With might and strength

Edited by Avi Rath & translated by Miryam Blum

(Maggid Books, 2016)

I have long been fascinated by the personality and psakim (halakhic rulings) of Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994) whose life story is, as Avi Rath remarks in his preface, ‘in essence, the story of the entire nation’.

Born in the Polish village of Zambrów, Shlomo Goronchik (whose surname was changed to Goren upon the advice of David Ben-Gurion) enlisted in the Jewish underground and fought in the War of Independence. In 1948 he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and he later held the positions of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv (1968-1972), and (Ashkenazi) Chief Rabbi of Israel (1972-1983).

Rabbi Goren was bold and brilliant. He was regarded by many as an illui (genius in Torah studies) who saw his future in Torah scholarship. At the same time, Rabbi Goren he was deeply principled and very courageous, and his commitment to the Jewish people and love of the land of Israel moved him to set aside his scholarship where necessary for the sake of establishing and defending the State of Israel.

Though there are numerous books and articles about the life of Rabbi Goren, With Might and Strength is unique because it is an autobiography that has been constructed based on his own written and recorded testimony including twenty cassette tapes that Rabbi Goren recorded in the final years of his life. As Avi Rath explains, ‘this book does not presume to be scholarly’. Instead, through remaining faithful to the testimony of Rabbi Goren, it tells his life story ‘as he felt it, saw it, and experienced it’.

In With Might and Strength, you will find numerous stories describing the relationship between Rabbi Goren and Rabbi Kook, Rabbi David Cohen (the Nazir of Jerusalem and father-in-law of Rabbi Goren), and the Hazon Ish, along with descriptions of interactions between Rabbi Goren and David Ben-Gurion (about which there is a special appendix), Moshe Dayan and Yitzchak Rabin.

The outcome of this effort is that rather than focusing most of its attention on the more controversial positions and rulings of Rabbi Goren such as the Langer Case, or possibly discussing some of his widely-publicized positions on topics such as Conversion or Land for Peace, With Might and Strength offers a very different portrait of Rabbi Goren with the great majority of the book focusing on his early years in Israel and especially on his activities while serving as Chief Rabbi of the IDF.

Initially I can’t deny the fact that I was disappointed by these omissions, and I would have loved to have read more about the halakhic and political fallout of the Langer Case and other issues that he addressed while Chief Rabbi of Israel. However, I soon came to realize that it is precisely because this is not an academic book but rather a first-person account which makes With Might and Strength so engaging, and that while these details were not included, so many others were.

For example, we learn how Rabbi Goren would study Torah in the day and report for guard duty at night and that, when offered the position of Chief military rabbi of the Jewish forces in Eretz Yisrael, he made his acceptance conditional on being able to continue to guard his post at night. Similarly, we also read about the tremendous difficulties that Rabbi Goren faced in enabling the soldiers fighting in the War of Independence to celebrate Pesach and the bold halakhic solutions he found to address these challenges.

But while there is much rich content in With Might and Strength, perhaps the most interesting elements of this book are when we read about the private conversations that Rabbi Goren had with other religious, political and military leaders, and when we hear how he applied Torah texts to new challenges which had not previously been addressed in halakhic writings.

A case in point is where Rabbi Goren described how he sought the assistance of yeshiva students to dig trenches on a Friday night in Jerusalem to prevent a Jordanian attack, and how other religious leaders such as Rabbi Dushinsky did not believe this would be successful or that it was permissible. Through a brilliant analysis of Eruvin 45a, Rabbi Goren defended his decision, and through his advocacy, thousands of students dug the trenches and prevented an attack.

Similarly, considerable attention is given to Rabbi Goren’s efforts to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers and resolve questions involving agunot, including fascinating stories including how he travelled with Abdel Nasser – later to become president of Egypt – through no-man’s land and across a field of land mines, to help retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers.

Interestingly, while I was aware of the strains between Rabbi Goren and Rabbis Herzog and Uziel regarding the lack of implementation of the War Get, I was astounded to read about their reaction regarding Rabbi Goren’s efforts to release agunot from the War of Independence. While they had consented to his ruling, I was unaware of their reaction upon reading how the media attributed these decisions to Rabbi Goren and not themselves.

Finally, and as would be expected, Rabbi Goren describes the events surrounding the six-day war in great detail and especially and his famous arrival and prayer service during the liberation of the Kotel.

In his preface, Avi Rath writes that With Might and Strength has been written to reflect how Rabbi Goren ‘viewed matters… and the significance he attributed to events’, and what is clear beyond his creativity and genius is that Rabbi Goren viewed his life through a deep understanding of Torah and constantly saw the divine significance of events.

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