Last Saturday evening, in his weekly post-shabbat address to the faithful, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef used his bully pulpit (sorry, but there is simply no other way to describe it) to unleash a scathing attack on Rabbi David Stav, a candidate for the post of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Rabbi Yosef’s words: Stav is a “wicked man,” someone “dangerous to Judaism” who had “no fear of God at all.” He went on to say that “Electing Stav would be like bringing idolatry into the Temple.” Yosef added, “He is not worthy…this man is dangerous to Judaism, dangerous to the rabbinate and dangerous to the Torah.”
For those who are not familiar with Rabbi Stav, he serves as head of Tzohar, a rabbinic organization that has successfully made Judaism more accessible to all Israelis, religious and secular alike. Countless couples, for example, who might have left Israel to get married, have found comfort with Tzohar rabbis and were later married in Israel in religious ceremonies.
Stav is, of course, an Orthodox rabbi whose rabbinic credentials are without blemish and who, by his own admission, is no liberal. I heard him speak in Jerusalem some months ago where he was asked if he would address Conservative and Reform Rabbis as “Rabbi?” He responded by saying that because he was not familiar with the process they went through to become rabbis, nor the level of their Jewish knowledge, he could not address them as rabbis without personally checking into the background on a case-by-case basis. Certainly no liberal he.
Of course, Rabbi Yosef’s words are not just words uttered in a vacuum. Earlier this week at the wedding of the daughter of the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, some followers of Rabbi Yosef, clearly motivated by Yosef’s earlier diatribe against Stav, tried to trip him during the dancing, hurled epithets at him and caused him to leave the event early in order not to be further embarrassed. So much for the halachic injunction against embarrassing your fellow man in public!
Clearly this is not about Rabbi Yosef’s questioning of Rabbi Stav’s religiosity. It is about power politics, pure and simple. Rabbi Stav and the Tzohar organization are challenging the authority of the establishment for, I believe, the good and welfare of the Jewish people in Israel. But for those presently in power, this is a zero sum game. You either win or lose and there is no middle ground in which to work out a solution that will both respect the establishment and institute a new order more in line with the needs of today’s population.
What is most disappointing about Rabbi Yosef’s rant, of course, is not only the words he used but the timing as well. Next week is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz which ushers in the three week period leading up to the 9th of Av, marking the date on which the Temple was destroyed. Our sages tell us that this event occurred because of “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred between man and man within the Jewish community of the times.
Given the time of the year in which we find ourselves, it is simply unbelievable that a rabbi of Ovadia Yosef’s stature would stoop to the kind of vitriol he used last week and fail to understand the potential ramifications of such language.
In the Iggeret haRamBam, the letter Maimonides sent to his eldest son Nachman with the admonition that the letter be read weekly, he said: “All stand as equals before haShem. In His fury He casts down the lofty, and in His goodwill He elevates the lowly. Therefore, humble yourself, and haShem will lift you.” Perhaps someone should remind Rav Yosef of these words from a Rav who was humble enough to know his own limits.