Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu in 2002.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu in 2002. Photo by Archive
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Thousands of people attended the funeral last night of former chief Sephardi rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who died earlier in the day at the age of 81 following a prolonged illness. Eliahu, considered a key spiritual leader of the religious Zionist community, played a major role in moving parts of this community closer to ultra-Orthodox thought and practice, spawning what became known as the Hardal movement (a Hebrew acronym for ultra-Orthodox religious Zionist ). In particular, he is the one who turned the term da'at Torah - signifying that a given issue must be decided a certain way because that is "the Torah's opinion" - into a commonplace in national religious circles. He was also a spiritual patron of the settlement movement, national religious political parties and various right-wing organizations. He was revered by Ashkenazi and Sephardi religious Zionists alike, and despite his Zionism was also widely respected by ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

Eliahu was born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1929 to a family with roots in Baghdad. Despite a prestigious rabbinic career, he was often in the shadow of - and at odds with - Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was his elder by several years and is considered the Sephardi community's preeminent religious arbiter. Both men began their careers as star students at the Porat Yosef yeshiva. But they had different approaches to halakha (Jewish law ), which exacerbated their personal rivalry.

Initially, Eliahu did not confine himself solely to Torah: His arrest, at the age of 22, as a leader of the Brit Hakana'im underground, which sought to reshape the new state of Israel as a country governed by halakha, shocked many who knew him. His arrest, on May 14, 1951, occurred just hours before the group had planned to throw a grenade into the Knesset during a debate on whether religious women should be drafted into the army.

"The sole goal," he said years later, "was for the Knesset to know there were circles that opposed the law."

Most of the gang's members were freed without being charged, but Eliahu and three others were indicted. Though he insisted that he was merely an "ideologue" and was never involved in actual violence, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

After a long career as a rabbi and dayan (religious court judge ) that eventually put him on the state's highest rabbinical court, Eliahu was chosen to replace Yosef as chief Sephardi rabbi in 1983. The support his candidacy received from the National Religious Party brought him closer to the religious Zionist community, and the views he expressed during his 10-year term proved attractive to many on the right.

He termed the 1982 Lebanon War a milhemet mitzvah, the religious term for an obligatory war. He said that not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon, were part of the Land of Israel and that halakha therefore forbade giving them up. He urged the president to pardon members of the Jewish Underground, which perpetrated terror attacks against Arabs in the 1980s, and called for building a synagogue on part of the Temple Mount.

Due to these views, rightist rabbis and politicians, from Likud MKs to Rabbi Meir Kahane, increasingly consulted him. Likud members recall that prime minister Menachem Begin sought his blessing before bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

After his term as chief rabbi ended, young MKs from the NRP sought to anoint him and the late rabbi Avraham Shapira as the party's spiritual leaders, similar to the role Yosef plays in Shas. When party veterans objected, Eliahu remonstrated: "It's forbidden for party leaders to take responsibility on themselves; they must consult the rabbis."

In the years that followed few members of the national religious community dared dispute his pronouncements, not even when he said, just days before the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, that "it will never happen."