Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called secular Jews “pitiable” and “stupid,” in comments made during a weekend sermon that were publicized Sunday on social media.
“I am in the rabbinical court, receiving cases and seeing what’s happening in the secular community. [The secular community is] suffering. They don’t find fulfillment in life. Everything is done for worldly desires,” Yosef said in the sermon.
“It’s unbelievable, but we need to bring them closer. What some organizations are thankfully doing — bringing them closer and returning them to repentance. This is what needs to be done and this is what [Yosef’s father, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef] did,” he added, referring to Orthodox organizations like Rosh Yehudi that gained attention over Yom Kippur for putting up a gender divider at a public prayer service in Tel Aviv in defiance of a court order upholding the municipal policy of no sex segregation in public spaces.
During the sermon, Yosef claimed that “a person who eats non-kosher food, his brain gets stupid, he can’t understand things, doesn’t get it. As soon as he starts keeping kosher, you can start to influence him.”
The rabbi also said secular Jews are “jealous of [Haredi Jews], it’s all jealousy… It all comes from jealousy and becomes hatred.”
Nevertheless, Yosef said he believed the majority of Israeli Jews love Judaism and noted that only a “tiny minority” took part in the protest against the gender-segregated prayers in Tel Aviv.
The comments by Yosef, who has a history of making inflammatory statements, were denounced by opposition figures.
“With his words, Rabbi Yosef changed the definition of his role. He is not the chief rabbi of Israel but rather the rabbi of a vocal minority that from the stands curses millions of Jews who serve in the army, endanger and sacrifice their lives, work and sustain this country,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said. “In one thing he was right — they felt a bit stupid this evening when they remembered that they are the ones who pay his salary.”
MK Avigdor Liberman, head of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, similarly denounced Yosef.
“The only stupidity is that the secular public is financing and paying the salary of a backward person like you,” he said.
Labor MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, called Yosef’s comments “more grave than any incident that occurred on Yom Kippur.”
“The man holds a governmental position and a judicial one. Some of the statements were made in direct reference to his role as a judge. In the audience sat members of the Knesset, rabbinical judges, and rabbis,” Kariv said.
“It is interesting to see if those who condemn the regrettable Yom Kippur events in Dizengoff Square will condemn Rabbi Yosef’s outburst in the same language, or if they will continue to flock to him,” Kariv continued.
The Labor MK also noted he was “primarily referring to several members of the Knesset and public leaders from the opposition parties,” in an apparent reference to MK Benny Gantz and his center-right National Unity faction.
In April, he called on Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party cofounded by Yosef’s father, to provide funds only to municipalities that build synagogues. The rabbi has also drawn criticism for taking partisan stances, namely calling to advance the so-called override clause as part of the government’s judicial overhaul to allow for legislation that will change the definition of who the state considers a Jew.
However, Yosef has since called for dialogue on judicial reform to prevent “civil war,” while also asserting the High Court is “not above” the rabbinical court.