Avra­ham Shapira

BORN JERUSALEM, MAY 20, 1911. DIED JERUSALEM, SEPTEM­BER 27, 2007, AGED 96.

The Jewish Chronicle - - Obituaries -

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

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