Israel’s chief rabbi should be disciplined for public rebuke of religious reforms, ombudsman says

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A judicial ombudsman recommended on Thursday dismissing Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef from his position on the Israel’s Great Rabbinical Court over his public opposition to proposed kashrut Jewish conversion reforms.

If Rabbi Yosef is not removed from the rabbinical court, ombudsman Uri Shoham said, Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana should at least consider severely censuring Yosef.

Yosef, who serves as a rabbinical judge, was involved in organizing a conference for his fellow judges at which he and others spoke against the reforms being advanced by Kahana. After the conference, the rabbi issued a statement saying that he “utterly rejects the Religious Services Ministry’s dangerous initiatives to destroy kashrut and Judaism in Israel.”

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After the statement was released, the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center complained to the ombudsman, arguing the chief rabbi and other rabbinical judges – all of whom are civil servants – had spoken out on controversial political issues, in violation of the code of ethics of their position.

Shoham contacted the ostensible signatories to Yosef’s statement, who said that they did not give their permission to publish their signatures, and deferred the responsibility to Yosef’s office. The chief rabbi declined to respond to the ombudsman’s questions.

“The material before us indicates that people in [Yosef’s] office are the ones who invited the rabbinic judges to participate in the aforementioned conference, at which publicly controversial issues were discussed, and he even publicly stated positions that assailed the reforms that are being promoted by the religious services minister and the Israeli government,” Shoham said.

The ombudsman also noted Yosef’s previous offenses. In early 2020, for instance, he was rebuked for statements made against the Supreme Court and the civil judiciary. Later that year, Shoham asked that the panel that appoints rabbinic judges be convened to consider whether Yosef should be allowed to remain on the rabbinical court.

“We see that not only has the rabbinic judge not internalized what was said in the ombudsman’s previous decisions, but it’s blatantly apparent that he is continuing down this path,” Shoham continued. Therefore, he concluded, Kahana should consider whether Yosef “is worthy of serving as a rabbinic judge on the Great Rabbinical Court, or at least summon him to his office for a severe reprimand.”

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Yosef’s office declined to comment.

Rabbi David Lau, president of the Great Rabbinical Court, said in a statement he “utterly rejects” Shoham’s conclusion, charging that it “ignores the rules of ethics for rabbinic judges, under which a statement by the chief rabbi on a halakhic issue isn’t merely permissible, but even obligatory. It is the chief rabbi’s job to voice the halakhic position.”

The chief rabbis and all Israeli rabbis will continue to uphold halakha “and won’t be influenced by any criticism,” the statement added.

Finally, it said, the rules of ethics for rabbinic judges include numerous provisions requiring them to be completely independent, including one stipulating that “a rabbinic judge shall not fear anyone and shall not be influenced in doing his job by public opinion, fear of criticism or a desire to find favor.”

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