By Gedaliah Borvick
On a tour of the Southern Wall of the Second Temple, I walked along Ma’alot HaRav Shlomo Goren. It makes good sense that Rabbi Goren was memorialized with a street named after him in Jerusalem’s Old City. As the chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Goren was a passionate supporter of the liberation of the Old City. Indeed, one of the most iconic photos of the 1967 Six Day War was of Rabbi Goren holding a Torah scroll and blowing the shofar at the Western Wall.
Rabbi Goren was born in Poland in 1917 and emigrated to Palestine at the age of eight. He was a brilliant, colorful, and sometimes controversial Talmudist and halakhist. Young Shlomo Goren was a prodigy; at the tender age of twelve, he began his formal Talmud studies as the youngest student ever at Jerusalem’s Hebron Yeshiva and he published the first of many books when he was just seventeen years old.
During the War of Independence, Rabbi Goren was a sniper on the front lines in Jerusalem and was often called upon to resolve questions concerning religious observance under wartime conditions. Word spread about his halachic expertise and, in 1948, Rabbi Goren was appointed the first chief rabbi of the army, a role that he served with distinction for over two decades. In 1973, he was elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, serving until 1983.
As the IDF’s first chief rabbi, Rabbi Goren established religious observance guidelines for the armed forces, such as arranging for the provision of kosher food, and for training exercises to be minimized on the Sabbath and festivals. In addition, he wrote many responsa concerning observance of Jewish law in the military. Interestingly, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, though anti-religious, was one of Rabbi Goren’s staunchest supporters, as his state-centered outlook dictated that the military be a melting pot that eliminated communal, religious, and ethnic allegiances. For Rabbi Goren, a completely kosher army was a goal in itself; for Ben-Gurion, it was the price to pay for a unified Jewish army.
Rabbi Goren is often noted for his bravery in accompanying troops to the front lines during wars and in risking his life to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers from behind enemy lines. Beyond respect for the dead, these activities were given top priority by Rabbi Goren to ease the plight of agunot, women whose missing husbands’ deaths could not be confirmed, who were only permitted to remarry once proof of death was established.
One vignette from Rabbi Goren’s autobiography, With Might and Strength, underscores his courage and the sacred value that he placed on these operations. After the War of Independence, Rabbi Goren crossed the ceasefire lines into Jordanian territory to collect approximately fifty bodies from Gush Etzion. Rabbi Goren was required to walk through 100 yards of no-man’s-land, which each army had mined to prevent the other side from crossing. He chronicled this perilous 45-minute hike, in which he hopped from rock to rock, reckoning that the mines would probably be placed under the dirt between the rocks. “After three quarters of an hour, I reached the other side. The Arabs stood with their eyes wide in astonishment and could not believe I had made it . . . By the time I had finished crossing the no-man’s-land, a few dozen Arabs had gathered to watch me, and they started applauding.” Rabbi Goren was a strong-willed man who wouldn’t let anything prevent him from completing his holy mission.
To paraphrase the editor’s preface in With Might and Strength, the combination of Rabbi Goren’s personality and erudition, the time in which he lived, and the posts that he held, positioned him as one of the most influential figures of the Jewish people in the twentieth century.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.