Monday, July 22, 2019

Of Shamrocks, Snails and Survivors: the life of Rabbi Isaac Herzog

Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the State of Israel’s first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, passed away, at age 70, on this date - the 19th of Tammuz – sixty years ago, in 1959, corresponding to July 25th.

Isaac Halevi Herzog was born in Lomza, Poland on December 3, 1888, and relocated with his family to the United Kingdom ten years later, when his father became the rabbi of Leeds. Young Isaac received his religious instruction from his father. After completing high school, Isaac attended the Sorbonne in Paris, and received a Ph.D. from the University of London. His dissertation, “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel” dissented with the theory of the Radziner Rebbe – Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner (1839-1890, Radzyn, Poland) – who claimed that the blue dye described in the Torah as techelet, which is meant to be dyed on one’s tzitzit (ritual fringes), emerged from a cuttlefish, a certain type of squid.

Rabbi Herzog believed that the Rebbe was misled by unscrupulous chemists and posited that the blue dye came from the murex trunculus, a certain species of snail.

Rabbi Herzog served as Chief Rabbi of Belfast and Dublin, Ireland, between 1916 and 1922, when he was elevated to the position of Chief Rabbi of Ireland. In 1936 Rabbi Herzog moved eastward to become the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine, succeeding the legendary Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook.

Rabbi Herzog and the Jews of Palestine lived in trying times. In 1939 when the British government limited immigration with the issuance of the “White Paper,” Rabbi Herzog led a rally through Jerusalem and, in the spirit of the Jewish prophets, ripped a facsimile of the decree into two. (Keeping it in the family, Rabbi Herzog’s son, Chaim, similarly ripped up the U.N.’s Zionism is Racism resolution on the rostrum of the United Nations in 1975.) Rabbi Herzog traveled to the United States during World War II, pleading with President Roosevelt to save more Eastern European Jewish brothers and sisters. After the war, Rabbi Herzog dedicated himself to identifying and saving Jewish orphans who had been left with non-Jewish neighbors or with the Church during the Holocaust, culminating with a frustrating meeting with Pope Pius XII, which did not yield the results he had wanted.

In May of 1948, upon Israel’s declaration of independence, Rabbi Herzog became the first Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of the State of Israel. His position required him to address many issues pertaining to the relatively new ideology of religious Zionism, and Israel’s struggle to be both a Jewish and a democratic country. In 1958, Rabbi Herzog was awarded the Israel Prize in Rabbinic Literature, for his many published writings.

Rabbi Herzog’s descendants have also answered the call of public service to the State of Israel. His aforementioned son Chaim, after serving as a general in the Israel Defense Forces, served as Israel’s U.N. Ambassador and as Israel’s president. Rabbi Herzog’s other son Yaakov, served as Israel’s ambassador to Canada and as Director General of the Prime Minister’s office. Although Yaakov was offered the position to be the Chief Rabbi of the U.K., he was unable to serve due to ill health. Chaim’s son Isaac, (namesake of his illustrious grandfather), held ministerial positions in the government, served as head of Israel’s Labor Party and currently heads the Jewish Agency.

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