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The Warrior Rabbi

Shlomo Goren, 1949.

Praise of military virtue, prominent in the Bible, is almost non-existent in the Talmud, which, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews by the Romans, either ignores wartime feats or re-interprets them as allegories of intellectual or spiritual prowess. The Talmud's relative silence on the subject would prove enduring. Until the second half of the 20th century, with few exceptions, military virtue was consistently depreciated in traditional Jewish thought.

Relevant Links
A Scholar on the Battlefield  Arye Edrei, Theoretical Inquiries in Law. With a minimum of material at his disposal, Shlomo Goren single-handedly shaped a compelling vision of Jewish military ethics.
Sounding the Great Shofar  IsraCast. June 7, 1967: Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows the shofar and recites the prayer for fallen soldiers moments after Israeli forces conquered the Western Wall. (Video.)  

The traditionalist who reversed that trend was Shlomo Goren (1917-1994), the anniversary of whose death was marked earlier this week. As the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and later the third chief rabbi of the state of Israel, Goren issued several innovative halakhic rulings dealing with military life and composed the first code of Jewish military law since Maimonides. In so doing, he brought the Jewish conception of war into the modern era. 

Shlomo Goren moved with his family from Zambrów, Poland, to mandatory Palestine in 1925. At the age of twelve, he was the youngest student ever to be accepted into the prestigious Hebron yeshiva.  At the age of seventeen, he published his first book: a legal commentary on an abstruse topic connected to Temple sacrifices.  His interests leading him beyond the four cubits of traditional Jewish law, he enrolled in the Hebrew University to study mathematics, classics, and philosophy.

The young Goren was not only a wide-ranging thinker but a bold doer. In 1936, he participated in the defense of his community against Arab rioters; shortly before the outbreak of Israel's war of independence, he joined the Haganah, where he quickly established himself as an expert sniper. At war's end, the scholar-warrior who had repeatedly risked his life under fire was prevailed upon by the state's chief rabbis to answer David Ben-Gurion's call for someone to assume responsibility for religious services in the army. The rabbis might have envisioned the position as one of catering to religious soldiers exclusively, but Goren's first move was to establish himself as rabbi of the entire military. All of the IDF's kitchens were made kosher, and Jewish religious festivals were observed across the board.

Goren's biggest stroke as a thinker was yet to come. It was, he argued, only the loss of political sovereignty in 70 C.E. that had compelled the rabbis of the Talmud to recast ideas of military power in spiritual terms—for instance, by emphasizing the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah and neglecting to mention the Maccabees' battlefield victory over the Greeks. But, he contended, the rabbis never meant to replace the military with the spiritual; for them, rather, military virtue was a means, not an end in itself.

In composing his code of Jewish military law, Goren surmounted the difficulty presented by the lack of rabbinic legal material by expanding the boundaries of the canon and utilizing ancient historical and apocryphal sources like the works of Josephus Flavius and the Book of Maccabees. What emerged was nothing less than a new religious-national template for an era in which political sovereignty had been regained: a vision of the ideal Jew as, at once, spirited and spiritual. By means of such insights he hoped, especially after becoming Israel's chief rabbi in 1973, to influence the national consensus of the Jewish state.   

Goren's drive to expand the traditional canon was not limited to the laws of war. In a series of lectures on Jewish thought, he extolled the virtues of ancient Jewish and non-Jewish theologians unknown in Orthodox society, some of whose texts Goren read in the original Greek. In the field of talmudic scholarship, similarly, he championed the historically neglected Jerusalem Talmud as an important primary source. For these intellectual efforts he was awarded the Israel Prize, the state's highest honor.

The tragedy of Goren's career is that his devotion to Torah and intense—some would call it fanatical—piety contributed to his ultimate marginalization. In 1967, after the Six-Day war, he climbed Mount Sinai and re-enacted the giving of the Torah. In his own mind, he may have been making a statement that Israel's victory constituted a revelation of divine power; in the mind of the public, he had pulled a foolish stunt. At the same time, and more seriously, ostensibly trustworthy sources charged that, in the wake of Israel's conquest of the Temple Mount, Goren had called for blowing up the Mosque of Omar. He denied the claim, but, justly or not, the allegation helped create an image of him as a messianic zealot. 

By the end of his career, Goren found himself cut off from the corridors of power, without a public following, and, in the last year of his life, left to rage from the sidelines against the Oslo accords.  While his name is still respected in religious-Zionist circles, very few today engage with his writings and teachings. This is a great pity. As the unacknowledged rabbinic legislator of the modern Jewish army, he lent the weight of his brio, his genius, and his immense erudition to a task of reconciliation that few others could have performed. Of no less permanent value is his activist and indeed audacious conception of what a rabbi should and could be, and of which texts, and which human undertakings, may be embraced and endorsed by the Jewish tradition.

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Daniel Wright on November 5, 2010 at 8:54 am (Reply)
As a gentile person, I confess that I don't recognize very many Rabbis from history, but Shlomo Goren is a face etched in my memory. There are several widely publicized photographs of Goren and jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Kotel and Temple Mount in June of 1967 immediately after liberation of the "Old City." The most memorable for me is Rabbi Goren blowing his shofar among the soldiers. For all the criticism, he is someone I admire and what a privilege for him to be THERE back THEN for THAT event. Great article. Thanks.
Neil Rubin on November 5, 2010 at 12:58 pm (Reply)
This is a very well-written and interesting article of a figure who is rarely commented upon. His support for Gush Emunim and his relationship with R. Zvi Yehuda Kook is also worthy of exploration.

I would be interested in the author posting some biographies (Hebrew or English) and/or other writings not by but about R. Goren for further perusal.

Neil Rubin, Ph.D.
Arie Lavy on November 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm (Reply)
As a former 1973 Israeli POW I had the privilege to have Rabbi Shlomo Goren Z”L marry us when I came back from Egypt.

He was one of the greatest Rabbis: a gentleman and an officer. A true “Mentsh.”
Shael Siegel, Ph.D on November 5, 2010 at 4:43 pm (Reply)
Interesting article about Goren, however I would have liked the article to contextualize him within the IDF on two levels: his impact, if any, on the the IDF; and how he compared to other rabbis who served in the same capacity before and after him.
Independent Patriot on November 7, 2010 at 7:54 am (Reply)
The interesting aspect of this article is how Goren reshaped religious views held for centuries by the Jewish People. Through their rabbis Jews were taught to not fight back and to accept as God's will/punishment their traumas. I for one think it is about time that Goren is given his due for rephrasing Jewish existence.How many millions of our people died because they were taught "shah, be quiet, let it pass."How many still to this day, live with their heads turned from reality? How many Rabbis today still teach that passivity in the face of threats of genocide is the way to survive or that it has to be the Jews' fault that the world dislikes us?It is time we celebrated the warriors of our past, religious or otherwise, and those that stood for their right to be Jews free in their own land determining their own fate.
Aryeh Tepper on November 7, 2010 at 8:42 am (Reply)
Thanks to all for your comments.

Neil: There is very litle secondary literature on R' Goren. You have to go the primary sources. There's a popular English-language biography published by Urim Publications, but in my opinion the Edrei article - one of our 'relevant links' - is a good place to start. You can follow the footnotes for more.

Shael: No rabbis served before R' Goren in the Israeli army. He was the first. To trace his impact you need to work your way through the rabbinic literature that has built upon R' Goren's foundation. Here too you have no choice but to go to the primary sources. However, you might find Prof. Stuart Cohen's articles on religion in the IDF to be of interest - he's a sociologist from Bar-Ilan Univ. See for instance:
Zalman Alpert on November 8, 2010 at 10:43 am (Reply)
Rabbi Goren was certainly the most famous Zionist rabbi since 1948.
The article fails to mention the real issues that isolated him from his rabbinic colleagues.
Firstly his ambition which caused him to run against the then incmbent chief rabbi I.J. Unterman (also a Mizrachi leader). This move was opposed by most of the Zionist rabbinate, the Lubavitcher rebbe and the Roshe yeshiva of the Lithuanian yeshivos. Although Goren won, that was not the issue.
His decision about the so called Brother and Sister regarding mamzeruth caused an uproar in Rabbinic circles throughout the world. Although the decision was not much different in logic than some issued earlier by Charedi poskim, in this case Goren's enemies used it against him and saw it as proof he was really a Rav Mi-Taam a govt rabbi working for the government. That destroyed Goren's prestige among his fellow rabbis.His only support came from the gaon Rabbi Dr. Chaim Zimmerman.
Another aspect of Goren's life deserves study that is his relationship to his father in law the Nazir rabbi David Cohen the prime disciple of rav Kook. Like him Goren was also a vegetarian.
Under any circumstances the man deserves tremendous credit for his work in the Israeli army and his personal courage in withstanding all sorts of criticism from Charedi circles. rabbi Goren will certainly be recognized by objective people as a great rabbi and leader.There is an English biography of the Rabbi.
efraim bezalel on November 9, 2010 at 12:45 am (Reply)
Rabbi Goren climbed Mount Sinai? As far as I know, it has never been located.

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