SECRET LIVES

The Rabbi Who Captured a Town Alone

Shlomo Goren was the Israeli Army’s first chief rabbi—and in one of Israel’s defining moments gave it the spiritual strength to reverse what looked to be a devastating loss.

Fifty years ago, on the fourth day of the Six Day War, June 8, 1967, a bespectacled, bearded Israeli army chaplain captured the radical Palestinian town of Hebron, population 38,309 -- singlehandedly. Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s solo conquest is a classic Chaos of War story.  It’s also a particularly Israeli tale that helps explain the 1967 War’s redemptive significance to most Jews, from religious to secular.  

Rabbi Goren was one of those larger than life characters who helped make Israel, Israel. Like George Washington when he was president, these post-1948 pioneers often made lasting policies simply by setting precedents in the new state. Born in Poland in 1918, Shlomo Gorenchik was raised in the Religious Zionist tradition. Most Zionists – Jewish nationalists who believed that the Jews as a people have collective rights to establish a nation state in their ancient homeland, Israel – rebelled against Rabbinic passivity. Religious Zionists synthesized faith in Judaism with an embrace of Zionism, seeing secular pioneers rebuilding the Holy Land as doing holy work.

Gorenchik and his family reached Palestine in 1925. When he was 12, he studied at “Yeshivat Hebron,” a seminary honoring one of Judaism’s four holy cities, along with Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Safed, where Jews continued to live throughout the centuries. Some Jews equated Hebron’s holiness with Jerusalem’s, because of the Cave of Machpelah, the Patriarchs’ Tomb – which Jews, Christians, and Muslims revere as the burial place Abraham purchased for the forefathers and foremothers. The tomb’s exterior looks like the Western Wall – the remnant of the Jews’ Holy Temple. Herod the Great built both structures in Jesus’s day. Unfortunately, Arab riots 1900 years later in 1929 and 1936, destroyed Hebron’s Jewish community, creating a deep symbolic wound, especially for Religious Zionists.

A model religious Zionist, Gorenchik mastered Talmudic studies and marksmanship. When Israel became a state in 1948, the thirty-year-old scholar-soldier, who Hebraicized his name to Goren, became the Israeli Army’s first chief rabbi. He courageously crisscrossed the country – sometimes crossing enemy lines – looking to bury bodies lost during the 1948-1949 War of Independence’s intense battles. Over the decades, Goren redeemed nearly two thousand corpses. He also issued creative Jewish legal rulings for the first Jewish army in two millennia. These decisions helped religious and non-religious soldiers serve together, in a kosher army that respected the Sabbath without endangering the State.

Religious Zionism also had a messianic streak. After the 1949 armistice’s hastily drawn “green line” improvised Israel’s borders, Religious Zionists mourned. The Jordanians had conquered Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter and what the world calls the West Bank, and they called Judaea and Samaria, the Jews’ Biblical Kingdom. Still, they awaited salvation.

Sharing that faith, Goren had traveled around in his army jeep, since 1954, with a beautiful spiraling shofar, the ram’s horn Jews blow to celebrate deliverance. That shofar, Goren decided, would be the first shofar to be blown in Jerusalem on the day the Lord would help the Israeli army reunite the Jews’ historic capital.

The plan didn’t quite work.

When war began on June 5, 1967, Goren accompanied the troops into battle near Gaza, wielding the shofar and a Torah scroll. The Egyptian fusillade destroyed Goren’s shofar. That day, even Israel’s legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan would not have predicted that Goren would be blowing that shofar in Jerusalem any time soon. Israel was fighting for its life in the South against Egypt and the North against Syria. That left only 71 combat soldiers in Jerusalem. Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein via the UN’s emissary General Odd Bull promising not to attack Jordan if Jordan did not attack Israel.

Israelis were frazzled. For weeks, the Egyptian leader Gamel Abdul Nasser had been leading a chorus of war cries throughout the Arab world promising, “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” Ahmed Shukairy, who had founded the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO, in 1964 – proving that the Israel-Palestinian conflict predates the 1967 war, declared, “This is a fight for the homeland – it is either us or the Israelis.” Fearing a second Holocaust – or at least a bloodbath -- Israeli reservists dug out ten thousand graves for quick use.

That fear stirred millions of assimilated American Jewish liberals who never realized how connected they were to the Jewish state – and explains why the Six Day War was triply redemptive. The shift from anticipated annihilation to sweeping victory transformed some avowed atheists into devout believers – or at least enthusiastic Zionists.  Second, what had been what the diplomat Abba Eban called Israel’s “Auschwitz Borders” – the 1949 “green line” -- now became defensible. And, suddenly, “Green Line Israel” with no major Biblical landmarks, now had the Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall and many towns the Bible mentions, including Hebron.

And, indeed, Hebron had surrendered to one 49-year-old rabbi. On Day Three, Goren had blown his new, smaller, shofar at the Wall – creating one of the war’s iconic images. That night, he slept with troops headed for Hebron. He hoped to be the first Jew to blow shofar there in decades. Alas, when he woke up – the troops had decamped.

Goren and his driver rushed ahead, unknowingly bypassing the troops, who were awaiting orders. But Jordanian troops fearing Israel’s firepower had fled, creating a powerful symbol of the shift in the Middle East conflict from Arab armies to Palestinian civilians. Meanwhile, the Hebronites feared the Jews would seek revenge for the massacres of 1929, 1936, and the 1948 war. These worries -- and, frankly, projections of how they would have treated the Jews -- saved Goren’s life: a blizzard of white flags welcomed him.

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Goren lived until 1994 – becoming increasingly controversial as some of his views calcified with age. Similarly, many Jews lost 1967’s simple storyline – the days when the secular Israeli commander Motta Gur proclaimed emotionally “The Temple Mount is in our Hands” and millions of Jews, left to right, wept with joy.

Today, Hebron represents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its rawest. The Palestinian population of the city has quadrupled – dwarfing the thousands of Jews who live there. As a result, anyone who cannot feel the Jewish connection to the city has no soul; but anyone who can’t respect Palestinian claims to the city has no heart – or brain. Similarly, anyone who cannot appreciate Israel’s victory in 1967 – when Israelis saved themselves from destruction – has no memory, but anyone who cannot acknowledge the war’s complex outcome has no conscience.

Given that, Israelis – and their democratic friends worldwide – should celebrate Jerusalem Day this Wednesday, May 24, marking the fiftieth anniversary of democratic Israel’s victory against murderous dictators, while toasting Jerusalem’s reunification. But holidays are for celebrating history’s simple takeaways.  The next day, and thereafter, are for tackling today’s complex challenges – to find peace tomorrow.

FURTHER READING

Jerold S. Auerbarch, Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel, 2009. Thought-provoking look at a key flashpoint.

Marek Cejka and Roman Koran, Rabbis of Our Time, 2016.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, ed. Avi Rath, With Might and Strength: An Autobiography, 2016. An illuminating autobiography.

Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002).  The definitive history of the war.