The Katzav scandal is a wake-up call to rabbis

Israel's religious leaders should do more to promote ethical values after the disgrace of the country's ex-president

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, February 17, 2011
Ex-President Moshe Katzav, due to return to court for sentencing next week

Ex-President Moshe Katzav, due to return to court for sentencing next week

The former president of Israel is a convicted rapist. While his crimes were being investigated, some of his supporters tried to intimidate his victims in an attempt to prevent them from defending themselves. The whole episode feels like a complete aberration of our Zionist dreams, yet just a few months ago two former ministers Avraham Hirchson and Shlomo Beniziri were imprisoned for corruption and the list of those currently under investigation includes former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the former Mayors of Jerusalem and Petach Tikva (Uri Lupolianski and Yitzchak Ohayon) and our current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Meanwhile, Israel has struggled to appoint a new head of its armed forces because the leading candidate was accused of appropriating state land without permission.

While the police can investigate and arrest the most powerful men in the land and an Arab judge can sentence them in the courtroom, Israel's democracy remains robust. But the extent of corruption here must raise questions about Israel's political system and the moral health of our society. How can we reassert Jewish values of decency and integrity?

The rabbis were aware of the dangers of corruption by political leaders. And they tried to curb their powers. Maimonides placed huge restrictions on a monarch's activities and lifestyle. But even that was not sufficient safeguard for the Abarbanel. He served as a finance minister in Spain, Portugal and Venice, which made him very wary of politicians. His commentary on the Bible is peppered with references to the importance of curtailing the powers of rulers.

But if corruption spreads when politicians are too powerful, it can also occur when there is no centralised power. Some of the cruellest, most gruelling episodes in the Bible took place at the time of the judges when "every man did what was right in his eyes". In one terrifying story, a woman was hurled out of the house in which she was staying, gang-raped throughout the night and her half-frozen body abandoned on the doorstep. The incident resulted in a civil war in which 70,000 Jews were killed (Judges 19).

A midrash explores how such terrible moral degradation set in. It explains that when the rabbis of the Sanhedrin entered the land of Israel, they should have bound up their trousers, trekked across the country and taught morals and ethics everywhere. Instead, each scholar sat in his own vineyard saying, "All is fine here" (Tanna Divei Eliyahu 11). No doubt these great sages did not sit back smoking cigars and drinking fine wine. Instead, they quietly immersed themselves in their own learning and religious lifestyle. This may have been good for personal piety, but it did not provide the necessary leadership for the nation.

Forty days after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, while Moses was communing with the Almighty on the top of the mountain, the Jewish people built a golden calf and began worshipping it. God abruptly ended His conversation with Moses, telling him, "Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves" (Exodus 32: 7).

The sages interpreted the divine message as follows: "Get down, for what good is your greatness, when the people are sinning?" (Berachot 32a). Moses realised that there is little value in being a model of virtue when your followers abandon the path. Great piety and scholarship are treasured in our tradition, but they cannot replace the leadership which comes from teaching the fundamental moral messages of our faith.

We study the law but we forget its principles

A young man who studied at the great yeshivah of Radin was caught stealing and brought before his rosh yeshivah, the saintly Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933). The rabbi asked him how after years immersed in religious study, he could commit such a crime. The young man's answer was shocking. "In yeshivah", he said, "we studied the Talmud with all its commentaries, analysing every detail of Jewish law with great precision, but no one ever mentioned that stealing was wrong."

When his classmates heard this, they laughed and jeered with disbelief. But the rabbi silenced them. "The man is right," he said. "Sometimes, we study every detail of the law, but we forget its fundamental principles. We have failed this young man."

The blame for corruption, rape and criminality must lie with the perpetrators. Their prosecution brings kudos to Israel's judicial system, but the fact that our leaders could commit these crimes at all stains our moral fabric. The Israeli religious establishment cannot abdicate responsibility for this. Too often, they have placed extreme nationalism above needs of the nation and prioritised perfect performance of the commandments by a pious elite over basic understanding of Jewish morality by the many.

The time has come for all our rabbis to state widely, clearly and unequivocally the importance of ethical living in the state of Israel, making it clear that abusing men or women, whether Jewish or gentile, is abhorrent. They must guide our nation and its leaders with ethical sensitivity so that Israel fulfils its mission to become a light to the nations.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel

Last updated: 11:02am, February 17 2011