Two area rabbis have gathered the names of over 200 mostly Conservative colleagues on a petition condemning a prominent Israeli rabbi for “incitement.”
Rabbis David Greenstein of Shomrei Emunah in Montclair and Robert Scheinberg of United Synagogue of Hoboken drafted the petition in the wake of incendiary comments made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and current spiritual leader of Israel’s fervently Orthodox Shas Party.
In his comments, broadcast on the evening of Aug. 28, Yosef called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an “evil hater of Israel” and prayed that God should “strike him and all Palestinians — evil haters of Israel — with a plague.”
The petition declares that Yosef’s comments constitute “irresponsible incitement to violence” and “are not acceptable as words of Torah.”
Yosef’s remarks, coming on the eve of U.S.-brokered direct talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were also condemned by the State Department and the Anti-Defamation League.
At press time, 23 New Jersey rabbis had signed on to the petition, including Rabbi Stephen Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, Rabbi Kenneth Tarlow of Congregation Beth Torah in Florham Park, Rabbi Herman Adler and Rabbi Carla Friedman of Toms River, Rabbi Justus Baird of Princeton, and Rabbi Naomi Kalish of Hoboken. Like Greenstein and Scheinberg, the vast majority of signers belong to the Conservative movement.
Greenstein said Yosef is too influential for his statement to be dismissed as isolated.
“The religious voice in the public square in Israel is a harsh, ultra-nationalist, I would say even racist and fundamentalist voice,” Greenstein said in a telephone interview. “It has created a vacuum in the heart of Israeli society so that the most important part of our identity has been hijacked and poisoned.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we look at this as an isolated statement of a particular rabbi at a moment in time to a narrow set of constituents.”
Nor is the issue about one negative statement, he said, but rather about transforming the way people understand Torah and Judaism, especially during the High Holy Days season.
“We’re at a time that is bringing up questions about what are the central values of our people and what role will religion play in informing the vision,” said Greenstein. “This is a man of enormous learning. To the extent that he says things people find offensive, he highlights the phenomenon in which people say, ‘If that is religion, I don’t want any part of it.”
The petition calls instead for a religious vision that is more “respectful and peace loving.”
“If we can begin to make the alternative voice more present in the public square, that one small step toward a reality can be transformative,” said Greenstein.