Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaKohen Maimon became the first Minister of Religious Affairs of Medinat Yisrael. Perhaps more than anyone else, it was his persistence and unique friendship with David Ben Gurion which influenced Israel’s first Prime Minister to make many tenets of Judaism an intrinsic part of the newly-formed Jewish State.
I spoke to Rabbi Yosef Movashovich, Director of Mossad HaRav Kook in Jerusalem, and Rabbi of the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. Married to Rabbi Maimon’s great-granddaughter, he is an encyclopedia of family recollections about heralded Religious Zionist leader.
“While we long for the day when HaKodesh Baruch Hu will return His Divine Presence to Zion completely and restore the Torah judges as in our past, the State of Israel is certainly, with all of its birth pains and crises of growth, the most Jewish state in the world.
"That is due in great part to my wife’s great grandfather, HaRav Maimon, who hounded Ben Gurion into giving actual expression to the Jewish character of the reborn Jewish State. His unceasing badgering led to kashrut in the army and government institutions, the public keeping of Shabbat, the stature of the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinical Courts, including their jurisdiction over conversion, marriage and divorce.
"He worked toward the creation of a Sanhedrin authorized to guide the development of the Jewish State, in its multiple modern-day facets, in the light of Halakha, but failed to muster the majority needed to bring his dream to fruition. Thanks to his valor, comprehensive Torah wisdom, unabashed cleaving to Hashem, and gratitude towards the wondrous doings of the Almighty in returning Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel after almost 2000 of exile, the recital of Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut was widely accepted by the reborn Nation in Zion.”
His original family name was Fishman. Why did he change it to Maimon?
Ben Gurion requested that the ministers-to-be in the official government Hebraize their names. Ben Gurion said that the name Fishman recalled the galut. Since the name Eish-Dag didn’t appeal to the respected Rabbi, he chose the name Maimon, explaining that his family roots went back to the Rambam.
How do you account for his friendship with Ben Gurion?
HaRav Maimon spoke with a directness that Ben Gurion admired. In addition to his erudition in Torah, he had a vast knowledge of secular subjects as well. Ben Gurion was a voracious reader, reputed to have the largest private library in Israel with 30,000 books. HaRav Maimon’s library was even larger.
How was he involved with the founding of the State?
HaRav Maimon was the leader of the Mizrachi party, which was a part of the temporary pre-State government council. During the days preceding the end of the British Mandate, Ben Gurion was in a quandary whether to declare statehood or not. Many voices, including Golda Meir, were against such a bold move, fearing an even greater war with surrounding Arab countries, and they were skeptical about America’s support for such a decision.
HaRav Maimon favored immediate independence. On the Fourth of Iyar, Ben Gurion wanted HaRav Maimon to be present for the council vote, to insure a majority for the declaration, but HaRav Maimon was in Jerusalem, prevented from reaching Tel Aviv by the siege on the Holy City.
So Ben Gurion sent a one-man ‘Piper’ airplane to bring him to Tel Aviv. The plane landed here in Kiryat Moshe. To HaRav Maimon’s chagrin, he discovered that the tiny aircraft had no room for passengers. He later wrote that the flying machine looked like a wagon with wings. Removing his tallit and tefillin from his carrying bag, the aging Rabbi told the pilot to use them to tie him up to the back of the pilot’s chair, so he wouldn’t fall out during the flight. That’s how he flew to Tel Aviv, with his legs dangling out of the hatch of the plane, as if he were sitting in a ski lift.
"His strident voice at the emergency national council meeting and backing of Ben Gurion helped the statehood resolution to pass. Citing a Tosefot in Baba Metzia, 106A, concerning the valor of King David and the Divine Assistance he merited, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook later asserted that the decision to declare statehood, when a coalition of Arab nations had sworn to respond with an all-out war, was a clear miracle orchestrated by Hashem.”
In her memoirs, Golda Meir recalls the meeting of the pre-government council that convened on Thursday night to decide upon the name of the State and the wording of the Declaration of Independence. How faithful is her account in relation to the Maimon family tradition?
Like all of recorded history, it all depends upon who relates it. After hearing the initial draft, HaRav Maimon emphatically insisted that the G-d of Israel be mentioned in the document. A fervent debate broke out whether to include a reference to Hashem, and, if so, in what wording. Among the council members were devout communists and apikorsim.
The final sentence in the proclamation which the draft committee had written was: ‘We affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional Council of State, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath Night….’ Needless to say, HaRav Maimon wouldn’t hear of the document being signed on Shabbat, when the British Mandate officially ended, nor on Motzei Shabbat, which might cause council members to travel on Shabbat to attend the meeting. So the gathering was scheduled for Friday afternoon at 4PM, before Shabbat commenced.
He further proposed that the concluding sentence begin, ‘Placing out trust in the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer, we affix our signatures….” The reference to Hashem triggered immediate dissention. A council member protested that they themselves, the people and the Jewish fighting forces, were redeeming the nation – not Hashem. A lengthy and heated debate broke out, even though everyone knew that time was of the essence. Ben Gurion asserted that the expression, ‘Rock of Israel,’ was open to interpretation and sufficiently abstract to satisfy both the unreligious and those among the Orthodox who could not agree to a declaration proclaiming the establishment of the Jewish State which did not include any mention of G-d.
As a compromise, he suggested to drop the term ‘Redeemer of Israel.’ As the representative of the religious parties, HaRav Maimon maintained that the reference to the G-d of Israel must be clear, and said that he would only agree to the expression ‘the Rock of Israel’ if it was followed by the words, ‘and its Redeemer.’
Aharon Zeling, from the far-left branch of the Labor Party, disagreed fiercely. ‘I cannot possibly sign my name on a document which refers to a G-d whom I do not believe in at all!’ he claimed. Ben Gurion tried to convince the two of them that ‘the Rock of Israel’ had a double meaning, and people could choose between them. He maintained that while religious Jews would understand the expression in its Biblical context as G-d, for secular Jews it could be understood as ‘the national strength of the Israelite Nation.’ Eventually, to get on with the proceedings, HaRav Maimon agreed to the wording, ‘Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel.’
It turned out that the argument had largely been in vain, because when the Declaration was subsequently translated into English to distribute to the press, the words ‘Rock of Israel’ of the original Hebrew didn’t even appear, because the military censor erased the entire paragraph for security reasons since it mentioned the time and place of the meeting.
But HaRav Maimon had the final word. At the climax of the ceremony when Ben Gurion proclaimed the founding of the State, HaRav Maimon was sitting to his immediate right. The moment Ben Gurion finished his speech, HaRav Maimon spontaneously stood up and recited the Shecheyanu blessing in his heavy Lashone HaKodesh accent, emphasizing the name Hashem.
That tradition continues today in many minyanim around the country when Hallel is sung with its full blessing on Yom HaAtzmaut, in praise of the Almighty for returning us to Eretz Yisrael and establishing Jewish sovereignty in our Land.”