Jerusalem’s Sephardic chief rabbi on Tuesday lashed out at Reform Jews, saying they were worse than Holocaust deniers for defying Orthodox Jewish law on gender separation and insisting on the right to mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall in the city.
His comments, delivered in a weekly sermon and reported by the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabbat, followed Thursday’s High Court response to petitions filed by five liberal Jewish organizations, including the Women of the Wall and the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, to force the government to implement its pledge to build a mixed-gender prayer site.
The justices ordered the government to let the court know by September 14 if it is willing to reconsider implementing its January pledge — a decision that it put on ice in June, amid opposition by ultra-Orthodox politicians and religious leaders.
“They’re trying to throw dust in the eyes [of the public] and say that the Orthodox extremist Jews invented [the separation of sexes],” Shlomo Amar, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, said. “It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing. They shout about Holocaust deniers in Iran, [but] they deny more than Holocaust deniers.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disavowed Amar’s remarks, saying, “All Jews are part of one family and the diversity of our people should always be respected. I categorically reject any attempt to delegitimize any part of the Jewish people.”
The rabbi — who stoked controversy late last year when he called homosexuality an “abomination” and noted that the Torah mandates a death penalty for those who engage in gay sex — said that gender separation dated back to Temple times and was clearly required by Jewish religious law.
Petitions to the Supreme Court to allow mixed-gender prayer came from “wicked” people who committed “every injustice in the world against the Torah, ” he went on. “They even marry Jews to non-Jews, they have neither Yom Kippur nor Shabbat, but they want prayer… and nobody should believe that they want to pray — they want to desecrate what’s holy.”
In other comments, Amar attacked the Supreme Court for focusing on equality, which he said was positive in principle, but had “destroyed” many countries.
When it came to the Western Wall, nobody but God had authority; neither the Supreme Court, nor the government, nor the rabbi of the Wall, he said. “This is holy to God.”
In an interview Wednesday morning on Israel Radio, Amar would not take back his comments calling members of liberal Jewish denominations worse than Holocaust deniers, insisting that the point he wanted to make was that Jewish law on gender separation was so clear and fundamental that denying it was like denying that the earth was round, that the Jewish Temple once stood on the Temple Mount, or that Shabbat exists.
Asked about photographs showing mixed-gender prayer at the wall before Israel’s Independence in 1948, Amar said that at that time, the area was not under Jewish sovereignty.
Responding to Amar’s comments, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, told Israel Radio that it was unacceptable that Jerusalemite Holocaust survivors were among those helping to pay Amar’s salary. He called on the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, to stop inviting the rabbi to official events.
Yisrael Eichler, an Orthodox lawmaker for the United Torah Judaism party, told Israel Radio Wednesday that Kariv was inciting millions of American Jews to believe that Israel was excluding them, just as Sheikh Raed Salah — the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, indicted in August for incitement to terror — had incited Israeli Muslims to believe that the Jewish state was endangering the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.
He dubbed liberal Jews campaigning for a mixed gender prayer site a “small mafia” and “enemies of the Jewish religion,” who, with their feminist agenda, were intent on fomenting civil war in Israel, in the service of the Supreme Court.