An Israeli Chief Rabbi in Jail? Thoughts on the Chief Rabbinate, blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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Rabbi Yona Metzger served as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 2003 to 2013. He was indicted in 2015 for various crimes, including fraud, bribery, breach of public trust, theft, money-laundering, tax violations, conspiracy to commit a felony—all while serving as Chief Rabbi.

That’s quite an accomplishment for a Chief Rabbi!

While originally denying all charges, he has now entered a plea bargain through which he will be sentenced to several years in jail and will have to pay a substantial fine. He will be the first Chief Rabbi of Israel to be imprisoned as a criminal.

In the so-called “conversion affair,” Metzger allegedly received large bribes from foreigners who wished to convert to Judaism or to clarify whether they were Jewish under standards acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. In 2011, the indictment said that Metzger and a Los Angeles rabbi helped convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliya for a price of $360,000, of which Metzger received $180,000.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the indictment said that Metzger received 30% to 40% of donations slated for charitable organizations in exchange for his support and activities on behalf of those organizations. One donation of $28,000 that was slated for a yeshiva in Metzger’s synagogue found its way to Metzger and his driver instead, said the indictment. Another donation of NIS 105,000 earmarked for the Beit Hatavshil organization, which provides food for the poor, was split between the charity and Metzger, who received around NIS 31,500 of the money without the donor’s knowledge, according to the indictment. Another allegation involved Metzger receiving bribes under the guise of gifts, including gifts for his son’s 2010 wedding. In one case, Metzger allegedly received $500,000 in bribes in 10 separate cash payments disguised as gifts. There were also money-laundering charges that Metzger used various middlemen to launder his funds, including using fictitious names to further throw the authorities off his trail.

While Yona Metzger is the first Chief Rabbi of Israel to be convicted as a criminal, other Chief Rabbis have had reputations tarnished by unsavory words and deeds. One former Sephardic Chief Rabbi was accused of granting rabbinic ordination to unqualified individuals, in order for them to receive higher pay for their government jobs. Another Chief Rabbi was engaged in ugly battles for political power. While many of the previous Chief Rabbis were models of scholarship and piety, others have been petty, vindictive, power-hungry—and now one of them is a convicted criminal.

Is it any surprise that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is held in low esteem by the Israeli public and by Jews of the diaspora?  Instead of demonstrating the beauty and wisdom of Torah, they too often have disappointed the public with their negative qualities.

The question arises: does Israel really benefit by maintaining the offices of the Chief Rabbis? Or does the Chief Rabbinate represent an outdated, inefficient, and disrespected system? The Chief Rabbinate has little real natural constituency. The Hareidi Orthodox rely on their own rabbis, not on the Chief Rabbinate. The non-Orthodox have no use for the Chief Rabbinate. The religious Zionists—the original constituents of the Rabbanut—are almost totally disaffected from the current system, unless they themselves hold jobs supplied by the Rabbanut.

In spite of the massive unpopularity of the Chief Rabbinate, it wields power in the areas of marriage, divorce and conversion. It claims power in the area of kashruth supervision. It has the power to accept or deny the Jewishness of people who are applying for Aliyah.

Perhaps with the sight of a former Chief Rabbi sitting in jail, the Israeli government and populace will finally conclude: enough is enough. The system is broken. It does more harm than good. We need to come up with something better, and we need to do so promptly.

When religion and politics mix, the result is often toxic. The separation of synagogue and state, while having problems of its own, is a far cleaner and more honorable way of operating a country. Religious coercion demeans religion and weakens the state. Religious freedom is a boon for religion and a boon for the state.

[Image by Lior Golgher • ליאור גולגר (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]