Need for civil speech

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The verbal and physical attacks last weekend on Rabbi David Stav, the modern Orthodox candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, demonstrate the effect of hateful words, and how religious leaders must exercise moderation in their public remarks. They also show the depth of disdain some in the ultra-Orthodox community show for other Jews, even Orthodox Jews, with whom they disagree.

Rabbi Stav is known in Israel as wanting to make rabbinic control of personal status issues less onerous. That is a central issue in his campaign for the Ashkenazi chief rabbi position, and his candidacy is viewed as a direct challenge to the tight control ultra-Orthodox rabbis exercise over personal status issues in Israel.

In a sermon to his followers this past Saturday night, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — who is known for his aggressive commentary in defense of religious and political positions he takes — railed against Rabbi Stav, and compared electing Rabbi Stav to “bringing idolatry into the Temple.” And Rabbi Yosef didn’t stop there. He went on to say that “This man is a danger to Judaism, a danger to the Rabbinate, a danger to Torah — and I should keep silent? They want to make him a chief rabbi? This man is unworthy of anything!”

The reaction to Rabbi Yosef’s tirade was quick and troubling. The next night, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students accosted Rabbi Stav at a wedding. According to reports, they shoved him during the celebratory dancing and tried to make him fall. Later he was attacked verbally by some guests.

Rabbi Yosef’s incendiary remarks were destructive. If Rabbi Yosef disagrees with Rabbi Stav, he should make his points on the merits, and shouldn’t have to rely on rabble-rousing and invective to express his views. More importantly, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s message of hate, which led to the predictable reaction by his followers, was unbecoming of a leader, and certainly unbecoming of a Torah scholar.