During a recent sermon in Jerusalem, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, publicly castigated Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, as well as Rabbi David Stav, founder and chair of Tzohar, someone for whom I have deep respect and who has had an unquestionably positive impact on promoting a better and more united Jewish Israel, while also influencing the very face of world Jewry.
In his address, Rabbi Yosef lambasted the recent kashrut reform bill being advanced by Minister Kahana. The reformed structure, while still under the complete halachic regulation of the Chief Rabbinate, would effectively introduce more competition into kashrut supervision by making it easier for alternative halachic kashrut agencies to become more widely accepted across Israel. Rabbi Yosef claimed that Minister Kahana was doing “all in his power to please David Stav, the man whom [former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef] said had no fear of God in him.” In addition to speaking degradingly of Rabbi Stav, depriving him of his rabbinic title, and claiming he “lacks fear of heaven,” Rabbi Yosef lamented the “calamity” and “great destruction” that the new bill would bring.
It is of course no huge shock that Chief Rabbi Yosef opposes the reform, because he fears it as an affront to the legitimacy and authority of the Chief Rabbinate. But what lesson is he teaching when he so forcefully defames those who support it? Especially when the brunt of his tirade is borne by someone like Rabbi Stav, a spiritual leader of a city in Israel, an employee of the Rabbinate, a man who has literally dedicated his life to the mending of rifts and building unity amongst Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, who through Tzohar has made halachic marriage accessible to tens of thousands of secular (and religious) Israelis, and who partners with Ohr Torah Stone in bringing holiday observance to hundreds of thousands of Israelis every year.
Regardless of where one stands on the kashrut bill — and we are all entitled to have criticisms and reservations — that should never give anyone the right to speak in such a derisive and toxic manner. And when the person speaking is the Sephardic chief rabbi of the State of Israel, the damage is even worse.
Rabbi Yosef’s halachic works have informed me and countless others, and I have tremendous respect for his vast Torah knowledge. And yet, I question why he so often chooses to turn his disagreement into a disrespectful attack. Whether it be previous statements regarding women not having the intellectual capacity to study Torah, or dismissing the religious Zionist community’s young men for attaining a general education and matriculating alongside their yeshiva studies, or his rhetoric about other streams of Judaism. He seems to miss no opportunity to disenfranchise large swaths of our Jewish community — instead of reaching out and unifying, as a true rabbinic leader should. And when the chief rabbi speaks this way as a matter of course, an entire generation of children grow up to equate this type of dismissive rhetoric with the religious establishment.
There is considerable, and perhaps even worthwhile, debate over whether the institution of a chief rabbi in Israel is still relevant today. Sadly, many Israelis have grown increasingly alienated from the institutional rabbinate structure in recent years. This chief rabbi has viewed his role as the guardian of tradition and halachic observance, rather than being equally focused on fostering Jewish unity and cultivating a desire for Jewish connection and identity amongst Israel’s citizens. Ironically, his approach only exacerbates their very sense of alienation, which ultimately leads to greater compromise on halacha and less interest in tradition. What’s more, this rhetoric further diminishes the integrity of the institution of the Rabbinate, and far worse, it harms any hope we have of showing the beauty of Judaism to our youth, to Jews around the corner, and to Jews around the world.
We need a Rabbinate to continue to advance the vision of Rabbi Kook, who inspired the institution in order to ensure that Jewish practice in the Jewish homeland is guided by halacha — a halacha which includes, as a basic tenet, mutual respect and the embrace of the other — Ahavat Chinam.
Perhaps most alarming of all is that while Saturday night’s remarks were widely reported in the media, there has been limited public outcry; we seem to have become immune to this type of discourse emanating from rabbinic leadership.
This is why, as a parent and as the rosh yeshiva of an educational network whose students have been discussing the chief rabbi’s remarks, I feel compelled to speak out.
As educators, parents, and grandparents, we must teach our students by example. If we don’t speak out when toxic rhetoric is used by our spiritual leaders, we become part of the problem.
And as rabbinical leaders for whom halacha is our guide, we have a sacred responsibility. Rabbi Yosef claimed that the kashrut reform bill will compromise kashrut standards, including the halachically mandated washing of lettuce. While strict halacha is an uncompromising aspect of Torah Judaism, I am quite certain that the holy Temple was not destroyed because of which lettuce we eat or which kashrut label is printed on the foods we consume. It was destroyed — and continues to remain in ruins — because of the harmful words we use and how we treat our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. Decency and respect towards all, and all the more so towards rabbis and Jewish leaders of every stripe, must be the foundation stone of our Judaism and of our Rabbinate. Derekh Eretz Kadma l’Torah — civility among Torah scholars is, without a doubt, the very first step towards paving a path of Torah for the entire Jewish people.