OBITUARY: Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz

With his white shtriml (the ultra-orthodox large round religious circular head covering), beard and white coat, Yehuda Meir Getz had the saintly appearance suitable for the man holding the dramatic post of Rabbi of the Western Wall of Jerusalem, the last remnant of the Temple and the Jewish people's most sacred site.

Yet his earlier years, which combined rabbinic studies with severe fighting as a soldier in the Israeli army, had hardly prepared him for this post requiring much patience, tolerance, independence as well as piety and learning. He emigrated from Tunisia, where he was a rabbi, in 1949, a year after the establishment of the State of Israel. Instead of obtaining a rabbinic post he joined a group of pioneers in Galilee in building the Moshav Keren Ben Zimra settlement. To the surprise of his comrades, Getz joined the Israeli army. He took part in a number of battles as an infantryman, retiring with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

It was the death of his son Avner during the Six Day War, in 1967, in the successful battle to recapture the Old City and its greatest prize, the Western Wall, that led Getz to move to Jerusalem. He became one of the first residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which was rebuilt after it had been largely destroyed together with famous synagogues. Soon afterwards he was appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall with jurisdiction over the wall, the cause of much dissension and even bloodletting between Jews and Arabs, and the holy sites around the Temple Mount.

Getz carried out his duties with rare independence and considerable courage. Although cynics thought that he successfully walked a thin line at the wall between pleasing the ultra-religious Jews, who see the wall solely as a sacred site, and the more secular Jews who view it also as a national monument, Getz made clear his own inclinations. Noting a group of women reading from the Torah (Scroll of the Law) he dispersed them. Four years ago he temporarily resigned in protest at a plan to hold a youth military ceremony at the wall, because it involved boys and girls standing together.

Getz could be seen entering at midnight the labyrinthine tunnels adjoining the Western Wall Plaza to spend hours studying the Cabbala, the mystical traditions in Judaism which go back to biblical times. This tradition he passed on to young students at a cabbalist yeshiva (Talmudic college) which he founded. He was also known to pray in the morning in the tunnels directly opposite where the Holy of Holies was believed to have been located. His funeral, too, had a mystical quality. He was buried after midnight on the Mount of Olives, mourned by thousands. Nearby are the graves of two sons, one killed in battle and one in a car crash.

Joseph Finklestone

Yehuda Meir Getz, rabbi: born Tunisia 1924; married; died Jerusalem 17 September 1995.

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