Thursday, October 10, 2013

THE LARGEST FUNERAL EVER (But should we lionize Ovadia Yosef?)

This week the people of Israel mourned the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a sage who was revered by millions.  His funeral has been called the largest in Israel’s history, with an an estimated 800,000 people filling the streets of Jerusalem, some literally throwing themselves on the hearse as the rabbi’s body was carried to its final resting place.

His accomplishments were many and his influence was enormous on Israeli politics, as his Shas party gained prominence and leverage under his spiritual guidance.  Israelis united this week in praising his many feats.  Those who knew him best wept openly at this loss.  So many people gained inspiration and hope from him, so many were brought closer to Torah. 

But there is a problem in lionizing him to the degree he has been lionized.   While the week of someone’s funeral is not necessarily the time to bring up their failings, any portrait of Ovadia Yosef has to include his more controversial side.  The Times of Israel gave us a fuller picture this week, noting his five most significant halachic rulings, including the decision to recognize Ethiopian Jews as legitimate Jews, sanction the trading of land for peace, and freeing “chained” widows (agunot).  But alongside, the Times also noted five of his most controversial statements

Let’s just say that he wasn’t the most politically correct person on the planet, and during his Saturday night, post Shabbat sermons, he was fond of stating things, on tape, that would have made Archie Bunker cringe.  We can chalk it up to age and say he’s like that proverbial lovable, bigoted uncle, but I don’t think religious leaders have the luxury of being embarrassing uncles (see under: Wright, Rev. Jeremiah).  Everyone slips up from time to time and quotes can be taken out of context.  But Yosef was known for these views and he stood by them.  He was no friend of the Conservative movement, needless to say, but his statements went far beyond a repudiation of pluralism.

He said Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for the Americans’ support of the Gaza withdrawal.  He stated that the six million Jewish Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners.  He said, “Goyim were only born to serve us.” He said of Muslims, “They’re stupid.  Their religion is as ugly as they are,” and of Arabs, “How do you make peace with a snake?”

Every Israeli is aware of statements like these. Yet, respectfully, and in my mind correctly, they are not dwelling on the negative this week.

What we must wonder, though, is how a person so medieval in his views could be adored so unquestioningly and become the most beloved rabbi in all Israel.  What does that say about Israel, about rabbis, about Judaism itself, and about our need to adore our leaders?  There is no shortage of great, open minded rabbis in Israel, who could serve far better as the face of the Torah - Rabbi Michael Melchior comes to mind.  But even they should not be placed on pedestals too high.

As if to prove the point that we should not place rabbis on pedestals, we read in this week’s Jewish Week an expose of a New Jersey man who used his rabbinic persona to prey on women who put their faith in him.  Yet another despicable case of abuse.  To be clear, there is a huge difference between that crime and my concerns about Ovadia Yosef.

As I wrote a while back, there is a clear danger in our being so eager to place rabbis on pedestals: we rabbis begin to believe all our press clippings and forget the reasons we got into the rabbinate in the first place. And when we fail, our followers often blindly defend us because they still need to revere us, and we begin to believe that an admission of fallibility will compromise our ability to lead.

It's time to smash the pedestal rabbinate like so many of Terach’s idols.   If we are re-establish the rightful place of the rabbi in Jewish life, we have to both safeguard the integrity of the role and reaffirm the frailty of the human being who fills it. And that begins when the rabbi steps down from pulpit of the soul and laughs, cries, errs and does teshuvah together with the rest of us.

So as we give Ovadia Yosef due respect, let’s not whitewash the record entirely.  He’s just been lowered into the ground, a steep descent from any pedestal,  the same place where all great rabbis go - along with the rest of us..

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