Case Against Rabbi Metzger Could Weaken ultra-Orthodox Bid for Chief Rabbinate

A guide for the perplexed to the election campaign for Israel's new chief rabbis, with all its current instability. Upheavals are expected to continue next month.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

How will the investigation of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger affect the elections set to take place a month from now, which will determine who the chief rabbis will be for the next ten years? Although it’s very hard to predict how the 150-member electoral committee will behave, the investigation of Metzger is undermining the confidence of the Haredi candidates from Shas and Degel Hatorah who were thought of as favorites since legislation that would have strengthened the religious-Zionist candidates was shelved last week. This is how the election campaign, with all its instability, appears at the moment — and there could be further upheavals in store over the next month.

Of the 150 members of the electoral committee, 123 are known for their positions as chief rabbis of cities and local authorities, rabbinic judges, mayors and heads of religious councils. Twenty others are representatives of the public, appointed by the chief rabbis and by the minister of religious services. Among the remaining seven are two ministers — Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, who were appointed on Sunday, and another five members of Knesset.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein must now decide what will happen to Rabbi Metzger’s representatives on the committee. By law, each of the two chief rabbis appoints five representatives of the public. Metzger and his Sephardi colleague, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, handed in their lists last Thursday, shortly before Metzger’s investigation began. Metzger’s list contains one prominent name, that of Rabbi Ben-Tzion Tzioni, the same man who was arrested last Thursday and was allegedly one of the people who gave bribe money to the chief rabbi. His name allegedly links the two, a matter that the police will be probing, while the four other representatives will come under scrutiny for other reasons. If Rabbi Metzger does not announce the cancellation of his representatives’ appointments, Weinstein will have to decide whether a chief rabbi under investigation can have any influence on the committee that elects the chief rabbis. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has already asked Weinstein to revoke Rabbi Metzger’s right to influence the elections’ outcome.

A legal official said Sunday that all five of Metzger’s representatives would be disqualified and that the right to appoint five others would pass to Amar. The fact that the Sephardi chief rabbi would then have the right to appoint ten representatives would not ensure the victory of any of the candidates, but it is causing concern within Shas, whose officials remember that the scales can be tipped by only a few votes.

A week and a half ago, Rabbi Amar received a slap in the face from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Shas, which opposed the bill that would allow him to run for a second term. Shas is considering fielding one of Rabbi Yosef’s sons or one of the brothers of MKs Deri or Atias as a candidate for Sephardi chief rabbi, while Rabbi Amar has plans of his own. Behind the scenes, he supports the election of Rabbi Ben-Tzion Boaron, a judge at the Rabbinical High Court, who is considered an independent in his views and is not connected to Rabbi Yosef’s court. It is believed that the ten representatives appointed by Rabbi Amar will benefit him or the religious-Zionist candidate, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, whom some officials of Habayit Hayehudi would like to see win the post.

In the Ashkenazi race, the investigation of Rabbi Metzger could improve the chances of Habayit Hayehudi’s candidate, Rabbi David Stav, and perhaps also those of Rabbi Ya’akov Shapira, another candidate who is courting religious and Haredi votes. Rabbi Amar already tried making a deal with Stav, but the deal fell through.

The other Ashkenazi candidate is Rabbi David Lau, who is expected to win support handily from the Haredi rabbis and rabbinic judges (unless Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman, the chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’emek, should enter the race). Lau hopes to reach the public representatives with the help of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close associate Natan Eshel, among others. Besides the questions of image and public feeling that the Metzger affair raises and whose implications are hard to predict, Lau has a real problem on the electoral committee. He and his father, former chief rabbi Yisrael Lau — now chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and Jaffa — are supposed to be members of the committee by virtue of their positions, but they will have to resign from the committee if Lau should run. Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag of Jerusalem’s religious council wants to join the electoral committee. He is Rabbi Lau’s father-in-law, and he asked the Religious Services Ministry for permission to vote only for the Sephardi chief rabbi, not the Ashkenazi one. Weinstein will have to rule on that request as well.

All these are small matters compared to the tangled problem that the legal advisers have to deal with when it comes to the committee members’ ethnic origins. By law, the committee must be comprised of an equal number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi members, who vote for the two chief rabbis. Among the 123 permanent members and position holders, the Mizrahim have greater representation after Shas’s highly active term in the Religious Services Ministry, which led to the appointment of dozens of religious council heads from within its ranks.

Now almost all 20 of Naftali Bennett’s representatives, and those of the chief rabbis, will have to be of Ashkenazi origin — at a time when the law is not clear concerning candidates for the committee who come from mixed ethnic origin. One question that has already been examined has to do with a woman candidate of Italian origin who claims to be Ashkenazi, not Sephardi, as many Italian Jews are considered. Even Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar was asked to replace the five public representatives he proposed last Thursday with five members of Ashkenazi origin.

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