How young can a rabbi be?

Fourteen-year-old wonder stirs controversy.

By RHONDA SPIVAK
August 13, 2010 15:33
MOSHE SHARIFY. Even if he were to become a rabbi at age 14, he would not be permitted to deal with m

Sharify 311. (photo credit: Rhonda Spivak)

 
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Fourteen-year-old boy wonder Moshe Raziel Sharify, who lives with his family in Ramat Poleg, Netanya, would like to become the youngest rabbi in Israel, and most likely the world, after having recently written examinations for the rabbinate which were held in Jerusalem and administered by the Chief Rabbinate.

In the last year, the young student has been tested by 10 well-known and senior rabbis for his knowledge of Jewish law, all of whom have been clearly impressed with the length and breadth of his knowledge and intellectual capabilities. The consensus amongst them appears to be that he is a genius.

However, Sharify’s proposed route to the rabbinate has already become a matter of significant controversy.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar remains steadfast in maintaining that, notwithstanding that Sharify was tested, his examination ought not to be marked, as he is not eligible for the rabbinate until he reaches age 22. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, on the other hand, had initially supported Sharify’s quest to become a rabbi at age 14.

Oded Weiner, director-general of the Chief Rabbinate, told The Jerusalem Post that “there is an internal decision made many years ago by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate that no one under the age of 22 is eligible to be examined for the rabbinate.”

He clarified that this internal decision “is not a formal regulation. It is not something that is on the books of the Knesset. It is an internal decision.”

Sharify’s father, Nisan Sharify, who has a doctorate in law from Bar-Ilan University and practices taxation law, says he will petition the High Court of Justice to have his son’s examination marked and counted, like the examinations of all other candidates.

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“There is no legal regulation that says he must be 22 to become a rabbi, and he has already been tested after being recommended by many rabbis as the genius of his time. His test should be marked officially, and since I have no doubt he has passed, he should become a rabbi now.”

He notes that even if his son were to become a rabbi at age 14, he will not be permitted to deal with matters of marriage and divorce, as that is “something that only a rabbi who is a dayan can do.”

When asked whether anyone has ever taken examinations for the rabbinate before the age of 22, Weiner responded, “As far as I can remember in the last five years, there was never such an exception. Maybe the Department of Examinations of the Chief Rabbinate allowed it if someone was within a few months of being 22 or within a year of 22.”

The young man’s mother, Ronit, who has a doctorate in political science from Bar-Ilan University, says she spoke to Metzger directly and that he supported her son’s examination being given a formal mark, so that it can be counted and Moshe will get his rabbinical ordination. “Metzger is in favor of this,” says Ronit.

Haim Hemdinger, the director of Metzger’s office, confirmed that Metzger, who is president of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, has been in favor of allowing the young Sharify to become a rabbi at age 14, in light of his exceptional gifts and knowledge.

However, Hemdinger said that after Metzger had initially expressed this attitude, there was a meeting of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, at which Metzger’s opinion did not win out. According to Hemdinger, “At the meeting Rabbi Amar led the opposition to allowing a 14-year-old to be allowed to write the test,” and Amar’s position was adopted by the council.

Nevertheless, the young Sharify was sent a letter from the Department of Examinations and Certifications of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel inviting him to take the examinations for the rabbinate on July 12 in the Jerusalem International Convention Center. He paid the examination fee and arrived early.

Nisan, Moshe’s father, says that once his son got that letter calling him to the examinations he thought that it had been decided finally to allow his son to take the examinations and have them marked just like anyone else’s.

Hemdinger, however, told the Post that the father “knew that we were allowing the son to take the test so as to encourage him, but that it wouldn’t be counted, as he was too young.”

THE ELDER SHARIFY, for his part, contends that there was some talk of that happening originally, but that he understood that that position had changed and that in the end his son received official permission to write the exam and have it counted.

“It makes no sense to have him take the test if it can’t be counted,” Nisan said.

The father notes that in the letter his son received there was nothing suggesting his son’s test wouldn’t be counted.

Furthermore, Nisan says, “I have learned that Rabbi Amar tried to convince the examiners to stop my son from completing the test, but gave way when one of the examiners said they convinced him it would hurt my son’s feelings to do so. But afterward I understand that Rabbi Amar said my son’s examination booklets were not to be checked and ought not be considered.”

Moshe says that during the examination itself – which lasted from about 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. – an examiner, whose name he didn’t know at the time, came over to him, flipped through his examination booklets and said, “Very good.”

The young man says that at the beginning of the examination “Rabbi Amar appeared and wished everyone luck in the examination,” but that “later he appeared again in the examination room and spoke to someone for a few minutes. I didn’t see who it was. I saw that he was delayed there.”

When the young Sharify went to hand in his examination paper, he says that he was told that “Rabbi Amar did not want to have his examination booklet checked.”

When contacted, the head of Rabbi Amar’s office, Yitzhak Peretz, told the Post that “no one can be examined for the rabbinate until they reach the age of 22, and Moshe Sharify is no exception.”

Peretz added, “What is so urgent? Why can’t he [Moshe] wait?”

When asked why the rabbinate sent him a letter telling him where to appear for the examination, Peretz responded that Moshe went to the post office and paid the fee, but that the rabbinate didn’t know he was 14 years old. “He didn’t tell anyone that. Anyone can go and pay the fee. The letter was sent to him because he didn’t tell anyone he was 14,” says Peretz.

However, Nisan Sharify has shown the Post the application document he filled out for the examination. The application states his son’s birthdate.

“We didn’t try to hide my son’s age at all.”

When Peretz was asked why Sharify was let into the exam room, he answered, “It was a mistake” that he was let in, and that he wasn’t let in by Rabbi Amar.

SHARIFY, A QUIET, well-mannered, modest and pensive boy, has been raised in a “dati leumi” (national religious) home.

“He has never once raised his voice even if he has been angry or upset with any of his five younger siblings,” says his mother Ronit, the daughter of Libyan Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s.

“My son Moshe is an adult in a boy’s body,” says Nisan Sharify, who notes that neither parent has ever had to punish him for any misbehavior.

Nisan, a descendant of Iraqi Jews, remembers that when Moshe was only one year old, every time he walked by a painting with a rabbi in it he would say, “Here is a rabbi!”

The toddler’s grandmother, Nisan’s late mother Hanna Sharify, used to say, “Moshe will become a great rabbi in Israel.”

Nisan remembers that one Shabbat in 1998, when he didn’t take Moshe to synagogue due to a bad hailstorm, “Moshe cried all through the night until seven the next morning when I took him to synagogue, and then he stopped.”

When Sharify was 10 years old he won the city of Netanya’s Bible quiz, and at age 11 he won the Bible quiz for the central region of the country.

“Three years ago, we enrolled him in the world center of Limudei Dat, which is in Bnei Brak. It is like the Open University.

They send you material, you complete it and then send it back. He advanced very quickly,” says his father.

“In the last year he has been tested thoroughly and repeatedly by all sectors of Orthodox Zionism,” Nisan says.

On June 16, Moshe’s teacher from Limudei Dat, Rabbi Erez Alharad, wrote a letter of recommendation stating that the young Sharify has wonderful abilities and that his name will be “one of the great names of this land.”

The chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, wrote on July 21, in a certificate of approbation: “I hereby confirm that I tested the student Moshe Sharify at length and in great depth on the topic of the Laws of Shabbat and he answered all my questions correctly and precisely, quoting each law and its source from the Talmud until the very last one… May he continue to persevere with his learning and to grow in the Torah, good attributes and fear of heaven, and to become an adjudicator among the People of Israel.”

Rabbi Haim Bazak, a dayan of the Rabbinical Court of Safed-Tiberias, wrote: “I tested the young man, Moshe Sharify, who came with recommendations from important rabbis who tested him on the Laws of Shabbat and found him proficient in all the laws. I, too, tested him and found him to be filled with glorious knowledge. [It is] unbelievable that such a young boy has succeeded in attaining such tremendous and broad knowledge in the Laws of the Shabbat. I will state in particular his proficiency both in the sources of the law from the Mishna, and from the first adjudicators in the Shulhan Aruch and its commentaries up until the last commentaries of modern times.”

Rabbi Nissim Toledano of the Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai Kollel in Safed and Meron, who prepares young men for their test for the rabbinate, wrote in his letter of recommendation: “I tested him [Moshe] on the laws, and he answered with great expertise, [with] concise, well-thought-out answers [to questions] which those double his age would still be having trouble with.”

He concluded “I hereby recommend him as worthy to be tested” for the rabbinate.

Rabbi Yehoshua David Rosenberg of Netanya wrote that Sharify “will be a a great Torah scholar.”

Rabbi Gideon Ben-Moshe, the head of Beit Din Beit Hahora’a in Jerusalem, wrote a recommendation in which he referred to Sharify as “an extraordinary phenomenon that I have seen with my own eyes,” and that “Moshe is worthy of testing for the rabbinate, by way of an exception to the rule.”

He went on to note that “all the letters of recommendation extol Moshe’s immense knowledge on the material he was tested on and lavish praise upon him for seeking out such lofty knowledge while others his age engage in less lofty pastimes, and they all heartily recommend him as being fully prepared for testing for the rabbinate.”

NISAN SHARIFY says that if Amar does not alter his instruction not to check his son’s test and not to consider it like any other test taken by the other contestants, he will be forced to petition against him at the High Court of Justice. “I will petition to have the court require Rabbi Amar to consider the results of the examination and then grant him the smicha,” he says.

Sharify told the Post that in his view Rabbi Amar does not have any discretion to negate his son’s test results, once the Chief Rabbinate invited him to appear on the required date and time to take the exams.

Sharify showed the Post a copy of a legal letter sent by his office on July 18, to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, warning of his proposed petition to the High Court of Justice in the event that Amar continues refusing to allow the results of his son’s rabbinical examinations to stand.

The warning letter states that “many of the great rabbis in the past and in the present were ordained to the rabbinate and even judgeship at a very young age and it is unclear why it is that the present leadership of the rabbinate seeks to uproot this fine custom, especially during this difficult period of extended juvenile delinquency that is continuously reaching new limits.”

The letter notes that one of the Torah’s giants of modern times, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was ordained to the rabbinate at age 19, and at age 23 was ordained to judgeship, and “the Torah giant Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu was ordained at a similar age, and we also know that the Hafetz Haim was ordained to the rabbinate at age 17 as well as many other Torah giants and famous rabbinical figures from all times and generations.”

The letter also requests that Weinstein “instruct Rabbi Amar not to discriminate against my son only because of his young age. Young talents are to be encouraged, nurtured and elevated, not discouraged with irrelevant excuses.”

The warning letter says that the petition to the High Court will be filed by August 18.

Peretz, the head of Amar’s office, says that “I have seen the warning letter by Nisan Sharify, but his son is not 22 and his examination will not be marked.”

He added that Rabbi Rafael Mizrahi, the head of the Examinations Department, will be sending Nisan Sharify a letter informing him of this. Mizrachi did not return phone calls or e-mail inquiries by press time.

In the meantime, while the dispute regarding his examination for the rabbinate evolves, Moshe Sharify will be studying at the Yishuv Hadash Yeshiva in Tel Aviv. For his summer vacation he is spending a week in Safed, which he says “is my favorite place.”

Aside from his Judaic learning, he enjoys swimming and playing soccer with friends.

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