(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, a highly regarded and respected Sephardi spiritual leader, has been asked to join the Shas Council of Torah Sages, the rabbinic body that provides guidance to the political party.
The council currently comprises four rabbis, including council president Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the overall spiritual adviser for the Shas movement, as well as Rabbis Shimon Baadani, Moshe Maya and David Yosef, the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef the party’s venerated late spiritual leader.
In theory, the Council of Torah Sages is supposed to be the body in the Shas movement that has ultimate authority over party policy, although doubt has been cast over this role of late, especially following the death of Yosef in 2013.
In a recent conversation with The Jerusalem Post, a very senior Shas official claimed that party chairman Arye Deri “recommends to the rabbis what to do and they approve his directions.”
According to another source, Elbaz has been keen to receive an appointment to the Council for many years, and the decision to ask him to join the body was taken as a way of increasing internal unity within Shas.
The decision by renegade Shas MK and former party chairman Eli Yishai to split and form his own party has shaken the movement and the party leadership is trying to improve morale and generate internal momentum, part of which appears to be the appointment of Elbaz.
The rabbi for a long time has been involved in the “Ba’al Tshuva” movement aimed at bringing non-religious Jews to religious observance, and is the founder and dean of the Ohr HaChaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which is dedicated to that sector.
Since 1969 when he founded the yeshiva, Elbaz has worked actively to reach out to secular youth and bring them toward increased Torah observance.
He also is known as a charismatic and warm personality who can relate easily to non-religious people and make them feel comfortable and at ease, something that has been lacking in the Shas rabbinic leadership since the death of Yosef.
Former Shas MK Shlomo Benizri described Elbaz as a “charismatic personality who electrifies audiences and naturally draws people to him,” noting that he, himself, had become religious due to the rabbi’s outreach.
“He is connected to secular Israelis and gives them a sense that they have a father and a leader they can identify with,” said Benizri.
The former MK said Deri likely decided to bring Elbaz onto the Council to give voice to different groups within the Sephardi community.
“When Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef] was alive, he was enough to steer and direct the party himself, but we now need to bring other rabbis into the fold so that all groups can feel connected and have a representative in the leadership.
“This is especially true at the moment, which is a difficult time for Shas, and Rabbi Elbaz is someone who can inspire and motivate the Shas electorate,” Benizri said.
In 2008, Elbaz was convicted by the Jerusalem District Court of facilitating a bribe, given an eight-month suspended prison sentence and fined NIS 120,000. The rabbi maintained his innocence and subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was denied.
Benizri was convicted in connection with the same case as Elbaz and also appealed to the Supreme Court.
His appeal also was denied and he served two-and-a-half years of a four-year sentence.