Chief rabbi rage: A toxic clash of religion and politics

Amar, who referred to non-Orthodox Jews as “cursed” and people “who do every injustice in the world,” expressed himself in an exceptionally inappropriate manner for a man who holds an official title and who receives a salary from the state.

September 8, 2017 09:26
3 minute read.
Shlomo Amar

Former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar at Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar, a former chief rabbi of Israel, has provided another example of why it is a bad idea to mix religion and politics.

Last Thursday, during his weekly lecture, Amar attacked the campaign to establish an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall as well as the High Court’s sympathy for the project, evoking Holocaust denial in the process.

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Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are deniers of history like Holocaust deniers, even worse, the rabbi said.

“It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing. They shout, ‘Why are there Holocaust deniers in Iran?’ They deny more than Holocaust deniers. In all of the Mishna and Gemara, there was a women’s section and a section for men in the Temple. Did we invent this?”

Amar was reacting to the High Court’s ruling last Thursday requiring the government to reconsider moving forward with the construction of the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. His intention seemed to be that ultra-Orthodox Jews’ opposition to the project was not a fabrication, as proponents of the project claim, rather it is based on tradition dating back to the Temple era.

However, Amar, who referred to non-Orthodox Jews as “cursed” and people “who do every injustice in the world,” expressed himself in an exceptionally inappropriate manner for a man who holds an official title and who receives a salary from the state.

We believe Amar has two options: either apologize immediately for exploiting his position to insult millions of Jews or step down as chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

Don’t get us wrong. We are not opposed to freedom of speech. Amar has a right as a private individual to speak his mind and say the most outrageous things.

It is his right as the citizen of a democracy and this right would be upheld without reserve by the same Supreme Court which Amar so thoroughly disparages. Indeed, freedom of expression is reserved especially for the most loathsome comments that deviate from the mainstream, the sorts of things for which no broad consensus exists and which, therefore, are in most danger of being stifled.

But Amar is not a private individual. As the so-called chief rabbi of Jerusalem, he regularly represents Israel and our capital in official ceremonies and events. As a public official he has an obligation to respect the goals and values of the State of Israel as both Jewish and democratic.

The Amar scandal touches on a more fundamental question. Should the state invest rabbis with such questionable powers and pay them salaries? Doing so inevitably leads to clashes between Judaism and democracy.

Democracy is a form of government based on compromise and negotiations as well as personal choice emanating from freedom. In contrast, Judaism, or at least Orthodox Judaism, is governed by a set of laws and customs that are nonnegotiable.

The zealous tend to view those who are less so as sinful and deviants in need of redemption. They will use their office to promote their religious agenda. Amar proudly told Israel Hayom during an interview last year that he refused to officiate at the memorial service of Shira Banki, who was stabbed to death during the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in 2015, until her family repented of its “evil ways.”

These clashing worldviews are incompatible. Mixing religion and politics not only compromises democratic values, but also harms free religious expression.

Amar should be allowed to speak his mind without state interference, just as secular courts should not be weighing in on issues such as kashrut supervision, conversions and other purely religious matters as they do presently.

The best solution is to separate as much as possible religion and state so that both democracy and religion are allowed to flourish.

Amar’s comments were repulsive. They should not reflect the State of Israel’s official stance on egalitarian prayer. Israel should be a place that actively accommodates any Jew regardless of denomination or affiliation. This was the vision of our founders at a time when the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis were adamantly opposed to the Zionist project, and it should remain true today.

If Amar cannot accept that, he should resign.

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