Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef has drawn criticism for comparing, during one of his weekly religious lessons, a "negro" with a monkey.
"We don’t say a blessing for every negro … He needs to be a negro whose father and mother are white … if you know, they had a monkey for a son, they had a son like that,” Rabbi Yosef said.
During the lesson, which was given on Saturday night on the weekly Torah portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei, the rabbi spoke about the blessings of trees which is a customary ritual during the month of Nissan, which began last Shabbat.
The halachic question revolves around whether to bless one tree or at least two and in this context, Rabbi Yosef offered examples of other blessings, for example the blessing of "strange creatures" that evoke attention or repulsion, rather than aesthetic pleasure.
“Someone who sees strange creatures blesses them,” he said. “You see a negro, bless him as an exceptional creature. Which negro? When his father and mother are white and he comes out black.” The rabbi emphasized that “not every negro needs to be blessed” and that it only applied to a black person who was born to white parents.
Elaborating on the halachic matter, Rabbi Yosef continued: “You go around in the streets of America, every five minutes you will see a negro. Do you bless him as an ‘exceptional creature?’ However, he should be a negro whose father and mother are white.
“We don’t say a blessing for every negro … He needs to be a negro whose father and mother are white … if you know, they had a monkey for a son, they had a son like that,” Rabbi Yosef continued. "So what will you say, that there needs to be two negroes? No, but this an example that the Gemorah (commentary on the Mishnah, the Oral Torah) gave. So the same applies to trees.”
Rabbi Yosef has already found himself on the wrong side of a number of organizations for lessons in the past which have contained racist and other controversial content. Women’s organizations, the IDF and other organizations have criticized the rabbi for some of his statements.
He once described the the courts as worse than "the courts of gentiles" and asked "why do they deal with matters of halacha?" Furthermore, he criticized the IDF’s rules of engagement. “Don't be afraid of anyone who afterwards will go to the High Court or some chief of staff will come along.”
He also described the last government as a “government of malice” and said that mixed-gender classes were “against Halacha and against the Torah. But it is possible to educate small children of 9 years old in a mixed school.”
A statement issued on Rabbi Yosef’s behalf insisted that “The words of the rabbi are quoted from the Babylonian Talmud in Berakhot. R. Joshua b. Levi said: 'On seeing pockmarked persons one says: Blessed be He who makes strange creatures. An objection was raised: If one sees a negro … he says: Blessed be He who makes strange creatures…. Our Rabbis taught: On seeing an elephant, an ape, or a long-tailed ape, one says: Blessed is He who makes strange creatures.’”