Review of ‘“With Might and Strength”: An Autobiography,’ Edited by Avi Rath & translated by Miryam Blum. (2016) Maggid Books. Hardcover. 457 pages. ISBN-10: 1592644090.
I have long been fascinated by the personality and psakim (halachic rulings) of Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994) whose life story is, as Avi Rath remarks in his preface to “With Might and Strength,” ‘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 considered an illui (genius in Torah studies) and he published his first book, for which he received an approbation from the great Rabbi Abrahaam Isaac HaCohen Kook, in 1938—aged just 21. The expectation was that he would continue to study more Torah and write more books of scholarship.
But in addition to loving Torah, Rabbi Goren also loved the people of Israel and the land of Israel, and it was in response to the 1939 riots that Rabbi Goren enlisted in the Hagana and thereby set aside his full-time studies (though he continued to study every night) for the sake of establishing and defending the State of Israel.
This decision to defend the people while remaining steadfast in his commitment to Torah learning and scholarship set the tone for the choices that Rabbi Goren would later go on to make, and it is these two aspects of the life of Rabbi Goren that are most evident in “With Might and Strength.”
Though numerous books and articles have previously been written about the life of Rabbi Goren, “With Might and Strength” is unique because it is an autobiography that has been constructed by Avi Rath based on written and oral testimony prepared by Rabbi Goren in the final years of his life, in addition to material from the personal interviews that Rath conducted with Rabbi Goren.
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 records of conversations between Rabbi Goren and David Ben-Gurion (about which there is a special appendix), Moshe Dayan and Yitzchak Rabin.
This means 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 youth and especially on his activities while serving as Chief Rabbi of the IDF.
I can’t deny the fact that I initially was disappointed by these omissions, and I would have loved to have read more about the halachic and political fallout of some of the 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 that makes “With Might and Strength” so engaging. For example, it was this unique perspective that enabled me to fully comprehend the tremendous difficulties Rabbi Goren faced in enabling the soldiers fighting in the War of Independence to celebrate Pesach, and the importance of his bold halachic rulings to achieve that end.
But beyond his tireless efforts in the field, I believe that some of the real gems in this book are the records of conversations held between Rabbi Goren and other religious, political and military leaders.
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 to Rabbi Dushinsky, and through his advocacy, thousands of students dug trenches that Friday night and thereby 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 such as how he travelled with Abdel Nasser—later to become president of Egypt—through no-man’s land and across a field of landmines, 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.
As would be expected, Rabbi Goren describes the events surrounding the Six Day War in great detail and especially his famous arrival and prayer service during the liberation of the Kotel. But while I’d previously heard much about those events, this first-person perspective offers a glimpse of what those moments were like in a way that I had never previously appreciated or understood.
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.” I enjoyed this book immensely, and it is clear that Rabbi Goren viewed his life through a deep understanding of Torah and with an appreciation for the divine significance of events. “With Might and Strength” allows the reader to share this view and learn from the life and teachings of this towering personality.
Rabbi Johnny Solomon grew up in London and has spent the last 15 years working in Jewish high schools as a teacher, head of department and curriculum consultant. He has a BSc (Hons) in Maths and Religious Studies, a teaching qualification and Semicha from the Montefiore Kollel. In 2012 Johnny moved to Israel with his wife and five daughters, and he divides his time between teaching at post-high school seminaries (Midreshet Torat Chessed & Machon Ma’ayan) and working as a Jewish Education Consultant. Johnny can be contacted by email at [email protected]