NEW YORK, NY (June 7, 2010) - The State of Israel lost a powerful voice of political reason and religious rationality on June 7, 2010 (7 Sivan 5770) when Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, succumbed to advancing health problems he had been suffering for the past two years.
Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu served as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel from 1982 to 1993 and was member of the Bet Din Harabani Hagadol (Supreme Rabbinical Court) based in Jerusalem. He was considered one of the leading Zionist rabbis and certainly one of the most popular and charismatic rabbinical leaders in all of Israel for many decades.
The rabbi was born in the ‘Old City’ of Jerusalem in British-occupied Palestine during the dark year of 1929 when Arabs attacked, killed and maimed over 100 Jews throughout Hebron, Jaffa, Safed and other towns. A consequence of these sad events was an increased growth in Jewish nationalism and intensification of Jewish self-determination for Jews all over the holy land.Hakham Eliyahu's upbringing was one imbibed with a rigorous love of the land of Israel which helped him become a staunch defender of such, first inspired by his father, the Iraqi-born rabbi, Hakham Salman Eliyahu (1878-1940). His father was not only considered a respected rabbi and mekubal (kabbalist) of Jerusalem, but he also had been secularly educated in London. As a result of his Western education, he later served as personal secretary of the British High Commissioner of the Palestine British Mandate, Lord Herbert L. Samuel (1870-1963) -- the first Jew to govern the historic land of Israel in 2,000 years.
Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu's early religious education was conducted by his father, who died when he was still a young boy. The young man continued to study under the prominent Syrian-born rabbi, Hakham Ezra Attia (1885-1970), the head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem, as well as Askkenazi rabbis such as Avraham Karelitz (1878-1953), author of the well know book, 'Hazon Ish.' His commitment to the Torah was displayed when as a youth, the young Mordehai joined an underground group that struggled for a Torah-directed government in Israel and was involved in at least one attempt at pressuring the government by means that were considered, by some, to be illegal. Mordehai would later graduate with honors from the Institute of Rabbis and Religious Judges, under the direction of (former Sephardic Chief Rabbi) Hakham Yishak Nissim (1896-1981). Mordehai later was elected as the youngest person in Israel to ever hold the post of dayan (Judge).
The rabbi continued as a dayan in the religious court of Beer Sheva for four years before transferring to Jerusalem where he was elected to the Supreme Religious Court. In Beer Sheva, people learned of his good grace and outgoing manners that were coupled with his vast knowledge of the Torah. The general public grew to trust him as a reliable source to solve problems and answer intricate questions. Soon after, he was elected as Rishon LeSion, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel. As with the previous Sephardic chief rabbis, Mordehai was inaugurated into the rabbinate in a ceremony held at the famous Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai (Kal Grande) synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Immediately he became known as an eminent poseq (decider) of Jewish legal issues and his conduct added prestige to the office of the Chief Rabbi.
In the religious world, Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu worked for the preservation of the tradition of his father, the Iraqi Jewish nusah (rite) and the opinions of Hakham Yosef Hayyim, author of the book Ben Ish Hai. Mordehai Eliyahu did not desire a uniform "Israeli Sephardi" rite based on the Shulkhan Aruh (Code of Jewish Law), as other Sephardic rabbis have called for. His opinions were his own, and they were elaborated in a siddur (prayer book) known as Kol Eliyahu.
Hakham Eliyahu authored several books on Jewish religious law and interpretations of the law, some which remain very popular. In his person-to-person conduct, the rabbi was often swamped by people from all walks of life, who wanted to get a blessing or seek his advice. In recent years, his capacity as a kabbalist became more public, but he discouraged any reference to this aspect of his Torah knowledge or practice.
As chief rabbi, he sought to give the non-religious public a better understanding of Jewish traditions and the importance of the Torah. He lectured at secular communities and kibbutzim, as well as non-religious public schools. He also traveled extensively throughout the world, teaching Jewish communities the importance of fighting assimilation, increase Shabbat observance, educating children, observing family purity and the need to immigrate to Israel.
The rabbi was a much sought after expert for his knowledge of Torah and halakha (Jewish law), and for his great piety. His best testimonial remains; it can be seen by the intense love that people of all backgrounds have for him. The rabbi grew up firmly planted with a love of all Jewish people, secular and religious, and the desire for those people to live free-and-be free in their own land. Fearless, he developed into one of the most frank and honest rabbinical leaders of Israel, a man not scared to issue statements which reflected his passionate religious values in reference to international political events.
After the attacks by Arab terrorists against the United States on September 11, 2001, the rabbi essentially called for President Bush to take up arms against Arab terrorist enemies, not just issue empty words:
My heartfelt sorrow at the immense tragedy that has been perpetrated upon the American people by wicked evildoers, so utterly devoid of conscience and compassion, that it is difficult for the lips to utter and words are simply inadequate to express…I would also like to extend from Jerusalem heartiest condolences to the bereaved families in their hour of grief. "May no further sorrow befall you." (Jeremiah 31:12). And for those who have been injured may 'The Almighty send them His message of healing and relief.' (Psalms 107:20)…I would like to offer you my praise and my support for your plan to convene a world alliance of nations to work together to fight terror -- not only in words but also in deeds.
The rabbi remained well known for his outspoken position on the Israeli government's decision to give land away to the Palestinian Arabs. When he stepped down from his formal position, he became automatically the accepted rabbinic leader of the Religious Zionist camp in Israel and abroad. He fought against the Oslo Agreements to such an extent, that the Attorney General saw fit to warn him that as a civil servant, he could not be perceived as supporting opposition to government policies.
He was one of the very few senior rabbinic personalities who joined the inhabitants of Gush Qatif in a day of fasting and prayer against their uprooting and expulsion. He could not conceive that any Jewish government in its right mind could undertake such a dastardly operation against Jews. Addressing the many thousands of people in the town square of Neve Dekalim, he exclaimed, "It cannot and will not happen" ("Hayo lo tihye")! After this, he remained outspoken in his strong opposition to the dismantling of Jewish villages in Judea and Samaria.
Outraged after seeing the terror attacks that originated from Gaza which killed and maimed hundreds of Israeli citizens, the rabbi wrote a letter to President George W. Bush who was arriving in Israel on his first official visit in January of 2008. Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu desired to make sure the President was aware of the popular public opinion which does not call for wanting to establish a larger Palestinian self-governing area; he said:
The Jewish nation is eternal, and forever remembers those that have aided it throughout history, as well as those that have done it harm. Please let your name go down in history as a President who aided the Jewish nation, who worked alongside God and not against Him.
The rabbi was spiritual adviser and one of the strongest advocates for Jonathan Pollard had. Pollard, a Jewish man serving a life sentence in the U.S., remains a controversial figure because his punishment has been widely regarded as being excessive, solely for political reasons. Pollard received a life sentence for spying for an ally (Israel), when the maximum sentence today for such an offense is 10 years-and the median sentence for such an offense is only 2 to 4 years.
Pollard has spent 25 years in prison, 7 of which were in solitary confinement, in the harshest prison in the federal U.S. system. On many occasions, Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu has visited Pollard in prison, and frequently wrote letters and appeals on his behalf. Following heart surgery and in his hospital bed, the rabbi wrote President Bush a letter which was hand-delivered to him in Israel. This letter reminded the President that Pollard has languished in American prisons for over 20 years, he pleaded:
I urge you to release Jonathan Pollard and to send him home to Jerusalem…I would like to point out that I am willing to act as Jonathan Pollard's guarantor, to take him into my custody and to accept full responsibility for him. I have visited Jonathan in prison on numerous occasions. He is a dignified man, a man of noble sensitivities who is deserving of special consideration.
Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu and his wife had four adult children. Their daughter teaches at a religious school for girls. Their oldest son is a rabbi and attorney that works for the Israeli government; their second son is the Chief Rabbi of the city of Safed, and their youngest son is the head of a religious school in Jerusalem. Hakham Eliyahu was one of the voices of reason which remains severely needed to continually counterbalance the growing haredi influence which has been encroaching upon the culture of the office of the Chief Rabbi. The office that Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu once held has morphed into something it was never intended to be, one that forces its opinion based on a paradigm which at one time existed only within the haredi world, and was never part of Torah observant classical Judaism.
Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu will forever be remembered as a shining example of a man who loved and respected the land of Israel, and a man who understood how Jews could live both as part of the modern world and yet remain loyal to the Torah.
Shelomo Alfassa is a scholar of Sephardic Jewry and coordinates Special Projects for the American Sephardi Federation