Synagogue and State

Where Racism Meets the Rabbinate

05.13.13 8:45 PM ET

Rabbi Sholomo Amar has been the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in Israel since 2003, but his 10-year term is almost up, and he will soon be replaced. The man expected to be nominated by the Jewish Home party to replace him is none other than the current chief rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu happens to be a racist. The most well-known incident came in 2010 when he purportedly ruled that it was forbidden by Jewish law to rent or sell property to Arabs. At the time, many of those in Safed felt his ruling was spot-on. A great many signs around town read: "Don't rent rooms to Arabs. Don't give work to Arabs. Don't give Arabs any foothold in our community." Perhaps the thing that got him in the most trouble was a letter, signed by more than 40 other municipal rabbis, in support of his ruling. The letter said that anyone who sold or rented to Arabs "causes his neighbor a great loss, and his iniquity is greater than can be borne." It also recommended communal ostracism for those who failed to comply:

It is incumbent upon the seller's neighbors and acquaintances to warn and caution, first in private and then they are entitled to punish him in public, to distance themselves from him, to prevent trade from being done with him, not to have him read from the Torah and so forth until he reverses his decision that causes harm to so many people.

Although the charges of incitement brought against him were eventually dropped by the Ministry of Justice, it's hard to get past the fact that a letter like that was written at all, inspired by a man who may very well become the next decade-tenured Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Also unfortunately, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a man whose salary comes from the state, is less deeply committed to that body than one might expect. A few moths ago Arutz Sheva reported that when asked if Jewish law permitted one Jew reporting another Jew's tax evasion to the authorities, he pretty much said no, arguing that “It is the responsibility of the tax authority to enforce the law, but the words of the Prophet described in the Bible strongly denigrates anyone who implicates a fellow Jew or causes him penalty."

Another unfortunate but perhaps slightly more hilarious Eliyahu incident came when he sent a letter to Madonna asking her to dress modestly on her trip to Israel. As the Chief Rabbi of the Kabbalistic city of Safed, he probably felt he held some sway. His letter included the following tidbit: "The way you are being marketed is not, in any way, in line with Kabbalah, with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai [famous mystical Rabbi buried in Safed], with internal enlightenment and with faith and love." He argued that her mode of dress "may raise the lust instead of raising the love—and that's a shame." Can you imagine telling that to Madonna? The virgin who was touched for the very first time in 1984 and has since made videos like these?

Probably the most unfortunate thing about Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu is that he can be deeply violent in his rhetoric. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he advocated carpet bombing Gaza: "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand." He went on: "And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop." When 1 million human lives are that cheap, there can be no doubt that we have to rethink what kind of "spiritual leadership" the Jewish Home is pushing for.

The decision of whom to place in the position of Chief Rabbi in Israel wouldn't rattle so many bones if the job entailed responsibilities similar to that of, say, the Chief Rabbi of England, whose opinion, albeit powerful, has no legal impact. But in Israel the Chief Rabbi and the extended Chief Rabbinate Council have massive power over personal status issues: how people marry and divorce, how they are buried, and whose conversion to Judaism counts. The Rabbinic courts today are actually a part of Israel's judicial system, operated by the Ministry of Religious Services, and their decisions are (ostensibly) enforced through the normal executive channels, like the police. When Ben-Gurion made his now-infamous "status-quo" deal with the ultra-Orthodox in 1947, he did not imagine that the "status-quo" would mean that by 2012, one quarter of Israel's first graders would be ultra-Orthodox.

It may very well be that Rabbi Eliyahu will not become the Sephardi Chief Rabbi and that the Jewish Home party's expected nomination is a mere political ploy, likely because he can convince the ultra-Orthodox community that Naftali Bennett isn't out to get them, that army service might not be such a bad idea, and because Netanyahu doesn't seem to like him too much. But it almost doesn't matter. As long as Synagogue and State remain intertwined in Israel, we're going to run into the treacherous combination of racism, sexism, and violent religious talk from people like Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. 

CORRECTION II: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: Jewish Home has not yet made its official nominations for Chief Rabbi, as this story originally stated. Israeli media reported the expected announcement of Rabbi Eliyahu's nomination was expected to come from the Jewish Home earlier this week, not this upcoming Monday, as this correction earlier stated. Jewish Home has not yet made an annoucement. The story now reflects this and we regret the error.