In a speech last week, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef issued an all-out attack on Reform Judaism, describing it as “fake” and “falsified,” while also casting aspersions on the ability of women to study Jewish law at an advanced level.
It was the latest in a long list of attacks by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi and halachic authority against one of the largest Jewish movements in the world. It was also the latest proof why the Chief Rabbinate as an institution has lost its way and needs to be defunded by the government and eventually shut down.
In a speech first reported by the Kikar Shabbat ultra-Orthodox news site, Yosef condemned the recent legal pressure on the Chief Rabbinate to allow women to obtain state-recognized accreditation in advanced Jewish law and repeated his comments that he would never allow such accreditation through the Chief Rabbinate.
He accused women who seek such accreditation, who are overwhelmingly from the moderate wing of the religious-Zionist community, as seeking to imitate Reform Jews, and then embarked on an anti-Reform diatribe.
“How can they be examined on all of ‘Issur V’heter’ (laws pertaining to kashrut)?” Yosef exclaimed. “Do they know the laws of forbidden mixtures of foods?” he wondered. “How could they be examined on all of [the laws of] Shabbat?” he asked incredulously.
In his attack, Yosef shows an ignorance of what is happening in the Orthodox world when it comes to women’s Torah learning. His mistake is not knowing that there are plenty of women today who actually know these laws and are no less experts than many of the men whom he ordains annually. Institutions like the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies or Midreshet Lindenbaum have high-level courses and programs for women that do not fall from the quality or depth of the programs taught at national-religious and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and rabbinic academies.
As a chief rabbi in the Jewish state, Yosef’s role should be in opening up Judaism and making it available and welcoming to any Jew who is interested in participating in the Jewish experience. He should be encouraging all men and women to learn about their religion and to study the ancient texts that serve as the backbone of their religious identity.
The attacks on Reform Jews is another stage in the Orthodox world’s assault on progressive Jews. This plays out not just in speeches like the one Yosef gave last week, but also in government policies, which continue to discriminate against pluralistic Jews at the Western Wall, in conversions and when it comes to marriage, divorce and other life cycle events in Israel.
The pluralistic section at the Western Wall – known as Azarat Yisrael – has yet to be renovated and upgraded despite a promise by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than two years ago to do so. The Kotel compromise plan, drafted by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, was approved and then canceled by Netanyahu’s government. No alternative plan has been put forth since then.
At a time when life across the globe is being destabilized and undermined by the continued spread of the novel coronavirus, and thousands of Jews are contemplating aliyah to Israel, it is incumbent upon the government and the Chief Rabbinate to show that the country is open and welcoming to all Jews, no matter their level of observance, the way they practice, their belief or where they come from.
Sadly, matters of religion and state in this country continue to be held hostage by ultra-Orthodox radicals who refuse to accept that not every Jew will look like them or practice Judaism the same way that they do.
Some 400,000 Israelis, overwhelmingly from the former Soviet Union and their children, are of Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. The year is 2020 and they still cannot get married in the State of Israel. These people are asked to serve their country in the IDF, to pay taxes and to abide by the government’s laws, but they are not given the basic right of being allowed to marry since the country does not have a civil marriage option.
People who want to travel on Shabbat do not have an option of public transportation and reforms in the country’s kashrut system are slow in coming.
It is time that all this changes. The government needs to present Yosef with a choice – either help or get out of the way.