Many disgraceful scenes have marred the run-up to the election of two new chief
rabbis: backroom deals by politicians to pass amendments to the Chief Rabbinate
Law that benefit this candidate or the other; outrageous epithets hurled by
former chief Sephardi rabbi Ovadia Yosef at candidate Rabbi David Stav; the
house arrest of serving Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger on bribery,
money-laundering and fraud allegations; the raucous rabbinic conference that
took place in Nahariya last week that was supposed to deal with the future of
the Chief Rabbinate but quickly deteriorated into mayhem with participants
unabashedly attacking one another verbally during a period in the Jewish
calendar when we commemorate how internecine fighting led to the destruction of
Now in the latest chapter of this shameful saga – which is
more about the struggle for control over the lucrative aspects of the rabbinate
(such as the monopoly over kosher supervision) than it is about providing
Israeli Jews with spiritual guidance – two candidates for the Sephardi Chief
Rabbinate position are expected to be scrutinized by Attorney-General Yehuda
Weinstein for making public comments considered to be racist, bigoted and
Holon’s Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who has apparently received
the blessing of his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has reportedly made a number of
controversial comments and rulings during the years he has served as a rabbi. In
one ruling, Holon’s rabbi disqualified any man who serves as a judge in the
civil court system from being numbered as one of 10 men who make up a prayer
quorum (minyan). According to Yosef, it is forbidden for a Jew to seek justice
in Israel’s civil court system and he must instead avail himself of religious
courts that rule in accordance with Halacha.
Yosef also ruled that it is
forbidden to appoint women to public positions such as mayors of cities. Female
kindergarten teachers are prohibited, according to Yosef, from speaking before
groups of men in parent-teacher meetings or end-of-year parties.
and another candidate – Safed’s Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu – have both ruled that it
is forbidden for Jews to rent or sell houses or land to non-Jews in
Eliyahu has also made disparaging remarks about “secular culture”
and about homosexuality. Eliyahu claimed, for instance, that “several serial
killers turned out to be homosexuals” and that “many diseases were transmitted
via those [homosexual] relations.”
In response, organizations such as the
Movement for Quality Government and Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality
have petitioned the attorney-general to scrutinize each candidate and to
disqualify Eliyahu and Yosef for their comments.
In response, Eliyahu,
speaking at the above-mentioned rabbinic conference in Nahariya, lamented
attempts to curtail the freedom of expression of rabbis.
“Can we be
expected to subordinate the Halacha [to secular law]?” Eliyahu is right. Halacha
cannot be reconciled with secular law. But secular law should also give rabbis
the freedom to rule in accordance with their conscience – as long as they do not
break any laws, such as incitement to violence and so forth. Indeed, it is
precisely when freedom of speech is used to express particularly controversial,
unpopular or even reprehensible opinions that the rigor of a democracy is
At the same time, Eliyahu must realize that as long as he
receives a monthly salary from the State of Israel funded by tax payers’ money,
he will be subject to the scrutiny of the state and his freedoms with be
curtailed. Organizations such as Hiddush and the Movement for Quality Government
will be justified in their demand to disqualify candidates like Eliyahu and
Yosef, in part because the comments of someone who holds a public office are
seen as a reflection of the official state position.
believe that for the sake of religious freedom there needs to be a separation.
Like all citizens of Israel, rabbis are entitled to full intellectual freedom.
But in order to provide this freedom the rabbinate must relinquish its
state-backed monopoly over religious services and rabbis should stop receiving a
salary from the state’s coffers.
If rabbis wish to express their
opinions, let them do so as individuals who enjoy the freedoms of democracy, not
as representatives of the State of Israel.