Dismiss the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel

Time and time again Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef erupts with loutish tirades, attacking Israel, secular Israelis, and Russian immigrant would-be-converts. The system and criteria for choosing Israel’s next chief rabbis must be changed. In 2023, Israel can elect cosmopolitan and reasonable chief rabbis.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, July 9, 2021; and Israel Hayom, July 11, 2021. Print-friendly copy

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://he.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1135065

The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, is on a rampage. Time and time again he erupts with loutish tirades, attacking Israel, secular Israelis, and Russian immigrant would-be-converts. He savages Religious Zionist Israelis too – even though he heads an institution that is an expression of religious Zionism par excellence in the reborn Jewish state.

Rabbi Yosef’s latest diatribe was directed at heart of mainstream Israel, which is far too materialistic and profane for his tastes. In fact, “Herzliya” is so bad that believing Jews should not live there. “The spiritual harm done by living in that secular environment is worse than dying,” he said.

As a result, Yosef paskened (made a religious law ruling) that observant Jews from in the Diaspora should not move to Israel if it means living in such non-haredi areas. In other words, it is better to live in the “galut” (Diaspora) than among secular Israelis.

Yosef made these outrageous comments during his weekly Saturday night sermon, with the visiting chief rabbi of the Tunisian island of Djerba, Rabbi Haim Bitan, sitting next to him.

“When I visited the Tunisian Jewish community, I was asked to rule whether or not Djerba’s Jews should immigrate to Israel,” said Yosef. “I told them it depends on where they would live. If they are going to live in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood or next to ‘Kisei Rahamim’ (a Bnei Brak yeshiva founded in Tunisia), then they should immigrate to Israel. But if they are to live in a place like Herzliya or another one of the secular locations… they should stay where they are.”

Chief Rabbi Yosef’s so-called “halachic guidance” is not only an affront to the office he holds and to millions of Israelis who fight for this country, pay taxes, and hold authentic Jewish identities, it also contradicts core Jewish teachings.

The Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law rule that that a person should always strive to live in the Land of Israel, even in a city where most people are not Jews at all! Yosef’s remarks also run counter to Biblical prophecies and to the raison d’etre of the State of Israel regarding the ingathering of all Jewish exiles.

So much for being a “Rishon le-Zion” (the Leader of Zion!), which is another formal title for the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

Ten days ago, Rabbi Yosef went on a rant against general education, arguing that science and math are “nonsense,” and therefore youth should study only in yeshivas that teach Torah subjects exclusively.

“There is nothing like the holy Torah, the Torah is above everything,” said Yosef in a synagogue address. “If a student is asked: where do you want to go, a yeshiva high school (where religious studies are taught together with the core ‘secular’ curriculum) or a holy yeshiva (where only Talmud and halacha is taught), there is no doubt! Study at a holy yeshiva. There, they learn Torah without secular subjects, without the core curriculum, without all this nonsense. They sit and learn Torah.”

Yosef arrogantly boasted that “Myself, did I learn the core curriculum? Did I finish school? Even today I don’t have a graduation certificate – not a high school diploma and not a graduation certificate. Have I missed anything? No. And look at the position I have risen to! So [secular studies are] nonsense. The most important thing is our holy Torah.”

The irony here is that everybody knows that Yitzhak Yosef became chief rabbi of Israel not primarily because of his Judaic or general knowledge but thanks to his family lineage. He is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former “Rishon le-Zion” and indeed one of the greatest halachic scholars of the past century. Unfortunately, Ovadia Yosef’s sons all think they hold a patrimony over the Sephardic chief rabbi position and other key rabbinical posts.

The disgrace here is that Yitzhak Yosef essentially is promoting haredi dependence on government handouts and charitable donations instead of advancing haredi self-reliance and community dignity through basic education. The failure to give boys in the Ultra-Orthodox sector core skills in English, math, science, and good citizenship, combined with the high population growth of that community, means that Israel’s 21st century, high-tech-oriented economy, and its Western democratic values, are in peril.

Aside from all that, Yosef’s position is contra-Jewish. Haredi dependency on the dole is sacrilegious. It runs up against dozens of Talmudic and authoritative Jewish legal sources that insist the only way to be a good person is by making an honest wage.

“A father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem the firstborn, to teach him Torah, to marry him off, and to teach him a profession,” instructs the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), in order that he “should not become a burden on the public.”

It is preferable that man eke out a livelihood as bitter as an olive through work, and trust in God, than to accept honey-sweet support from another man,” teaches the Talmud again (Eiruvin 18b). “A craftsman who studies Torah but simultaneously supports himself merits all the honor and good in this world and in the World to Come,” asserts Maimonides (Laws of Talmud Torah 3:10).

Maimonides sternly warns that “One who studies Torah professionally and fails to work, counting on charity for a livelihood – desecrates God’s name, shames the Torah, extinguishes the flame of religion, harms himself, and abdicates his place in the World to Come… Torah that is not accompanied by work has no staying power and inevitably draws one into sin,” he continues. “As Rabbi Yehuda taught in the Talmud (ibid.), the man who fails to learn a profession or to work – ultimately will come to steal from others.”

Yitzhak Yosef’s worldview is extremely short-sighted in many other ways too. In January 2020 and many times since, he vehemently has attacked non-Jewish Russian immigrants to Israel and those Orthodox rabbis who seek welcoming ways to convert some of them.

Rabbi Yosef regularly disgorges foul invective in this regard, like calling Israeli olim from Russia “goyim who go to church every Sunday,” or disparaging Jewish Agency officials who facilitate such aliyah as “religion haters who seek to diminish the power of haredi parties in Israeli politics,” or savaging Religious Zionist rabbis like Shlomo Riskin, David Stav and David Bas as “reform Jews” who conduct phony “conveyor belt” conversions.

Were Yitzhak Yosef to express himself in terms a bit more refined and less defamatory, one might be able to relate to his criticism seriously. He might usefully have sparked debate about the problematics of bringing so many Russian non-Jews to Israel and about parliamentary reconsideration of the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return (which is a central part of the problem).

Were Yitzhak Yosef to express himself in language befitting a Torah-true religious Jew, never mind a “chief” rabbinical figure, and offer constructive solutions of his own instead of just vituperation, it might be possible to give him credit for seeking to defuse the enormous demographic and societal time bomb posed by the current situation. But no. Given his jaundiced view of Israeli society, Rabbi Yosef has no strategy other than snarling at everybody outside his orbit.

In contrast, Yosef’s counterpart David Lau, the current Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, is a man of dialogue and pleasantness. Rabbi Lau also is no rabbinical revolutionary and no great force for halachic moderation, but still conducts himself with nobility and self-restraint.

In sum, Yosef’s constant jeremiads make it clear that he has no business being Chief Rabbi of Israel. With all due respect to his scholarship in Jewish jurisprudence, and with all appropriate reverence to his rabbinical seniority, the inescapable conclusion is that he should be replaced forthwith.

Most of all, the system for choosing Israel’s next chief rabbis, and the criteria for becoming a chief rabbi, must be changed dramatically – long before the next vote in 2023. Religious Zionist commitment, a Torah worldview that embraces broad education and the dignity of difference, and a fruitful problem-solving approach – should be mandatory benchmarks. Let Israel elect cosmopolitan and reasonable chief rabbis.

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David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker