TEL AVIV — Israel’s Supreme Court has been asked to block the installation of the nation’s newly elected Ashkenazic chief rabbi, because of allegations that include incompetence, extorting money from marrying couples, forging signatures on marriage contracts and sexual abuse of women and boys.
The rabbi, Yona Metzger, currently a neighborhood rabbi in northern Tel Aviv, was elected two weeks ago by a prestigious panel of rabbis and public figures. The election has stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy, pitting rabbis of the Modern Orthodox community against leaders of the growing ultra-Orthodox community, which does not recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbinate but now appears to control the institution.
The petition to the high court alleges that Metzger cannot fulfill the duties of chief rabbi, which include chairing the High Rabbinical Court, because he is not qualified to serve as a rabbinical court judge. The petition was submitted to the court by accountant Yaakov Werker, a religious activist who has acknowledged that he was a backer of a rival candidate for chief rabbi.
Werker’s petition also maintains that by running for chief rabbi Metzger implicitly violated the terms of a 1998 deal, under which the national Chief Rabbinate agreed not to investigate charges against him if he agreed not to run for the lesser post of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. For Metzger now to present “his candidacy for a higher position is deceitful and contradicts [Metzger’s] commitment,” the petition says.
Metzger has denied all the charges, calling them part of a political vendetta.
The main figure in the 1998 deal, outgoing Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, said this week that he would ask Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, to take action to block Metzger’s installation.
In a scathing letter to the chief rabbinical council, Bakshi-Doron claimed that Metzger had had his rabbinic credentials revoked in 1998 because of the charges against him, and was permitted to continue serving as a rabbi only on condition that he not run for the public post of municipal chief rabbi.
“It never occurred to me that this rabbi would have the chutzpah torun for chief rabbi of Israel after promising not to contest Tel Aviv’s rabbinate,” Bakshi-Doron wrote.
Metzger was accused of abusing his post as a neighborhood rabbi in northern Tel Aviv during the early 1990s by forging witnesses’ signatures on marriage contracts, allegedly so that he could conduct multiple nuptials in a single night. He was also accused of illegally extorting exorbitant, last-minute fees from marrying couples. He was also questioned about allegations of making sexually inappropriate comments and gestures, to women and men.
The allegations escalated last weekend when the daily Ma’ariv published detailed reports of complaints from four young men who reportedly claimed they had been sexually harassed by Metzger.
Ma’ariv said it first learned of the complaints three weeks before the April 14 chief rabbinate election, which Metzger narrowly won. It said the four men had alleged that as teenagers they had been fondled by Metzger, who allegedly touched their arms, legs and chests and expressed admiration for their “muscular physiques.” The paper said it had planned to publish the charges the Friday before the election, but withheld the story on threat of a libel suit.
Aides to Metzger categorically denied the allegations, pointing to polygraph tests Metzger took dispelling the allegations.
Metzger aides accused “well-known rabbinical sources” who they said were stooping to new lows “after earlier accusations of chasing women failed.’’
Metzger’s candidacy became the flashpoint this month in a feud between competing wings of Israeli Orthodoxy, with political as well as religious ramifications. The National Religious Party, the political voice of Modern Orthodoxy, which has traditionally controlled the Chief Rabbinate, backed a rival candidate, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel. Metzger, though personally identified with Modern Orthodoxy, was backed by a leading figure in the ultra-Orthodox world, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, spiritual mentor of the Lithuanian or non-chasidic wing of ultra-Orthodoxy.
The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate traditionally has not recognized the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, seeing it as an extension of the Zionist state. However, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis reportedly decided this year to engineer the defeat of National Religious Party candidates for chief rabbi in order to punish the party for entering Prime Minister Sharon’s new government together with the anti-clerical Shinui party.
The ironic result, some commentators have noted, has been to give control of the Chief Rabbinate to ultra-Orthodox rabbis who do not themselves recognize the institution.
In the wake of the renewed allegations against Metzger, the head of the Knesset’s legislative affairs committee, Likud’s Michael Eitan, called on the attorney general to order an immediate investigation. Meretz legislator Roman Bronfman called on Metzger to suspend himself from his duties until the matter is clarified.
But Shinui legislator Ilan Shalgi countered that if the allegations are not proven and charges are not filed, there is no reason for Metzger to refrain from acting as chief rabbi.
Metzger’s spokesmen say the campaign against him has been manufactured. “Two people have been running a noisy campaign against the rabbi for many years,” said Metzger’s media adviser, Benny Cohen. “One of them was fired by the rabbi 13 years ago,” Cohen said, referring to Metzger’s former driver, who has publicly accused the rabbi.
“Rabbi Metzger has been a public figure for more than 25 years now, he is pleasant man and has therefore won the support of both the religious and the secular communities,” Cohen said. “Rabbi Metzger will answer his foes by bringing the people of Israel together.”
Reactions to the scandal from American Orthodox leaders have been muted. Leaders of several Modern Orthodox organizations that identify with the Chief Rabbinate said they would not comment on the controversy until more concrete information emerges. The issue is not expected to be taken up in a formal manner at this weekend’s gathering in New York of Orthodox Zionists, according to Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America.
“If an investigation is being conducted by an official body, then we should not comment until [Metzger] has the right to defend himself,” Ganchrow said. “If no official body comes forward to investigate, then every one of us will be free to make our own assesment.”
In the end, Ganchrow said, “we need to restore a sense of public trust in the Chief Rabbinate.”
With Reporting by Ami Eden