The Divisive Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Goren

February 9, 2015 | Elli Fischer
About the author: Elli Fischer, a rabbi, writer, and translator, is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.

Shlomo Goren, who was the first chief rabbi of the IDF and later served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, did much to shape the contemporary balance between religion and state in Israel; he also left an enduring mark on religious Zionism. Examining Goren’s legacy, Elli Fischer argues that his approach created many of the problems that haunt the Israeli rabbinate today:

In the unending tug-of-war between religion and state in Israel, [Goren] did the most to re-imagine Jewish law (halakhah) to be compatible with the governing of a modern democratic state, and to implement halakhah as state law. . . .

Goren’s vision was programmatic, consisting of distinct elements necessary to making it a reality. For one thing, religious Jews would have to see themselves not as a separate group but as an integral part of the whole Jewish people. . . . Next, halakhah would have to be substantially revised in order to integrate seamlessly with the governing of the Jewish state. To that end, Goren would offer unprecedented halakhic rulings, arguing that the Jewish state is a sui generis situation in which prior accepted rulings do not apply. . . .

Finally, in order to implement his vision, Rabbi Goren would need power—not merely the rabbinic authority accumulated by great rabbis in every generation, but the enforcing power of the state.

The problem, writes Fischer, is that Goren’s efforts discredited the chief rabbinate in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox while simultaneously investing it with an undue amount of power. The secular public, for its part, resents the rabbinate and its control over matters of marriage and divorce. Goren’s very idealism created a broken system that breeds only cynicism.

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