The Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel says secular Jews who eat non-kosher “get stupid” and are envious of the ultra-Orthodox.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s inflammatory remarks, made during a weekend sermon days after Yom Kippur, risks exacerbating secular-religious tensions in Israel that erupted in a melee over gender-separate prayer in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
“I sit on the [Great] Rabbinical Court [of Appeals], 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 [to Judaism]. 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 my father [former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef] did,” he added, referring to Orthodox organizations such as Rosh Yehudi.
Rosh Yehudi gained attention on Yom Kippur for putting up a gender divider at the public prayer service in Tel Aviv, in defiance of a court order upholding the municipal policy forbidding gender 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 said secular Jews are “jealous of [haredi Jews], it’s all jealousy. … It all comes from jealousy and becomes hatred.”
At the same time, 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-separate prayers in Tel Aviv.
Opposition figures denounced the comments by Yosef, who has a history of making inflammatory statements.
“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.
“He was right about one thing—they felt a bit stupid this evening when they remembered that they are the ones who pay his salary,” Lapid continued.
Yisrael Beytenu Party head Avigdor Liberman similarly condemned Yosef.
“The only stupidity is that the secular public is financing and paying the salary of a backward person like you,” Liberman said.
Labor Party MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, called Yosef’s comments “graver than any incident that occurred on Yom Kippur.
“The man holds a state 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,” the lawmaker said.
“It will be interesting to see if those who condemn the regrettable events in Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur will condemn Rabbi Yosef’s outburst in the same language, or if they will continue to flock to him,” Kariv continued.
“The comments made by Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef whereby the secular Jewish public is hollow and driven by envy of haredi Jews are baseless and constitute delegitimization of anyone whose Jewish identity does not conform with that of Rabbi Yosef, “the Israel office of the New York-based Anti Defamation League said in a tweet on X, urging a retraction.
“Such rhetoric, especially coming from an official in Israel only drives a wedge between segments of the public and sows division,” the ADL continued.
Yosef in the past has denigrated Reform Jews and immigrants from the Soviet Union and likened black people to “monkeys.”
He also instructed the health minister from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party that his father founded to prioritize the allocation of ministry funds to municipalities that build synagogues and yeshivas.