Calling out trash talk about Russian Jews
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Calling out trash talk about Russian Jews

Rabbi Michael Chernick of Teaneck and pro-pluralism group Ruach Hiddush talk about Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef

Michael Chernick
Michael Chernick

About two weeks ago, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, talked about the threat he saw emanating from the Russians who made aliyah to Israel.

“Hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of gentiles came to Israel under the Law of Return,” he said. “There are many, many non-Jews here, some of them communists, hostile to religion, haters of religion. They are not Jews at all, gentiles. Then they vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and against religion.”

Later, refusing to back down from that position despite the rage and disgust aimed at him from a large number of Israelis, including both Avigdor Lieberman, the powerful politician who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, most of whose members were born in the former Soviet Union (he’s from Moldova) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Rabbi Yosef explained that it was a plot to push the country in a secular direction. “Tens or hundreds of thousands of Gentiles have come to Israel as a result of this law,” he said. “Gentiles who vote for all sorts of anti-religious parties.” (The quotes come from the Times of Israel and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.)

Rabbi Yosef went on to say that many of the conversions that turned Russians who had not been born halachically Jewish into halachic Jews — many of those conversions done under the auspices of his own office — were not kosher or legitimate.

In Israel, Hiddush, the organization that promotes religious pluralism, joined many other organizations in condemning Rabbi Yosef’s remarks.

In the diaspora, Ruach Hiddush — its tagline identifies it as “rabbis and cantors for religious freedom and equality in Israel” — also came out strongly against Rabbi Yosef’s comments.

Rabbi Professor Michael Chernick of Teaneck is the chair of Ruach Hiddush; he is Orthodox.

He is shocked not only by Rabbi Yosef’s wholesale condemnation of Russian Jews, but also by his rejection of conversions that had been accepted at the time they were completed.

“Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef decided that he was going to smear the entire Russian Jewish community,” Rabbi Chernick said. “He also said that conversions should not be accepted prima facie, just because they were converted under his aegis.” Those converts’ post-conversion lives should be examined, Rabbi Yosef said; if they could be shown to be living non-Orthodox lives, their conversions should be reversed.

“That’s a halachic impossibility,” Rabbi Chernick said. “If somebody has converted to Judaism in front of a reliable bet din, and that person decided at some later point that they weren’t going to be observant in Orthodox fashion any more, that person still is Jewish.

“These kinds of threats have been going on for a while; almost a decade ago there were threats to reverse people’s conversions, even though the conversions were done by people approved by the chief rabbinate.”

It’s not just Rabbi Yosef, Rabbi Chernick said. “This week, there has been a barrage of this kind of stuff. Rafi Peretz, Israel’s minister of education, who is really to the right but considers himself a national Zionist, not charedi, blasted the LGBT community.” Rabbi Peretz — he’s also a rabbi, and the head of the Jewish Home party — was asked what he’d do if one of his children were gay.

“Thank God, my children grew up in a natural and healthy way,” he answered. “They are building their homes based on Jewish values. I don’t bother my head with ‘what if’ thinking.

“In the religious public that lives according to the Torah, a normal family is a man and a woman. We don’t need to be ashamed that we live in this natural way,” he added.

Rabbi Chernick isn’t sure what’s going on, but it seems that the overheated political tensions that are leading to an unprecedented third election in less than a year are contributing to the outpourings of hate.

“I can theorize, although I can’t know,” he said. “I would say, though, that this is Yitzhak Yosef talking to the Sephardic community, which has no love for the Russians.” It’s a socioeconomic problem specific to Israel. “Some of the Russians came to Israel better educated than the Sephardim, who were treated badly by some Eastern European Jews. The Russians — a lot of them were doctors and engineers, and many of them were very well educated — got good positions, and the Sephardic Jews weren’t doing as well.

“I think that it’s a way to get Sephardim to vote for Shas and other parties like that, but what do I know?”

He and the other rabbis on Ruach Hiddush’s executive committee — a group that includes Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal clergy members — “put out a statement because we felt that somebody has to stand up to these kinds of inflammatory and egregious comments.

“Jews shouldn’t be denigrating other Jews, no matter what they think their Jewish status is. And Russian Jews have made a tremendous contribution to the state of Israel, and they deserve better than to be denigrated.

“Why should a shadow of suspicion be cast on these people,” and on their status as Jews? “And that shadow has been cast on every last one of them.”

That leads him to another of Hiddush and Ruach HIddush’s positions, that the office of the chief rabbinate has outlived its usefulness. “We have always taken the stance that the chief rabbinate is a position that shouldn’t exist,” he said. Ruach HIddush’s statement in its press release is blunt. “Polls done by Hiddush…demonstrate that a majority of Israelis neither trust the chief rabbinate nor approve of its monopoly over Jewish religious life in Israel,” it reads.

Israelis, like their diaspora counterparts, should have “freedom of choice to decide who your spiritual leader should be,” Rabbi Chernick said. “There should be no chief rabbis who have state backing. Each Jewish community should be recognized as such, and there should be religious pluralism in Israel.

“The rabbis of any of the varieties of Judaism that we know of should have authority over their communities, and their authority should come from the people who chose them as their leader, not from the state.”

Or, as the press release concludes, “We join with the many who have already denounced Rabbi Yosef’s hurtful and fundamentalist understanding of the Jewish tradition, and we will work together with like-minded clergy, activists, and organizations to ensure that the chief rabbinate’s monopolistic hold on Jewish life in Israel gives way to religious pluralism there.”

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