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Has Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi alienated the secular population?

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at an inauguration ceremony for a new women's mikveh in the northern Israeli town of Tzfat, August 17, 2023. (Photo: David Cohen/Flash90)

The well-known expression, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree,” comes to mind when speaking about Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who held the same position from 1973 to 1983, later becoming spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.  

Never one to shy away from controversial statements, Yosef, Sr., during his lifetime, made the following quotes:

  • “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.” 

  • Hurricane Katrina as divine punishment: “There was a tsunami… because there isn’t enough Torah study…Black people reside there [New Orleans]. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said] let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”

  • “Gentiles were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel.” 

  • On Muslims: “They’re stupid. Their religion is as ugly as they are.

  • A woman’s knowledge is only in sewing.

Now, following in his father’s footsteps, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has also made disparaging comments, on a variety of subjects, which include the following:

  • “The mental faculties of secular Jews who eat unkosher food are ‘impaired,’ and therefore it is ‘difficult for them to comprehend things.’”

  • Israel’s secular community is in a state of jeopardy. They do not find satisfaction in life; everything is driven by the desires of this world. They are poor souls…they are jealous of us. They see the Haredi sector, with its holidays and children. It is all jealousy. The hate is developed from jealousy.”

Once these statements were released to the public by Israel's Channel 13 channel, they were responsible for garnering harsh criticism by many. His offensive insults, which sadly do not enhance his standing as a revered religious leader, “sparked a political uproar with strong condemnation coming from opposition leader, Yair Lapid,” who stated, “he is not the Chief Rabbi of Israel but rather the rabbi of a vocal minority that condemns millions of Jews who serve in the army, risk their lives, work and support this nation.” 

Likewise, Yisrael Beytenu party chairman, Avigdor Liberman, also responded, by saying, “The sole foolishness with your statements is the fact that the secular public is funding and paying a salary to someone as uninformed as you.” 

The irony, that stands out in all of this, is that his own personal opinions do not at all reflect any of his holy books, especially the Torah, which he believes should be studied by all. So it’s fair to ask the question: “Why doesn’t he seek to bring the positive message of hope and faith to those he believes to be lost and in need of God’s mercy?

Why would he believe that insulting others or claiming that their lives are empty and less fulfilling, even if he thought it was true, would be the best way to attract them to what he claims is a better lifestyle? Instead of suggesting that they are jealous, because of the way Haredi families celebrate the holidays, why doesn’t he extend a more open invitation to be part of that celebration by welcoming them to participate together as partakers of the biblical feasts?

There are so many ways that he could express a positive and uplifting opinion that would point to the need for spiritual redemption, while being the representative of a just, merciful and kind Creator. So why does he choose, instead, to describe the secular as individuals whose lives are empty and miserable?  

And why does Yosef seem to exclude a large percentage of humanity who he apparently believes are not even eligible or worthy of being part of “the fold,” since they are not Jewish, claiming that they are only here to serve and cater to the Jewish people? Has he forgotten the story of Ruth, a Moabitess who, nonetheless, was warmly invited to join herself to the Jewish people? What about the children of Joseph whose mother was Egyptian and who, in today’s Israel, would not be counted as Jewish? The same can be said about Moses’ children whose mother was a Midianite. All of these are numbered among our people.

Rabbi Yosef is doing harm not only to his credibility but to what is recorded in the same scriptures that he endorses. If he truly hopes to restore his reputation as a respected leader, he needs to return to the biblical accounts of an all-inclusive God who has great compassion and mercy for mankind who constantly mess up, because that is pretty much our history as a people. Yet, if God hasn’t abandoned us, why should Rabbi Yosef?

He needs to remember that such comments should be roundly condemned, not only by a few political leaders, but by every “rabbi,” which means “teacher,” is reserved for one who expounds upon truth, hope and the value of repentance that comes from within one’s own soul, rather than being told that we are evil, worthless and irredeemable. 

It would be truly regrettable if he were not to see that, because his following is sizable, and he has the ability to influence so many for good, rather than transfer to others, the same type of sentiments that he has expressed in a way which is offensive and hurtful. Harsh judgments will never win over the secular Jewish population who may be looking for an appealing route to the Almighty, but who have yet to find it.

These are things Yitzhak Yosef should internalize if he truly wants to see his dream of more Israelis living their lives in accordance with the scriptures which he claims to love. Because the message is not one of condemnation or castigation but rather one of hope, reclamation and grace – something which none of us deserve, but which we are, nonetheless granted by our Creator who hasn’t yet given up on us!  

Perhaps, Rabbi Yosef should follow that same lead!

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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