It may be dangerous to silence Israel's rabbis

By Nathan Jeffay, April 28, 2011
Outspoken: Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu

Outspoken: Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu

It seems like an internal rabbinical row, but it is actually a dispute that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a rabbi in the Jewish state.

In recent weeks, Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger has come out against the practice of rabbis issuing letters outlining their positions on current affairs.

Though the practice of rabbis issuing letters is not new, in the past six months it has become more widespread. In December, dozens of rabbis signed a controversial letter saying that Jews should not rent or sell homes to non-Jews. Liberal-minded rabbis issued a counter-letter. In February, rabbis issued a letter of support to convicted rapist and former president Moshe Katzav, implying he was innocent. This too was followed by a counter-letter.

Rabbi Metzger has mentioned both of these cases and others in his recent condemnation of the trend. He argued that rabbis are overstepping the boundaries of their authority.

But many rabbis believe that no such boundaries exist. "As the Torah says, it is the right and duty of any rabbi to express his opinion," the leading religious-Zionist rabbi Haim Druckman, head of Bnei Akiva, wrote in January.

The row is more complicated than it first seems. On one hand, a more disciplined, less opinionated and less controversial rabbinate would most likely improve its image among the non-Orthodox public, which counts for the majority of Israeli Jews. After all, in the current climate, some 42 per cent of Israeli Jews think that rabbis worsen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a new Haifa University poll.

But if Rabbi Metzger has his way and rabbis limit themselves to taking positions on what is purely clerical, it will not only put an end to rabbis generating controversy on issues where they take reactionary or unpopular positions, such as selling homes to non-Jews and Katzav's conviction. It will also stop them taking public positions on issues where rabbis' contribution to the debate is generally seen as progressive - on the need to address poverty, on the need for better social provision, on the need for environmental initiatives. It would scale back the role that rabbis can play in what is widely called "tikkun olam."

While Metzger's way would keep rabbis in check by steering them away from national issues, it would also close down a channel through which they can try to make themselves relevant beyond the Orthodox community.

Last updated: 11:31am, April 28 2011