Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said that the entire nation of Israel was in deep mourning after the passing of one of its more controversial former chief rabbis.
Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel from 1993-2003, passed away overnight as Israel’s highest profile victim thus far of the COVID-19 virus.
“His essence was that of reason, tolerance and love for the people and the state [of Israel],” said Netanyahu of Bakshi-Doron. “I am in deep mourning, along with all the people of Israel,” added the prime minister.
While Netanyahu’s words might indeed be sincere, it is doubtful that all other Israelis feel the same, especially among Bakshi-Doron’s own ultra-Orthodox community.
Rabbi Bakshi-Doron was never afraid to go against the grain, but it was during his 10 years as Chief Rabbi that he was most controversial.
In 1996, he compared Reform Judaism to the biblical Zimri, whom Numbers 25 describes as a prince among the Tribe of Simeon and one of the chief instigators of Israel’s assimilation with the people of Moab and the worship of their god, Baal of Peor. The LORD’s anger against Israel as finally calmed when the priest Phineas killed both Zimri and the Moabite woman with whom he was sleeping.
Three years later, in 1999, Bakshi-Doron revisited the topic by stating that Reform Judaism had done more harm to the Jewish people than the Nazi Holocaust.
In 1998 and 2000, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi again caused an uproar when he met first with Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and later with Pope John Paul II. Those meetings marked the beginning of a long campaign of interfaith dialogue for which Bakshi-Doron was denounced by many ultra-Orthodox Jews, in whose eyes religious collaboration with Muslims and Christians amounted to blasphemy.
Also in the year 2000, Bakshi-Doron dipped his toe into the political arena by encouraging Israel to meet some of the Palestinian Arabs’ more far-reaching demands.
Unquestionably a religious Zionist, Bakshi-Doron nevertheless told a gathering of Singapore’s Jewish community that he was in favor of allowing the Palestinians to establish their capital on the eastern side of Jerusalem, so long as Israel retained sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
Again in 2000, a big year for Bakshi-Doron, he courted yet more controversy among the ultra-Orthodox by finding a work-around for the shmita, the biblical fallow year in which Israel’s farmers are to allow the Land to rest. Along with other Sephardic and religious Zionist rabbis, Bakshi-Doron permitted Jewish farmers to symbolically sell their land to Gentiles while continuing to grow their crops.
Years later, in 2012, Bakshi-Doron was indicted for his role in what was known as “the rabbis’ case.” He was later convicted (in 2017) for granting rabbinic ordination and yeshiva education certificates to some 1,500 police officers during his time as Chief Rabbi. These ordinations and certificates are equivalent to degrees of higher education in Israel, and thus mandate a higher level of pay for public servants.
Some argued that Bakshi-Doron was engaging in a just act of civil disobedience, and not corruption, by helping Israel’s underpaid police officers. But that didn’t stop him from being sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay a 250,000 shekel fine.