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Mean rabbis

by Joseph Aaron

Why is the Catholic pope so nice and so many Jewish ‘popes,’ meaning prominent rabbis, so mean?

They call it the “Francis Effect.” In only one year, the new pontiff has totally transformed the image of the church. And people the world over have responded enthusiastically.

The new pope is a kind man, a non-judgmental man, a man who oozes what we look for in spiritual leaders. He is modest, he is simple, but above all, he is a very nice guy. He doesn’t condemn or point fingers or act holier than thou. “Who I am to judge” was what he said when asked about those who many in the church consider sinners and so who spend a lot of their time attacking, marginalizing, labeling, dismissing.

You can tell how people see a religious leader, what people want from a religious leader by how many have so fervently welcomed the pope’s tone.

Early on, he said the church needed to stop spending so much time on “hot button” issues, on issues that divide, on issues that lend themselves to judging others, and needed to start spending a lot more time showing a loving face, embracing people, showing caring and acceptance.

I really and truly would like to know why so many rabbis feel going the other way is the way to go.

More and more, our leading rabbis put such a harsh, ugly face on Judaism, are so quick to judge other Jews and to then using incredibly hurtful and mean words to attack them.

Why has that become the way rabbis have become, why do they think in any way that brings anyone closer, paints anything other than a picture of Judaism as a dark and unforgiving place?

It did not use to be that way. About a hundred years or so ago, the leading rabbi in the yeshiva world was the Chofets Chaim. He was as religious and learned a man as there could be. And yet he used his vast knowledge not to berate other Jews, not to attack other Jews, as the leading yeshiva world rabbis of our day do, but rather to show the warm and loving face of Judaism.

My favorite story about the Chofets Chaim was the time a yeshiva student was found to be smoking on Shabbat. Now, in today’s world, he would be called into the head of the yeshiva’s office, be called names, be screamed at and then be thrown out of the yeshiva. Period.

What did the Chofets Chaim do? He called the student into his office, sat next to him and started crying, softly saying only “Shabbos.” He was trying to convey how precious the Shabbat is and how much it pained him that the student chose to desecrate it by smoking. He didn’t scream, didn’t call the kid names, didn’t do anything but convey the holiness of the day in a way the kid could think about, take in and appreciate without being made to feel bad about himself.

But just as it is said that the Republican party has gone so far right, has been so taken over by the lunatic fringe who are so quick to judge, so fast to dismiss, so intolerant of compromise or respecting other views that even Ronald Reagan could not be nominated today, so it is with the yeshiva world where the way the Chofets Chaim did things would not only not be respected, he would be berated for being so soft.

No, for some reason, in a world where what everyone does and says is immediately known around the world, and so in a world it is especially important to show the true face of Torah and Judaism, namely of being a warm and inviting and happy place, leading rabbis somehow have gotten it into their heads that being a leader means being mean.

A crystal clear example making the point has come with the appointment of a new rabbi to head the Shas Council of Torah Sages, making him the leading rabbi for all of Sephardic Jewry.

Now please know that Sephardic Jews are absolutely my favorite kind of Jews. For they are Jews as we are supposed to be, Jews who venerate tradition but aren’t insane in focusing on making everything more and more strict. They pray with true conviction and passion, are accepting of all Jews, understand that Judaism is to make our lives happier and better, not more miserable and confining, as those who run the yeshiva world today preach.

The Sephardic way was epitomized by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a tremendously learned scholar who was, until his recent death, the leader of world Sephardim and who, in his halachic rulings, always attempted to be lenient, to be faithful to the Torah of course but to understand we are all human beings and that the ways of G-d are pleasant.

And so where most yeshiva world rabbis today have become more and more stringent, see it as their duty to make things as difficult as possible and as strict as possible, Rabbi Yosef always sought and always found the softer route, the more lenient route, the more accommodating route.

But, as I say, Rabbi Yosef died a few months back and so a new leader of the Shas Council of Torah Sages had to be appointed. And it’s hard to imagine someone more different than Rabbi Yosef, someone more symbolic of the meanness that has taken over the rabbinic world today than the guy they chose.

The new president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages is Rabbi Shalom Cohen. Let me tell you a bit about Rabbi Cohen. In a sentence, as the Times of Israel put it, Cohen is “a hardline rabbi known for his overt hostility toward modern-Orthodox and secular Israeli Jews.”

Yes, a rabbi hostile to Jews, to secular Jews and to Orthodox Jews who dare to be part of the world.

Indeed, no sooner was Cohen announced as Rabbi Yosef’s successor than he said this of all Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox.

“They hate us, all the ignoramuses of the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid,” Cohen said, referencing the Zionist Orthodox party and the secularist party. “There is no difference between the two. The Holy One, Blessed be He, wants us to stay away from them. They are there, we are here. They will pursue their nonsense, we will pursue our holy Torah.”

In the past, Cohen has called Zionist Orthodox Jews “Amalek” — an extinct people that the Torah singles out for total annihilation for what is described as their cruelty to Jews. He suggested that national religious Israelis aren’t Jews.

Referring to national religious Israelis by the colloquial Hebrew term for “knit kipa” — the preferred headgear for such Jews — Rabbi Cohen said that “as long as there are knit kippot, the [divine] throne is not whole. That’s Amalek. When will the throne be whole? When there is no knit kipa.”

In the aftermath of his remarks, there have been a rash of attacks against kipa-wearing Israeli soldiers in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

That’s what this rabbi said of other Jews, of Jews who wear a yarmulke different than the one he wears. That they aren’t Jews. That they must be eliminated. This from the new leading rabbi of Sephardic Jews.

Contrast that with Rabbi Yosef, who said Jews who wear knit kipot. “are loved. I never differentiated between knit kipot and black kipot. It’s nothing.”

And then we have the guy who the mayor of Jerusalem wants to appoint as the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. His name is Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and he’s known for his anti-Arab views.

Eliyahu, currently the chief rabbi of Safed, has called on Jews not to rent or sell apartments to non-Jews and been quoted as saying, “A Jew should not run away from an Arab. A Jew should chase away Arabs.” He’s also said “There is a silent war going on here for land”; “most of the violence in Israeli society stems from the Arabs”; and “the Arabs have a different code, and violent norms that have become an ideology.”

As Knesset member Eitan Cabel said, “Rabbi Eliyahu has consistently exploited his public position to incite against a minority in Israel that makes up a fifth of the population, using every available platform to spew racist, dogmatic statements.”

As Justice Minister Tzipi Livni put it, “A chief rabbi represents not just the rabbinate, but Israel itself as a country. Therefore, [his] rulings and statements that support nationalistic discrimination and have racist undertones are harmful to the already sensitive fabric [of Israeli society] and threaten to deepen the split between us and Israel’s Arab citizens.”

And yet, in today’s upside down Jewish world, he’s the guy being pushed to be the chief rabbi of holy Jerusalem.

Both Cohen and Eliyahu are symbolic of the rabbis rising to the top in the Jewish world today, with the meaner they are, the stronger their credentials, the uglier their words the more they are deemed worthy of being leaders.

Used to be that leading rabbis like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe were those whose words were always loving, whose attitude was always accepting, who always presented an image of Judaism as a warm, beautiful, kind and gentle place.

But those days seem to be over. Today it’s the meaner the better. The Catholics had the good sense to follow the “Rottweiler pope,” Benedict, the strict German who was always attacking and finger-pointing and name-calling other Catholics, with Pope Francis, who always has a nice word, a respectful attitude and who always puts his heart, not his fist, first.

Jews seem to be going the opposite way, following kind, wise and gentle men like the Chofets Chaim and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef with the likes of Shalom Cohen and Shmuel Eliyahu.

One can only pray that we will come to our senses and realize that in going in the “right” direction, we are going very much in the wrong direction.


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