Rabbi Yona Metzger.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel is not merely the only democracy in the Middle East, but the only one in the world that can boast of a legal system that has brought a president, prime minister, finance minister, and now a chief rabbi to justice.
Former chief rabbi Yonah Metzger will shortly join his disgraced government colleagues in prison. This is good for democracy, but it is also a glaring indication of how his former avocation is not needed anymore. For example, a poll last year found that 75% of Jewish Israelis want matters of marriage and divorce taken out of the rabbinate’s hands. Metzger’s case is a very good reason why.
Metzger will be the first former chief rabbi to go behind bars, after he signed a plea bargain on Tuesday pleading guilty to reduced bribery charges that carry penalties of up to three-and-a-half years in prison and a NIS 5 million fine.
Besides bribery, the charges included fraud, breach of public trust, fraudulent receipt of a benefit under aggravated circumstances, theft, money-laundering, tax violations and conspiracy to commit a felony, all while abusing his position as chief rabbi.
Among his crimes, Metzger took large bribes from foreigners who wished to convert to Judaism. He also took kickbacks of up to 40% of donations to charitable organizations in exchange for his support.
It cannot be ignored that these crimes occurred in a particular environment, whose leaders have neglected their constitutional role of representing all the Jews of Israel.
Rather than serving as a spiritual guide to the nation, the rabbinate has become noted for its stringent view of Judaism, which expresses itself in hostility toward non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.
Last February, the Chief Rabbinate accused the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations of “uprooting Judaism,” causing assimilation and intermarriage, and having “no connection” to authentic Judaism.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, responded by accusing the rabbinate of “behaving like a branch of the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties,” instead of a state body. “The wave of incitement... against Reform Judaism is not connected to the Western Wall or mikvaot, but rather to the understanding and the panic of haredi politicos that the majority of the Israeli public is disgusted by the Orthodox monopoly.”
The rabbinate has indeed become the spiritual guide of Orthodox officials who would deny the existence of Reform Jews. Earlier this month, for example, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) came under fire for saying that “Reform Jews in the US are a dying world,” prompting condemnation from the American Jewish Committee and from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I reject the recent disparaging and divisive remarks by ministers and members of Knesset about Reform Jews,” Netanyahu said in a press statement. “Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect. This is the government’s policy. This is my policy.”
That may be our prime minister’s policy, but it has not filtered down to the Chief Rabbinate. In December, following in the footsteps of the position of his late father, ex-chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, current Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said that it is forbidden for women and ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or perform national service.
This should be no surprise, for all the chief rabbis of Israel have ruled that it is forbidden under Jewish law for women to serve in the army, although several former chief rabbis have actively encouraged national service by women.
Military service is one thing, but last March, Chief Rabbi Yosef reportedly declared that gentiles who do not observe the seven Noahide Laws should be “expelled to Saudi Arabia.”
“According to Jewish law, gentiles should not live in the Land of Israel,” Yosef said in a radio sermon.
For more than 2,000 years of exile, the sages recognized that there are many faces to Judaism. Independent rabbinical courts were established in every community and naturally there were differences in interpretation among leading rabbis. No rabbi or rabbinical court, however, could claim to be the supreme arbiter of religious issues.
This millennial-old Jewish heritage is violated by a Chief Rabbinate that constantly seeks to impose itself as the equivalent of a Jewish Vatican. The only democracy in the Middle East must reject the Chief Rabbinate’s claim of the sole right to control the religious observance of the country’s citizens.