Israel's Chief Rabbi Shrugs Off Math, Science Studies as 'Nonsense'

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who exclusively studied in yeshivas, calls on ultra-Orthodox youth to avoid secular education

Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
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Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in 2015.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in 2015.Credit: Haaretz
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called on ultra-Orthodox youth to shun secular education this week, declaring that the Education Ministry’s core curriculum of math, science, English and other key subjects was “nonsense” and bragging that he never graduated from high school.

Yosef’s remarks were delivered during a series of lectures delivered over the past few days, which were reported by the ultra-Orthodox news website Kikar HaShabbat.

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“Blessed is the person and blessed is the portion of he who knows the correct views. He knows that there is nothing like the holy Torah, this Torah is above all else,” he was quoted as saying.

“If they ask a student ‘where do you want to go, to a yeshiva high school or to a holy yeshiva,’ there is no doubt,” he declared, explaining that in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students can sit and study Torah “without a core curriculum, without all this nonsense.”

Yosef, who exclusively studied in yeshivas, appeared proud of his lack of secular education.

“I myself, did I study the core curriculum? Did I finish school? To this day I do not have a diploma, no matriculation certificate and no diploma. Did I miss out on something? It’s nonsense, the main thing is our Torah.”

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox factions, including the Shas party founded by the chief rabbi’s father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, have spent the past several weeks attacking the new government over its support for expanding access to secular studies and other policies opposed by the hard line religious community.

Over the past decade, Haredi parties have become staunch allies of recently ousted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In return, they have enjoyed a continuing monopoly over several issues of domestic policy related to religion and state, as well as an exemption for haredi men from Israel’s mandatory military draft and  functional autonomy for their schools. 

Their absence from the current government may change the current status quo.

Yosef has a history of incendiary remarks, including calling on orthodox Jews to prevent their children from spending time with secular relatives, declaring that non-Jews should be forbidden from living in the Land of Israel according to Jewish law and comparing black people to monkeys. He has also compared women who do not dress according to religious modesty standards to animals.

His late father, former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was also known for his controversial statements, including that Hurricane Katrina was “God's retribution” for American support for the 2005 Gaza disengagement and that gentiles “were born only to serve us.”

Yosef's position stands in stark opposition to that of his sister Adina Bar-Shalom, an Israel Prize winning educator who founded the now defunct Haredi College of Jerusalem, the country's first ultra-Orthodox institution of higher learning, in 2001. 

JTA contributed to this report.

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