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 the Temple.

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 misogynistic.

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.

Yosef 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 Israel.

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 tested.

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.

Therefore, we 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.

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