Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski of Sholom Burlingame Temple

View From The Bleachers

Rabbi Shlomo Amar made his grand entrance into the study hall flanked by two Rabbinic acolytes. He was dressed in a black, flat topped turban, and a gold embroidered black caftan, a veritable oriental potentate. Each Rabbi in turn came up to greet the “Rishon Le Zion”, the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community in Israel, in the time honored manner, by bowing and kissing his hand. His magnificent squared off white beard underlined the twinkling blue eyes that spoke of his delight in being invited to offer his Talmudic wisdom to the assembled devotees.

After a slight pause to indicate he was about to begin his lecture he launched into an analysis of the implications of owning or sharing a ritual object as it applies to the oil for the Chanuka “menorah,” the “etrog” for Succot, and “ matza ”for Pesach. All present turned their faces to him in rapt attention. His Hebrew was beautifully clear and precise so that we could hear and understand every word.

Rabbi Amar constructed his argument step by step with logical force and reference to all the relevant primary and secondary sources. His command of the entire corpus of legal literature was truly sublime. I sat an arm’s length from the Rabbi and I gazed upon his beatific face as he spoke at some length, demonstrating his mastery of all texts and sources. It was an awe inspiring tour-de-force, and I felt that I was in the presence of a holy man.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar was born in Casablanca, Morocco and immigrated to Israel in 1962 at age 14. He became a close associate of the former Chief Rabbi and spiritual leader of the “Shas” party Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Before his election as “Rishon Le Zion” he served as head of the Rabbinical court of “Petach Tikva,” Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, and Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. He has honorary citizenship in Spain.

Traveling to Portugal in 2004, to celebrate the Centennial Anniversary of the Lisbon Synagogue, “Shaare Tikvah,” the Rabbi met with the “Bnei Anusim.” These Portuguese citizens are the descendants of Jewish families persecuted by the Catholic inquisition, but who still practice Judaism. In more than 500 years no Rabbi had ever met with these "Marranos." It was imperative that a committee was formed to consider the halachic status of this Jewish community.

Maimonides had already considered this issue in the 12th Century when the Almohades came into power after crossing to Spain from North Africa. Jews were forced to convert to Islam upon pain of death. “Rambam” clarified the issue in his epistle “Iggert Hashmad” regarding forced conversions. Such Jews never lost their status and as such are always welcomed into the community to resume their Jewish life.

Rabbi Amar continued his outreach to lost Jewish communities by visiting the “Falash Mura” in Ethiopia. As Chief Rabbi he recommended that anyone related to a member of the “Beta Israel,” through matrilineal descent, qualifies as Jewish may be brought to Israel for a formal conversion including a period of study of the relevant customs and ceremonies.

Writing in Arabic to a Muslim scholar, he criticized Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Islam and underscored the Jewish admonition to honor every religion and every nation, accepting their different paths to its own deity. More importantly he expressed to Pope Benedict, that it was the obligation of the Vatican to spread the message that the Jewish people belong in the Land of Israel.

Unfortunately Rabbi Amar became embroiled in the controversy surrounding “gay rights” in Israel. Not surprisingly he expressed the Biblical point of view that homosexuality was considered “an abomination,” a position shared by the Pope and the Catholic Church. (This has no bearing, however, on the legal status of gays and lesbians and their equal status under the law.)

As the good Rabbi concluded his discourse he turned to the Rabbinic students and Rabbis in the room and said that the one thing he fears the most is when a Rabbi thinks he knows the answer to every legal and social question. Be humble enough to say you will check all the sources, consult with the “higher ups” and only then offer an answer. As a parting word of advice it was powerful and persuasive, and we heard it from a man who has been directly on the firing line for many years.

And if your answer is not totally acceptable to your inquirer, then as the Great Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once said, "a Rabbi who is never criticized by his congregation is not doing his job."

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