August 10, 2000
A Scholar Who Lacks Sense
In Hebrew, a "scholar who lacks sense" reads as talmid chacham b'li sechel. In any language, it sounds like an oxymoron. I first heard this in reference to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, who this week called Holocaust victims "reincarnated sinners," and Palestinian Arabs "snakes." I took great offense when I first heard people referring to Yosef in this way.
After all, isn't this the rabbi whose hand I was taught to kiss as a youngster? (My father explained to me that a chacham (wise man) filled with Torah is like a Torah scroll, and it is thus a Sephardi custom to kiss the hand of such chacham). Isn't this the rabbi whose many books I studied in yeshiva for years, and whom I revered as perhaps the greatest Torah sage of the 20th century? Isn't this the sage whom I felt privileged to personally escort for a week in New York, and whose humility, charm, humor and love for his family I found so impressive during that week? How could anybody refer to Yosef as a "scholar who lacks sense"?It was only when I began to study Yosef, the politician and spiritual mentor of the Shas Party in Israel, that I began to understand that the political world of power, corruption, greed and disdain for other people's feelings, has indeed dulled the intellectual and spiritual senses and sensitivities of this Torah scholar.By now, you have heard the reactions to Yosef's recent comments from Holocaust survivors, members of Knesset and officials of the Palestinian Authority.
But, as Shas' power politics would dictate, we have not heard one word of condemnation from the current Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, who is nothing more than a puppet of Yosef and the Shas party. We have also heard only vague, noncondemning remarks from another Israeli Sephardi who has recently ascended to leadership, Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who narrowly edged out Shimon Peres thanks to Yosef's instructions to Shas MK's.
Yosef, the Shas party, and all of the so-called Sephardi leadership in Israel today have forgotten the tolerance that the Sephardi tradition classically represents. They have also forgotten the teachings of Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Yosef's own chacham who granted him ordination.
Uziel was the first Sephardic chief rabbi of the State of Israel, and as one Israeli professor put it to me, perhaps Israel's last authentic Sephardic chief rabbi.
When asked a halakhic question about the remaining ashes of Holocaust victims brought to Israel, Uziel said "These ashes are those of elevated holy ones who were murdered for the sanctity of God's name - this is holy dust. It is a mitzvah to bury them."
In regards to relations with the Arabs, Uziel wrote: "The Torah of Israel, all of whose paths are peace, calls for peace and love for its people and all who are created in the image of God. Rabbis must inculcate the Jewish masses with a desire to deal with Arabs respectfully and to achieve harmonious relationships with them."
Israel and the Jewish world desperately need an Uziel. It is lamentable that perhaps his greatest student, who could have filled his shoes, will instead go down in history as the "scholar who lacks sense."
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.