Rav Yehuda Leib HaKohen Maimon (born Fishman, 1875-1962) was a renowned religious Zionist leader and Mizrachi founder who launched the institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Eretz Yisrael and established Mossad HaRav Kook (1936), a respected religious research foundation and notable publishing house.
He served as Israel’s first Minister of Religion; helped draft Israel’s Declaration of Independence and was one of its signers; and played a pivotal role in promoting Judaism in the new Jewish state. A polymath and prolific author, he was awarded the Israel Prize for his contribution to rabbinic literature (1958).
Rav Maimon was one of many government ministers who, at Ben-Gurion’s request, Hebraicized his “galut” (exile) name. Not surprisingly, he did not much care for the name “Ish Dag” (the literal translation of “Fishman”); as he explained it, he chose the name “Maimon” because his family was descended from the Rambam (Maimonides), whom he greatly admired and whose name was Moshe ben Maimon.
Born in Bessarabia, Rav Maimon studied in Lithuanian yeshivot and, after receiving semicha from Rav Yechiel Mechel Epstein, the author of the Aruch HaShulchan, served as maggid in Marculesti and then as rabbi of Ungeni (1905-13). He became active in the Chibbat Tzion movement, for whom he wrote passionate pro-aliyah material and, after meeting Rav Isaac Jacob Reines (1900), the founder of Mizrachi, he took an active part in Mizrachi’s founding conference in Vilna (1902) and in its first world conference in Pressburg, Bratislava.
After moving to the Russian Empire, Rav Maimon was arrested several times for Zionist activity. He participated in all the Zionist Congresses from the Second Zionist Congress until the founding of Israel in 1948; served as a member of the Zionist General Council for many years; and served as Mizrachi’s representative on the Zionist Executive, as vice-chairman of the Executive, and as head of Israel’s Department of Religious Affairs.
After making aliyah (1913), Rav Maimon was among the founders of Mizrachi’s broad educational network in Eretz Yisrael. Imprisoned by the Turkish authorities at the outbreak of World War I and condemned to death, he was ultimately freed due to active intervention by Jewish American leaders. He traveled to the United States, where he helped organize and strengthen Mizrachi and, after returning to Eretz Yisrael on the first ship to reach its shores after World War I, he and Rav Kook established the institution of the Chief Rabbinate.
The British jailed him in Latrun during Operation Agatha (Saturday, June 29, 1946) – also called “Black Sabbath” because it began on Shabbat – a massive British operation that led to the arrest of some 2,718 people, including four members of the Jewish Agency Executive, seven Haganah officers, and nearly half of the Palmach’s fighting force.
Detained by the British on Shabbat, he refused to ride in the police car, but was shoved into the vehicle. He was later released by order of Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham, the British High Commissioner of Palestine, due to the great public furor arising out of the British forcing the rabbi to ride in a car on Shabbat.
Although he remained loyal to the leadership of the Yishuv, he was unambiguous in his support for the Irgun and Lechi. He defended Irgun prisoners, proclaimed the right of every Jew to bear arms in his own defense and in defense of Jewish rights in Eretz Yisrael, and openly opposed the Haganah’s active suppression of the Irgun.
It is well known that Rav Maimon was one of the drafters of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and one of its 37 signers, but the entertaining back story about how he came to be in Tel Aviv for the signing at the Tel Aviv Museum (today known as Independence Hall) is not as well known.
When the Council gathered in Tel Aviv for the independence vote, Rav Maimon, who strongly favored an immediate declaration, could not be there because he was in Jerusalem, trapped under an Arab siege. Ben-Gurion, who feared that the vote to declare the Jewish state would be lost without Rav Maimon’s influential voice, sent a small aircraft to Jerusalem to pick him up and bring him to Tel Aviv.
As Rav Maimon tells the story, the airplane was a single-man craft with no space for a passenger. He took out his tallit and tefillin and instructed the pilot to use them to tie him tightly to the back of the pilot’s seat, and in that manner he flew to Tel Aviv, with his legs hanging out over the side of the plane. Upon – somehow – arriving safely in Tel Aviv, he indeed played a key role in influencing the council vote in favor of declaring the birth of Israel.
In this incredible real-time historic letter written two days before Ben-Gurion’s formal declaration of a Jewish state, Rav Maimon (then Fishman) writes from Jerusalem on his own behalf and for three other Declaration signers who were (then) unable to attend the signing ceremony in Tel Aviv – Yitzchak Greenbaum, Moshe Kolodny, and Eliyahu Dobkin (Ben-Gurion flew Rav Maimon in for the signing after this letter was written) – requesting that Ben-Gurion declare the State immediately upon the end of the British Mandate:
May 12, 1948
Because you did not extend to us the opportunity to participate in the critical meeting of the government, and to hear the status at the United Nations, we have no choice but to ask you to record Greenbaum, Fishman, and Kolodny voting to support the decision of the Zionist Executive Committee regarding the declaration of the Jewish State and the establishment of the Provisional Government immediately upon the termination of the Mandate.
Dobkin joins us, but he adds that our not seeking immediate international recognition will prevent policy glitches and increase our military capacity – he favors announcing that the state begins now and that we do not now seek international recognition.
It is the opinion of these three that the final question [as stated above; i.e., whether to seek international recognition of the new Jewish state] should be decided by a special tribunal.
After hearing the initial proposed draft of the declaration, Rav Maimon, as the rabbinic representative of the Religious Zionist movement, famously announced that he would refuse to sign it for two reasons: first, because the indicated date for the signing was on Shabbat and, second, because it conspicuously omitted any mention of G-d.
His first concern was addressed when the signing ceremony was moved to late Friday afternoon, but his demand that G-d be acknowledged in Israel’s seminal founding document led to tremendous opposition by some, particularly the atheists and communists among Declaration signers.
As a compromise measure, Rav Maimon suggested that the concluding sentence of the Declaration be “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer, we affix our signatures…,” but opponents were adamant about excluding the phrase “and its redeemer.” Ben-Gurion, arguing that every Jew, in his own way, believes in the “Rock of Israel,” suggested that the “Rock of Israel” language be retained but that the “redeemer” language be omitted.
Recognizing the great threat to the adoption of the Declaration, he asked the delegates not to force him to put the controversial phrase to a vote, and the compromise language was ultimately accepted – unanimously – without a vote.
Though Rav Maimon lost his battle to include the phrase “and its redeemer,” he had the final word when, after Ben-Gurion completed his speech at the signing ceremony that fateful Friday afternoon, he rose and proudly recited the Shecheyanu blessing.
Rav Maimon was appointed Minister of Religion and Minister in Charge of War Casualties in both the provisional government and the First Knesset. Elected to the first Knesset in 1949 as a member of the United Religious Front (an alliance of Agudat Yisrael, Poalei Agudat Yisrael, Mizrachi and Hapoel HaMizrachi), he retained his ministerial role in the first and second governments; resigned from the Israeli cabinet over a dispute with Ben-Gurion; ceased his political activities after the death of his wife in 1957 (see below); and then devoted himself entirely to literary work.
Rav Maimon played what was unquestionably the dominant role in promoting Judaism in the founding of the new Jewish state and in its nascent governmental institutions, particularly through his remarkable friendship with Ben-Gurion, who held him in the highest regard.
He was instrumental ensuring that all government institutions, including the army, serve only kosher food; in promoting the public keeping of Shabbat, including by government officials; and in convincing Ben-Gurion to vest the Chief Rabbinate with authority over marriage and divorce matters. He is also credited with the wide acceptance amongst Zionist halachic authorities of reciting Hallel on Yom HaAtzma’ut.
The critical “Status Quo Agreement” regarding Israel’s approach to Jewish practice and observance is based upon a 1947 letter from Ben-Gurion to Rav Maimon, pursuant to which Shabbat would be a national day of rest for the Jews; kashrut would be observed under state auspices; and religious courts – Jewish for Jews, Muslim for Muslims, etc. – would have authority over “maamad ishi” (personal status) issues.
In the first years after the establishment of Israel, Rav Maimon advocated the reinstitution of a Sanhedrin as a supreme halachic authority. Beginning with a series of articles he published in Sinai (a religious Zionist periodical he founded) and in Hatzofeh, and after later republishing these pieces together in a monograph called “Renewing the Sanhedrin in our New State,” he was able to gather support for his plan from some religious Zionist rabbis and from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) but, not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of secular Jews and their leaders rejected the proposal.
When some important Orthodox leaders, including the Brisker Rav and Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog objected to the Sanhedrin proposal, the plan went down to defeat.
Although he resigned from the Israel Cabinet in 1951 in a dispute with Ben-Gurion over the governmental forced secularization of immigrant Yemenite children, he was held in the highest esteem by the prime minister, as evidenced by this December 9, 1957 letter to Rav Maimon:
The Dear and Beloved Rav Maimon:
The government has asked me to express its pain and extend condolences upon the death of your wife.
I know that there are no condolences for the death of your first love and that this is a bitter and difficult blow that fate has placed upon you. I can only express to you my feelings of admiration, friendship, and deep love that I have for you from the moment we first met and which has continuously grown as I witness your blessed work and your great and loyal love for Israel.
Your leaving the political arena – the Government and the Knesset – was a difficult loss for all of your friends, especially me. Your great moral authority as a scholar of tremendous breadth and depth on one hand, and as a zealous Zionist on the other hand, was sufficiently powerful to prevail over all opposition and all opposing views, both legitimate and overblown, which could have caused great harm to the state. Many like me feel the pain and worry of your absence from the public platform. I experienced great joy seeing you when you visited me at the hospital and I wish you, from the bottom of my heart, that you be able to overcome this great blow that you have just received and that you will continue to grace us with the fruits of your wise spirit for many years.
With love, admiration, and sorrow
Ben-Gurion’s reference to being hospitalized was a result of the events of October 29, 1957 when during a session of the Knesset, then located in Frumin House at 24 King George Street, Moshe Dweck, a mentally unstable Israeli, threw a small object from the visitors’ gallery. Ben-Gurion quickly ducked to the floor as the projectile hurtled past and, a second later, the object – a hand grenade – exploded between the government’s table and the speaker’s dais, wounding Ben-Gurion in his foot and arms.
Knesset members Arieh Bahir and Yosef Almogi rushed to Ben-Gurion’s side and tried to move him out of the hall but, with his characteristic equanimity, he refused to budge. A few minutes later, however, experiencing severe pain from his leg wound, he agreed to let them take him to Ziv Hospital, where he ultimately recovered.