A Courageous Rabbi

Rabbi Shlomo Goren

The Gaon, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, zt”l, established the military rabbinate of Tzahal, and later officiated as the Chief Rabbi of Israel. During the early years of the Har Bracha Yeshiva, he was the honorary Nasi (president), coming to the yeshiva every week to give a lecture to the students. Before their enlistment in the army, he would give three preparatory lectures. This first session centered on the great mitzvah of serving in the army. The second concerned the observance of Shabbat, and he would stress that the allowance to fight on Shabbat went beyond the boundaries of pekuach nefesh, continuing even after the battle had been won, “od radata,” until the enemy was destroyed. In the third class, he would encourage students to observe the commandments with valor during their service in the army, and whenever they encountered a military order in opposition to the halakha, they were to refuse to obey it without worrying about the personal punishment they might receive.

He related that he once wrote in a pamphlet published by the army rabbinate that whenever there is a command that involves violating Shabbat, without it being a matter of pekuach nefesh, a soldier must refuse to obey the order. The Chief of Staff at the time, Chaim Laskov, reacted with anger, insisting that the army was founded on obedience to orders and that if a soldier is critical of a command, he should first carry it out, and only afterwards, if he wishes, he can file a complaint in the proper manner. As a punishment to Rabbi Goren, he ordered that the publication of the army rabbinate newsletter be terminated. Rabbi Goren didn’t back down, and complained about the Chief of Staff to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (also the Defense Minister at the time.) During the hearing over the issue, the Chief of Staff claimed that if religious soldiers were allowed to disobey the orders of their commanders, it would undermine the foundation upon which the army was based. Ben Gurion turned to Rabbi Goren and asked, if this were the case, why shouldn’t the soldier carry out the order, and afterwards complain? Rabbi Goren responded that Chillul Shabbat (desecrating the Sabbath) was similar to murder. If you murder someone, you can’t retract the damage of the deed once it has been done. In the same way, a person who is ordered to murder an innocent man shouldn’t go ahead and kill him, and only afterward complain. So too in the case of Shabbat. On the contrary, he must refuse to obey the order from the outset. Ben Gurion accepted Rabbi’s Goren’s explanation and reprimanded the Chief of Staff in no uncertain terms, even citing his misconduct on his army record. And when Rabbi Goren noted that Laskov had terminated the army rabbinate newsletter, Ben Gurion instructed that its publication be continued, and that the size of each issue be doubled.

Who knows what would have been the result if some other rabbi had been there instead of Rabbi Goren? Possibly, under pressure, and concerned with safeguarding his position, he would have agreed with the Chief of Staff that any act of refusal would destroy the army, and therefore, every soldier must carry out every order, even when it blatantly counters the halakha. We hope that the army rabbinate will follow in the path of its founder.

It is known that with all of the genuine closeness that Rabbi Goren had with senior army commanders, in any matter where a mitzvah of the Torah might be slighted, Rabbi Goren would not compromise. Several officers had promotions held up or canceled because of infractions regarding Shabbat and kashrut. He maintained that if the heritage of Am Yisrael was not important to an officer, he was not worthy of being a commander in the I.D.F. and sending soldiers off to fight for the Nation. When one senior officer ordered the religious soldiers under his command to work on tanks instead of eating the final meal before Yom Kippur, just to test their loyalty to his orders, Rabbi Goren didn’t rest until that officer was expelled from Tzahal.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper; His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English; Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1