Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Derogation of Secular Jewish Culture

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The enormous attention Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death has commanded both in Israel and abroad testifies to the man’s enormous impact on Israeli society and politics in the last few decades. His death has not only generated massive reporting and commentary inside Israel: almost all major papers and sites from the New York Times and Washington Post to The Guardian and Al Jazeera wrote obituaries, where they analyzed Yosef’s significance in Israel’s recent history.

Since Haaretz has published a number of thoughtful, precise assessments of Yosef’s contribution and role in Israel, I will refrain from repeating the facts. I would particularly suggest Yair Ettinger’s emphasis on two very different phases in Yosef’s career. In the first he was a courageous and innovative rabbinical scholar whose halakhic rulings were of great importance. In the second part, starting in the late 1980s when Shas became a central player in Israeli politics, Yosef became a major power broker. All prime ministers in Israel's recent past sought him out and tried to ingratiate themselves with him, and indeed only two governments in the last few decades were formed without Shas.

It is natural that most of the obituaries, correctly, highlighted Yosef’s great achievements. But it is important to realize that not all Israelis were saddened by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death. Many secular liberals had built up considerable resentment against this man who in the first part of his career was, no doubt, one of the great rabbinical scholars of recent history. They were offended by the spectacle of what many saw as Israeli politicians’ self-debasement in front of a religious authority.

But secular Israelis were even more deeply enraged by many of Ovadia Yosef’s statements about secular Jews that were highly offensive as some quotes from yesterday’s Haaretz editorial show:

“Secular teachers are donkeys.” He undermined the legitimacy of the courts when he claimed that “they are unworthy of judging Jews,” calling Supreme Court justices “empty, reckless and wicked.” He called then-State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat “an enemy of Israel.” About former Meretz leader and government minister Shulamit Aloni, he said, “A feast should be made on the day she dies,” and he thought former minister Yossi Sarid should “be hung from a tree fifty cubits high.”

If a secular public figure had said anything remotely as offensive about a rabbinical figure, the result would probably have been the end of the public figure’s career. The religious world would have gone into frenzy with demonstrations staged and probably some violence as well.

Why then did Ovadia Yosef get away with statements like “A feast should be made on the day Shulamit Aloni dies”? The standard explanation is that this was due to his great political power. Yosef, after all was, as the Washington Post has called him, the kingmaker of Israeli politics. Another explanation refers to the particular sensitivities of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, who felt oppressed and humiliated by the Ashkenazi elites since the great wave of their immigration to Israel in the 1950s. Shas was the first Mizrahi party that truly succeeded, and the secular Ashkenazi establishment felt that it had to be highly sensitive to the Sephardic Leadership, particularly Yosef.

While these explanations have validity, they miss an important point. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was neither the first nor the only religious leader to use derogatory and sometimes inflammatory language toward secular Jews. Already the Chason Ish, the first leader of ultra-Orthodox Judaism before and shortly after Israel’s founding, showed deep disdain for secular Judaism’s culture by calling it ‘an empty wagon’. Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the leader of the Lithuanian rabbinical world for decades, called the Kibbutzniks “breeders of rabbits and pigs” in a major speech in 1990. And national-religious figures have sometimes used formulations that bordered on anti-Semitic imagery in their attacks on Israel’s secular liberals.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s derogation toward Jewish secular culture therefore reflects a much wider phenomenon in Israel. Many secular Israelis seem to suffer from a form of a silent inferiority complex. Deep down they seem to feel that the ultra-Orthodox are the real Jews; that the ultra-Orthodox claim is valid and that without them Jewish existence would not have survived and is bound to vanish – and somehow many secular or conservative Jews in Israel still seem to feel that their culture is indeed an empty wagon compared to the full wagon of the Orthodox tradition, as the Chason Ish said.

It’s high time for Israelis to take their cues from U.S. Jewry, where the various non-Orthodox streams of Jewish existence carry themselves with pride. Unfortunately in Israel the Orthodox establishment has a stranglehold on Israel’s public life, and hence many Israelis are not sufficiently aware of the simple fact that Jewish Orthodoxy is a minority in today’s Jewish life; that it’s claims to keep Jewish existence alive has no factual foundation and that secular Jews have created a phenomenally rich contribution to Western culture in the last two hundred years.

I am by no means calling for a culture war against Jewish Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy, nor am I in favor of returning their offensive remarks in kind. Secular Jews must first and foremost realize that we not only have nothing to be ashamed of, but that our contribution to the world's culture far exceeds that of Jewish Orthodoxy in the last century – let alone the fact that secular Zionism was the movement that brought about the founding of Israel.

Israel’s secular public figures should stop feeling intimidated by ultra-Orthodoxy – many of them are even afraid of posting on Facebook on Shabbat for fear of religious criticism. They should take an example from Finance Minister Yair Lapid who has broken the taboo that requires bowing to the ultra-Orthodox. When he gave his maiden speech in the Knesset last April he was attacked for posting on Facebook on Shabbat, and his reply was terse and unequivocal: “I post news on Shabbat because I don’t keep Shabbat. I don’t tell you what to do on Shabbat, you don’t tell me what to do on Shabbat.” In the same speech he chastised the ultra-Orthodox families that have more children than they can raise and feed with their own income, thus breaking another taboo that the secular liberals, Israel’s most productive sector, must both accept and finance ultra-Orthodox high birthrates.

Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel, whether Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, ultra-Orthodox or national-religious must begin to realize that respect is not, and should not, be a one-way affair. If they want us to respect and understand their way of life, it is high time for those of them, who feel entitled to offend, to realize how much animosity they create and how they undermine the cohesiveness of Israeli society.

Young Haredi boys.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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