Isaac Herzog
Rabbi Isaac Herzog in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rabbi Isaac Herzog

A chief rabbi in Ireland and pre-state Israel, he was the father of Chaim Herzog, a president of Israel.

Isaac Herzog was an outstanding rabbinic leader (1888-1959). Herzog was born in Lomza, Poland, but was brought up in Paris and lived later in Leeds, the cities in which his father served as a rabbi. Unusually for his time in Orthodox circles, Herzog was largely self-educated. It is said that at the age of 16 he succeeded in completing the study of the whole of the Talmud. Herzog also studied general subjects, obtaining the D.Litt. degree from London University for a thesis on “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel.”

After serving as Chief Rabbi in Ireland, Herzog was elected, in 1936, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, succeeding Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. When Herzog was asked whether he had the ability to follow such an illustrious, charismatic figure, he replied that while he was undoubtedly inferior to Kook as a religious thinker, he was Kook’s superior in knowledge of the Talmud and the Codes. When the State of Israel was established, Herzog became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the new state. His rabbinic decisions in this role have had a good deal of influence on religious life in Israel. Many of these rulings were published in Herzog’s responsa collections. Herzog’s son, Chaim (b. 1918), was elected president of Israel in 1983.

Herzog wrote The Main Institutions of Jewish Law (1st edn., 1936; 2nd edn., London, 1967), a work remarkable for the author’s extraordinary familiarity with English law and the whole range of traditional Jewish law. It is outstanding in its analytical approach and for pointing out uncanny resemblances between the halakhic authorities and the English jurists, but has been criticized by modern Jewish scholars for its failure to employ a historical methodology. Jewish law is treated in static fashion with hardly any reference to the idea of development in response to external conditions and outside influences.

For all his immense secular learning, Herzog was deeply religious and completely Orthodox in his outlook. In the introduction to his Main Institutions, Herzog discusses (pp. xxii-xxiv) the problems that might arise if a Jewish State were restored. Herzog quotes an article he wrote on the subject in 1932. It is clear from the discussion, and was known to all who knew him, that Herzog believed implicitly in the coming of the Messiah and in the divine origin of Jewish law as revealed in the Torah.

Some ask, he remarks, would not the restoration of a Jewish State isolate the Jewish people from the modern civilized world, since the death penalty would be imposed for purely religious offences such as desecration of the Sabbath? In reply, Herzog demonstrates that for the death penalty to be imposed, a Sanhedrin is required. This institution cannot legally be restored before the Temple is rebuilt, and the Temple cannot be rebuilt until the Messiah comes.

In an astonishing conclusion (written in 1932 and repeated in 1937) Herzog writes: “The difficulty in question is therefore a matter which could only arise in the Messianic age and need not enter into any practical calculations affecting the reconstitution of the Jewish State in Palestine. But, of course, in view of the actual position the idea of a Jewish State in Palestine (as distinct from a Jewish National Home), quite irrespective of the restoration of the Temple, is, itself, rather a Messianic hope than a question of practical politics.”

Little did Herzog realize when he wrote this that not only would a Jewish state be established but that he would become its first Chief Rabbi.

Note: Herzog’s grandson, also named Isaac Herzog, became the leader of Israel’s Labor Party in 2013.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Discover More

A New Year, A New Queer

How I came out on Rosh Hashanah...twice.

Preserving the Past In The Wake of a Storm

When a hurricane hit Houston, this historian got to work