As criticism mounted this week against a top Israeli rabbi for comments which seemed to blame Holocaust victims for their own murders, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party spiritual leader found support in an unexpected quarter.
American Rabbi Ronald Price, the head of a moderate Jewish group, told The Jewish Week that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s volatile words have been badly misunderstood, and unnecessarily prompted a firestorm of negative reaction from Israeli officials, American Jewish organizations and Holocaust memorial representatives.
Rabbi Price was referring to Saturday night’s comments by Rabbi Yosef, 80, leader of Israel’s biggest ultra-Orthodox political party.
Rabbi Yosef said the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were “reincarnated sinners,” killed by the Nazis to make amends for their past wrongs. Rabbi Yosef, whose Shas Party recently quit Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s coalition, also called Barak “senseless” and described Palestinians as “snakes despised by God.”
By Monday, Rabbi Yosef was backtracking, but did not offer an apology. In a sermon, he made a point of calling the Holocaust martyrs “saints.”
“Who doesn’t bemoan that Holocaust?” he said. “Six million Jews, among them one million innocent children … were killed by those wicked Nazis. “All were holy and pure and complete saints.”
But that didn’t stop the growing chorus of critics.
Israeli police were forced to post two guards outside Rabbi Yosef’s building Tuesday after a Holocaust survivor threatened him because of his comments. Also on Tuesday, demonstrators and Shas supporters clashed outside the rabbi’s Jerusalem home.
In the United States, a wave of criticism over the Holocaust remarks flowed from the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Reform movement and others.
“I am appalled,” said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and former president of the Reform movement. “What madness is this? It is a base assault on memory and truth … it holds the victims of genocidal aggression guilty, exonerates their murderers and gives aid and comfort to Shoah deniers.”
But on Tuesday, Rabbi Price, executive vice president of the New Jersey-based Union for Traditional Judaism, a “Conservadox” group, was offering a new explanation. He said Rabbi Yosef was actually discussing a “sophisticated kabbalistic mystical notion of why suffering comes to good people” in his Saturday night sermon.
“According to this theory,” Rabbi Price said, “the souls of sinners are ‘layered’ upon innocent living people so that the living sometimes bear not only their own soul but also another one that still needs purification before it can rise to the Garden of Eden in purity. This was a medieval Jewish explanation for inexplicable suffering.”
Rabbi Price called it unfortunate that Rabbi Yosef “made such casual reference to such a complex notion in a public speech, since it was so likely to be misunderstood.”
But even though Rabbi Price called the statements “ill-chosen and hurtful,” he said they should not be understood as a criticism of Holocaust victims.
“Quite the reverse, part of this theory is that souls needing purification attach themselves only to the holiest people, to tzaddikim. If Rabbi Yosef’s comment said anything about Holocaust victims, it was, however indirectly, a statement of their holiness, not a criticism of them in any way.”
Rabbi Price said he based this explanation on the writings of Rabbi Abraham Ashkenazi, an 18th century Sephardic kabbalist whose writings are held by the UTJ. The rabbi warned world Jewish leadership against overreacting, especially during Tisha b’Av, commemorating 3,000 years of Jewish tragedies, some brought about by internecine Jewish hatred.
But Rabbi Price’s sentiments could almost not be heard above the din of angry charges against the Shas leader, whose initial remarks were made during his weekly Saturday night sermon broadcast over the party’s radio stations and beamed overseas by satellite.
He called the Nazis “evil” and the victims “poor people,” but he said those killed “were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things which should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.”
In Israel, the reaction was immediate on Sunday.
Knesset member Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, called it “slander from an old fool who regretfully is the spiritual leader of a large community in Israel,’’ said Lapid, who is himself a Holocaust survivor.
Israel’s two main radio stations were inundated with phone calls and messages, most criticizing Rabbi Yosef’s statement. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum labeled the remarks “miserable.”
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, said that while he did not believe that Rabbi Yosef meant to cast aspersions upon the dead, “I do not know what he knows about reincarnation, because I have no idea why the Holocaust happened. This generation comes too early to analyze the meaning of the Holocaust, when those with arms bearing Auschwitz numbers still walk among us.”
New Israeli President Moshe Katsav, a Sephardi, said, “The press is misinterpreting the rabbi’s statements. But if the commentary on the rabbi’s remarks was indeed correct, I have reservations about them.”
Shas spokesman Yitzhak Sudri said that Rabbi Yosef’s remarks had been “taken out of context and proportion,” as part of what he called an attempt at religious coercion” by the media and the political left.
But National Religious Party MK Nahum Langental, condemned the argument that reincarnation explains the Holocaust. “These are primitive ideas that arouse great hatred among people who are relatives of Holocaust victims and among religious people who went through the ordeal at the hands of the Nazi oppressors.”
Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg said that Rabbi Yosef’s approach to the Holocaust is not unprecedented. He called it a “classic way of coping with the theological problem of the Holocaust — to blame man because it is impossible to blame God. The argument of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is not one I accept, but I know the background it stems from.”
Amcha, an organization dedicated to psychosocial support of survivors and their families, reported being inundated with phone calls from hurt and angry survivors.
Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said that Rabbi Yosef’s statements “absolve the perpetrators of the Holocaust, turning them into messengers of God,” and “exacerbate the already existent tensions in Israeli society.”
Meanwhile, Palestinians and American Arabs condemned Rabbi Yosef’s snake remarks.
“Rabbi Yosef’s remarks are yet another demonstration of the anti-Arab racism prevalent in Israeli political discourse,” said Hala Maksoud, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“ How can you make peace with a snake?” Rabbi Yosef had said to the applause of his followers.
“Those evildoers, the Arabs — it says in the Gemara [Talmud] that God is sorry he ever created those sons of Ishmael.”
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said ‘the statements of this idiot and racist are a disgrace for every Israeli.”
Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi said his party would ask Israel’s attorney-general to consider pressing charges. “It reminds me of what the Nazis said about the Jews.”
Col. Jebril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, said “a religious leader should be trying to promote tolerance among Jews, Muslims and Christians.”
But Barak, who needs Shas to stay in power and win a peace deal, was restrained. He said Rabbi Yosef’s remarks “do not become a rabbi of his standing.”
Barak had counted on Rabbi Yosef’s support because of the rabbi’s ruling years ago that it was acceptable for Israel to cede land to Palestinians if it preserved Jewish lives.
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