Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi has escaped criminal charges after a 16-month investigation, but the country’s attorney general is calling for his resignation.
Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was investigated for allegedly accepting improper perks and double billing the Israeli government for living expenses. On Monday, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz closed the criminal case against Metzger due to a lack of sufficient evidence. But Mazuz released a report calling for him to resign as chief rabbi “in the face of deficiencies in his conduct.”
The move is the latest blow to the credibility of Israel’s state rabbinic establishment, which has found itself plagued by scandal in recent years. Last May, the nation’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, was interrogated by police on suspicion of complicity in the abduction and beating of a 17-year-old boy who was dating his daughter. In January, his son, 31-year-old Meir Amar, was sentenced to 32 months in prison for kidnapping and abusing the minor. Metzger himself has been the subject of allegations of impropriety for years, dating back to his time as a neighborhood rabbi in northern Tel Aviv during the 1990s.
The ongoing controversies are posing difficult theological issues for some Orthodox Zionists. This includes those in the Modern Orthodox camp in America, which stands alone among Judaism’s religious streams in viewing the chief rabbinate as a body with a degree of religious significance.
“At this point, we have a crisis,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, president of the Religious Zionists of America. Blau is a spiritual counselor to students at Yeshiva University’s affiliated rabbinical seminary. “I have no difficulty with the standard for a person being chief rabbi being higher than the standard that he’s not going to be indicted to go to jail.”
Israeli police began their investigation of Metzger’s conduct as chief rabbi in December 2004, in the wake of an Israeli television report charging that he and his family stayed in a Jerusalem hotel over the Passover holiday that year without paying for room and board. The attorney general’s report details other irregularities, including a number of instances in which Metzger billed the state for hotel stays in Jerusalem — despite being supported in an apartment in the city. Police also investigated whether Metzger had doled out any favors in return for the reduced rates offered to him at The David Citadel Hotel; authorities found that a rabbi who had helped obtain the low rates was later given a job at the rabbinate.
Metzger announced on Monday night that he would petition Israel’s High Court because Mazuz had failed to grant him a hearing before issuing his opinion. According to a report in Ha’aretz, Mazuz plans to give Metzger several weeks to decide to resign voluntarily, after which he will ask the justice minister to initiate dismissal proceedings.
Outside the Orthodox Zionist camp, the deteriorating reputation and influence of the chief rabbinate is likely to be welcomed by some on both the right and the left: As part of their rejection of Zionism and the notion of a pre-messianic Jewish state, ultra-Orthodox leaders do not recognize the authority of the chief rabbinate; the Reform and Conservative rabbis, meanwhile, embrace Zionism but argue that the Orthodox-controlled chief rabbinate is corrupt and intolerant of other streams of Judaism.
In recent days, several calls for Metzger’s resignation have come from Israelis who are part of organizations on the left, including the Movement for Quality Government, the Israel Religious Action Center of the Progressive Movement as well as Labor lawmaker Ofir Paz-Pines.
But in conversations with the Forward, several leaders of America’s Modern Orthodoxy movement were generally reluctant to criticize Metzger publicly.
“I’ve met Rabbi Metzger, and I’ve been very impressed with him,” said Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder and dean of a liberal Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. “I just don’t know about the internal politics over there, but my sense is that the attorney general’s office in Israel is just so political.”
Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, declined to comment on the matter, while Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said that “in this situation, I just don’t know enough about the facts to say one thing or the other.”
In contrast, Blau expressed concerns.
“If the description of Attorney General Mazuz is accurate, then this is totally inappropriate for a chief rabbi,” Blau said. “We have to make whatever changes are necessary to return the appropriate dignity to the rabbinate.”
Blau emphasized the importance of the institution of the Israel’s chief rabbinate, but criticized what he called the “politicization” of the position. He said that, in his view, the Israeli government should find a more neutral way to elect chief rabbis.
In some quarters, Metzger’s election to the chief rabbinate in 2003 is viewed as the apotheosis of political dog fighting. Ultra-Orthodox leaders backed Metzger, who was associated with the religious Zionist camp, in the election.
Some Modern Orthodox leaders have asserted that the ultra-Orthodox backed Metzger — who had previously been threatened with an investigation by the Chief Rabbinate in 1998 — as a way to undermine the public image of the post.
Blau said that if the charges against Metzger are true, he hoped the problems could be addressed by ensuring that the post is filled by a worthy replacement. He would not rule out the possibility that more drastic measures might prove necessary.
“I’d give it the best chance we have of working with the existing position, and see if we bring the right person in, if that works,” Blau said. “If it turns out we can’t fix it, then we’ll go on to something else.”