From Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi (Isaac) Herzog to President (Isaac) Herzog, leading Israel has long been a family affair.
Isaac Herzog, Israel's President, is the grandson of Israel's first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi. As we see below, a love for and devotion to the entire Jewish people runs deep in Herzog legacy.
When Isaac Herzog (or “Bougie” as he is more informally called) was sworn in as Israel’s 11th president in 2021, there was every reason to assume that his role would be similar to that of Presidents (including his own father) who had come before him—mostly honorific, and hopefully, bringing dignity to the office and the country.
The Presidency was hardly the beginning of Isaac Herzog’s career of service. Before assuming his present office, President Herzog was the head of the Jewish Agency, and before that, Herzog had built his career in Israel politics as a member of the Labor Party, serving as Minister of Social Affairs, Minister of Welfare and Social Services and Minister of the Diaspora before becoming head of the Labor Party and leading the opposition in 2013.
Politics, affairs of state and leadership are in President Herzog’s blood. Indeed, his father, Chaim Herzog, served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations before being elected Israel’s sixth president, a role he occupied from 1983 - 1993.
Chaim Herzog (1918- 1997), the father of Israel’s current President, was born in Belfast, Ireland and immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1935. He returned to study law at the University of London and fought in the British army during WWII. Later, he was a member of the Haganah and fought in Israel’s War of Independence. He was head of Israel’s Military Intelligence division, military governor of Jerusalem and the West Bank, and held the rank of major general before retiring from the army. Chaim Herzog also co-founded one of the largest and now most prestigious law firms in the country, Herzog Fox & Neeman (his son, Isaac, would later join the firm and become a senior partner).
Yet the Herzog family’s record of service to the Jewish people and the Jewish state goes back even future. The grandfather of today’s President Isaac Herzog, also named Isaac, was Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. Rabbi Herzog (1888- 1959) was Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Born in Poland and raised in the United Kingdom, Rabbi Herzog became the chief rabbi of Ireland in 1925, before moving to Mandate Palestine in 1939 and holding the position of chief rabbi until he passed away. Among numerous other legacies to the Jewish state, Rabbi Herzog also wrote the “Prayer for the State of Israel,” which was then edited by his friend, Israel’s first Nobel Prize winner, S. Y. Agnon.
We have a column about the history of this prayer, its complexity and the controversy currently surrounding it coming up later this summer.
President Herzog’s role, though, has become anything but honorific. Indeed, many people hope that it will be the negotiations taking place under his aegis (but now on hold due to a dramatic week in the Knesset this past week) that will help Israel avoid a constitutional “nuclear moment” that could take Israel into turbulent and uncharted political and constitutional waters.
As of this writing, it is entirely impossible to know how the crisis will play out. Those following Israeli politics closely may have seen that Bibi—who is used to outfoxing everyone else with his near perfect command of the toolbox of political tricks—surprisingly got very badly outfoxed this past week by the Center and was dealt a humiliating blow by members of his own party in a secret ballot vote, but may have then outfoxed his foes again by knowing that if the vote went the way that it did, his foes would be forced to suspect the negotiations. And then he could—and just did—announce that the judicial reform would proceed apace. He’s doing it so slowly now that he was even able to get former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, the architect of the court that Netanyahu’s government wants to dismember, to say that what’s on the table now isn’t so bad, as long as it will satisfy Levin’s appetite for change. Anyone who’s followed Levin of late knows that that is very, very, very unlikely.
The events, bluffs, votes and trickery of the past week are all very complicated and far beyond the scope of this column, but an excellent summary by Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel can be read here.
As mentioned above, the negotiations over judicial review under the aegis of the President are on hold, but that could quickly change. Either way, Herzog may well play a critical role in a crisis that it still far from resolved. To get a better sense of who this man is and the ethos with which he grew up, we’ll take a look at some of his grandfather’s work. The text below, which his grandfather wrote, affords us an opportunity to get a sense of the attitude to Jewish peoplehood that has long been part of the Herzog family, an attitude that—one prays—will help Herzog help Israel avoid disaster.
In addition to being Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog was also a prodigious scholar and the author of numerous halakhic responsa (rulings on matters of Jewish law).
One of them struck me as worth sharing at this moment in Israel’s history.
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On December 23, 1948, with the State of Israel still brand new and in the midst of the War of Independence that had not quite yet concluded, an anonymous rabbi submitted to Rabbi Herzog the following question: 1
Lately there has been an increase in the number of cases in which Jewish people of our country are married to non-Jewish women in [Gentile] courts, and they now seek to convert them and marry them with huppah and kiddushin [DG - a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony] because they wish to immigrate to Israel.
In general, these Gentile women have special rights, since they saved their husbands from death during the Holocaust by their refusal to obey the Nazis’ demands to divorce them; by doing so, they placed themselves in grave danger and were sent to concentration camps. . . .
Until now, I have refused to bring these people under the wings of the Jewish people because their intention is not [to convert] for the sake of heaven, but rather, for the sake of aliyah [immigration to Israel] and in this, I followed the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh [DG — a primary code of Jewish law]. … I see the magnitude of the horrific tragedy for hundreds of families who wish to make aliyah, but at the same time, my heart hesitates to take such responsibility upon myself.
Let’s first understand this rabbi’s question. According to traditional Jewish law, for a conversion to Judaism to be valid, the person converting has to convert “for the sake of heaven.” That means that they cannot convert for financial or social gain, or—believe it or not—even for love or marriage (though such conversions have long been performed de facto, of course).
What does “for the sake of heaven” mean? In traditional Jewish legal literature, it means, among other things, that the person converting is committed to living a life devoted to the requirements of Jewish law—keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, observing prayer rituals and the holidays, the laws of “family purity” and much more. That requirement, of course, is at the root of the consistent Orthodox rejection of non-Orthodox conversions, since in almost all of those cases, the person about to convert does not have that intention.
Now, in this case, the anonymous rabbi turning to Rabbi Herzog faced a moral dilemma. Gentile women wished to convert to Judaism in order to come to live in Israel, but he knew full well that their plan was not to live according to the dictates of Jewish law. After all, if their Jewish husbands married them when they were Christians, how observant were the men? Obviously, likely not observant at all. How likely would the couple be to be religiously observant now? The questioning rabbi and Rabbi Herzog both know the answer to that, and neither is willing to pretend otherwise.
But what about the moral duty to try to help these woman, who risked their lives to save their Jewish husbands from the Nazis? Rabbi Herzog is constrained by Jewish law, and he cannot solve every case, much though he may have wanted to. But for some of the cases, he found an astounding and courageous way of permitting the conversion.
Herzog acknowledges that these converts are not converting “for the sake of heaven,” at least as it was classically defined. Rather, they are converting simply because they wish to immigrate to the Land of Israel. But rather than respond with a blanket “No,” he offers a redefinition of “for the sake of heaven” unlike anything the Jewish world had ever seen:
But here there is another concern—that their intention is [to convert] for the sake of making aliyah to Israel. But this depends on the situation in your country.
If the conditions are such that as foreigners they could not stay in your country, then it is obvious that their intention is not for the sake of heaven.
But if it were possible for them to remain in [their current] country, but they desire Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], this can be seen as an intention “for the sake of heaven.” For they are uprooting their dwelling places and abandoning their sources of income to migrate to another land, and specifically, the Land of Israel. Thus, it becomes clear that their desire is to cling to the Jewish people, in its Land. . . . And this is a good intention, and there is no need to prevent their conversion.
Herzog was responding to the questioner’s sense that a human tragedy was unfolding. He never said, of course, that the enormity of the human tragedy trumps the authority of the Shulhan Arukh. As an Orthodox rabbi, he cannot do that.
Yet he seems deeply moved by the human dimension of the problem and responded by radically reconceptualizing the concept of “for the sake of heaven” in light of Israel’s recent creation. To join the Zionist enterprise, Rabbi Herzog essentially says, is to serve heaven. That is true, he suggests, whether or not the convert’s intention is to observe the commandments, as traditional definitions of the notion would ideally demand.
The responsum above pulses with a love of the Jewish people, a belief in the theological significance of the Jewish state, and with profound halakhic creativity and courage.
We will, in coming weeks, look at the issue of immigrants to Israel from Russia and Ukraine (an issue we heard about recently from Alex Rif); when we do, we will see that what Rabbi Herzog does in this case is precisely the sort of creativity that the present situation with Russian olim seems to require. But the likes of Rabbi Herzog have not occupied the seat of the Chief Rabbinate in many years.
At this moment, not knowing full well what is “cooking” in President Herzog’s house, we can only hope and pray that similar courage and creativity are at work, on his part and on the part of those negotiating. Key to preserving Israel may well be whether there is in the air a sense of the love that is reflected in the very last line of Chief Rabbi Herzog’s responsum above?
“Signed with the blessing of Zion and Jerusalem, hoping to see him shortly in our holy city, May it be speedily rebuilt.”
With Israel still treading, however slowly, closer and closer to a social, political and legal abyss, the Hergozian creativity and courage are more important now than ever. Time will soon tell whether Rabbi Herzog’s legacy on that score remains as alive as Israel needs it to be.
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Much of the material on this responsum is taken from the book I co-authored with my teacher and friend, Rabbi David Ellenson: David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis, Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa (Stanford University Press, 2012).