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Rav Yehuda Leib Maimon and David Ben-Gurion

Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaKohen Maimon became the first Minister of Religious Affairs of Medinat Yisrael. Perhaps more than anyone else, it was his persistence and unique friendship with David Ben-Gurion that influenced Israel’s first prime minister to make many tenets of Judaism an intrinsic part of the newly-formed Jewish state.

The Jewish Press recently spoke to Rabbi Yosef Movashovich, director of Mossad HaRav Kook in Jerusalem and rabbi of the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. Married to Rabbi Maimon’s great-granddaughter, he is an encyclopedia of family recollections about the heralded Religious Zionist leader.


The Jewish Press: Can you talk a little about Rav Maimon’s relationship with Ben-Gurion?

Rabbi Movashovich: Israel is certainly – with all of its birth pangs and crises of growth – the most Jewish state in the world, and that’s due in great part to my wife’s great grandfather, Rav Maimon, who hounded Ben-Gurion into giving actual expression to the Jewish character of the reborn Jewish state.

His unceasing badgering led to kashrut in the army and government institutions, the public keeping of Shabbat, and the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinical Courts, including their jurisdiction over conversion, marriage and divorce.

He also worked toward the creation of a Sanhedrin authorized to guide the development of the Jewish state in the light of halacha but failed to muster the majority needed to bring his dream to fruition.

His original family name was Fishman. Why did he change it to Maimon?

Ben-Gurion requested that the ministers-to-be in the official government Hebraize their names. Ben-Gurion said that the name Fishman recalled the galut. Since the name Ish-Dag didn’t appeal to the respected rabbi, he chose the name Maimon, explaining that his family roots went back to the Rambam.

How do you account for his friendship with Ben-Gurion?

Rav Maimon spoke with a directness that Ben-Gurion admired. In addition to his erudition in Torah, he had a vast knowledge of secular subjects as well. Ben-Gurion was a voracious reader, reputed to have the largest private library in Israel with 30,000 books. Rav Maimon’s library was even larger.

How was he involved with the founding of Israel?

Rav Maimon was the leader of the Mizrachi party, which was a part of the temporary pre-state government council. During the days preceding the end of the British Mandate, Ben-Gurion was in a quandary whether to declare statehood or not. Many people, including Golda Meir, were against such a bold move, fearing an even greater war with surrounding Arab countries, and they were skeptical about America’s support for such a decision.

Rav Maimon favored immediate independence. On the fourth of Iyar, Ben-Gurion wanted Rav Maimon to be present for the council vote to insure a majority for the declaration, but Rav Maimon was in Jerusalem, prevented from reaching Tel Aviv by the siege on the Holy City.

So Ben-Gurion sent a one-man “Piper” airplane to bring him to Tel Aviv. The plane landed here in Kiryat Moshe. To Rav Maimon’s chagrin, he discovered that the tiny aircraft had no room for passengers. He later wrote that the flying machine looked like a wagon with wings.

Removing his tallit and tefillin from his carrying bag, the aging rabbi told the pilot to use them to tie him up to the back of the pilot’s chair, so he wouldn’t fall out during the flight. That’s how he flew to Tel Aviv, with his legs dangling out of the hatch of the plane, as if he were sitting in a ski lift.

His strident voice at the emergency national council meeting and backing of Ben-Gurion helped the statehood resolution pass. Citing a Tosefot in Baba Metzia, 106a, concerning the valor of King David and the divine assistance he merited, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook later asserted that the decision to declare statehood – when a coalition of Arab nations had sworn to respond with an all-out war – was a clear miracle orchestrated by Hashem.

In her memoirs, Golda Meir recalls the meeting of the pre-government council that convened on Thursday night to decide upon the name of the state and the wording of the Declaration of Independence. How faithful is her account?

Like all of recorded history, it all depends upon who relates it. After hearing the initial draft, Rav Maimon emphatically insisted that the G-d of Israel be mentioned in the document. A fervent debate broke out whether to include a reference to Hashem, and, if so, with what wording.

Among the council members were devout communists and apikorsim. The final sentence in the proclamation that the draft committee wrote had written: “We affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional Council of State, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath night…”

Needless to say, Rav Maimon wouldn’t hear of the document being signed on Shabbat, when the British Mandate officially ended, nor on Motzei Shabbat, which might cause council members to travel on Shabbat to attend the meeting. So the gathering was scheduled for Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. before Shabbat commenced.

He further proposed that the concluding sentence begin, “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer, we affix our signatures….” The reference to Hashem triggered immediate dissention. A council member protested that they themselves – the people and the Jewish fighting forces – were redeeming the nation, not Hashem.

A lengthy and heated debate broke out even though everyone knew that time was of the essence. Ben-Gurion asserted that the expression “Rock of Israel” was open to interpretation and sufficiently abstract to satisfy both the unreligious and those among the Orthodox who could not agree to a declaration proclaiming the establishment of the Jewish state that did not include any mention of G-d.

As a compromise, he suggested dropping the term “Redeemer of Israel.” As the representative of the religious parties, Rav Maimon maintained that the reference to the G-d of Israel must be clear, and said that he would only agree to the expression “Rock of Israel” if it were followed by “and its Redeemer.”

Aharon Zeling, from the far-left branch of the Labor Party, disagreed fiercely. “I cannot possibly sign my name on a document which refers to a G-d whom I do not believe in at all!” he claimed.

Ben-Gurion tried to convince the two of them that the “Rock of Israel” had a double meaning, and people could choose between them. He maintained that while religious Jews would understand the expression in its Biblical context as G-d, secular Jews could understand it as “the national strength of the Israelite nation.”

Eventually, to get on with the proceedings, Rav Maimon agreed to the wording “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel.” Later, when the Declaration was subsequently translated into English to distribute to the press, the words “Rock of Israel” didn’t even appear because the military censor erased the entire paragraph for security reasons since it mentioned the time and place of the meeting.

But Rav Maimon had the final word. At the climax of the ceremony when Ben-Gurion proclaimed the founding of the State, Rav Maimon was sitting to his immediate right. The moment Ben-Gurion finished his speech, Rav Maimon spontaneously stood up and recited Shehecheyanu, emphasizing the name “Hashem.”

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Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.