Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu: Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi who was orthodox in his religion and radical in his politics

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The Independent Online

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was Israel's former Sephardi Chief Rabbi and the spiritual leader of the Israeli national-religious movement. Strict in his religious approach while radical in his political views, Rabbi Eliyahu embodied the shift of the national- religious movement in Israel towards both ultra-orthodoxy and extreme nationalism.

Eliyahu was born in the Old City of Jerusalem. He came from a famous family of Rabbis and Mekubalim (Kabbalah experts considered by their followers to be healers and miracle-makers). His grandfather, Elias Eliyahu, was exiled from Jerusalem by its then Ottoman rulers due to his involvement in Arab national resistance against them. Elias, who considered himself to be a part of the Arab world, subsequently moved to Baghdad and unlike his successors, never endorsed Zionism.

Eliyahu's Baghdad-born father, Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, studied theology and philosophy in the UK and later moved to Jerusalem at the direction of his own rabbi, Rabenu Ish Chai. Salman later served as personal secretary to Lord Herbert L Samuel, the High Commissioner of the British Mandate for Palestine. He died when Eliyahu was 11, and the boy was raised by his mother, Mazal, herself a daughter of a prominent Iraqi rabbinical family.

Eliyahu received a religious education in various yeshiva schools, mainly Rabbi Ezra Attiya's Porat Yosef Yeshiva – the flagship of Sephardi religious education institutes. Following his studies, Eliyahu was active, along with other young people of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, in trying to prevent its fall into the hands of the Jordanian Arab Legion, as Israel came into being during the 1948 war.

In the early days of Israel, Eliyahu was given to radical and subversive activity. He was one of the founding leaders of a group called "The Zealots's Covenant", which aspired to subject the state of Israel to the rule of Halacha, Jewish law. In 1951 he was arrested on charges including possession of arms, damaging cars that were being driven on the Sabbath, threatening taxi drivers who worked on the Sabbath, and threatening a butcher who sold non-kosher meat.

Found not guilty of possession of marijuana and explosives, he was none the less convicted on the other charges and sentenced to 10 months in prison. During his trial he declared, "The Jews have a sense of inferiority that influences our leadership. We aspired to inject Jewish pride into society. We thought our underground activity would enable us to impose the ways of Torah on the state."

Later in life Eliyahu said that his ideas had not changed much, only the ways in which he tried to achieve them. Indeed, it was his turn towards a more lawfully established path which enabled him to achieve wide influence for his beliefs.

Upon his discharge from prison, Eliyahu completed his qualification as a rabbi. In 1962 he became the youngest Dayan (rabbinical judge) appointed in Israel, and took a position in the rabbinical court of the southern city Be'er Sheva. In 1983 he was nominated Sephardi Chief Rabbi, a role which he fulfilled for the next 10 years. His controversial rulings and radical opinions became nationally known shortly after his appointment; these included rulings outlining that it is religiously forbidden to return occupied territories and that according to Halacha, a Jew is banned from renting out a house to a gentile.

Despite his constant involvement in political issues, he never found his way into party politics. After he retired from the post of Chief Rabbi he became the most influential spiritual leader of the national-religious movement, whose members constitute most of the settlers community in the West Bank and formerly in Gaza. Despite his status, he never became officially aligned with the party that represents this grouping, the National Religious Party. The Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer explains that Eliyahu attempted to inject the rules of conduct of the ultra-Orthodox parties – in which the rabbis dictate the party line – into the more modern and somewhat rebellious NRP, and became frustrated when he did not always get his way. The party was also often embarrassed by his more radical rulings and declarations, among them his endorsement of the openly racist Rabbi, Meir Kahane.

During the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005, Eliyahu took an uncompromising line against the removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip. He called upon IDF soldiers to disobey orders and to refuse to take part in the removal of settlements. In an interview to an ultra-Orthodox newspaper a year later he voiced an implicit threat against politicians who might entertain thoughts for further withdrawal from occupied territories: "Any Prime Minister in Israel who would dare to damage the Land of Israel or disengage from further parts of it will find himself disengaging from this world."

He also stated his opinion that the tsunami of 2004 was a punishment to the nations of the world that supported plans for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

In another controversial ruling, Eliyahu allowed settlers to pick the olives from trees in Palestinian orchards against, needless to say, the latter's will. He was an ardent supporter of the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and campaigned for his release from US prison.

On strictly religious matters Rabbi Eliyahu's rulings tended towards ultra-Orthodoxy. He ruled against signing donor's cards for organ donations, and against drafting women into military or national service. He was also very strict on matters of Kashrut (dietary law), and among other things ruled that it was forbidden to eat hummus because the sesame paste used in its production was not manufactured by Jews.

Yet he adopted an inclusive attitude towards Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, and ruled that they were indeed Jews, despite the objections of other rabbis. He leaves a wife, Mazel Eliyahu, three sons and a daughter, and tens of thousands of bereaved followers in the National Religious camp in Israel and its West Bank settlements.

Daphna Baram

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, spiritual leader: born Jerusalem 3 March 1929; married Mazel (three sons, one daughter); died Jerusalem 7 June 2010.