Religious Affairs: Sorry, but he meant it

Though penitent for grief he caused bereaved parents by his recent statements about soldiers dying for their sins, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's pre-Yom Kippur apology did not include a retraction.

By MATTHEW WAGNER
September 20, 2007 18:45
ovadia yosef looks down 298

ovadia yosef looks down . (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Less than a week before Yom Kippur, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef adopted a decidedly apologetic tone as he stood before a few hundred soldiers and publicly attempted to clarify what he had meant when he said that 119 soldiers who died in the Second Lebanon War were killed because of their sins. But Sephardi Jewry's most important halachic authority never actually retracted the comments he made three weeks ago. In fact, he restated them, albeit in a more delicate way. "I said something a few weeks ago that was taught to us by our rabbis, blessed be their memory," explained Yosef. "But the media, journalists, made a big mess out of it. People came to me afterward and accused me of being against IDF soldiers. Against IDF soldiers? I quoted the teachings of our rabbis. I did not budge from the meaning they imparted to their teachings." "You all must know one thing: I love you very much, I cherish you all," Yosef said to the soldiers, some of whom broke out in tears. "Every time I open the Torah ark, I say a special prayer for IDF soldiers. Maybe not every synagogue does it. In my synagogue, every time the ark is opened, we say a special prayer for IDF soldiers. May God bless you all." According to Rabbi Amir Krispel, Yosef's secretary and confidant, the rabbi was emotionally shaken by the outburst of indignation aroused by his comments. "Ever since the rabbi made his statements, he has been in incredible turmoil," Krispel said. Usually, when the rabbi says something controversial that makes people angry, he doesn't care. But this time was different. This time bereaved parents were hurt. The rabbi is very sensitive to bereavement." Krispel said that due to health problems Yosef has in recent years cancelled his annual appearance before soldiers ahead of Yom Kippur. But this year he insisted on speaking to them. "It was very important to the rabbi to clear up the misunderstanding," Krispel said. Nevertheless, Yosef, who was truly penitent for the negative effect his teachings had on bereaved parents, did not retract the basic message that soldiers die for their sins. The man who over the past two decades orchestrated one of the most politically significant socio-religious grassroots upheavals in Israeli society has long ago reached the point in his professional career where he has no one to answer to but his creator. So it is highly doubtful that Yosef's decision to refrain from apologizing is a public relations stunt designed to protect his image as a decisive leader who stands behind what he says. No, the spiritual leader with the photographic memory could not backtrack, because that would be tantamount to apostasy. It would mean deviating from the teachings of the rabbis. These rabbis' teaching was clear. In biblical times, Moses waged war without sustaining Jewish casualties. Moses conquered the five Midianite kings with just 12,000 troops, 1,000 from each of the tribes, who were hand-picked for their righteousness. According to Numbers (31, 49) not one of Moses' soldiers fell in battle. "Did the Midianites sit around like sitting ducks waiting to be slaughtered?" Yosef asked the soldiers rhetorically. "Like turkeys? No, they defended themselves, they attacked. But they could not do anything. Nothing could help them. Why? Because God protected them [the Jewish people], God performed a miracle." However, only when Jewish soldiers are sinless can they expect heavenly protection. The Torah even exempts from military duty sinful men afraid that divine retribution will fall on them in battle. Even idle talk during public prayer is justification for death in battle, states the Talmud. "Why?" asked Yosef of the soldiers. "To be worthy of a miracle, we must be free of sins, completely clean," he answered. "In the present generation we have not merited this. In past times everyone was righteous. So they won their battles and no one was killed." YOSEF'S THEOLOGICAL conclusion was clear. It was also the same conclusion he reached in his controversial sermon three weeks ago: Soldiers die in battle for their sins. True, this week Yosef did acknowledge that completely secular soldiers were not punished for their sacrilegious behavior, since they knew no better. They were like those poor Jewish souls mentioned in the Talmud who fell into captivity among the gentiles as babies and were brought up unaware of their Jewishness. But the main thrust of Yosef's sermon was that Jewish sin causes Jewish casualties in battle. The best defense is adherence to the dictates of Jewish law: wearing tefillin daily; praying with devotion and concentration; observing Shabbat, etc. This week Yosef did not bring his message home by actually coming out and saying that IDF soldiers die in battle because they are lax in their religious duties. But such was the underlying idea in his 45-minute sermon at Yad Shalom Synagogue in Jerusalem. SO WHY did Yosef repeat his message? If Shas's spiritual mentor was fully cognizant of the potentially negative impact of his comments, why didn't he just pick a different topic? Obviously, part of the reason is that reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked is central to Jewish faith. It is one of the 13 Principles of Faith enumerated by Maimonides. The message is also particularly pertinent to this time of year. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, fear of punishment for our evil deeds is a central motif. One of the best known Ashkenazi liturgical centerpieces of both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th-century prayer said to be written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz) depicts God sitting in judgment of every one of us. "On Rosh Hashana the judgment is written, and on Yom Kippur the verdict is sealed," wrote Rabbi Amnon. "Who will pass away [during the coming year] and who will be healed, who will live and who will die, who will reach old age and who will die young, who will die in water and who will die in fire, who by sword and who by wild animal, who of hunger who of thirst and repentance and prayer and good deeds do away with the evil decree." Yosef knows that fear of violent death is a potent impetus for embracing religion. And it is reassuring to believe that by following religious rules we can somehow avoid divine wrath. For combat soldiers, Yosef's message is particularly relevant: Adhere to Halacha, and Hizbullah and Hamas will be unable to touch you, just like the Midianites could not hurt Moses's 12,000 soldiers. But there is another reason for Yosef's insistence on publicizing his opinion that sin is intimately connected to the death of IDF soldiers. Every year during the tashlich ceremony, when religious Jews symbolically "throw" all their sins into the nearest body of water, Yosef breaks down and cries. "I've kind of become accustomed to it," said Yitzhak Sudri, former Shas spokesman. "He cries like a baby. This year people who have never seen him cry before were totally shocked. Here is a man who devotes himself totally to Torah scholarship, to writing his books. He never even has a chance to sin. So why does he cry so much during tashlich?" Sudri said that this year, during a sermon after tashlich, Yosef explained why. According to Sudri, Yosef said the following: "If I could have had a positive influence on someone but did not, if I could have convinced someone to embrace Judaism - to keep a commandment, to do a mitzva - but failed to, I am personally responsible for all the sins committed by that person. I have to answer to God for failing to do my duty. I will be judged for not doing enough to bring Jews closer to Judaism. That is my biggest fear."

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