That’s a Rabbi!

January 11, 2018

3 min read

As a Masorti (Conservative) Jew living in Israel, there’s a lot to be learned from this history of the modern State of Israel’s first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi Herzog, who of course was deeply religious.

The Chief Rabbinate has declined to a great extent since Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog’s time. Today, the former (Ashkenazi) chief rabbi sits in prison, paying the price for his hypocritical stint in office, during which he enhanced his lifestyle and his pocketbook. The current chief rabbi is David Lau, who, like his predecessor, is not held in high esteem by Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population, nor by the National Religion population. The reason is that he is neither a Torah giant nor a saintly person, just a political functionary.

Rabbi Herzog was cut from different cloth, at a time when being “Chief Rabbi” was an important, influential position, conveying much respect and clout. Yitzhak Herzog was born to a Zionist family in Lomza, Poland in the late 19th century. Before his bar mitzvah, Yitzhak, a prodigy, moved with his parents to Britain, where his father had been appointed chief rabbi of Leeds. Before being ordained as a rabbi at age 22, the young Herzog, a polymath, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of London.  He earned a doctorate in literature and was fluent in six other languages besides English and Hebrew.

By the time Herzog was 30, he had been appointed chief rabbi of Dublin and eventually chief rabbi of Ireland. It was there that he developed his political acumen and gained the friendship and respect of many political leaders, characteristics which served him well throughout his life. In time, Rabbi Herzog obtained meetings on behalf of Jewry with President Roosevelt, the Pope, and many other prominent personalities.

An ardent Zionist, Herzog immigrated to Palestine in 1935 to succeed the towering Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Herzog was very attuned to international politics and participated in mass demonstrations in Jerusalem against the British White Paper of 1939, which was very detrimental to European Jews fleeing the Nazis as well as all potential immigrants to Palestine. During the Holocaust and afterward, Herzog embarked on many mission and efforts to save Europe’s Jews from the Holocaust and to rescue its survivors.

Herzog sought to protect and enhance Israel’s yeshivas as a way to rebuild the yeshivas lost in Europe during the Holocaust. He was instrumental in David Ben-Gurion’s decision to continue exemptions from military service to the (compared to today) small number of yeshiva students – about 400 – based on the belief that their devotion to religious studies was essential because so many Jewish scholars had perished in the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, in 1947 Rabbi Herzog wrote, “In perilous times, yeshiva students are required to take part in the defense of the city. We face an imminent siege, and we must enlist all the manpower at our disposal. And who will fill the shoes of those actually going out to battle other than our brethren who are exempt from full conscription? In a situation such as this, in every country and culture, even fifteen-year-olds would be required to do their duty… the yeshiva heads must come to an arrangement for a partial conscription when the situation requires it…” This is a far cry from what is heard today from Israel’s haredi population, where ultra-religious soldiers face shunning and even worse treatment in their neighborhoods.

Rabbi Herzog was a highly educated and liberal leader. Towards the end, his advocating for women’s national service lead to a loss of clout, due to objections from the haredi rabbinical leadership. He died in 1959, a great loss to Israel and world Jewry.

This book has much to recommend it. Rabbis of Herzog’s distinction are in short supply today, certainly in the position of Chief Rabbi. While reading it, one can’t help but compare Herzog’s integrity, acumen, and liberal outlook with the rigidity of contemporary religious leadership.

I learned a lot about the history of the Yishuv (pre-state Israel) and the first decade of Israel’s independence from this book, as well as an appreciation of what a statesmanlike chief rabbi means for the citizens of Israel.

On the negative side, the book’s large coffee table format makes it hard to hold. A quibble: the chapter celebrating the elevation of Rabbi Herzog to Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi is a bit monotonous, with one letter of high praise after another.

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