Rabbis’ statement takes on Ovadia Yosef, calls for moderate jewish voice
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Rabbis’ statement takes on Ovadia Yosef, calls for moderate jewish voice

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Rabbi David Greenstein, top, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg and Rabbi Ovadua Yosef

Urging a return to “authentic Torah teachings,” Rabbis Robert Scheinberg and David Greenstein have drafted a statement calling for an “open-minded and pluralistic” religious vision.

“We’re critical when we don’t hear voices in other religions teaching inclusiveness, compassion, and tolerance,” said Greenstein. “We need to create a strong Jewish voice as well.”

The document – which emerged after a discussion on the Conservative movement’s rabbinic listserve and emphasizes “pleasantness and peace” – has drawn more than 200 signatories, including individuals from each major Jewish denomination.

Several weeks ago, with the approach of Rosh HaShanah and the Mideast peace talks, “David Greenstein posted something on an e-mail list of Conservative rabbis suggesting that this would be a good opportunity for such a statement,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “It appears to have resonated with a number of people.”

“It was immediately after Yosef’s statement,” he added. In late August, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced peace talks with the Palestinians, dubbing them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel,” and called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “perish from this world.”

Still, said Scheinberg, the joint statement was not simply a reaction to Yosef’s comments – though it did condemn his words in strong language – but a wider call for Jews, especially Jewish religious leaders, to speak out against Jewish extremism.

“The [Anti-Defamation League] was quick to condemn Yosef’s statement,” he said. “But we thought there should be a specifically religious voice doing so. With the controversy over the Islamic center in Manhattan growing, [we thought] it was somewhat hypocritical for the Jewish community to get very upset when Muslim moderates do not regularly, quickly, and forcefully condemn incendiary statements,” without Jews’ doing the same thing. “We hope to get it on the record that when a statement like this gets made by someone as prominent as Yosef, rabbis react with disgust.”

That wasn’t happening, said Greenstein, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, who conceived the idea of posting a petition on the Conservative listserve and later of making it public.

“The question is, what kinds of religious voices are going to be out there,” he said, adding that Yosef and others who agree with him have made such statements before and are likely to do so again.

Scheinberg added that as a Conservative Jew who has studied Yosef’s responsa, “learning a tremendous amount from him,” he is especially bothered by the Israeli rabbi’s incendiary statements, “since he’s very much within the canon prized by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.”

The joint statement, he said, suggests criteria by which the teaching of Torah is measured – “such as, does it foster pleasantness and peace.” While the piece originally was targeted to Conservative rabbis, it later “got passed on to some other places on the Internet where interdenominational dialogue takes place,” he said, attracting signers from other denominations as well.

In addition, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has since drafted its own statement, incorporating some of Scheinberg and Greenstein’s wording.

Greenstein said he’s not sure how all the signers learned about the statement, since “people were signing it before we did the extra outreach. I’m very heartened that this has become a cross-denominational venture.”

While the document has not drawn many Orthodox signers, Scheinberg said he has no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox leaders condemn Yosef’s statements.

He attributed the small number of signers to “a general wariness of a completely grassroots statement, not attached to any organization.”

“Rabbi Yosef was only the jumping-off point” of the joint statement, said Greenstein. “The main point was the affirmation of a challenge and an opportunity to teach a different kind of Torah. We can all unite for that and must continue to work toward it.”

The rabbi said he hopes the petition will “push, promote, and inspire more rabbis to reconsider the priorities of how, when, and to whom we speak about Torah, creating a more vibrant and just religious culture.”

“This year, more than ever before, we have to focus on eradicating extremism,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, religious leader of The Temple in Atlanta and former rabbi of Temple Beth-Or in Washington Township. Berg, who is Reform, signed the statement.

While Judaism exists “in argument and tension and the Jewish tradition is that no one agrees on much of anything, so many in our troubled world believe that there’s only one singular right way,” he said. “That’s a short step from thinking of ourselves as morally entitled.”

“If we believe that there is only one truth, then violence and death are sure to follow. In a democracy, we have to call upon religious leaders to come to the middle.”

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