Chief Rabbinate Under Cloud As Police Question a 2nd Rabbi

By Mitchell Ginsburg

Published May 13, 2005, issue of May 13, 2005.
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JERUSALEM — In a devastating blow to the credibility of Israel’s state rabbinic establishment, the nation’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, was interrogated this week by the police on suspicion of complicity in the abduction and beating of a 17-year-old youth who was dating his daughter.

Amar is not known to be suspected of direct involvement in the assault, but he is believed to have been present in his home while the youth was being beaten. His wife, a son and several associates were being detained this week on suspicion of direct involvement.

The case, embarrassing in itself, is particularly damaging to the rabbinate because it comes just two months after police questioned Israel’s other chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, in an unrelated case. Metzger was the first chief rabbi in Israeli history to undergo criminal interrogation.

Metzger is under investigation on suspicion of receiving unlawful benefits from a Jerusalem hotel. The charges are the latest in a string of suspicions, including sexual abuse and extortion, that have dogged him for years, beginning long before he was named Ashkenazic chief rabbi in 2003.

With the Metzger probe still open, the eruption of the Amar affair has touched off anguished talk in some Orthodox circles that the very institution of the Chief Rabbinate is threatened.

“The chief rabbis were once like a lighthouse of righteousness, the moral compasses of the nation,” said Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a former Knesset member who heads the respected Ma’ale Gilboa yeshiva. “Today, the way things are going, I won’t mourn the passing of the institution.”

The Chief Rabbinate is a government institution that oversees marriage, divorce and other functions. It is closely tied to the religious Zionist movement, which views Israeli statehood as an expression of divine will. In the last decade, however, the Zionist rabbinate has faced a mounting challenge to its authority from the so-called Haredi or ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, which denies any theological significance to Israeli sovereignty and views religious Zionism as a compromise with secularism.

The investigations of the two chief rabbis are certain to weaken the institution further.

The Amar incident began as an online flirtation between the rabbi’s daughter, Ayala, 18, and an ultra-Orthodox teen 17-year-old. The two reportedly met in a chat room and eventually dated. Ayala’s mother, Mazal, herself an influential figure in the Orthodox community, is said to have learned of the relationship and demanded its cessation, but the couple continued to meet secretly.

In April, Ayala’s older brother Meir, 31, allegedly became involved. Police spokesmen say there is “reasonable suspicion” that Meir — who left his father’s house at 13, abandoned religious practice and has a criminal record — was summoned by his mother, who is currently under house arrest.

He allegedly set out for Bnei Brak on April 26 with Ayala and two associates, reputed former Palestinian collaborators who now live in the Israeli Arab town of Kalanswa. Meir Amar, who is said to split his time between Kalanswa and the West Bank Jewish settlement of Tekoa, allegedly forced Ayala to call her suitor and tell him to meet her. When he came to the car, police said, he was grabbed at knife-point and whisked away to Kalanswa, where the gang cut off his side locks and beat him through the night.

The head of interrogations of the Dan Region of Israel’s national police, Chief Superintendent Alon Grossman, said the systematic abuse was reminiscent of the gory 1971 film about gang violence, “A Clockwork Orange.”

At 6 a.m., police say, the teen was driven to the chief rabbi’s home. The beatings continued for several hours before he was given bus fare and sent on his way. The rabbi was in the house at the time, the youth reportedly testified.

During police investigations, the suitor, who went by the chat name “lover,” testified that he saw the rabbi’s wife bring cookies to the men beating him. According to Yediot Aharonot, the suitor claims that the rabbi knew and heard what was going on at all times.

Rabbi Amar was in Thailand when the investigation broke last week, and police questioned him shortly after he returned Tuesday. The interrogation, which took place in Amar’s office, lasted five hours. Amar was described as cooperating fully with police.

Police need explicit authorization from the attorney general to interrogate a chief rabbi, who has the same status in law as a Supreme Court justice.

The other chief rabbi, Metzger, first came under suspicion in 1998 while he was serving as a neighborhood rabbi in north Tel Aviv and running for chief rabbi of the city.

Initially, witnesses claimed the rabbi had illegally accepted payment for conducting weddings despite his status as a government official. Witnesses also said Metzger extorted families for extra payment on the night of the wedding and repeatedly had his driver forge his signature on wedding documents so that he could conduct as many weddings as possible in a single night.

In September 1998 a commission of senior rabbis, including then-Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, reportedly found Metzger’s explanations of his actions “insufficient” and ruled him “unfit to serve as a rabbi.” The commission later agreed to drop the ruling on condition that he withdraw his candidacy for chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, which he did.

In 2003, while running for chief rabbi of Israel, Metzger came under suspicion again. Four men told the daily Ma’ariv that the rabbi had groped them. Two of the men passed a voluntary lie-detector test.

Three weeks before the April 2003 chief rabbinical election, Bakshi Doron let it be known that he considered the possible election of Metzger “a desecration of God’s name.” In addition to the allegations, Metzger was too junior a rabbi to serve as a rabbinical judge. Among the chief rabbi’s duties is supervision of the rabbinical courts.

Nonetheless, Metzger garnered 63 votes on the 150-member rabbinical election council, a mixed body of rabbinical and political appointees. His main rival was the widely respected chief rabbi of Petah Tikva, Ya’akov Ariel.

Metzger’s victory was reported at the time to have been fueled by strong support from the leading figure in the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who is considered by many Orthodox Jews around the world to be the final authority in rabbinic law.

Elyashiv’s followers said they were backing Metzger despite his weaknesses because of his promised loyalty to Elyashiv on rabbinic law matters. Critics, however, grumbled that the ultra-Orthodox sage pushed the weaker candidate in order to discredit the institution of the state rabbinate. “Elyashiv supported the travesty that is Metzger because he wanted to thwart Ariel, but also because he wanted to embarrass the chief rabbinical post into oblivion,” said Shahar Ilan, religious-affairs reporter of the daily Ha’aretz.

QUESTIONED: Rabbi Shlomo Amar, left, was interrogated this week about a kidnapping case. Rabbi Yona Metzger, right, is the subject of an investigation regarding receipt of unlawful benefits from a hotel.

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