Israeli rabbi at center of dispute on blessing candidates

JERUSALEM — Gesher Party leader and Knesset member David Levy raised a storm on Thursday of last week by attacking the Shas Party's use of rabbis and amulets in local and general elections, calling it "idol worship."

"It's time to stop all these gimmicks, this idol worship, the amulets, and exploiting people's misery. It's dragging us back to the dark ages of demons and superstition, and attributing divine insight to a human being. It's insanity and should deeply concern us all," he said.

"It's surrealistic: Rabbis are being recruited to causes which are harmful to religion and to the nation's unity."

His outburst was perceived as the opening shot in his election battle against Shas, Gesher's main rival.

The attack followed kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie's blessing of Beit She'an mayoral candidate Pini Kabbalo, who is running against Levy's son, Jackie.

Levy described Kadourie as a senile old man who isn't aware of how he is being manipulated for political purposes. "That Rabbi Kadourie, with all due respect, I don't know if he realizes where he is. The poor man, they're abusing him. Does he have any idea whom he's blessing? Does he even know where he is taken?"

Shortly after Levy's statement, Kadourie was brought into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, to issue a Rosh Hashanah blessing to Netanyahu and the nation.

Wearing a large black kippah, Netanyahu said he had great respect for Kadourie.

"I think the rabbi is so sober, so clever, so wise, that it simply isn't serious for me to even testify to it," he told reporters at the meeting.

Levy's outburst stirred considerable debate about the role of rabbis in politics. It also drew some angry reactions.

Shas leader and Knesset member Aryeh Deri said he did not think Levy had attacked Shas directly, but in a closed meeting accused Levy of trying to delegitimize Shas.

"If it's a declaration of war, I won't be provoked to settle political accounts now. The election is the time and place to give our answer. It's time Gesher tests its power in elections," he said.

Deri conceded, however, that Levy could have been partly right. "Perhaps in Beit She'an, Kadourie's arrival for a revival meeting was used for political purposes, which I know Kadourie did not intend."

Kabbalo, however, said the meeting had been scheduled in advance and Kadourie knew he was coming to Beit She'an to bless him. "The Levy family has smelled the odor of defeat, hence the attack," he said.

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg called for the separation of state and religion.

"Religion is a burden one assumes on the personal level. Religious leaders should not be seen or involved in the public, collective domain. Religious leaders should be involved in helping the battered wife, the abused child, the new immigrant and the minorities. I don't want to see them close to the political institutions and treasury, because that corrupts both religion and politics," Burg said.

Both chief rabbis came out against the overuse of kabbalists. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron said "it exists not only in Shas, but in the National Religious Party. There were even prime ministers who went to rabbis…This is exploitation, unlike innocent people who go to the rabbi to ask for a blessing."

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau said it is not right to take rabbis to various places on the eve of an election to bless a particular candidate. He warned this not only shows disrespect to the rabbi, but is harmful "to the foundations of democracy."