On the eve of Rosh Hashana this year, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar gave a “festive” interview to the right-of-center newspaper Makor Rishon.

If one finds oneself away from home during the High Holy Days, he said, better to pray alone in one’s hotel room than in a non-Orthodox synagogue. In fact, he added, better not to pray at all than in a non-Orthodox synagogue.

In the not too distant past, the same chief rabbi, appointed by mortals mind you, not God, accused non-Orthodox Jews of “poisoning the well of holiness” and “of taking people to a nethermost pit.”

His words were not randomly chosen. They were meant as an insult and meant to hurt. The “poisoning of the wells” libel from the 14th century is considered by some to be the foundation stone of modern anti-Semitism. And it does not take a Talmud scholar to understand what the hell the “nethermost pit” means.

Here, the chief rabbi of Israel is evoking the sources of anti-Semitism against the majority of the world’s Jews and threatening those who follow them with eternal damnation. How more anti-Semitic can one get?

Amar is not the only Orthodox spiritual leader in Israel to heap invective on progressive Jews. The line is long, and the hatred intense. Suffice it to recall the current interior minister, Eli Yishai of Shas, telling Israel Radio that Reform Jews should be stoned for taking God’s name in vain, speaking as if he had just gotten off the phone with the Almighty, and not called out of the political meeting he was attending to give the interview.

From politicians we have come to expect everything and anything. One is left to wonder, however, what ill wind possessed the Sephardi chief rabbi to center his New Year’s message on causing a divide among the world’s Jews, rather than finding points of similarity and contact; on forcing non-Orthodox Jews away from Israel, rather than trying to embrace them as part of the Jewish state, the supposed homeland of all Jews.

Amar may have chosen his words carefully, but I doubt he thought about their consequences. The majority of the world’s Jews are not Orthodox, and even in Israel there is not an insignificant presence of Jews who are religious, even deeply so, but happen to believe that men and women are equal in the eyes of God and should be treated as such.

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Are they to be doomed to hell in perpetuity?

From my point of view, now that the chief rabbi has raised the point, I would dislike having to pray in a shul that has a barrier between men and women; where the stronger sex, the mothers of our children, are treated like second-class citizens. But, if away from home, and faced with no alternative, I would be happy to pray in the most Orthodox shul in the city, rather than spend Rosh Hashana alone, unable to say Kaddish in a minyan, but commanded to stay in my room with the mini-bar instead.

There is a lot to be said in the sorry fact that the modern Jewish state needs two chief rabbis for what is supposedly one religion, giving great support to the age-old saying: Two Jews, three synagogues.

This, however, is something the modern Jewish state can ill afford. If the rabbinate continues its hate campaign against the majority of the word’s affiliated Jews, it will be the cause of an eventual rift that Solomon himself will have trouble resolving. This still fragile country needs all the support it can get, especially from world Jewry. What is the point of antagonizing them on the eve of Rosh Hashana? What is to be gained? Is there nothing else the chief rabbi has to say?

Tolerance is the essence of religion. Amar says so himself in a letter to the Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, in the wake of remarks by the pope which could have been interpreted as critical of Islam: “Our way is to honor every religion and every nation according to their paths,” he wrote Qaradawi, citing the Book of Prophets that “every nation will go in the name of the Lord.”

Amar also, apparently, believes that all the world’s Jews should come and live in Israel, or at least he is reported as telling the pope as much on Benedict’s visit to the Holy Land a few years back. “It is your duty to pass on that the Jewish people deserve a renaissance... and to live in this land,” he is reported to have said.

Both tolerance and renaissance seem to be missing from Amar’s vocabulary when referring to his fellow Jews. Instead he seems bent on spiritual fratricide and alienation. He may think his words were said to Makor Rishon and in Hebrew, and therefore would not reach the ears of people outside the paper’s narrow circle of readers. How wrong he was; within minutes of being published, they were around the world, making their mark just as Jews were off to synagogue, to seek renewal and atonement.

One wonders whether the chief rabbi managed to atone for his remarks, or even thinks he has anything to atone for. After all, we are speaking about deeply religious and spiritual issues here, like the decision to allow non-Orthodox rabbis to serve the public and receive a salary from the state. This means fewer community religious jobs for the Orthodox and, of course, what could be more sacrilegious than that?

One hopes world Jewry will go on with its righteous way, no matter what our illustrious chief rabbi says, or the politicians who surround him. And, if anything, may his words bring renewed strength and conviction to Israel’s small, but growing, non-Orthodox religious community, who are critical to the backbone of Israel as a tolerant society and as a link to our brethren abroad, no matter what shul they attend.

Hirsh Goodman is a journalist and author living in Jerusalem. His latest book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in the history category.

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