Exclusive: Interview with a Former Kannai, Part I

In my series on Pashkevilim, I gave highlights of a lecture about the community of anti-Zionist kannaim, or  zealots, in Jerusalem. @Jewnet invited me to interview her husband Moshe Yossef, a former kannai,  for an insider’s view.

I’ve divided the interview into two parts.  Part I is about Rabbi Moshe Yossef himself and his experiences. In Part II, he answers general questions about the community. My questions are in bold, and Rabbi Yossef’s answers are in blue.

What is your Jewish background?

Rabbi Yossef responds: I was born into a traditional, modern, orthodox background. At the age of eighteen I went in search of something more meaningful to me, and found it here in Jerusalem, where I spent the next five years, and where I came back to settle in later life.

How did you end up in the community of the Eidah Haredit? What drew you to it? How long did you spend there and what were you doing at the time?

Actually, I was never affiliated with the Eidah Haredit (although I followed their ideology).  What is more, they do not, to my knowledge, have an official community as such, but rather a following from amongst a cross-section of families which span several communities: some Hasidic, some Lithuanian, some Jerusalemite.  The common denominator is a degree of zealousness in ideology, and a willingness to follow the halachic rulings of the Eidah Haredit Beit Din (Jewish Court).

Which community exactly were you part of?

I found my place amongst the Karliner Chassidim of Jerusalem.  As I have explained, within the group there were some kannaim (zealots), as well as many who were not.  Non-kannaim are generally referred to as Agudists (after the Agudat Yisrael party, for whom they vote).

Were you accepted? Ever made to feel like an outsider?

That is an interesting question.  For my part, I certainly not only felt part of the group, but rather – the group was my family, and there was nothing I would not have done for them.

On the whole, I felt at home and accepted by the group.  There came a time, however, when I was to discover the limits of my “acceptance.”  When I reached marriageable age, and someone (outside the group) tried to propose a match for me with a girl from an inside family, not only was the proposal declined, but a few unsavory elements within the group behaved very unpleasantly.  Even though the Rebbe (spiritual leader) of the group brought these individuals to task as soon as he heard about the affair, the experience shook me up, and things never felt the same for me after that.

Is there anything that surprised you about the community?

What surprised me about this affair was that prior to it, I had believed that anyone who applied him/herself and successfully learned how to live like the members of the group, would be totally accepted.  I knew that I spoke their language (Yiddish) fluently, dressed like them, knew their Hasidut and prayers even better than they did themselves….I learned that (almost) all people are human, with human failings and weaknesses, and that life is not black and white but shades of grey.

There is a very important point I would like to make, in order to understand what being a kannai means: there is no precise, black and white definition of what constitutes a kannai.  Rather, there are degrees or shades of how far a person chooses to go, in limiting any interaction between himself and anything representative of the State of Israel.

Why did you leave, and how did your friends respond? Do you still have contact with some of the kannaim?

I was persuaded that the time had come in my life to go back to chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel) for a while.  My friends here never really believed I would go, or if I did, that it would be for long.  In fact, twelve years passed until I next entered the country – on a Pilot Trip with my wife.  Since returning, I keep in occasional touch with a select group of my old friends.

How have your beliefs changed from when you were part of the kannai community?

OK. The the first factor was that, at some point I switched yeshivas, and I learned an important concept in the new place.  I was taught, in the name of one of the Sages of Israel of around 80-90 years ago, who said, in relation to kannaut, that none of us has the right to say: this way is right and that way is wrong, any more than it would not be correct to say Tosaphot got the correct meaning in the Talmud whilst Rashi got it wrong (or vice versa). The reason this was a particularly powerful statement was because the Sage who stated it was himself one of the greatest of kannaim!

This laid the ground for the real change, which actually came about later, in chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel). As part of my overall shift from seeing the world, as I did when I was younger, in shades of black and white, but later realizing that it actually consists of shades of grey.  I cannot go into detail within the context of this interview, but it is harder to combat the wicked, and wickedness itself, when ones sees an element of G-dliness in all things – both good and evil. It goes without saying that the method of combat must be altered, but besides that, the whole objective of the battle is changed.  Instead of seeking to defeat the enemy, one must seek to win him over.  In fact, the ‘enemy’ is not really an enemy at all, but merely takes on the appearance of such.

This probably sounds confusing – to comprehend it completely and in depth involves the understanding of some basic kabbalistic issues.  So I am sorry if you are sorry you asked. In any event, I would describe myself today neither as kannai nor Agudist – I neither have, nor do I desire to have, any label’.

Rabbi Yossef, thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. In Part II, Rabbi Yossef answer questions about the daily life of the community, trends, and possible concerns.

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  1. This is quite fascinating. Thanks MiI for this interview.

  2. Interesting…very interesting. I was never aware that this was some form of structured “movement” or group – I thought it random people who don’t feel quite right inside.

  3. Well, chazal don’t look at opponents to be either defeated or one over. Rather, within the context of the clal which is Israel, we say elu v’elu divrei elokim chaim – are there applications today of this principle? I wonder…

  4. Rabbi Moshe Yossef says

    In relation to comment 3) above, I think you will find that: elu v’elu divrei elokim chaim, lit. these (words) and these are the words of the living G-d, is a term the Talmudic Sages employed to define what our outlook should be in relation to the divergence of opinions or rulings amongst & between the Sages of the Talmud, which appear to be in direct contradiction with each other. As I discussed in my response to the last question of part 1) of the Interview (above) it is erroneous to say: ‘this Sage was right, and that one was wrong’. The reason for this is that, since all are great Torah sages, with at least siyatta dishmaya, if not Ruach Hakodesh (lit. the Holy Spirit), there is truth in all which they say: it is all Torah – even though their statements appear to be in direct contradiction. This is, of course, a unique, and somewhat mind-blowing principle.

    However, it was never the intention of the Sages to suggest that we apply this principle to the utterance and opinion of every simple Jew! Rather, only to disagreements between the great Torah Sages, and in relation to their halachic rulings.