries, and nominated the first Moʿetset Gedolei ha-Torah (Council of Torah Sages), the rabbinical body designed to review and supervise all major decisions of the movement. Preparations began for convening in August 1914 the supreme body of the world Agudah, to be known as the Kenesiyyah Gedolah (Great Assembly, a name derived from a phrase in Avot 4.11, "an assembly for the sake of heaven"), an Orthodox equivalent of and answer to the Zionist congresses. The first meeting of the Great Assembly, postponed because of the outbreak of war, did not take place until 1923.
The German occupation of Poland opened up new opportunities for the organization of Orthodox Jewry in the east. Attached as advisers to the occupation authorities, representatives of the Freie Vereinigung won the trust of the Polish rabbis and Hasidic leaders and launched the substantive organization of Agudah in Poland, which would become the largest and most politically active branch of the movement. Drawing its strength mainly from the followers of the Hasidic rebe of Gur (Góra Kalwaria), the Polish Agudah elected deputies to the Polish parliament and numerous city councils, and it won control of many Jewish qehillot (community councils), including those of the two largest communities, Warsaw and Lódź.
The interwar period, punctuated by the three Great Assemblies of 1923, 1929, and 1937, witnessed the consolidation and expansion of Agudah's work on the national and international levels. The world movement established both a Qeren ha-Torah (Torah Fund) to support Orthodox educational institutions and a Qeren ha-Yishuv (Settlement Fund) to support Orthodox efforts in Palestine, which received no aid from the Zionist organizations. Through the work of Qeren ha-Torah, local communities rebuilt schools destroyed during the war and set up new schools. Agudah politicians intervened with government officials in various countries to remove bureaucratic obstacles to the maintenance of traditional education. In Poland they gained government recognition of Agudah schools, although this involved the addition of some secular subjects to the curriculum of the ḥeder (lit., "room"), the traditional Jewish religious school. Even more innovative was Agudah's adoption and promotion of the Beit Yaʿakov schools for girls. In the eyes of Agudah leaders, the threats facing Orthodoxy justified such a step. An entire network of (generally supplementary) primary and secondary girls' schools developed, with teachers supplied by a central teachers' seminary in Cracow. The Beit Yaʿakov system soon spread to other countries.
On the international level, Agudat Yisraʾel endeavored to provide an independent Orthodox viewpoint on all major Jewish issues. It most vehemently reacted to matters of special concern to Orthodox Jewry, such as proposed calendar reform or attacks on Jewish ritual slaughter. It consistently denied the right of secular Jewish organizations to speak in the name of all Jewry.
Though debate flared up on occasion within Agudah ranks over the centrality of Palestine in the Agudah agenda and worldview, Agudah developed an active presence in the Land of Israel. In the 1920s and early 1930s, it strove for recognition of the separate status of the old ultra-Orthodox community and resisted inclusion in the general representative bodies of the organized Jewish community. By the mid-thirties, however, waves of Orthodox immigrants from Germany and Poland altered the balance of power in the Agudah in Palestine in favor of more participation in and cooperation with the general community. Those who supported the old separatist line in Palestine eventually broke with Agudat Yisraʾel.
The destruction of most of European Jewry in the Holocaust wiped out the major centers of Agudat Yisraʾel as well, and Israel and the United States became the primary locations of party activity from then on. During the war years, Agudah activists inside and outside Nazi-occupied Europe endeavored to rescue rabbis and others. On occasion, Agudah dissented from general Jewish policies by its attempts at direct financial aid to Jews in the European ghettos, despite criticism that such help aided the enemy by breaking the economic boycott of Nazi-held Europe.
In the postwar period, Agudah took immediate steps to resume the full range of activities among the survivors in the European displaced-persons camps. The depleted ranks attending the world executive council meeting in 1947 showed the great losses Agudah had suffered, but it also demonstrated the party's determination to remain a force in the Jewish world.
Israel became the major arena for Agudah activities. In the 1940s, as a Jewish state came closer to reality, Agudah made peace with the idea of a Zionist-dominated state, and it, too, issued a call for Jewish independence. Agudah thinkers even drafted a constitution for a state based on Torah. For the first time, Agudah joined the religious Zionist Mizraḥi party in a United Religious Front to press the claim for maintenance of minimal religious standards in public life, including observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws in public institutions, rabbinical control of marriage and divorce, and government support for religious education. As a member of the governing coalition, Agudah received special support for its school system, as well as exemption from military service for religious girls and yeshivah students. In the early 1950s, Agudah left the coalition over the issue of compulsory alternative national service for women. As an opposition force, it railed against what it considered breaches of Jewish tradition, such as overly liberal autopsy and abortion laws or the raising of pigs on Jewish farms. Electorally, Agudat Yisraʾel has consistently won the votes of approximately 3 percent of the Israeli electorate (four seats in the 120-seat Knesset). In the 1984 elections, however, defections of Sefardic and some non-Hasidic Ashkenazic elements to the new Shas party halved Agudah's Knesset representation. The 1988 elections witnessed a further split in the Agudah's ranks, as tensions of long standing between Hasidic and non-Hasidic elements in the party led the latter to form the separate Degel Hatorah ("banner of Torah") party. Despite the party split, the truncated Agudah actually increased its representation to five seats, largely due to the one-time support and active campaigning by the Habad Lubavich Hasidic group. In subsequent elections, the two factions reunited in the United Torah Judaism party. Each faction, however, maintained its own rabbinic advisory council. In the sixteenth Knesset (elected 2003), United Torah Judaism held five seats.
Both in Israel and the United States, Agudat Yisraʾel has made a generally successful adjustment to its new status of representing a small minority within Jewry. In Israel, it has become a regular, accepted part of the political scene. In 1977, after a quarter century in the opposition, it joined the center-right Likud coalition, but without representation in the cabinet. In 1984, the reduced Agudah delegation participated in the national unity coalition that forms the government, this time demanding and receiving a subcabinet appointment. In the United States, Agudah began functioning effectively only during World War II. It built its strength on the transplanted remnants of Frankfurt Orthodoxy and Holocaust survivors from eastern Europe, but eventually it built a local constituency from the graduates of Agudah-affiliated educational institutions and members of Agudah-affiliated synagogues. Agudah has become the principal voice of independent Orthodoxy, being free of the "taint" of cooperation with the non-Orthodox movements in rabbinical or congregational umbrella organizations. Agudah activists have adapted to American political conditions as an effective lobbying group, with influence on the state and federal levels and a growing presence in some local Jewish federations.
Organization and Branches
In theory, the supreme body of Agudah is the Council of Torah Sages, the institutional fulfillment of Agudah's slogan, "To solve all the problems of the day according to Torah and tradition." In reality, the council has met only infrequently as a formal body, and any ongoing rabbinical supervision of party affairs has come by way of informal consultations with key rabbis. In recent decades, however, the functioning of the rabbinical council both in Israel and the United States has become more regularized and more closely approximates its original intended function. The Israeli council has, however, been paralyzed for considerable periods by differences of opinion within its ranks, which resulted in the council not being convened.
In addition to the Council of Torah Sages, the supreme deliberative body of Agudat Yisraʾel is the Great Assembly, which is convened every five years. In between Great Assemblies, a central council of one hundred elected delegates from the assembly meets annually to assess party affairs. Management of day-to-day matters rests with a small executive committee. Organization of Agudah on the national and regional level in the United States, Israel, and Europe follows the same general pattern.
Within the Agudat Yisraʾel movement there also developed a number of subsidiary and auxiliary organizations. These included organizations for youth (Tseʿirei Agudah, founded 1919), for girls (Benot Agudah, founded 1925/6), for women (Neshei Agudah, founded 1929), and for Orthodox workers (Poʿalei Agudah, founded 1923). Of these organizations Poʿalei Agudah showed the most independence in attempting to represent the interests of its declared constituency. It proved to be an almost constant source of friction within the Agudah camp, and in Israel Poʿalei Agudah eventually split with the parent body and ran independent lists of candidates. Agudah also had its own press and school systems.
With a few notable exceptions, such as Isaac Breuer (of Germany, later Palestine), the rabbis and publicists associated with Agudat Yisraʾel offered no systematic presentations of party doctrine. Nevertheless, an examination of newspaper articles, propaganda pamphlets, party proclamations, and rabbinic writings reveals some common themes that run through Agudah thought from its beginnings to the present.
A major ideological innovation of Agudat Yisraʾel was the doctrine of daʿat Torah ("Torah view"). According to this doctrine, the authority of the scholars who stood at the head of the movement extended to matters of economics and politics and was not limited to strictly religious matters. In a paradoxical twist, those men totally immersed in the study of Torah and furthest removed from everyday events are proclaimed to be best able to decide matters of political and social policy. Thus Agudat Yisraʾel as a party benefited from the unerring judgment and the aura of holiness of the Torah scholars who, theoretically at least, supervised all party activities. Daʿat Torah is an essentially defensive doctrine, the response of an embattled traditional leadership elite to the rise of alternative leaders and doctrines.
From the beginning, Agudah rejected the ideology of secular Zionism. At the same time, though, it consistently stressed its support for increased Jewish settlement in Palestine. The point of contention was the character of the Jewish center being built there. Agudah wished to strengthen the old centers of learning and to ensure that the new settlement be based on traditional Jewish values and laws. Agudah saw solely territorial rebirth of the Jewish people as insufficient. Even in the Land of Israel, Jews could not survive without the Torah. Since the Torah stood at the center of Agudah's concerns, it could never accept the official position of the Zionist movement that religion was a private matter.
In the long run, a detailed party program and ideology have not been crucial for Agudat Yisraʾel. It has turned to its constituency not on the basis of any specific program but on the basis of the collective charisma of the Torah sages and a general desire to defend traditional Judaism at all costs.
Orthodox Judaism; Schenirer, Sarah.
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Gershon C. Bacon (1987 and 2005)