Adam J. Raskin

Does Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef Believe in Jewish Unity?

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends a rally against Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana conversion and kashrut reforms plan, at the International Convention Center, on February 1, 2022. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** 
הרב יצחק יוסף
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel

The recent declaration by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, that Conservative and Reform Judaism amount to “a new religion,” the central tenet of which is to “uproot our Torah,” is actually the perfect preparation for the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah.  There is a dark underbelly of the Hanukkah story that most people prefer not to talk about.  For millennia Jews have averted their gaze, focusing instead on the miraculous, long-lasting oil, and the heroic rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. A perusal of the primary sources, however, reveals that even more than a struggle for religious freedom; more than an epic battle of the few against the many; more than dethroning Antiochus Epiphanes and his oppressive anti-Jewish policies, the backdrop of the Hanukkah story is the domestic conflict of Jews against Jews.

Both I and II Maccabees focus significantly on Jewish sectarianism. High Priests outbid one another for the top job, literally bribing their Greek overlords, and in the case of Menelaus, using the Temple treasury to pay for it.  The Books of Maccabees and the writings of Flavius Josephus describe in great detail the how Jewish militias attacked and killed Jews of opposing ideologies, while the account of the Temple’s rededication is surprisingly relegated to only a handful of verses in these texts.

The most pressing challenge of the day was how to uphold Jewish identity in a pervasively Hellenized world. Varied Jewish responses to that question were met with contempt and even violence by those who disagreed.  A century of internal strife, civil war, and ultimately a succession imbroglio brought a rather inglorious end to the Hasmonean period.  As the Hasmonean rulers fought among themselves, Rome swiftly conquered Judea, and a client-king named Herod came to power.  It’s no wonder that the rabbis wanted future generations to focus on anything but this fratricidal mess!

Fast forward 2,059 years to the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, who has a long resume of incendiary comments against immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, Black people, secular Jews, Jews-by-choice, non-Orthodox Jews, even other religious Zionists who don’t share his world view.  At this very moment, with antisemitism alarmingly on the rise throughout the world, a deeply divided Israeli electorate, a Jewish state entering its 75th year with no shortage of enemies, and a brewing existential crisis between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry, the Rishon LeTzion, the “First of Zion” (the honorific title held by Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi) used his bully pulpit to vilify fellow Jews.  Rather than employing his prodigious Torah knowledge—not to mention his sway over many thousands of disciples—to embolden the Jewish people in these uncertain times, he instead struck another blow to Jewish unity.

If the Hanukkah story and the legacy of the Hasmoneans teach us anything it is that when Jews are internally divided, we are so much more vulnerable to external danger.  When Jews are inspired to rally together, as they were by Mattathias and Judah at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt, our courage and resilience is practically invincible.  Is it too much to expect that the preeminent leaders of the Jewish people would focus on solidarity verses division, alliance over antagonism, collaboration rather than stoking internal hostilities?  What we need now is to draw upon the strength that uniquely comes from achdut Yisrael, the absolute unity of the Jewish people. Have we learned nothing from the Hasmoneans and the ‘real’ Hanukkah story?

About the Author
Rabbi Adam Raskin is spiritual leader of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, MD. He earned his BA in Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University, and received the prestigious Wexner Graduate Fellowship for his studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Jerusalem. Some of his greatest loves include teaching and inculcating Jewish joy in children’s lives, teaching and relating Judaism’s deep wisdom in classes and on the bimah, and participating in people’s most sacred life experiences. He possesses truly boundless love for the Jewish people.
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