Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi of Israel and one of the country’s most colorful and controversial religious figures, died Saturday night of a heart attack at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. He was 77 years old.
He fell ill Friday night, as he made kiddush with his family at his home in Tel Aviv. He was admitted to the hospital’s cardiac intensive care unit, where he died at 2 a.m. Saturday.
His funeral cortege left Sunday from the Tel Aviv Komemiyut Synagogue, which he had established, to the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, where a large crowd assembled.
Goren was a forceful religious presence, particularly opposing Israel’s accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Goren even issued what amounted to a death warrant this past June against PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
And he called for a day of fasting to protest “an agreement that has no halachic validity.”
He also issued a ruling that soldiers should disobey orders rather than help oust Jewish settlers from the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Despite his rulings on the West Bank and Gaza, however, Goren was prepared to hand back much of the Golan Heights, which he did not regard as part of the biblical Land of Israel.
In 1986, Goren sharply criticized an Interior Ministry regulation that the word “converted” be stamped next to “Jewish” on converts’ identity cards, saying halacha forbids stigmatizing a convert.
Goren’s history paralleled Israel’s. He was the first Israel Defense Force military chaplain and established the army’s Chaplaincy Corps.
He was also known for his physical exploits.
RELIGIOUS RULING REGARDED AS INNOVATIVE
An avid parachutist, Goren arrived at the cave at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered, dangling on a rope from a hovering helicopter, in order to retrieve 2,000-year-old skeletons for religious burial.
During the Six-Day War, the rabbi advanced through Jerusalem with the IDF troops and was among the first to reach the Western Wall. A photograph of the rabbi clutching a Torah in one hand and blowing a shofar with the other became famous.
Despite controversy, many of his religious responses were seen as innovative and modern.
He wrote a work on the religious law concerning the Temple Mount, ruling that there are areas on it where Jews may pray and that it is in fact desirable. This was important because the area had been declared off-limits to Jews, as it had been the site of the Holy Ark, which could be entered only by Kohanim, or high priests.
He also fashioned much of the halachic observance in the army and wrote numerous halachic responses relating to religious observance during active warfare.
His rulings also eased the plight of war agunot, women whose missing husbands’ deaths could not be confirmed and who thus could not remarry until proof of death was somehow established.
Goren was chief Ashkenazic rabbi from 1972 to 1983. But his controversial period began after he left the Chief Rabbinate and founded the Idra Yeshiva near the Western Wall.
Politically, he became more outspoken in his criticism of the Labor-led government and to any talk of trading what he referred to as “God-given territory” in return for peace.
This past February, Goren expressed displeasure at the secular burial of an Israeli soldier, the country’s first. Goren said IDF orders call for all military funerals to be performed by a chaplain. “Religious rites are an integral part of military funerals and cannot be separated by any desires of the bereaved family,” he had insisted.
This past summer, as fear gripped Jewish communities worldwide following bombings of Jewish buildings in Buenos Aires and London and a plane in Panama carrying mostly Jews, Goren declared that Jewish law permits Diaspora Jews to move mezuzot from outer doorposts to inner doorposts to minimize danger.
Goren, whose family name was formerly Goronchik, was born in 1917 in Zambrov, Poland. He immigrated with his family to Kfar Hassidim, which his father helped found.
In 1928 he began his studies at the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem and quickly distinguished himself as a prodigy, publishing the first of his many halachic works in 1935.
He also had a strong secular education. Between 1940 and 1944 he studied philosophy, mathematics and classics at Hebrew University.
Goren joined the Haganah in 1936, during the anti-Jewish riots. He fought in the Jerusalem area during the 1948 War of Independence, serving as a sniper and later as a member of a heavy machine-gun crew.
After serving as chief IDF chaplain for 24 years, he served as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv for two years. He was then elected Ashkenazic chief rabbi, a post he held for 10 years.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.