We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge

“It is not in our hands to explain the prosperity of the wicked or even the sufferings of the righteous.” So said Rabbi Yannai in the Mishna some 2,000 years ago. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) insists “there is no reward for mitzvot in this world.” We have had a long time to read and understand the Book of Job, and we know that the calculus of reward and punishment is more perplexing and agonizing than we can know.

Than we can know, but not, apparently, than Rav Ovadiah Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel, can know. Rav Ovadiah is an ilui, a genius of halacha.

His memory is astonishing, his range remarkable. Unfortunately, his theology is appalling.

American citizens died in the hurricane, according to Rav Ovadiah, because President Bush supported the pullout from Gush Katif. Just in case there was a corner of decency that was left unoffended, Rav Ovadiah went on to say that the devastation of Katrina was also punishment for lack of Torah study, since after all, kushim, that is black people, don’t study Torah. To hope that he would revise his opinion of even that egregious statement in light of the Ethiopian population of Israel is apparently too much to expect.

If this were the isolated opinion of an older man, whose crotchets are overcoming his considered judgments, it would not merit comment. But such pronouncements are not new for Rav Ovadiah, and other rabbis have astonishingly concurred in this opinion. His influence is great, and so must be the reaction against such theological thuggery.

It is painful to contemplate that a learned rabbi could be so parochial, so narrow, so besotted with our tiny people alone that he chooses to pour rhetorical venom on the victims of a hurricane half a world away. I yearn to hear repudiations, not from secular Jews, but from those who look to Rav Ovadiah as a guide and a mentor.

This is the worst kind of cruel speech in the name of God, a religious racism that forgets the words of Amos, “Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel?” (Amos ch. 9). Apparently Rav Ovadiah knows something Amos does not, for in his remarks he used the same Hebrew word, kushim, as did the great prophet.

There is no more poisonous strain in contemporary religious life than leaders declaring “deserved” death.

Hurricanes are weapons in the hands of an angry or disappointed God? When Christian fundamentalist preachers offer up such justifications, we rise to condemn them, and ask decent Christians to do the same. It is our turn.

Imagine the victims who lost home, possessions, family — the mother bereaved of her children and the child mourning his father — who would not blanche at the callousness that attributes their anguish to the displacement of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip? The heavens weep for that part of our tradition that could persuade a leader, a venerated rabbi, to spout this heartless bilge.

No one who quotes Rav Ovadiah as an authority or who treats his name with respect ought to be permitted to sidestep this issue. It is imperative that these statements be condemned not by those who are outside his circle, but by the community of those who learn from him and venerate him.

It strikes to the heart of our tradition to believe that God drowned citizens in New Orleans because of Divine ire over Israel’s policy of disengagement from Gaza. Where are the rabbis to rise up and say, “This is cruel, this is wrong, this must not be permitted?”

About a year ago, I received an appeal. Rav Ovadiah, whose discourses were carried on the web, had lost funding, and they were to be discontinued. Would I contribute to keep this Torah scholar’s teachings available to all? I sent in a contribution.

I wish I had it back. I’d send it to the victims of New Orleans. Judaism is not about finding reasons why God is making people suffer. Judaism is about finding ways to help them.

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood and the author of several books, including “Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004).