Sunday, February 26, 2017

When Ethics are Trumped by Other Considerations

Former Chief Rabbi of Israel and convicted criminal, Yona Metzger
I have to agree Rabbi Gil Student. He has said that Yona Metzger, the immediate past Ashekenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel ought to have his Semicha revoked. He has breached the public trust. Yona Metzger was convicted on corruption and fraud charges and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison. The court correctly rejected a 3 ½ year plea deal agreed to by Metzger’s attorneys and prosecutors. What did he do to deserve that sentence? From JTA
(F)raud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes. Metzger was accused of accepting nearly $2.6 million in bribes — keeping nearly $2 million for himself while paying the rest to accomplices and charitable organizations. 
Metzger was accused of profiting from donations directed to charitable causes and taking bribes to sway his opinion on matters he decided as chief rabbi. 
In my view even the 4 ½  year sentence is not nearly enough time for such brazen criminal activity in order to line his pockets. The effect it has had on a public already disaffected with the institution of the rabbinate is harmful to the very character of a state whose Jewish nature should be determined by those that are best equipped to define what Judaism actually is.

These crimes committed by any Jew would be a Chilul HaShem. But when committed by a man that is chosen to be Chief Rabbi of the Jewish State, the Chilul HaShem is multiplied many times over. A rabbi  - any rabbi is by definition a teacher. Someone that leads as much by example as he does by his teachings. This is even more true of a rabbinic leader.

When seeking a Chief Rabbi one would assume that among the most important qualities that should be examined is ethical character of a candidate. For me, that should be the first thing that is looked at – without which all else does not matter. Lacking this quality should end his candidacy. No matter what other considerations there are.  The committee in Israel charged with the obligation of selecting a Chief Rabbi should have followed this ideal. Did that committee do that? Did they trust that Metzger would act in accordance with the highest ideals expected of a Chief Rabbi? I'm not so sure. 

But if they did, Metzger surely betrayed that trust. And in the process contributed to the public dissatisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate. In the eyes of many who were already disaffected with the rabbinate for a variety of reasons, this was yet another nail in the Rabbinate's coffin. And who can blame them? Even those of us that support this institution as a necessary component of a Jewish state have become disillusioned with it because of this.  

How could this happen? Unfortunately it is the result of the influence of a man that most Charedim considered to be the Gadol HaDor, the leading rabbi of his generation - Rav Shalom Yosef Elyashiv.

Please do not think I mean to disparage Rav Elyashiv, ZTL. Far from it. He was a Gadol. And I don't use that word lightly. I firmly believe that he acted in accordance with his conscience and totally L'Shma. Nevertheless, I believe it was a huge mistake to support a man that was ethically challenged for Chief Rabbi. Despite some of the explanations given in R' Elyashiv's name.

I cannot help but wonder why R’ Elyashiv did not factor in the ethical questions that surrounded Metzger at the  time he was being considered. I realize that he felt that the people of Israel would be better served by the candidate that promised he would listen to his Halachic decisions. But how could he not factor in the damage that would be done if the media reports at the time of his candidacy about his questionable ethics were true. I recall reading that R' Elyashiv was asked about that and responded that at the time those reports were no more than rumors. And that in any case it was far more important to have someone in that office that would listen to his Halachic decisions. This - he believed outweighed those negative reports. 

One must remember that the big controversy at the time was the Heter Mechira - a lenient view that allowed farmers to avoid the laws of Shemita. These are laws mandated in the Torah that forbids use of the land every seventh year. One must leave it fallow. Today, that law is rabbinic in nature. But it is the law nonetheless. The Heter Mechira allowed Jewish farmers to sell heir land to non Jews thus no longer requiring it to be left fallow. The sale was largely symbolic and opposed by Charedi rabbis But Religious Zionist rabbis insisted hat it was a valid leniency. Although supported in the past by other great rabbis R' Elyashiv held  that this leniency may may not be used in our day.

Religious Zionist rabbis had put up a candidate of their own, a highly respected religious Zionist Rav who supported the lenient approach. R’ Elyashiv believed that the Chief Rabbi of Israel needed to follow his directive. A candidate was found that promised to do that - Yona Metzger. R’ Elyashiv - knowing of Metzger’s less than stellar reputation supported him anyway for the above reasons. He won. But even if one agrees with R' Elyashiv's views on the Heter Mechira - look at the price that was paid.  I have to wonder if it was worth it.