Rabbi Shlomo Goren saw it all. From the shtetls of Poland to the Israeli Defense Force and Six Day War, from leading as a solider to serving as a Chief Rabbi. The multifaceted life of Rav Goren seems more like that of legend than of a flesh and blood figure. But all during his years of service—in the military and the clergy—Rabbi Goren led a nearly-mystical life. For religious Zionists, Goren remains one of the great heroes of the modern State of Israel. He was raised in the Polish village of Zambrow, later lived in Warsaw, immigrated to Israel (Kfar Hasidim) and then ultimately lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Along these journeys, he had witnessed the waves of immigration to Israel, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, and many of the seminal wars in Israeli history.
While I’ve seen famous pictures of Rav Goren and heard many of the well-known tales about his life, I never knew the full man. I never had the opportunity to peer into his psyche, to wonder about his innermost aspirations and closest demons. Because of this curiosity, it was with excitement that I read the recently-released With Might and Strength (Maggid Books), Rabbi Goren’s translated autobiography. Avi Rath, the editor of this fine edition, writes that he “had the privilege of interviewing the rabbi for several hours, and the recordings from those conversations provided source material for this book….This book is the story of Rabbi Goren’s life as the described it from his own perspective. The materials on which this book is based are the rabbi’s own words, either written or recorded” (vxii – xviii). He is upfront that “this book does not presume to be scholarly, but rather to disseminate Rabbi Goren’s life story as he felt it, saw it, and experienced it – to present the reality of his life through his eyes” (xviii). He explains the importance of putting out this autobiography:
Many knew Rabbi Goren, the public figure; few knew Shlomo Goren, the private individual, the devoted family man, the man so sensitive and attentive to the cries of the poor and the tears of the aguna, the man who visited the injured and comforted the orphans (xii).
As a young man, he was already noteworthy as a scholar. At the age of 16, he had already written his first book (Nezer HaKodesh) that received numerous approbations including from Rav Kook. He was the youngest student ever accepted to the Hebron Yeshiva and was ordained at the age of 17. Over the course of his life, Rav Goren received many rewards for his books including the Israel Prize in Rabbinic Literature in 1961 and he received the Rabbi Kook Prize many times.
But Rav Goren was no mere distant academician or author. He was a man of action, willing to go into the trenches “risking his life… jumping out of airplanes…actively participating in battles” (xiii). After the conclusion of the Six-Day War, it was Goren, shofar in hand, who led the first prayer service after the unification of the city. Goren’s ideological orientation, while certainly noble in context, can be challenging to view from more modern perspectives. Goren indeed had a more radical Zionist side to him. For example, in the ’90s he said it was halakhically forbidden for soldiers to dismantle any settlements if ordered to do so. Yet, he was also the one to say: “Human life is undoubtedly a supreme value in Judaism, as expressed both in the Halacha and the prophetic ethic. This refers not only to Jews, but to all men created in the image of God.” Furthermore, along with his wife, Rabbi Goren was a strict vegetarian after visiting a kosher slaughterhouse in Canada and that his wife was a lifelong vegetarian, being raised in the home of the Nazir of Jerusalem, her father.
With Might & Strength is a worthy book for those interested in seeing the birth of modern Israel from an insider’s perspective. The many anecdotes and pieces of historical trivia are more than enough to justify this book’s place on your mantle. Along the journey, you’ll hear tales about Rav Kook, Rav Uziel, David Ben-Gurion, and even the Rashbi. What you will walk away—hopefully—is seeing the spiritual and technical birth of the Holy Land in the modern era and the fortitude its early founders had to build a neglected backwater into a thriving economic powerhouse and oasis. A worthy read.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America & the Forward named him one of “The Most Inspiring Rabbis in America.”