Rabbi Yona Metzger.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
On February 23, the Jerusalem District Court rejected former chief Ashkenazi rabbi Yonah Metzger’s plea bargain and extended his prison sentence, for fraud and bribery, to four-and-a-half years.
Also, he will pay a fine of NIS 5 million for tax evasion. These crimes were committed while Metzger served as chief rabbi and the judge noted that Metzger should have been a model for exemplary behavior as a religious and spiritual leader. Instead, he joins too many Israeli political leaders as an example of corruption, criminal behavior, overreaching greed and arrogance.
Rabbi Metzger is the first former chief rabbi to go to prison. Sadly, I am not surprised as I served on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim as the Israel Bar Association’s representative during Metzger’s tenure as chief rabbi.
In December 2004, a year after he was elected chief rabbi, attorney-general Mani Mazuz (currently a Supreme Court justice) ordered a police investigation into complaints of fraud and bribery. In May 2005, the investigation was completed and it was recommended that Rabbi Metzger be charged. Immediately after the publication of the police recommendation, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court demanding Metzger withdraw from sitting as a dayan (religious court judge) in the Rabbinic Court of Appeals as well as from participation in the meetings of the Commission to Appoint Dayanim. In June 2005 Metzger agreed to cease work as a dayan and a member of the commission.
In April 2006, attorney-general Mazuz published a 40-page document summarizing his decision to close the case against Rabbi Metzger because of insufficient evidence.
However, Mazuz pointed out that Metzger’s actions and failure to be truthful during the investigation raised serious questions about his suitability to serve in the prestigious office of chief rabbi. Mazuz concluded that Metzger was unfit morally and spiritually for the post and therefore should resign. Legislation creating the Chief Rabbinate did not provide for the removal of a sitting chief rabbi, but Mazuz argued that if Metzger refused to step down, the justice minister could convene the Commission to Appoint Dayanim to consider ending his role as a dayan.
Since Metzger indeed refused to resign, I found myself, alongside my colleagues on the commission, part of a “jury” tasked with determining whether Metzger was fit to serve as a dayan. I took my new role very seriously and spent many days reviewing the case records, including the police investigation and the attorney-general’s recommendations.
While Rabbi Metzger did not appear before the commission to give testimony, his highly respected criminal lawyer, Prof. David Libai, appeared on his behalf. Since both Libai and I are graduates of the University of Chicago, I was particularly proud of his eloquent and masterful presentation. However, his responses to questions I raised were not convincing.
I found the prosecutor’s arguments far more powerful, especially in light of Metzger’s behavior prior to being elected chief rabbi as well as afterwards. We were reminded that in the late 1990s, Metzger was a candidate for the position of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. At that time several complaints as to his suitability were brought to the voting body and several Orthodox leaders testified. Written opinions by leading religious scholars argued that Metzger was unfit for the post. In 1998, thenchief rabbi Bakshi Doron and his colleagues found Metzger’s responses to the complaints evasive and contradictory. Before completion of their investigation, however, Metzger sent a letter withdrawing his candidacy. Therefore the investigation was closed.
After Metzger was elected chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel in 2003, Rabbi Doron wrote the following: “It never occurred to me that Metzger had the chutzpah to submit his candidacy to be elected chief rabbi of Israel after he agreed to withdraw his candidacy to the post of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.”
Apparently the questions I posed during the commission’s hearings became known in the religious establishment and there was concern that I might vote to remove Rabbi Metzger. Leading rabbis, most of whom I respected for their scholarship and integrity, began to call me and argue that Metzger should not be removed under any circumstances.
When I replied that the evidence of his criminal behavior was compelling, they claimed that removing a chief rabbi would set a dangerous precedent. As an observant woman, mother, wife, grandmother, lawyer and Israeli citizen, I was shocked and saddened by the response of these spiritual leaders.
In February 2008, my colleagues on the commission voted to retain Metzger as a dayan. I wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that he was morally, ethically and halachically unfit to serve.
In 2013, during the last year of his tenure, a new criminal investigation into his activities while serving as chief rabbi was begun. Criminal charges were brought against him and he pleaded guilty in January 2017.
This sad and shameful story raises several questions: Why was Metzger allowed to become a candidate for chief rabbi of Israel given his background? How and why was Metzger elected to the position of chief rabbi? It is no secret that selection of a chief rabbi is highly political, and there are those who claim Metzger was chosen by Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders to weaken the position of chief rabbi. Whether that claim is true or not, it is clear that he has brought deep shame and public disdain on the office of the Chief Rabbinate. Perhaps the real question is: why does Israel need chief rabbis today? The author is a women’s rights lawyer based in Jerusalem. Elected by the Israel Bar Association in December 2002 to be its representative on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim, she was the only woman on the commission at that time and was reelected to a second term in December 2005, serving until January, 2009.