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Special JTA Interview Rabbi Goren: Halacha is Eternal, Not Subject to So-called Interpretations

January 12, 1972
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“I believe that all problems of the modern state can be solved on the basis of halacha without changing or interpreting it in ways inconsistent with those of the sages but we have not succeeded in applying halacha to everything that arises in a modern state because there does not exist a body of rabbis of sufficient stature and daring in the country that could rule on the subjects.” This view was presented by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in a special interview with Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondents in the rabbi’s office today.

Rabbi Goren, who is a candidate for the office of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was clarifying points which arose out of a recent statement attributed to him. In some media he had appeared to be saying that halacha as laid down by previous generations is behind the times. The rabbi categorically denied holding such views. “It is my profound belief both personally and as a rabbi that halacha is eternal and not subject to so-called interpretations,” he said. “Many possibilities exist within the framework of the halacha to organize modern life in a sovereign state in the seventies.”

Rabbi Goren also said that there is no contradiction between democratic principles, such as individual freedom and a state which organizes its existence in accordance with the rules of halacha. “However, even laws can be scrutinized to see if they reflect justice and if they serve the majority of the people living in the country. Every law of every kind curtails the absolute freedom of the individual. Every law sometimes hurts individuals. Halacha is no exception and it does not claim that every individual problem can be solved by it,” he said.

However, general problems such as the upkeeping of vital services including electricity on the Sabbath and on holidays can be accommodated within halacha, he said. “If there was a weighty college of rabbis and laymen with sufficient authority in religious matters and knowledge of science, many problems might have disappeared. However, the Nazi holocaust claimed the lives of many rabbis who might have aided those now living, in this difficult task of discerning between the permitted and prohibited. Thus, technology seems to be advancing on a course apparently unrelated to that taken by rabbis. In fact technology can be made to serve halacha and to show a way of life more consistent with halacha.”


The questions facing Israel are not the same that faced Jewish communities elsewhere, Rabbi Goren observed. “There the responsibility for health, defense and other services lay with a non-Jewish government. Here it is the Jewish State that must take responsibility for everything. Thus the Jews cannot evade responsibility for running them.”

Asked if he believes that a Sanhedrin can be formed to rule on questions of halacha, Rabbi Goren said that the authority for that does not exist. “The authority to interpret the law had been handed over from generation to generation. The process was interrupted in the fifth or sixth century and was only briefly revived in the days of Rabbi Joseph Karo of Safad, author of the ‘Shulchan Aruch.’ the principal work outlining the obligations of the observant Jew, Then it was interrupted again”

“Since then there were several rabbis who made an impact on Jewish tradition because of their moral and spiritual stature like Rabenu Gershom, the light of the diaspora, and Hatam Soffer, the first known for his monogamy decree and laws of divorce and the other for various decisions on halacha. Neither of them – and for that matter not even Maimonides – changed halacha or added to it by way of permissiveness,” said the rabbi.

Explaining his views on halacha and technology Rabbi Goren said that automation can solve such problems as operating heating and cooling systems on Sabbath. Some factories may not close down on Sabbath and holidays as they are fully automatic and if there is some mishap then its “pikuach nefesh,” a question of saving lives. He added that power stations cannot be shut off on Sabbath. But bringing all this into the framework of halacha calls for men of learning in many fields and the results of their studies can then be applied to the problems arising out of modern life.

“If a body of Torah sages from the entire world is formed it can then work out the details and ordinances applicable to each case,” Rabbi Goren said. “Such a body does not exist in Israel nor have rabbis from other countries been called here in order to convene and consider the problems. This is why halacha has not yet been applied to all possible aspects of life affected by the existence of the twentieth century technology.”


At a press conference earlier in the day, Rabbi Goren said that he would encourage an age limit for a Chief Rabbi as for every other public figure. However, being personally affected by the question now (Rabbi Untermann is past the limit and barring him would considerably improve the chances of Rabbi Goren) he would vote against the age limit under present circumstances. Rabbi Goren also strongly condemned the harassment of pathologists. Violence and threats of it are the very opposite of religion, he said, and this applies not only to the question of pathologists but to any aim and purpose.

Answering a question on autopsies he said there are many cases in which they are permitted. He would like the law to be changed so as to make an autopsy conditional on the family’s approval, but even then this might sometimes be overruled. Moreover, he believes that the public health is a very important consideration and if the law were changed many religious persons would will their bodies and religious families would agree for autopsies performed in the interest of advancing medical science.

As to religious girls volunteering for auxiliary services which the ultra-Orthodox oppose, Rabbi Goren said that his own daughter had served in the Army. If a girl objects to Army service or to auxiliary services such as nursing or teaching because she believes it would interfere with her Orthodox way of life there should be no coercion. But if she wants to volunteer, she should by all means be allowed to do so.

Rabbi Goren also said that many efforts had been made to avoid the divorce of defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Ruth Dayan, (Goren headed the bench of three rabbis which pronounced the divorce.) But the rabbis came to the conclusion that the decision of Moshe and Ruth Dayan could not be changed.

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