1994: First Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army Dies

Religious prodigy Shomo Goren would lay down the rules for Jews in war, but as he grew old and dogmatic, would embrace increasingly extreme positions.

David B. Green
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Rabbi Shlomo Goren in 1949.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren in 1949.Credit: Pinn Hans
David B. Green

On October 29, 1994, Shlomo Goren, who, as the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, had a seminal impact on the role of Jewish law and custom in the army, and who later served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, died, at the age of 77. Goren was a bold and creative thinker, who wasn’t afraid of tweaking halakha to accommodate modern conditions. But as he grew older, his intensifying dogmatism and confrontational manner lost him the esteem of some of his colleagues and much of the Israeli public.

Shlomo Goronchik was born on February 3, 1917, in Zambrow, Poland, and was the son of Abraham and Haya Tzipora Goronchik. In 1925, the family immigrated to the Land of Israel, where they were among the founders of Kfar Hasidim, an Orthodox farming settlement southeast of Haifa.

Shlomo’s talent as a Torah scholar became apparent at a young age. He was sent to Jerusalem, first to study at the Etz Hayim religious and then at the prestigious Hebron Yeshiva, where he became the youngest pupil to enter, at age 12. At 17, he underwent rabbinical ordination  – and also published his first book, dealing with an issue related to Temple sacrifices.

Math, classics and the Haganah

Between 1940 and 1944, Goren (the Hebraized version of “Goronchik”) studied philosophy, mathematics and classics at the Hebrew University. During that period, he also joined the Haganah, the pre-state militia that became the Israel Defense Forces after Independence. At one point, he switched to the Lehi, the right-wing underground headed by Avraham Stern, but returned to the Haganah during the War of Independence.

At his insistence, he served as a combat soldier, and acted as a sharpshooter in the Jerusalem theater.

During the war, Goren was asked to become the chief rabbi of what soon became the IDF. Although he initially refused the offer, Goren gave in after being pressed by the Yishuv’s chief rabbis and by David Ben-Gurion, leader of the pre-state community.  

Rabbi Goren devoted himself to many of the issues and questions that accompanied the creation of an army in a Jewish state: He studied the attitude of the sources to warfare, he dealt with the vexing question of presumed war widows whose husbands are missing in action, he established policies for things like kashrut and Shabbat observance that made it possible for religiously Orthodox men to serve together with secular soldiers.

Confrontation on Temple Mount

Goren’s tenure as IDF chief rabbi coincided with the Six-Day War, and the photograph of him blowing the shofar at the newly liberated Western Wall is one of the most well-known images from that war.

Israeli army chief rabbi Shlomo Goren, surrounded by Israeli soldiers, blows the shofar in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.Credit: GPO

Two months later, on August 15, 1967, he led a group of 50 Jews onto the Temple Mount, for a prayer service that turned into a violent confrontation with the Muslim guards in place there. In opposition to the long-held position of the country’s chief rabbis, Goren was always an outspoken advocate of Jewish prayer on the mount, and was quoted at various times saying that Israel should have detonated the Muslim shrines when it conquered the Old City.

Following his retirement from the army, Goren served as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and in 1973 began a 10-year term as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, serving beside Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

One of his most dramatic, and controversial, projects was the military funeral, with government officials brought in by helicopter, and a full honor guard, that he arranged for bones he had identified as belonging to Jewish fighters in the Bar-Kochba rebellion (132-135 C.E.). The bones had been found during excavations in the caves at Qumran, along the Dead Sea.

Toward the end of his life, during the Oslo years, Rabbi Goren said more than once that soldiers commanded to evacuate and dismantle settlements in the territories should violate those orders, as such an action would violate Jewish law, and the government, of Yitzhak Rabin, that had approved the agreements with the Palestinians was dependent on support from the Arab parties for its majority in the Knesset, and thus not qualified to withdraw from land belonging to the Jews.

A year after the signing of the first Oslo Accords, on this day in 1994, Rabbi Goren died of a heart attack.