Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi (known as the Rishon LeZion), Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, is facing serious complaints from the public which have accumulated over his eight years in office, and some of them have led to the country’s Ombudsman, retired Supreme Court Justice Uri Shoham, to recommend his impeachment.
On Monday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is scheduled to debate the recommendation, and it does not bode well for the good rabbi that the committee chairman happens to be Labor MK Gilad Kariv, best known by his old job, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.
The committee hearing was requested by the opposition MKs Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), Moshe Arbel (Shas), and Avigdor Maoz (Religious Zionism) who plan to interrogate the Ombudsman about his decision to recommend terminating Rabbi Yosef, but kept mum on the conduct of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who was outrageous in her interference with the workings of the previous Knesset under Likud House Speaker, MK Yuli Edelstein, and fought the Knesset’s attempt to set up a committee to examine judges’ conflicts of interest.
It comes down to whether or not individuals in appointed high office are at liberty to go out of their way to criticize the government from which they draw their power. In this case, the Haredi MKs are saying, it turns out what’s good for the goose don’t cut it for the gander.
Justice Shoam accepted the complaints of the Reform Center for Religion and State against Chief Rabbi Yosef and forbade him to speak out publicly on political issues. He also called on Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana to reconsider letting him continue his tenure as a judge in the Great Rabbinical Court. In addition, the ombudsman urged the minister to reprimand the chief rabbi for his harsh remarks against the government reforms which he, Kahana, is promoting, in particular, his holding an “emergency meeting” of the Chief Rabbinate Council to consider ways of combatting the minister’s reforms.
The list of complaints against Chief Rabbi Yosef is considerable. Here are a few of the more “entertaining” ones:
In March 2016, Rabbi Yosef told religious Jews to keep their children away from their secular and traditional relatives to avoid negative influences.
Also in March 2016, he said that non-Jews “should not live in the Land of Israel” if they don’t practice the seven Noahide Laws, in which case they should be sent to Saudi Arabia. He also suggested non-Jews are allowed to live in Israel only to serve the Jews. The ADL complained and he retracted his comments.
In December 2016, he said it was “not the way of the Torah” for women to serve in the IDF or national service: “All the great sages through the generations, including all Israel’s chief rabbis, believe that it is forbidden for girls to go into the army… not just to the army – but to national service too.”
In May 2017, he compared immodestly dressed secular women to animals. In March 2018, he allegedly compared blacks to monkeys, but that was most likely a gotcha, as the Chief Rabbi was teaching a Talmudic segment about the blessing of “He who changes people” and used blacks as an illustration.
In 2020, following Rabbi Yosef’s comment at a rabbinical conference about the state’s bringing tens of thousands of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, Israel Beiteinu launched a complaint with Justice Shoam, who recommended to then-Minister of Religious Services Yaakov Avitan (Shas) to bring disciplinary action for” his repeated statements on matters of political nature which are at the heart of public controversies.” Minister Avitan criticized the Ombudsman for daring to attack a chief rabbi for voicing his halachic opinion.
Yes, things have changed dramatically at the ministry since 2020…
Finally, in November 2021, the Ombudsman called on the new Minister of Religions Services, Matan Kahana (Yamina), to severely reprimand Rabbi Yosef and look into impeaching him after he had organized a protest rally against the government’s plans for reform in kashrut and conversions. Minister Kahana, like his Haredi predecessor, chose not to comply, saying he would not infringe on the freedom of speech of rabbis. Not as harsh as Avitan, but on the same grounds.
According to reports in Israel’s media, on Monday the Reform movement plans to demand of the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – their own Executive Director – to recommend Chief Rabbi Yosef’s impeachment. They called the Chief Rabbi’s comments over the years of his tenure “Serious, inappropriate, and unbefitting, including racist, offensive, degrading and politically motivated statements, and even statements that undermine the rule of law.”
In July, the Reform Movement together with the Morashtenu organization petitioned the High Court of justice to order the Minister of Religious Services to subject Rabbi Yosef to disciplinary proceedings and convene the committee to select judges to consider his impeachment.