Maariv’s report last week that Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger had propositioned a young French cameraman during an interfaith conference in Spain a couple of years ago barely caused a ripple on the surface of the religious establishment swamp. This weekend’s part two, which will detail Metzger’s oligarch-sponsored trips around the world and the way he has enlisted himself in the service of Chabad interests, will most likely sink out of sight just as quickly. A controversial chief rabbi of Israel is not rare – certainly not all of Metzger’s predecessors were paragons of virtue – but it is hard to imagine such allegations being raised against any of them without some kind of public response.
One obvious reason for this indifference is that nobody really has any expectations of Metzger. No list of the hundred most influential Ashkenazi rabbis in Israel would include his name, and he probably wouldn’t even get into the second hundred. And besides, this isn’t the first time his name had been dragged through the mud. Similar sexual accusations were leveled against him on the eve of his appointment five years ago, and he only managed to extricate himself from a bribe-taking indictment by the skin of his teeth. The few who still regard the institution of the Chief Rabbinate with any degree of respect find comfort, at least, in the fact that Metzger’s Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, is considered a formidable halachic authority – but even he is extra-careful not to cross swords with the much more powerful ultra-Orthodox leaders, and also had his own brush with the police a few years ago when his son and wife were arrested for abducting his daughter’s “unsuitable” suitor.
As it is, the concept of a chief rabbi is pretty outlandish. Originating from the days when Jewish communities needed a religious leader to represent them in the corridors of power, it has little place in a democracy – in Israel or the Diaspora. For secular Jews, the Chief Rabbi is meaningless, if not a nuisance, but for most religious Jews he is just as superfluous, since they don’t need anyone to choose a rabbi for them. Their spiritual allegiances are determined by birth, family, geography and personal preference, not by the electors who choose a new pair of chief rabbis every ten years.
But while being an irrelevancy, the various chief rabbis serve as useful keys to the psyche, collective aspirations and neuroses of the communities they purport to serve. Instead of being shining and exalted beacons of probity, the chief rabbis are a lot more like the rest of us than we think.