Thursday, August 30, 2007

Deconstructing a Gadol

Many years ago I together with my wife and two daughters lived in a small Midwestern community with one orthodox synagogue. Naturally we chose a house in close proximity of the shul. Having met the rabbi and heard some of his sermons I had my reservations, but it was the only game in town. In particular, being an intellectual snob of sorts I disliked the fact that he had one of those psuedo college diplomas, the kind where half the credits are made up of yeshiva credits comprised of talmud classes plus another years credit for their experience in an Israeli yeshiva. It is the kind of “rabbi” who lacks clear analytical reasoning, intellectual expanse and perspective, emotionally driven by the need to be “mekarev”, incapable of creatively thinking out of the box, and judgmental to a fault.

This was the time when there had been an earthquake in California, small enough not to have caused much mayhem but big enough to have caused loss of life and grab the headlines of most national newspapers. That particular Shabbat, our beloved rabbi delivered the sermon from the mount peppered with fire and brimstone. In his diatribe he referred to California as the epicenter of tumah because of the rampant homosexuality plaguing the cities and countryside. It was, in his estimation, God’s way of calling attention to our collective sins by reigning down on California a light earthquake as a wake up call. The next one, unless they drastically changed their lifestyles would be cataclysmic, he prophesied.

I couldn’t help but ask what kind of rabbi was this? How dare he exploit the power of the pulpit for such a hateful remark? Predictably, my mind wandered off to the holocaust and I asked myself whether Poland had been the epicenter of tumah for God to orchestrate the liquidation of 6 million Jews. What about all of the righteous Jews who died? What about the righteous people who died in the California earthquake? Is this the rabbis “take” on God?

Within a relatively short while we sold our house and moved to a more loving community within walking distance of another orthodox shul which was spiritual and intellectual light years away from the one I had just left. I never imagined that I would encounter the likes of another heartless and thoughtless rabbi. And then out of the blue I read about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Hard to believe that any man, let alone this man could make such a heartless comment. He is referred to by many as a Gadol. I have to question the standards by which someone is revered as a Gadol, if Ovadia Yosef falls into that category. What is most unsettling is that people still refer to him as such and are making excuses for his coarse and vulgar comment about the death of soldiers resulting from their lack of shemirat mitzvoth.

It just so happens that among the dead soldiers were religious soldiers. I suppose that according to Ovadia Yosef they weren’t religious enough, otherwise they wouldn’t have been killed. What is religious according to him? I would also suggest that the reverse is probably true according to his logic. Our enemies who inflicted death and destruction upon us must be very religious and acting on God’s behalf in order to punish the unrepentant and sinful Jews. How perverted. It must be very painful to live in a world that is so full of hate and resentment towards those who don’t share the same values.

A Gadol ought to be someone who has not only demonstrated an unusual and unmatched grasp of torah and halacha but is also someone who is the personification and the embodiment of collective Jewish wisdom. One indication of this kind of very unusual religious leader is his love not only of his people but of humankind. Short of this he may be a scholar and a renowned halachic decisor of esoteric Jewish law, but hardly has earned the honorific recognition as a Gadol. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, unfortunately and by his utter lack of respect and tenderness towards his people falls short of this accolade.