Rabbis and Royalty
God periodically shows us a sense of poetic justice and even a sense of humor.
This week the world media celebrated the birth of a new heir to the British royal house: an institution not built on talent, but rather on bloodlines, and without any strategic power.
A few hours later, a few men in black in Jerusalem turned the rabbinate of Israel into a royal hereditary institution built not on talent but on bloodlines and without much spiritual power. After William and Kate showed off their princely baby, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef crowned his son, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau crowned his son.
It was a happy day in London, but a sad one in Jerusalem.
The funny thing is that both the British royal house and the Israeli rabbinate can have great symbolic and even spiritual consequence if the “royal” or the “rabbi” sets a good example, finds a certain grace, courage and even modesty that elevate them beyond the trappings of office.
It is a lesson many Israeli rabbis – particularly of the ultra-Orthodox persuasion – need to learn: too many of Israel’s religious leaders have been building hatzerot – royal courts – around themselves, and they have taken to passing on their power through bloodlines.
JUST LIKE vassals serving royal courts in the Middle Ages, most of the Hassidic community live in poverty, making donations to their religious leaders’ courts.
Many of the Hassidic rabbis have been doing this for years, but it is really making a mockery of the job of rabbi – a post that is mostly about being a teacher and spiritual guide. When our spiritual guides guide themselves by love of money or love of power, then we lose heart and lose faith.
Yonah Metzger, Israel’s current Ashkenazi chief rabbi, is under house arrest in a huge corruption case, and the evidence appears quite damning. Rabbi Metzger was put into office by a powerful voting bloc organized by ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who wanted to take control of the Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbi Elyashiv picked Metzger just like British Mandatory authorities in Palestine picked Hajj Amin al-Husseini to be Grand Mufti. Of the four candidates Husseini was the worst on his Islamic exams, but he was politically powerful and expedient. The Mandate chose Husseini, and Elyashiv chose Metzger. Power trumped spirit.
Many religions in many lands have seen their men in cloth exposed in the most embarrassing ways, including TV preachers betraying wives, homosexual scandals at the Vatican and Yeshiva University, not to mention many Catholic dioceses that witnessed wholesale pedophilia and child molestation.
But at least there has been some admission of error in some of these places, some attempt at reform and for compensation. But not in the ultra-orthodox establishment of Israel where nothing succeeds like success or … maybe like succession.
In the ultra-Orthodox establishment of Israel, where nothing succeeds like success or… maybe like succession.
Think of it: Rabbi Yosef and Rabbi Blau got to do what Moses and Samuel did not succeed in doing – pass on the mantle of spiritual leadership to their sons.
British royalty – and royalty in general – get real power when they show a common touch and common sense, when they reach out and lift up. They rise up in our eyes and become symbolically and even strategically powerful not when they ensconce themselves in a luxurious royal court but rather when they court virtue.
As a reporter I once saw how Israel’s Sephardi-oriented Black Panther Party greeted Ashkenazi chief rabbi Shlomo Goren when he visited them in their tent demonstrations.
Rabbi Goren won their respect because he had been a tireless religious influence for good. He was a rabbi who was also a paratrooper and a visitor of the sick, not a minister who took money, lavish hotel rooms and first-class plane tickets to perform weddings for Jews in Basel and London.
We need more rabbis like Rabbi Goren. Yes, he was a showboat, but he also cared about God, not gold, and people sensed that.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has built a huge power structure – the Shas Party. It has an unparalleled record of political success and political corruption in its short history.
Many of its top leaders went to jail: Arye Deri, Yair Levi, Shlomo Ben-Izri.
We are supposed to imitate God and the great messengers of God. But when the messengers fail, we should replace them, even if they are black-robed rabbis selected by black-robed rabbis.
Israel is dealing with monumental religious questions that require a human and a humane face tied to God’s teachings. One is treating mass immigration of people of partial Jewish heritage who want to become Jews in the fullest sense.
French statesman Georges Clemenceau once reportedly said, “War is too important to be left for generals,” and perhaps it is time to realize that “religion is too important to be left to rabbis and priests.”
After all, God said to Moses: “ve-atem tihyu li – mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh – “And ye shall be a nation of priests and a holy people (Exodus 19:6).
The writer is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He was Strategic Affairs Adviser in the Ministry of Public Security, and will be a visiting professor at University of California, Irvine.
This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.