Leading Rabbi Denounces Colleagues' Edict Against Renting Homes to non-Jews

Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, head of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox establishment, slams controversial ruling; attorney general to investigate whether rabbis broke the law.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein broke his silence yesterday on the ruling issued by 39 municipal rabbis against renting homes to non-Jews, calling it "inappropriate public conduct."

Rabbi Elyashiv
Eliyahu Ben Igal / Jini

"The attorney general thinks the statements attributed to the rabbis are very problematic in several aspects and apparently - at least as far as public officials are concerned - are inappropriate public conduct," an aide to Weinstein, attorney Noa Mishor, said in a statement .

Meanwhile, the rabbis' letter received a blow yesterday from the Haredi community, with a denunciation by Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Elyashiv, head of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox establishment.

Mishor wrote that the legal aspect of the issue was more complex and that Weinstein had instructed his office to examine whether the law had been broken, and to do so with all due speed. Weinstein's statement came in response to a query by MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz ).

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman has yet to respond to the rabbis' letter. Justice Ministry officials said yesterday he does not want to take a stance on the matter because it might be brought to him to handle. The officials had told Haaretz Wednesday that when the minister received a request from anyone on the issue, he would deal with it.

Neeman actually received such a request in November - to investigate Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for incitement due to statements at a meeting of rabbis in October.

The request was made by attorney Einat Horowitz from the Israel Religious Action Center.

"Rabbi Eliyahu has made unceasing racist statements ... and has taken advantage of his public status and religious position and funding from the Religious Council to air his racist views," Horowitz wrote.

Rabbi Elyashiv's denunciation of the rabbis' letter underscores the message conveyed by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, chairman of the Degel Hatorah party's Council of Torah Sages and the second most important figure after Eliyahu in the Lithuanian Haredi world. Steinman declined to receive people seeking signatories for the letter.

Elyashiv, who has criticized the letter in private conversations over the past few days, said yesterday: "I've said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them."

He added: "It's interesting that these same Zionist rabbis support symbolically selling their land to Gentiles during the shmita year," referring to the seven-year cycle when agricultural fields in Israel must lie fallow.

Elyashiv's reference involved a halakhic (Jewish law ) issue over which ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists differ: interpretation of Deuteronomy 7:1-2 regarding the treatment of non-Jews in the Land of Israel. Even before the state was founded, religious Zionists deemed it permissible to symbolically sell land to non-Jews during the shmita year so they could continue working it. But Haredi rabbis interpreted this verse as a prohibition against doing so.

Elyashiv's words were apparently powerful enough to cause at least two rabbis, Rabbi Yaakov Edelstein and Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, to reject the letter, although they told Haaretz through their aides that their decision did not stem directly from Elyashiv's remarks.

Elyashiv's and Steinman's reasoning in slamming the letter, their aides told Haaretz, is that a public letter of this type could spark anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world and harm Jews. They said the signatories to the letter had not taken this into account.

Sources at Elyashiv's home yesterday called the signatories "extremists" and "irresponsible." Sources in Steinman's home made similar remarks.

Another halakhic ruling was issued earlier this week against the rabbis' letter by Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, a senior member of the religious Zionist movement.

Rabbi Haim Drukman, chairman of the Bnei Akiva yeshiva movement, also came out yesterday against the letter. According to Drukman, although he "identifies with the national struggle that seeks to maintain Israel as a Jewish state, and is aware of the challenge in Safed in the face of hostile elements outside the country sending money to harm Israel's Jewish character," his position in principle "denounces a sweeping statement against non-Jews."

Kook and Edelstein said they did not know what they were signing.

As opposed to other signatories, Kook did not sign the letter itself, but appended a note in his own hand that a rabbi must respond to every question of Jewish law.

A representative of Kook said his signature related not to the matter of renting to non-Jews, but to the fact that rabbis have the right to rule on any question they are asked. The representative said Kook opposed the way the letter was being used.

A source in Edelstein's home said he mistakenly signed the letter because the people who asked for his signature had not acted in good faith.

"The rabbi of Ramat Hasharon [Edelstein] acts in ways of pleasantness and peace, and all his work is only for the benefit of the city's residents. And in any case, it's not his custom to deal with these and other political issues," the statement said.

According to the Haredi website Behadrei Haredim, the list of rabbis who want to rescind their support for the letter is much longer and includes rabbis Yosef Sheinin and Haim Pinto from Ashdod, Yitzhak Peretz from Ra'anana and Moshe Havlin from Kiryat Gat.

But Sheinin told Haaretz he was unaware of the position of his leader, Rabbi Elyashiv. "What I don't hear doesn't influence me. The letter contained only statements of Jewish law."