Rabbis Can Apparently Say Whatever They Want

That so many Israeli rabbis are public employees should have led to some kind of oversight. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Religious affairs correspondents cannot go out on Saturday nights. For two hours, from 9 P.M. to 11 P.M., they have to stay home, hunched over the radio, and listen to an often inaudible speech, just like our grandparents in the days before television. Most weeks, the vigil goes unrewarded, but every couple of months, a headline is born.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, left and Shas head Eli Yishai meeting in 2009.Credit: Jini

Last weekend, there was a gold nugget waiting at the end of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's weekly lesson. After the usual 90 minutes of halakha and midrash, delivered without notes - as all Yosef's sermons have been for over seven decades, always in the same working-class neighborhood - came the customary "blessings" at the end. As usual, he wished his listeners and their families all possible spiritual and physical health and happiness, then he delivered some good wishes to our neighbors as well.

"May our enemies and haters come to an end," he intoned. "May Abu Mazen [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] and all those wicked men be lost from the earth. May God smite them with the plague of pestilence, including all those Palestinians."

No better, no worse than previous utterances by the venerable rabbi, 90 in two weeks and still going strong. He has said similar things over the years about Arabs and other non-Jews, singling out for particular attention not only their leaders, but also some Israeli Jewish ones, including the present prime minister.

This week, though, the weekly sermon drew wider attention, thanks to its timing, on the eve of the Israeli-Palestinian summit in Washington. So not only did the local Israeli media record his latest pearls of wisdom, with a couple of left-wing politicians issuing the standard condemnations, but the Palestinian leadership also responded angrily, the U.S. State Department denounced the "deeply offensive inflammatory statements," and even such august bodies as the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Federation of Great Britain joined the chorus.

So many thousands of words, including some from this very keyboard, have been written about the dissonance between the rabbi's highly intelligent and closely reasoned halakhic responsa, in dozens of books that have been the subject of much academic research and praise, and the vulgar, coarse style of his diatribes when he is back in the 'hood with the old crowd. Just last month, a baffled American professor asked me to explain how the rabbi who, almost 40 years ago, pioneered the religious concept that it is permissible to relinquish parts of the Land of Israel to save human lives can also be so unabashedly racist.

I'm not going to do that again, and I wouldn't even have started writing this column about Yosef if it weren't for another rabbi, another chief rabbi at that - the present one, Yona Metzger.

Rabbi Metzger wrote to all 120 members of the Knesset this week proposing new legislation that would "institutionalize rabbinical freedom, thus making rabbis' status equal to that of academics, so that in democratic Israel, the law will allow a rabbi to express his views, the views of Torah, in public without concern for repercussions. Any constraint on professors' academic freedom will apply to rabbinical freedom, but there cannot be any discrimination between these sectors."

Metzger's letter came in the wake of a police investigation into alleged incitement by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who wrote in his recent book "Torat Hamelech" that killing non-Jews who do not observe the seven Noahide commandments is not only permissible, but sometimes even desirable.

If the chief rabbi had consulted a lawyer first, he would have known just how ridiculous his proposal is. University professors have no special immunity from the law when it comes to incitement or slander; academic freedom is not a legal concept. Journalists, professors, rabbis, all have the same rights of free speech. And so they should. Or should they?

The art of inoffensiveness

Have you ever noticed how rabbis living outside Israel never seem to be involved in such scandals? Maybe it's because rabbis in America or Europe are not as racist and opinionated as their Israeli colleagues. Or perhaps, living among non-Jews, they are simply more aware of the negative impact their words may have. They are the proud inheritors of a proud tradition of self-censorship that went as far as amending printed editions of the Talmud so as not to give offense to the local church, which was often also the ultimate local power.

Over the generations, they so perfected the art of inoffensiveness that to this day, some of the most frustrating interviews you can imagine are with senior rabbis in Britain and the United States, who can while away hours of discussion without saying anything. One sometimes wishes they were more controversial. But when you compare them to their Israeli counterparts, especially those who grew up in this country and have no awareness of how their words are perceived abroad, I think it's clear which alternative is preferable.

There is, however, another interesting distinction between Israeli rabbis and their overseas counterparts. Check who employs whichever Israeli rabbi has come out with the latest piece of xenophobic wisdom and you will almost certainly discover that it is the Israeli taxpayer.

This should have afforded some kind of public oversight and caused the rabbis to think before entering political controversies, but the opposite is the case. They know their jobs are safe, because no one has ever fired a rabbi for putting his foot in his mouth. Rabbi Yosef's son, Chief Rabbi of Holon Avraham Yosef, knew no one would penalize him when he said that Supreme Court justices are not allowed to pray with other religious Jews. No other civil servant has such freedom to vent the most obnoxious views.

Metzger is wrong. There is no lack of legislation. Rabbis can say whatever they like, and are rarely if ever prosecuted, even when they actually incite murder. What is lacking is the public and political will to enforce existing regulations against civil servants saying whatever is on their mind on the public's dime.



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