A ruling by Israel's two chief rabbis this week has provoked a clash between this country's rabbinical and civil courts threatening to upset the precarious balance maintained between the two ever since the Isaeli state's creation 32 years ago.

The two rabbis, Ovadia Yosef, the chief Sephardic rabbi, and Shlomo Goren, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi, ruled against the practice of allowing participants in a crime to turn state's evidence in order to enable them to escape prosecution.

While this ruling might have been considered mildly controversial at any other time, it has become a major national controversy against the background of an investigation into alleged corruption in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, a scandal in which the minister himself, Aharon Abuhatzeira, is implicated.

For the past three weeks, the Israeli press has been printing daily leaks of the intensive police investigation of charges that millions of dollars were funneled to fictitious religious semicnaries which were used as fronts for ministry officials and perhaps even the minister himself. One of the minister's top aides. Moshe Gabai, has been detained for questioning and, according to press reports, other arrests can be expected soon.

The main witness for the prosecution is said to be Israel Gottlieb, a former mayor of the orthodox township of B'nai Brak, outside Tel Aviv. Gottlieb, who has a flamboyant personality and who, like all others involved in the scandal, is an active member of the National Religious Party, is said to have been caught red-handed accepting kickbacks for arranging allocations of ministry funds to bogus seminaries. He agreed to turn state's evidence.

Now, after Rabbis Yosef and Goren have ruled that state witnesses are unacceptable according to "halacha," the Jewish religious code, Gottlieb, who is an orthodox Jew, may reconsider his testimony, and the case of the state against Abuhatzeira and his assistants may fall apart.

At the moment, however, it is not yet clear whether the ruling of the chief rabbis will indeed have any practical effect on the case. According to well-placed sources, Gottlieb is hardly likely to change his testimony at this point. If he does so, he may find himself charged with perjury, since he reportedly has already signed statements describing the embezzelment of funds at the ministry.

However, the ruling of the two chief rabbis has created a furor, evoking unprecedented sharp criticism of the two religious authorities. They are being accused of attempting to obstruct justice and meddle in civil matters over which they have no jurisdiction.It has also been pointed out that it looks suspicious, to say the least, that the religious ruling was made in the case of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which pays the salaries of all religious officials, including the chief rabbis.

It should be pointed out that Jewish religious law has different rules for collecting evidence than those practiced in Isarlis civil courts, where the procedures are based on Ottoman law and common law introduced during the period of the British mandate and 32 years of legislation by the Israel parliament.

According to halacha , participants in a crime cannot be trusted as witnesses, nor can any women or relatives of those involved in a case. The Israeli civil courts have always utilized state witnesses. The country's Supreme Court only this week voiced approval of the practice as a necessary evil in combatting crime.

Nobody would have objected had the chief rabbis voiced their opinion on the subject of state witnesses -- as it applies to rabbinical courts only -- at any other time. Coming at this moment, when a friend of the chief rabbis is in trouble, it looks too much like an attempt to interfere in the country's legal process.

The chief rabbis claim that they did not initiate this ruling but merely were replying to questions put to them by the media. However, most editorials in the Isareli press expressed doubt over the "coincidence."

"For 32 years hundreds of persons were convicted with the aid of testimony from their former accomplicies. Yet the chief rabis remained silent," wrote Maariv, Israel's evening newspaper.

Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a member of parliament representing the opposition Labor Party, accused the chief rabbis of "shaming the halacha by their ruling. Even some rank-and file National Religious Party supporters have expressed resentment at this intervention. They feel that for the good of the party the charges of corruption in the Ministry of Religious Affairs should be investigated as thorougly as possible.