JERUSALEM, Aug. 6 (JTA) — The spiritual leader of Israel’s fervently Orthodox Shas Party is facing public condemnation and ridicule for saying that the Jews murdered in the Holocaust were the reincarnated souls of sinners.
During his weekly sermon on Saturday, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also referred to the Palestinians as “snakes.”
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was also targeted in Yosef’s remarks, said the statements were not fitting for a rabbi of his standing.
This is not the first time Yosef’s comments have sparked controversy.
Last Purim, Yosef likened Yossi Sarid, the leader of the secular Meretz Party, to the evil Haman in the Book of Esther, and he called on supporters to wish for Sarid’s destruction.
In the latest incident, as in previous ones, Shas leaders said the rabbi’s remarks were taken out of context.
“Don’t take a monopoly on interpretation of the Holocaust,” a Shas legislator told Army Radio. “The rabbi’s commentary was based on Judaism.”
Indeed, some people — including President Moshe Katsav and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau — said the concept of reincarnation is a theological attempt to understand why the Holocaust happened.
But Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, said that perhaps the pain of the tragedy of the Holocaust is still too acute for comments such as Yosef’s.
He defended the Shas rabbi, saying Yosef has a very “emotional attitude” toward the Holocaust and that he did not say that the victims of the Holocaust were sinners.
“I did not hear the lesson, but certainly he would not accuse any of the 6 million,” Lau told Israel Radio. “He tried to give further understanding to what happened there.”
Katsav said he does not intend to go into the theological basis of Yosef’s remarks, but said he regrets any statements that hurt people’s feelings.
“At this time, we must make every effort to reduce tension and demonstrate more unity,” said Katsav, who vowed to pursue tolerance and national unity when he was sworn in last week as Israel’s eighth president.
The comments were interpreted by some political observers as an indication that Shas is not inclined to rejoin Barak’s government after bolting the coalition on the eve of last month’s failed Camp David summit.
Yosef’s comments brought a stinging criticism from the head of the secular Shinui Party.
“It’s slander from an old fool who is regretfully the spiritual leader of a large community in Israel,” said Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. He accused Yosef of “confirming what Hitler said — that the Jews are people who sin.”
During the weekly Cabinet meeting, Barak criticized the Shas Party as well as Yosef.
“From a movement whose banner is emblazoned with the demand for unity and closeness, its leaders should speak in a manner that would strengthen this claim,” Barak said.
Referring to Barak’s efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians at the Camp David summit, Yosef said, “Where are this man’s brains?”
Addressing Barak, the rabbi added, “You bring snakes next to us. How can you make peace with a snake?”
Calling the Arabs “evildoers,” Yosef said the Talmud teaches “that God is sorry he ever created those sons of Ishmael.”
In the past, the Shas Party has supported the peace process, maintaining that giving land to the Palestinians could be justified because it would increase Israel’s security and therefore save Jewish lives.
Yosef’s remarks also drew criticisms from Palestinian officials.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, said, “The statements of this idiot and racist are a disgrace for every Israeli.”
Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi said his party would ask Israel’s attorney general to consider pressing charges against Yosef.
“It reminds me of what the Nazis said about the Jews,” he was quoted as saying.
JEWS AND REINCARNATION
Jews believe in reincarnation?
It’s a question raised by controversial comments made over the weekend by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s fervently Orthodox Shas Party, who said that Jews murdered in the Holocaust were the reincarnated souls of sinners.
In Judaism, the concept of reincarnation is emphasized more in Chasidic tradition, although individual Jews of any stream may believe in it.
There is no outright mention of reincarnation in the Torah, though some interpret traditional Jewish practices to refer to reincarnation. For example, when a married man dies childless, tradition holds that his spouse should marry the man’s brother and their first-born should receive the dead father’s name.
Called gilgul, reincarnation as mentioned in the Midrash and in kabbalistic traditions is generally seen as a chance for a soul to achieve a goal not achieved in a previous life. Mention is also made of reincarnation as punishment for a sinner’s previous deeds. For example, a rich man who abused his power may come back as poor.
One theory says that reincarnation explains the traditional Jewish belief that every Jewish soul stood at Mount Sinai and received the covenant with God.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.