The Rabbinate in stormy days

The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog, The First Chief Rabbi of Israel by Shaul Mayzlish.

Translation by Tanhum Yoreh

Gefen, 2017

In 1991, Shaul Mayzlish published his brilliant biography of Chief Rabbi Herzog titled ‘Rabbanut B’Sa’arat HaYamim’, and with much thanks to Gefen Books and specifically to MK Isaac Herzog – the grandson and namesake of Chief Rabbi Herzog who, along with his siblings, sponsored the translation of this book – the English reading public can now learn about the life of this truly great Rabbinic leader. Here are some of the highlights of ‘The Rabbinate in Stormy Days’ as they pertain to the life, struggles and contribution of Chief Rabbi Herzog:

Rabbi Herzog was born in Lomzha in 1888 to Rabbi Yoel Leib and Rabbanit Miriam. He was a brilliant young Torah scholar and was fortunate to spend time in his youth with Rabbi Malkiel Tannenbaum, author of Responsa Divrei Malkiel.

In 1897 Rabbi Yoel Herzog was invited by the heads of the United Synagogue to preside as Chief Rabbi of the Leeds community in England, and it was during this period that his son’s devotion and mastery of Torah  developed even further. By 1905 he had already studied all the tractates in the Talmud and was regarded as a budding halakhic expert. Beyond this, young Yitzchak pursued a secular education and by 1909 he had received his BA in classical and modern languages and mathematics from the University of London.

Given the paucity of yeshivot in England at the time the young Yitzchak Herzog began to write anonymous treatises which he sent to great scholars such as Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Rabbi Yosef Shlufer of Slonim, and Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky of Slutsk – otherwise known as the Ridbaz – who referred to him as ‘the Rabbi Akiva Eiger of our generation’. He received semicha (rabbinical ordination) from all three of these scholars in 1910, and by 1911 he received his MA in Semitic and classic languages from the University of London. That same year, Rabbi Yitzchak followed his family to Paris where his father had been appointed Rabbi, and in 1914 he received his PhD at age 25 from the Sorbonne on the topic of tekhelet.

In 1915 Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog was appointed rabbi of Belfast, Northern Ireland and in 1917 Rabbi Herzog became one of the founders of the Mizrachi movement in England and Ireland and one of the strongest voices about the importance of educating and strengthening religious Zionism.

By this stage Rabbi Herzog was still unmarried, and it was following a meeting in London attended by Chief Rabbi Hertz, Rabbi Shmuel Hillman and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook where he met his future wife. The meeting itself was significant because these four great Torah scholars had gathered just to discuss whether the food shortage due to the war effort was a sufficient reason to permit the Ashkenazi community to eat Kitniot during Pesach.  After the meeting the Rabbis were invited back to the home of Rabbi Hillman for refreshments which were served by his daughter Sarah who was deeply impressed by the young Rabbi. By the summer of 1917 they were married and they returned to Belfast to begin their new life together. Their first child was born a year later and named Chaim, after Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik who had ordained Rabbi Hillman. In 1918, Rabbi Herzog was appointed Chief Rabbi of Dublin where he remained for 18 years, and in 1922 a second son was born to Yitzchak and Sarah whom they named Yaakov David, after the Ridbaz.

Chief Rabbi Herzog was greatly admired by the people of Dublin and it was here that he lectured on scientific topics in the Talmud and publish articles on philosophy, law and civic affairs. However, despite his active academic life Chief Rabbi Herzog did not ‘lock himself away in an ivory tower’. Instead, he ‘was famous for fighting to improve the conditions of the weaker classes’ and ‘was active in the public sphere in favour of uprooting the impoverished suburbs and building new neighbourhoods’.

During this period Chief Rabbi Herzog was offered many other rabbinical positions. However, the only destination that he sought after Dublin was Israel, and it was the eulogy that he delivered at the funeral of his father in Jerusalem in 1934 that was the precursor to him being encouraged to apply for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel after the death of Rav Kook in 1935.

One of the most startling episodes described in The Rabbinate in Stormy Days concerned the atmosphere surrounding his candidacy as the next Chief Rabbi of Israel. Posters proclaimed that ‘the Holy City will not tolerate a ‘rabbi doctor’ within it’, and that ‘if a “rabbi doctor” were chosen’, the city would end up ‘with someone who was more a doctor than a rabbi’. During all this period – as well as all future challenges – Rabbi Herzog kept away from all the conflict and arguments, and in December 1936 he was elected Chief Rabbi – a position which he held until his death in 1959.

Still, Chief Rabbi Herzog was highly principled, and when he sought to challenge the discrimination against Jewish law shown by the British Mandate, he insisted that Dr. Chaim Weizmann deliver his testimony in Jerusalem and not London, because ‘there is a different validity to our words of wisdom when they are uttered here in our land and in our eternal city’.

Similarly, in response to the publication of the White Paper of May 1939, Rabbi Herzog delivered a dramatic speech in Jerusalem culminating in him tearing up his copy (which, you will recall, is what his son Chaim Herzog did in 1975 at the United Nations when he tore up the resolution that compared Zionism with Racism).

Of course, some of his greatest struggles related to his efforts during and after the Second World War to save the lives of Jews, including a famous meeting with the pope in February 1946. Both his actions and words had a huge impact on many of those with whom he spoke and thousands of lives were saved due to his involvement and intervention.

But in terms of his literary contributions, it was his struggle for Torah law in the Modern State of Israel which is, perhaps, his greatest legacy, especially as ‘the rabbi had developed an astute socio-political realism regarding goals that could be achieved, and others that had no hope of success’.

I have always had great regard for Chief Rabbi Herzog and have a studied a number of his sefarim. However, what The Rabbinate in Stormy Days provides is a macro view of this extraordinary leader whose blend of brilliant Torah knowledge, firm conviction and gentle manner was truly remarkable. By being wise and moderate, Chief Rabbi Herzog was attacked by extremists, but like his role model the Rambam, he encouraged a reasoned yet balanced path of Jewish living, and many of his most significant contributions in terms of Jewish and State legislation are beautifully described towards the end of the book.

In his foreword, MK Isaac Herzog writes about The Rabbinate in Stormy Days that ‘I read and listen and am amazed at the enormous scope of Rabbi Herzog’s knowledge and activity. I ask myself the question in the popular Israeli song “Ha’ish Hahu”: “Where are there others like that man?”. Where, indeed, are there other rabbis comparable to Rabbi Herzog? For in our generation as well, our nature is in need of his stature.’

The Rabbinate in Stormy Days is a masterful book which is beautifully printed and bound in a landscape format and contains fascinating information and many wonderful pictures too. For anyone with an interest in the Chief Rabbinate, the Modern State of Israel, or Jewish law, this book is for you!

To purchase a copy of this book, click here.