BORN JERUSALEM, MAY 20, 1911. DIED JERUSALEM, SEPTEMBER 27, 2007, AGED 96.
ACTIVE IN ISRAEL’S religious and public life for over 60 years, Rabbi Avraham Elkanah Kahane Shapira was both one of the most straightforward of Israel’s recent rabbinic authorities and one of its most controversial.
sixth generation Jerusalemite and scion of a rabbinic family, he attended the then leading Lithuanian yeshivot, Etz Haim and Hevron in Jerusalem.
Despite his charedi background, he was attracted to the charismatic personality and teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the yishuv (the Jewish settlement within British Mandate Palestine), who looked upon the emerging secular state of Israel as preparation for an eventual theocracy.
Impressed by his command of halachic literature, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog appointed the young rabbi to the Beth Din of Jerusalem in 1956, where he sat alongside other leading dayanim, Rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Shalom Eliashiv. In 1971, he became Av Beth Din of Jerusalem.
Simultaneously, he taught at Mercaz Harav Yeshivah, the flagship of religious Zionism. In 1982 on the death of the yeshivah’s principal, Abraham’s son Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Kook — with whom Shapira did not always see eye to eye — he became head of this major institution until his death. In 1983 he was appointed Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi for the standard 10-year term, in succession to Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
Rabbi Shapira’s influence was particularly exercised and welcomed in the medical field, where he placed practical halachah over ideological constraints.
Among his cont r oversi a l decisions as chief rabbi was his consent to organ transplants in 1986. This resulted from his easing of the ban on post-mortems, to advance medical knowledge. He also allowed for storey burials.
Another major issue was his recognition of the immigrant Ethiopian community as legitimately Jewish, although requiring the males to undergo a minimal circumcision. In such decisions he went against prevailing charedi opinion.
His role in graduating over 70 dayanim was instrumental in ensuring the continuation of his views. In the sensitive area of women’s rights, he encouraged women’s Torah study and accepted their appointment to local religious committees. But he drew the ire of religious feminist groups for his conservatism on issues of their changing status and needs.
In one headline-grabbing case, however, he accepted the evidence of a convicted felon over the slaying of a fellow-underground figure. Though the body was never found, the rabbi’s word was enough to release the wife from the status of agunah, a “chained woman” unable to remarry.
On the political front, his deep conviction that returning any part of Israel’s holy land was against Jewish law led him to oppose the 1993 Oslo accords and urge soldiers to disobey military orders to give up territory. For him all settlements were legitimate.
His intervention was generally held to be out of order. Only a handful of soldiers followed his ruling. Most felt he had overstepped his rabbinic prerogatives and should not meddle in state affairs.
As a teacher he is remembered by his students as a father figure, who balanced the need to study with a close concern for their pastoral care.
He would sit in with first-year students and join their discussions, as if one of them. His avuncular figure was matched by a rich sense of humour and happy countenance. One of his last messages to his students was not to be downcast at his eventual demise.
A formidable halachist and outstanding pedagogue, his halachic decisions are collected in three volumes of responsa.
He is survived by his wife, Penina, four sons and numerous grandchildren. MORDECHAI BECK
Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira: controversial issues