Rabbi Avraham Shapira

Hard-line chief rabbi of Israel
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Avraham Elkana Kahana Shapira, rabbi: born Jerusalem 1911; Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel 1983-93; married Pnina Ra'anan (four sons); died Jerusalem 27 September 2007.

Avraham Shapira, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, used his expertise in Jewish law to provide a theological underpinning for the messianic settlement drive that took over religious Zionism after the 1967 war. His hard-line rulings were essentially political, but rooted in his interpretation of the Torah. He preached the (literally) God-given right of the Jews to the Promised Land. For the rabbi and his disciples, surrendering any of the conquered West Bank and Gaza territories was not just wrong, but sacrilege.

After Yitzhak Rabin's government signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat, Shapira vigorously opposed giving up land in exchange for peace. It was, he proclaimed, against Halacha, Jewish law. Rabin, assassinated two years later by a religious fanatic, paid with his life for the campaign pro-settler rabbis waged against him.

In 2000, when Rabin's Labour successor Ehud Barak suggested sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians, Shapira chastised more liberal Orthodox rabbis who said concessions were acceptable if they brought peace. His argument, this time, was more pragmatic. A compromise would strengthen Israel's enemies, he said, and endanger Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall.

Nonetheless, he denounced other nationalist rabbis who went to pray on the Temple Mount, the site of Herod's temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and of Al Aqsa mosque. He endorsed the long-standing ban on entry because Jews might stray on to the holy of holies, where only the high priests were allowed.

In 2005 he ordered religious soldiers and police officers to refuse to evacuate 7,500 Jewish settlers from the Gush Katif block in the Gaza Strip. "This prohibition," he decreed

applies to every Jew, soldier and civilian alike. An order to take part in the evacuation of Jews from their homes is an order that is against the religion of our Holy Torah and forbidden to fulfil. Anyone who violates this prohibition will not be exonerated, not in this world and not in the world to come.

The success of Ariel Sharon's disengagement, with only token resistance, revealed both the strength and weakness of the rabbi's authority. The settlers, some of whom were convinced that divine intervention would stop the evacuation in its tracks, united against it. But most Israelis acquiesced and the overwhelming majority of soldiers and police, religious as well as secular, obeyed their commanders.

The disengagement – and the rabbi's call to mutiny – continues to divide Israelis after Shapira's death. Rabbi Benny Elon, a settler MP, contended that events in Gaza over the last two years, the Hamas takeover and the rocket attacks on southern Israel, vindicated his stand. "Today," Elon said, "we know how right he was regarding the ridiculous uprooting of Gush Katif".

On the left, Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, accused Shapira of creating a crisis of faith.

He sought to nurture faith, but was in fact responsible for the biggest spiritual crisis in recent years. An entire generation of young people was willing to believe, because of him, that the disengagement wouldn't happen. When it did, he had no answers to offer them.

Avraham Shapira was born in Jerusalem in 1911 into an eminent rabbinical family and studied at the Etz Haim and Hebron yeshivas. He was appointed a judge of the Jerusalem rabbinical court in 1956 and its president in 1971. He headed the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, a Jerusalem seminary that groomed the leaders of the settlement movement, from 1982 until his death.

After serving for three years on the council of the chief rabbinate, Shapira was elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 1983. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, elected at the same time, was Mordechai Eliyahu, another outspoken champion of Greater Israel. The pair served in tandem for 10 years (the legal limit of their tenure). They continued afterwards to be revered as the gurus of the religious right. For their followers it was as if they were still chief rabbis.

At Mercaz Harav and in the chief rabbinate, Shapira shifted religious Zionism closer to ultra-Orthodoxy, stricter in its dress code and ritual observance and more remote from the Israeli Jewish mainstream. He challenged the idea that Israel, the secular, democratic state of the Jewish people, took precedence.

Unlike his more flamboyant predecessor, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, he never projected himself as the congregational rabbi of the nation. The short, scholarly Shapira lacked the kind of charisma that might have appealed to a wider public, even if he had sought it, though admirers say he was always accessible to those who needed his counsel. He was content to serve as the supreme interpreter of Jewish law for the religious Zionist community.

Eric Silver