The IDF Rabbinate of Rabbi Goren: "With Might and Strength"

Anti-religious IDF policies and the trials of the new Chief IDF Rabbi, are nothing new, just the issues have changed. First IDF Rabbi Goren's autobiography tells that story, that of a Jewish state that created a Jewish army .

Tags: Shlomo Goren
Rochel Sylvetsky

OpEds Rabbi Goren at the Wall
Rabbi Goren at the Wall
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

The IDF Chief Rabbinate, which installed its new head on December 1, has been in the news in Israel for the past few weeks for several reasons: The first is the embarrassing and delusional ignorance of three leftist Meretz Party female MKs who decided that the accepted candidate for the post, combat veteran Rabbi Eyal Karim, had given IDF soldiers permission to rape Arab women. The three went on to display antagonism towards anything that smacks of Jewish values in their insistence that the respected rabbi spell out his views on gays in the army and most tellingly, expected him to bend halakha to reflect what they deem the most sacred value of all - women doing everything that men can do, not to be confused with either equal rights or other people's rights.  

The Supreme Court's agreeing to hear the women's case made the contrast, as well as the similarity, between today's situation and the early days of the IDF Rabbinate, obvious and painful. The left has stayed the same and, of course, so have the rabbis What changed is the lack of shame on the part of the Supreme Court, or more clearly:  the chutzpa of the judges to take on Torah issues, personified by Justice Joubran who said he had read the Bible and gave his "learned" opinion on the subject of concern, the laws pertaining to captured enemy women.

The rabbi found a way to write an answer that satisfied the harpies, but the contempt with which those members of Knesset treated a Talmid Chacham brought one back to the ex‎pressions of loathing used by secular Zionist iconic writer Yosef Chaim Brenner to describe learned Old City Jews in the pre-state days. Luckily, Rabbi Karim wasn't asked to say that he approves of mixed tank crews, the newest way to make it difficult if not impossible for religious soldiers to serve in the Jewish army.

In humiliating a rabbi who also served as head of an IDF commando unit, the three seemed to have forgotten that IDF rabbis are not judged by what the Torah says about alternative lifestyles or by whether they think women belong in the army. 

If they took the time to go back to those pre-state days and Israel's early years, they would realize that IDF Chief Rabbis have a sacred and crucial mission, unique in Jewish history. The first IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren zt"l set the norm for what the Chief Rabbi's po‎sition entails and the criteria for choosing him. He must be someone on a par with outstanding rabbis of his generation and on the other hand, because of his unique po‎sition, someone who can also set an example of courageous army service so that the rank-and-file soldiers look up to him as a figure who understands them.

These last weeks made it all the more important for me to read Rabbi Shlomo Goren's autobiography, recently published in English translation and called "With Might and Strength." and to write about it. Lovingly and skillfully edited by Avi Rat who knew the brilliant rabbi well and translated impeccably by Maryam Blum, it paints the picture of what the Chief Rabbinate is all about from its inception.

A genius who had gone through the Talmud by the age of 12 (one has to read the unbelievable standards he set himself ) and continued doing so once a year, the young iluy (Talmudic genius) had also attended Hebrew University and was recruited for the job after serving in the Lehi underground movement. His young family's Jerusalem home served as a hiding place for illegal weapons and later, when the Hagana was formed, he recalled counting each bullet when on guard duty. Those were the days when the existence of a Jewish state hung in the balance - and it was no wonder he received the approval and soon the respect of David Ben Gurion.

Rabbi Goren showed Torah-true integrity in fulfilling his mission and in his vision of the kind of army that was to defend the Jews after the 2000 years when that was, tragically, not possible. 

The army's job was to defeat the Jewish people's enemies. The Chief Rabbi's job was to make it a Jewish army, he said. One army, not one for the religious and one for the secular. Ben Gurion was just as adamant as Rabbi Goren was on this matter, while the left - whose representative scornfully suggested that religious soldiers, who had sustained many losses in heroic battles, keep away from the secular and eat cholent all week if they wished - and the Mizrachi rabbis, who worried about undue secular influence, were not averse to separation on religious lines.. 

Not Rabbi Goren. The entire army had to be Jewish, it had to be made kosher, it had to keep free of chametz on Passover, refrain from drills on the Sabbath - and Rabbi Goren, not without much heartache and confrontations, managed to lay these foundations in such a way that they still support our Jewish army. He did not give in one iota on his principles. As a halakhic arbiter, he did find solutions for unique halakhic problems that arose after a 2000 year lapse - the Maccabees and Bar Kochva were, after all, the last fighters - in the existence of a Jewish army This also meant galvanizing the haredi men of Jerusalem to dig trenches on Shabbat which stopped the tanks set to invade Jerusalem on the holy day of rest. They came in droves and did it.

Before going out to battles, Rabbi Goren sent a message of inspiration praying to the G-d of Israel to protect the IDF soldiers and crown them with victory.  Col. Winter did that in the 2014 Operation in Gaza and found himself fiercely attacked by the left, including the aforesaid MKs, for religious coercion. My 97 year old Uncle Bob, on the other hand, has a letter to the troops of the allied expeditionary force signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, ending with "and let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty G-d upon this great and noble undertaking."

In matters of life and death, which trump the Sabbath, and other issues related in the book, Rabbi Goren set the tone for a proud and Jewish fighting force. Today, those challenges have moved to attempts to eliminate the Jewish aspect of the army in issues that are not life-threatening, but make freedom of religion, the independence of halakhic po‎sitions and mitzva-observance impossible. 

Rabbi Goren showed his stalwart will, courage and dedication in the 1948 War of Independence, when the entire Arab world was fighting a fledgling state filled with traumatized Holocaust survivors. Israel retreated from more than one location, forced to leave bodies of the fallen behind. It is Rabbi Goren, who somehow - in hair-raising ways that must be read in his own words to be believed - then gets behind enemy lines, endangering his life, and does his best to retrieve the hundreds of bodies and body parts of dead soldiers, some mutilated, some left unburied, others thrown in mass graves. He worries constantly about their grieving parents, but cannot visit his own mother's grave over enemy lines as those taking him over those lines with his eyes covered by an Arab keffiyah will not allow him to.

The Chief Rabbinate has had its own chevra kadisha (burial service) because of his decision to create one to provide chesed shel emet (the ex‎pression for care for the dead, meaning lovingkindness that they can not repay) to our soldiers and this, unfortunately, is a continuous and sacred mitzvah. Both soldiers and rabbis are fashioned from steel in this country, where a military rabbi or soldier in the rabbinic corps can find that one of his friends is lying on the stretcher before him. I know - my late husband was in the chevra kadisha.

A major challenge was to free the army's agunot, another mission for the IDF Chief Rabbinate. So many, so heartbreaking. Rabbi Goren investigated and proved beyond doubt the fate of  the submarine Dakar's victims, those of the Eilat warship disaster, the many lost in the Yom Kippur War, always arriving at the scene, always joining soldiers at the front. 

One imagines that all the personal villification and controversy that Rabbi Goren surmounted were insignificant to him, not only because of his successes, but because he merited reaching the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Hevron's Cave of the Patriarchs, Mount Sinai - and, after long last, his mother's grave.  His laying down the law to Moshe Dayan on Hevron is a must read. He was trumped by the government on the Temple Mount when Dayan handed the Wakf the keys to the holiest site in Judaism - he did manage to have the army engineers map out the site, but now realizing the gulf between his feelings and those of Dayan, did not let that happen in the city of the Patriarchs.

He championed the cause of settling the areas liberated in the Six Day War, making him unpopular with the left, but also gave learned opinions on ascending the Temple Mount and where shmitta must be observed, in his rabbinic capacities after the IDF. Indefatigable, he left us when there was much left to do.

This review, which leaves out much that there is no room to mention, would not be complete without mentioning Rabbi Goren's early years, when his prosperous family left Europe for the starving idealism of the early settlers of Kfar Hassidim, years before the state was established. This writer ran a youth village there for seven years and remembers the pride of the residents, none of whom are hassidim, in his living there as a youngster. They, however, never talked about the hard conditions, bureaucratic apathy and religious lows that brought the Gorenchik family to move to Jerusalem, where their untamed but genius-level and iconoclastic son soon made his mark in the Torah world. Tsfia Goren, z"l, his wife (the sister of the late Rabbi Sha'ar Yashuv Cohen and daughter of the Nazir), became a cherished friend when I headed Emunah where she was honorary chairwoman. We had many pleasant afternoons in her Tel Aviv home, but she, gracious and hospitable, to the manor born, never mentioned his difficult early years or her courage before and during the War of Independence when she guarded that hidden cache of weapons with a baby in the house.

Like many geniuses, Rabbi Goren was a man of temperament and impatience, leading to controversies with the rabbinic world as well. All, however, was for the sake of heaven, all with might and courage, might and strength. This is a book that brings the fight for the land of Israel and for its Jewish character to fascinating life. Because it is an autobiography, there is some repetition, but that takes nothing away from the feeling that one is experiencing the most miraculous period of modern Jewish history through the words of one of its main characters.