Heresy and Holocaust

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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's Saturday night sermons to a few dozen black-hatted yeshiva seminarians in an obscure Jerusalem synagogue have become a spectator sport, although it's more like bearbaiting than football or tennis. The 80-year-old Iraqi-born divine, with his unruly white beard, red-tinted sunglasses and gold-embroidered robe, delivers his folksy homilies in a quavering whisper. They are broadcast live on pirate radio, and appeal to thousands of disgruntled Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern origin who revere the ultra-orthodox rabbi as the "Moses of the Sephardic world." Local media monitor every word, and Yosef seldom disappoints. He savages prominent personalities and whole communities, and two weeks ago he took on the nation's most sacred memory: the 6 million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II.

History's greatest mass murder was not "all for nothing," said Yosef. The Jewish victims, he explained, were "the reincarnation of earlier souls who sinned [and who] returned ... to atone for their sins." Attempting to clarify almost a week later, Yosef cited a 16th century Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria, who wrote: "If the soul was not purified entirely the first time, and it left this world, that soul must come back in a reincarnation, even a few times, until it is entirely purified." But the comment in his sermon was widely seen as implying that the victims of the Holocaust had it coming. Some thought Yosef was suggesting the Nazis were doing God's work. Turning to a different front, Yosef called the Palestinians "snakes" and "accursed, wicked ones," and cited Talmudic commentaries to claim that God was "sorry he created" all Arabs.

It is not as if Yosef were some minor cleric. While still in his 20s, he established a reputation as a prodigy among Talmudic scholars. He was named Sephardic Chief Rabbi in 1973, and though he completed his term in 1983, he still wears the robe of the office. Over the past two decades, Yosef built the political party he founded, Shas, from a fringe movement of disaffected Eastern Jews to the third-largest bloc in the parliament, with 17 seats and the power to make or break governing coalitions.

Yosef's rants have done nothing to damage his standing among his constituents, most of whom resent what they perceive to be the superior airs of Israel's European or Ashkenazi elite, a frequent target of the rabbi's barbs. In 1993, Yosef promised to "declare a celebration" upon the death of Shulamit Aloni, an Ashkenazi who was then the Culture Minister. In 1997 he said of Reform Jews mostly Western followers of the most liberal brand of the religion "They have straw in their heads." In March, he called on his followers to "wipe out [the] memory" of Yossi Sarid, a secular leftist who was then the Education Minister. In the traditional world of the ultra-orthodox or haredim, even Yosef's more primitive rulings go unchallenged such as his decree that a man must not walk between two women, just as he should not pass between donkeys, in case the lesser beasts contaminate his mind.

In addressing the Holocaust, Yosef was tackling a subject which places believing Jews in an agonizing theological dilemma: if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, how could He allow 6 million of His chosen people to be annihilated? Some rabbis have judged the Holocaust divine retribution for the Zionists' "heresy" of establishing a state before God was ready to send the Messiah to redeem the Jewish nation. Yosef's theory of reincarnated sinners has been put forward before as well, but not by so prominent a religious figure.

Condemnation of his remarks was so widespread that Yosef felt compelled to make himself clear, saying that all the Nazis' victims were "holy and pure and complete saints." But the damage was done. Said Tommy Lapid, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who leads the ultra-secularist Shinui Party: "I feel as if my father was murdered a second time." He and other Ashkenazis argued that Yosef was depicting European Jews as tainted and the Sephardim, who largely escaped the Holocaust, as pure.

"What he said means that it wasn't the Nazis who killed the Jews, it was the Jews who killed the Jews by committing sins generations ago," said Hebrew University historian Yehuda Bauer. "If the Jews are to blame for their own suffering, that's exactly the position of the [Holocaust] deniers." Some commentators remarked that a gentile who made such pronouncements would be excoriated in Israel. Yosef's most avid supporters, however, stood by their aged leader and his unusual views.