The case of the rabbi from northern Israel who has been accused by at least eight women of sexual abuse has captured the attention of the Israeli public, with the rumor mills swirling after the press has declined to publish the rabbi's identity.
On Friday, Arutz Sheva spoke to a number of experts involved with the rabbi's yeshiva and the case on the issue to understand the full extent of the investigation and its ramifications.
"A woman called me and asked if it was true that rabbis are allowed to do things that are forbidden according to the Shulchan Aruch," Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat (Safed) said, citing a fundamenal Jewish legal text. "The answer is 'of course not' – and to the contrary, rabbis must be even more careful in areas of Jewish law."
"The woman did not say who it was, but in the end we realized it was him," he continued. "I asked Rabbi Haim Bazaq to be the mediator in a hearing in Tzfat over the issue and together we heard her witness testimony. She said other women may have been affected. We called him [the rabbi – ed.] and he admitted these things to me and to Rabbi Bazaq."
Rabbi Eliyahu said that the rabbi tried to cover up his actions, refusing to join support groups and to talk to police. Both rabbis pressured the offender to leave his teaching post and to give them a list of the women that were affected.
"He gave us a list that turned out to be a very partial list," Rabbi Eliyahu noted. The rabbi continued to be in contact with some of the women and he was asked to leave Tzfat."
"He left the city, but we found out that he continued to contact women and others, and was actually trying to create a power center from the outside," Rabbi Eliyahu said. "At that point we asked him to give us a more updated list of women that he assaulted. He gave a longer list, but we found out later that this list, too, was not complete."
The rabbis understood at this stage there was no choice but to reveal the news to the public. The response: shock.
Rabbi Eliyahu was asked by Arutz Sheva how the news is affecting the perception of the rabbinical institutions and the religious public at large.
"I have met with many people hurt by this, in our city and all over the country," he said, noting that he has spoken about the issue with both religious and secular Israelis. "I was amazed to see how, on the one hand, people are handling the facts well and understand that this is indeed what happened – and that people are not reacting by saying, 'we do not believe in God because of so and so."
"The public has learned a lesson and did not lose its head," he praised, noting that this one incident – while major – demonstrates the principle of not throwing away the rabbi with the proverbial mikveh (ritual bath) water.
"It's not because of these sins that we lose confidence in all the rabbis, just as we don't lose faith in the IDF because one military officer did something wrong," Rabbi Eliyahu reflected. He particularly praised the yeshiva students at the institution where the offending rabbi teaches for refusing to give up their faith despite the incidents.
Rabbi's defense attorney: witness testimony is 'delusional'
The rabbi, who was the dean of a yeshiva, was arrested while trying to flee Israel at Ben-Gurion Airport last week. On Friday, soon after his arrest, he was admitted to Ziv Hospital in Tzfat after feeling unwell; he was released Tuesday afternoon in apparent good health.
He was due to be identified by the press on Wednesday afternoon following a decision by the Nazareth District Court to choose public interest over the rabbi's personal considerations – but the decision was postponed after his legal team filed an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the rabbi has vehemently denied the allegations against him, calling them "nonsense."
Mr. Ephraim Damari, the rabbi's lawyer, has agreed – and he told Arutz Sheva that he is convinced that at the end of the story, it will turn out that there is no truth in the accusations leveled against his client.
"According to the rabbi, this is all nonsense, all nonsense," he said. "This began with great fanfare but will end with a whimper."
"In my conversations with him [the accused rabbi – ed.], he denied the allegations of the acts attributed to him," he added. "I guess the police will collect testimonies and then he will be confronted with the evidence. The rabbi looks forward to confronting the evidence and the women – whom he said, regarding almost all of them, he does not even know."
Damari also called the accumulation of evidence mounting against the rabbi "delusional."
''The complaints received are from the distant past," he claimed. "Why would a woman remember this after 13 years?"
However, Mr. Damari did not purport to answer for the charges against him from the moral and halakhic (Jewish law) perspective.
"I am hired to represent him in judicial and legal aspects," he dodged. "The halachic aspect and moral values I leave to the rabbis and those bigger than me."
"We know how much disagreement there is between rabbis on Jewish law," he added. "I believe this business is nothing. The rabbi has a good testimony, which is strong, robust and reliable."
Attorney Damari has denied media reports according to which the rabbi tried to flee abroad – although the rabbi was arrested while attempting to leave Ben-Gurion Airport.
"This error is in the media's hands," he claimed. "The rabbi did not try to escape abroad."
"The rabbi underwent a catheterization a few days ago, and following pressure from the media […] his doctors advised him to go and get better care somewhere overseas," he claimed. "At that point he was trying to travel abroad and did not have anything filed against him."
"The police are trying to create a media storm claiming he tried to flee, but that's not true. No one told him he should be questioned, that there was nothing to investigate. The first complaint was filed on Thursday evening and he drove to the airport earlier on Thursday."
Attempting to return to normal
Despite the difficulty, teachers in the yeshiva are now trying to restore normal life, and increase Torah study and diligence.
Rabbi Avraham Engel, who serves as instructor and spiritual overseer in the yeshiva, told Arutz Sheva that students have more or less bounced back.
"We are in a situation where it is already clear to everyone that all the masks were removed, and that we serve God and no one else," he said. "Almost all of them have returned to full function, and those who still are having a hard time we are helping with the assistance of appropriate professionals."
Rabbi Engel added that the return to routine is accompanied by preparations for the next academic year, both in terms of recruiting students and practical preparations, and in terms of finding a new head of yeshiva, a move which is expected to reach a conclusion in the coming days.
Shlomo Pitrikovsky contributed to this report.