Friday, September 3, 2010

A Rabbi Speaks Like A Rabbi

Rav Ovadia Yosef has done it again. During his televised Saturday night talk he called for the death of Mahmoud Abbas and "these Palestinians". Saeb Erekat denounced him for preaching genocide, the State Department chided, media outlets pontificated, and in Israel, where at least some people might have been expected to know better, public figures piled onto each other in their haste to condemn.
It seems, after all, a serious matter. Rav Yosef, who just turned 90, is the greatest living Sephardi rabbi, and arguably the most important halachic scholar of our day. One in eight Jewish Israelis vote for the Shas party he founded in the 1980s, and more hold him in highest esteem. Prime ministers and opposition leaders alike visit him to explain matters of state in the hope of gaining his support. He's important. And complex.
Along with his unfortunate penchant for expressing himself in earthy bluntness, Rav Yosef has been a revolutionary force for modernizing halachic thought and integrating it into modernity. Again and again he has courageously formulated rulings that contradicted those of all his peers. He found a way to permit and encourage organ transplants; he permitted artificial inseminations; in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War he swiftly freed almost a thousand women from Aginut, and the list goes on. Most famously, in the late 1980s he was the first important orthodox rabbi to announce that peace with the Palestinians is preferable to continued control of the West Bank.
How then to explain this week's outburst, let alone excuse it? By listening to him in his natural context.
The Rav Yosef doesn't use the Internet, has never encountered a blog, is unlikely ever to have read Haaretz and certainly doesn't follow the New York Times. He doesn't watch television, though his weekly talk is broadcasted live. Lesser men have invested decades in migrating the compendia of all halachic literature into a digital database, Bar Ilan University's Responsa Project; for a long time Rav Yosef didn't even know this was happening, nor did he care. He has read those tens of thousands of books, and knows what's in them. His world is about Jewish learning, Jewish belief, Jewish thought, imagery, and language. It is extraordinarily rich, but overlaps only partially with the secular world, and hardly at all with the world of international diplomacy or media. Had one asked him for the date of his inflammatory speech he'd have answered that it was the 19th of Elul, not the 29th of August.
Elul is a distinctive month. For orthodox Sephardi men, it can't be overlooked, as they rise daily at 3am to chant slichot, the mediaeval supplications for mercy. Since Rav Ovadia's words and their meaning come straight from the slichot, any attempt to evaluate what he was saying and what his audience heard ought to notice them.
Common wisdom tells that the high holidays are about personal reflection, balance taking, resolutions to improve and divine absolution. Indeed they are – partially. They are also about communal behavior, national survival, and God's obligation to protect his people and avenge them. The theme of the seven weeks between the beginning of Elul and the end of the high holidays is that we're unworthy sinners pleading for God's forgiveness, but also that we're miserable and down-trodden and may he raise us for the glory of his name. That second theme has a clear subtext, that we suffer for our adherence to him and therefore are worthy of his protection.
There are numerous examples; here are two. The Ata rav slichot (Thou art benevolent) supplication says
Terrified by their travails
By their revilers and persecutors
Please don't abandon them oh God of their fathers…
Deliver them in sight of everyone
Let the evil ones no longer rule over them
Or the Ase Lema'an (Do it for their sake) verse, repeated every day: Do it for Your Truth, do it for Your greatness, do it for Your name, do it for Your kingdom… do it for Abraham Isaac and Jacob, do it for David and Solomon, do it for Jerusalem… do it for the martyred for Your Oneness, do it for the massacred for Your name, do it for those burned and drowned sanctifying You, do it for infants suckling at the breast who did not sin…
After a month of daily supplication and shofar blowing, Rosh Hashana amplifies the themes in two full days of devotion, followed by another eight of supplication and finally the blast of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur service contains the agonizingly long and detailed description of how the Romans tortured ten great scholars to death, followed by Avinu Malkenu (Our Parent, our Sovereign), recited for ten days and repeatedly on Yom Kippur: Avinu Malkenu, abolish our persecution and the conniving of our enemies, thwart the intentions of our enemies, destroy our persecutors, silence them…
Tellingly, the haunting Barbara Streisand recording of Avinu Malkenu drops this part, as do many of the references one can find in Google. It's as if enlightened or secular modern Jews are uncomfortable with the overt violence in many of the texts of this highest of Jewish annual cycles. They misunderstand the meaning.
In the middle of the second century CE the Jews renounced the use of political power. The catastrophe of two defeats by Roman armies, the first destroying the Temple and the second depopulating Jerusalem and Judea, was too much to bear. The Mishna, followed by the Gemara, were so traumatized they succeeded in hiding the true extent of the destruction and horror; it took the archeologists and historians of the 20th century to decipher the true enormity, especially of Hadrian's genocide. Instead, the Talmud concentrated on the loss of great scholars and the stubborn, sometime suicidal determination to pass on the teaching of Torah. Implicitly, and eventually explicitly, the Jews told themselves they had a pact with God. They would suffer in his name, but he would fight their wars; they might die for his law, but he wouldn't allow their enemies to win. Their personal fate might be terrible, the destinies of their community dire, but the nation would always survive, and the enemies – eventually – would be defeated.
The yearning for divine retribution, at times blood-curdling in its intensity, was a substitute for action and for the need, even the permissibility, of counterforce. No matter how harsh the persecution of the Jews, there was never any cycle of violence. Words of violence effectively replaced the violence itself for 18 long centuries.
Admittedly, this has changed. In the 20th century the Jews returned to the use of national power. Most of them are secular, they no longer believe in a God to fight their battles for them, and not all of the violence they engage in is wise. The ancient traditions, however, are still there. When the Rav Yosef lifted the theme for his talk straight out of the prayer book, he wasn't calling for genocide, nor inciting to violence. On the contrary. He was continuing a quiescent tradition, by calling on God to do what the Jews won't do and shouldn't do.
There is no causal line from his words to deeds, nor did he intend there to be. He was speaking as a Jew does in Elul. Perhaps it's too much to expect anyone to respect him, but at least they might refrain from damning him.
Postscript: Earlier today it was reported that the Rav Eliashiv, arguably the only living rabbi of similar stature to Rav Ovadia, criticized the comment: "There's no sense in aggravating the whole world", he reportedly said. Which shows that the ancient favorite pastime of rabbis, to disagree with one another, is as vital as ever.
Update: Reader David Sigeti draws my attention to the fact that Rav Yosef supports the continuation of the settlement freeze so as to give a chance to the peace negotiations just starting; most rabbis aren't taking that position openly at the moment.


Anonymous said...

thank you Yaacov

could somebody most of all make sure that the Rabbi is translated by a context knowledgeable human being?

Recently I learned that Google translate gave the German "Übergriff" used in everyday life as transgression into private space like for example an unwanted pat on the back as "attack". But an attack in German would be an "Angriff" and the two have next to nothing in common. Google obviously rightfully "thought" the word attack to be more fitting in the context;-(

The term "Übergriff" was used by our foreign ministry for the recent drive-by shootings and murders. The message was apparently sent to Germans living in Israel. Even throwing a rock would never ever be called a mere "Übergriff" by a half-way sane person.

I understand that of the recent speech of the Rabbi several translations made the round, the first one being the most damaging.


Anonymous said...

This Rosh Hashanah, let us pray that the Haskalah reaches Ovadia Yosef and his ilk, speedily and in our day.

Moses Mendelssohn

Bryan said...

OT: My thoroughly uninformed friend was watching the speeches at the start of the "peace talks" and even she commented on how different the speeches were. She observed that although Bibi went on and on about the important of peace, Abbas focused entirely on "settlements" and added a half-assed commitment to "peace" as a postscript.

And this is from a girl who has no knowledge of the conflict whatsoever (although given how much she dislikes Arabs--she's a big Darfur activist--I wouldn't say she's not biased).

On topic: Yaacov, is "this" or "these" more emphatic in Hebrew than in English? Because the translation (referring to "these Palestinians") could still be idiomatic English for "Palestinians" in general. It's a rare usage, but not necessarily ungrammatical. Is this true in Hebrew, or is "ha'palestinim ha'ele" more emphatic than in English?

Anonymous said...


It is worth knowing that, in the context of the current peace talks, it has been reported that Rav Yosef has urged that the settlement freeze in the West Bank (although not in Jerusalem) be continued.,7340,L-3946523,00.html

David E. Sigeti

Stephen said...

I'm curious to how you would react to a parallel contextualization of, say, Ahmadinejad's comment that he wants to wipe Israel off the map.

Anonymous said...

The difference to Ahmadinejad is that he wants God to do it and does in no way intend to do it himself.

But it is still unacceptable, as is Yaacov's defense of it.

Elimelech Shalev said...

Unlike Popes, Rabbis are fallible. At the venerable age of 90, Rabi Yosef should know better, or, because of his age, already can't know better. In either case, he is an embarrassment and his followers should think carefully about the wisdom of beaming his fallibility, failing faculties and failed judgement to the world in real-time.

Anonymous said...

Who of the followers of the Rabbi has acted in the real world and substantiated what he said?

So "parallel contextualization" would lead to some very interesting (and sordid) tales.


Yaacov said...

Hi All,

For those of you who disagreed with me, it's a free country.

Stephen: If somebody explains the context you're referring to, I'll listen. I doubt the case can be made, but feel free to try.

Elimelech: Actually, I sort of agree. The Rav Yosef has repeatedly said things on live TV that would better have remained inside his synagogue, where nobody will twist them into what they aren't.

Bryan: The formulation wasn't precise in Hebrew, either. My understanding of it, having listened repeatedly, was a general "May God punish these Palestinians who are our enemies", i.e those whose actions prove they're enemies. Their actions come first, his request for them to be punished comes second. Given what I explained about how the religious imagery works, I don't see any other way to understand the words.

And on that point I'm not going to budge, folks: A rabbi asking God to punish Israel's enemies is not comparable in any remote way to incitement of violence, a call to genocide or any of that stuff. Not.

Anonymous said...

Yaacov -

You wrote:
"... he [Rabbi Yosef] called for the death of Mahmoud Abbas and "these Palestinians"."

but later you wrote:
"May God punish these Palestinians who are our enemies"

which is quite different. Is the actual text available?


Anonymous said...

The Elder of Ziyon has a post on the quotation with a link to the video, a transcription of the remark in Hebrew, and a translation into English. The link is here:

David E. Sigeti

Sylvia said...

The "keyword" is resha'im - evil-doers, not that they are enemies.
In the past, he has called evil-doer Yossi Sarid (Haman ha-rasha'), Tommy Lapid (I think when he was justice minister), and Ariel Saron (for Gush Katif).

Let's hope nothing bad will happen to Mahmoud Abbas.

X said...

My initial reaction was that Mr Yosef was not actually calling for his followers to engage in violence, and that no violence would result from his statements. Your explanation of the context confirms my impression.

However, this background information does not make me like him or the reactionary Shas party any better. His statements deserved to be condemned, regardless of whatever religious mumbo-jumbo they were part of, regardless of whether they were "serious" or not.

Anonymous said...

going over ancient texts reminding us that we had ancestors with problems just like ours and came through it and talking about them is no mumbo-jumbo. Read a few professors of literature, THEY come up with mumbo-jumbo. Listen to a few philosophers, THEY come up with mumbo-jumbo. Listen to whomever you want lots in any profession are always mumbo-jumboers.

Societies have had religion all through the ages and if these weren't good - no essential - for something they would have been left behind long long ago. So they must by sheer logic be a lot better than mumbo-jumbo.

Is a society's religion always right as to what's best for it and its time and place. No of course not, but it seems to me that at least Judaism's foundation is so admirable that it will do mostly well for its people.

Yaacov's explanation has reminded me how inept we have become to understand anything but soundbites.
Maybe he is right that talks like the Rabbis are not suitable to mass-communication.

I'd hope for us to go the other way - to make it comprehensible to the "masses".

Here's Bernard Knox about a performance of Sophocles. If his description of the audience's ignorance is correct, we are forgetting too much about understanding the old while praying to the new.

I saw I think it was Oedipus Rex on a hot August night in the theatre at the foot of the Acropolis with the Kombolois furiously clicking and not understanding a word of Greek. The actors wore masks, and they just walked back and forth and the mumbo-jumbo gripped me. All I knew was a version of it from a write-up for children. Now compare my report with Knox's.

Silke (agnostic)

AKUS said...

Yakov - I am far from being a standard bearer for Ovadia Yosef, or others like him, and his Shas party has done and continues to do massive damage to Israel.

But what he said, as I understand it does not deserve the rebuke he received from the State Department or others.

The reports I have read said that he stated that evil people who wish for the destruction of Israel, such Abbas and other Palestinians (clearly meaning those who are out to destroy Israel) should perish from the world. Here is the Ynet version:

"May our enemies and adversaries be destroyed", and applied it to the current situation. "Abu Mazen (Abbas) and all those evil men – may they perish from this world. May God Almighty strike them and these Palestinians."

I think most Israelis, even secular ones, would find it hard to argue with that statement.

Moreover, the State Department's hypocrisy is phenomenal - America, after all, has a list of those who it expects to help "perish from this world" and is systematically making sure it happens in Afghanistan and Wajiristan.

Finally, again according to Ynet, Ovadia Yosef has said:

"On the principle plane, I have given a halachic ruling in the past which I will repeat today: We should strive for peace and security even at the cost of land concessions. This is in line with the Jewish principle of 'pikuach nefesh' (saving of human life), which puts the value of human life above all other religious principles."

A statement which even Yossie Beilin could not argue with.

Anonymous said...

Probably the Rabbi's "misdemeanour" was that he named Abbas. Abbas and Fayad are being "sold" to me as the qintessential peaceniks. (also I have learned that in "their" culture it is a no no to name an actual culprit instead of a more "encompassing" style. Again and again much ado about nothing at least not at the part the media gets excited about.

Would the Pope have been reprimanded? risking the furor of Latinos?

Here is an example of how the US would prefer to have it expressed:

Judging from that I'd guess that the Rabbi was too vague for their taste.


“The first and second commanders killed plenty of insurgents, but nonetheless saw violence rise in their areas. The first commander reveled in the violence, celebrating the bravery of his soldiers in large firefights.

“The second came away frustrated and disillusioned – he knew what to do but never felt he had explicit permission to do it. Once enacted, reintegration was limted due to failed expectations.

“The third commander killed plenty of insurgents as well, but saw violence drop significantly in his area. Communities banded together, abuse of power was curtailed, and the commander worked carefully with local leaders and his Afghan counterparts to redress grievances and create different choices for local insurgents.