Netanyahu, the Ice Cream and the Chief Rabbis of Israel

The search is on for Israel's new chief rabbis. With the recent uproar over reports of the prime minister's exorbitant spending, the nation needs spiritual leaders who can lead it back to the moral high ground.

I have an embarrassing disclosure. While I often criticize our prime minister and find fault with his policies, it turns out that we share far more in common than I have ever dared to admit. Benjamin Netanyahu and I both love ice-cream, we enjoy sleeping comfortably on flights to England and we are both happy to see our homes clean and sparkling.

But there are differences; Netanyahu likes pistachio, I like chocolate. The state pays his exorbitant ice cream bills, I pay my own. He has a full double-bed installed on his flights, while I satisfy myself with curling up in my seat. And, whereas his cleaning expenses are paid by the tax payer, mine are not.

Perhaps some of the rumors about the more than seventy percent hike in his living expenses over the past four years are untrue; maybe the prime minister is being unfairly targeted. It happens. We await the state comptroller's report.

Without quibbling over the details, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that something is rotten in the State of Israel and the more we love our country, the more it disturbs us.

We are not the only ones suffering from politicians living decadent lives at the taxpayers' expense. Just a few years ago, a scandal erupted over the expenses claimed by British politicians. One member of Parliament claimed for the purchase of a duck house for his garden pond, another for the cleaning of his moat, and a third expected the public to pay for repairs to his personal swimming pool. There were many other examples.

As committed Jews and Zionists we expect more from our leaders, so it is disappointing to witness the rise of the fine-dining, cigar smoking, and perfectly manicured political leaders.

These ostentatious displays of wealth from people living off the public purse are sickening. All the more so, when these are the very government ministers who are cutting public services and raising taxation for hundreds of thousands of people living below the poverty line.

Jewish tradition demands decency. Here are three small examples. My father of blessed memory would always quote Moses, one of the only Middle Eastern leaders who could honestly declare his absolute innocence of receiving any inappropriate gifts. He declares:

"I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs," (Numbers 16:15).

Tragically, his modesty and integrity were not always mirrored in the Jewish people's behavior. The Hebrew prophet Amos warned of God's anger with those who sit in luxurious comfort looking down on the masses living in poverty.

"'I will also smite the winter house together with the summer house; the houses of ivory will also perish and the great houses will come to an end', declares the Lord," (Amos 3: 15).

Amongst the scholars things were generally different. My teacher, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks points out how the sages of the Talmud could sit next to one another in the highest courts of the land, unaware of each other's economic situation. It was a wonderful meritocracy in which modesty, scholarship and integrity were prized above all else. This is revealed in a passage were Rabban Gamliel visits the home of Rabbi Joshua. Looking at the soot, he comments, "'From the walls of your house it would appear that you are a blacksmith." Rabbi Joshua's response is chilling: "Woe to a generation that has you as a leader, for you do not know the suffering of scholars, how they earn a living or how they feed themselves," (Berachot 28a).

The search is on to appoint Israel's new chief rabbis. While the politicians haggle and cut deals over this, our nation waits. We urgently need spiritual leaders who will speak with moral candor, battling greed and corruption while challenging the elitism and racism which have crept into our society.

Our chief rabbis must lead the nation back to the moral high ground. For this, they will need not only scholarship, but other qualities. We need chief rabbis with outstanding courage and integrity to speak in God's name and fight for a Jewish country of which we can always be proud.

GPO
Uriya Tadmor