The Warrior Rabbi

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, November 5, 2010

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.

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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