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Whatever persuaded Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Degel Hatorah to back Rabbi Yona Metzger for the Chief Rabbinate three years ago? The appointment has dragged the reputation of the office down to an all-time low.

"As far as the ultra-Orthodox public is concerned, Metzger deserves the Rabbinate and the Rabbinate deserves him," a haredi journalist said yesterday.

The Metzger affair reflects the difficulty present in the religion-state connection. To the u ltra-Orthodox, Metzger is no more than an official heading the religious services apparatus. But for the secular public he was the leader of the Jewish Orthodox community and if he is accused of corruption, the whole community is stained. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz sees the chief rabbi as a public official obliged to adhere to the rules of proper conduct. Religious people see this as desecration.

The last chief rabbis to win the public's recognition were Ovadia Yosef and Shlomo Goren. The election of Israel Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi Doron in 1993 began an era, in which the chief rabbi was no more than a lowly envoy of the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The chief rabbi automatically becomes a member of the High Rabbinic Court of Appeals. Each chief rabbi serves five years as court president and five years as president of the Chief Rabbinic Council. Metzger went from rabbi of a Tel Aviv neighborhood directly to chief rabbi. He is now president of the Council and Rabbi Shlomo Amar heads the High Rabbinic Court.

People are not likely to hold protests in Metzger's name. Yet Mazuz' unusual move could arouse sympathy for him in the haredi public, due to the ongoing clash between law enforcement authorities and the religious public. There is also a feeling that Mazuz is setting a precedent through Metzger's case.

The religious establishment may demand convening the committee for electing the chief rabbi to decide on Metzger's fate. It may be assumed that long before this committee meets, Mazuz will be required to defend his position in court. The committee consists of rabbis and religious politicians. It is extremely doubtful that Mazuz's position would win a majority in it. So kicking the chief rabbi out of office is still a long way away.