Israel's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef remembered as spiritual and political powerhouse

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a religious giant with an immense following. Under his leadership, the Sephardi Jewish political party Shas became a kingmaker.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Jewish followers of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef attend his funeral in Jerusalem, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. His funeral brought large parts of Jerusalem to a standstill. Police estimated that more than 700,000 people gathered along the funeral procession route.

The passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef today sparked an outpouring of appreciation for a man who combined an unparalleled knowledge of Jewish law with a care for the common man, becoming one of Israel’s most influential spiritual leaders.

An intensely polarizing figure criticized by some as racist, especially toward Arabs, he nevertheless leaves a void in Israeli society and politics. Few have the blend of intellectual genius, political acumen, and unusually broad appeal that made him not only a revered rabbi but a formidable fixture in Israeli politics. Police estimated that more than 700,000 people gathered along the funeral procession route tonight.

"Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He was imbued with love of the Torah and the people…. The Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.”

In a fractious young country where Jewish immigrants from the Arab world felt marginalized by European Jews, the brilliant Baghdad-born rabbi became a symbol of pride for them and a driving force behind their political rise. While individual Jewish communities in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, or Iraq had long tended to rally around a local leader, Rabbi Yosef created a far broader leadership role for himself through his charisma, piety, and vast learning that united the majority of Sephardic Jews in Israel.

“What Rav Ovadia did – his mission, from the 1950s on – was to bring back the heritage of the rabbinic heritage of that community, to restore its pride,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, an Orthodox scholar of Jewish law at Bar Ilan University. But Yosef’s influence didn’t stop there.

“Even among people who might not be ultra-Orthodox or Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, he was a person who commanded a tremendous respect and reverence,” says Rabbi Woolf, a former neighbor of Yosef who himself held the rabbi in high regard.

But Yosef also had plenty of detractors. Critics, citing public comments by the rabbi, described him as fiercely prejudiced against non-Jews, particularly Arab Muslims. And one of his biographers, Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer, today eulogized not only the rabbi but all the opportunities he missed, blaming him for kowtowing to Ashkenazi rabbis or politicians in his own Shas party.

The path to political power

Yosef moved with his family to Jerusalem at age four in 1923, and soon distinguished himself as an eager and unusually capable student, particularly in the area of Jewish law, or halakha. He went to Cairo in 1947 to serve in the rabbinical court there, but returned to what had since become Israel and worked his way up to chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, becoming the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel in 1973.

The following year he made one of his most legendary decisions. Hundreds of women had husbands missing in action in the Yom Kippur War, which made it very complicated for them to remarry given the requirements of Jewish law.

But Yosef sequestered himself with hundreds of cases that other rabbis wouldn’t touch and went through them one by one until he found allowances for each woman to remarry.  “In Jewish law, that’s an amazing tour de force,” says Woolf.

When Yosef was forced to step down as chief rabbi in 1983, the Sephardi political party Shas was just looking to expand from a local party to a national movement, and they needed a leader who would bring rabbinical heft.

Yosef was their man.

“He took this small party under his auspices and due to that both [he and Shas] gained quite a bit,” says Rabbi Benjamin Lau of the Israel Democracy Institute, whose dissertation analyzed Yosef's halakhic theories. “Shas went from being a small party to very influential. And Ovadia gained political influence, which he never had before.”

While Yosef was never a politician himself, he guided the Shas party from its first Knesset election in 1984, when it won four seats, to its peak in 1999, when it gained 17 seats,  right up until his passing.

“Nobody did anything without consulting with him,” says Batia Siebzehner of Hebrew University, coauthor of “Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas.” “Maybe on little things, there was some kind of autonomy. But speaking about central issues, he was the central figure.”

Although Shas was left out of the latest coalition government in Israel, it long played a kingmaker role, forcing prime ministers to consult with Yosef and less religious parties to take its policy recommendations into consideration.

Harsh comments

He also became a lightning rod for criticism, given his forthright manner and sometimes coarse speech.

He alienated many secular Israelis with brash comments, famously calling a leftist member of parliament the "devil" and blaming the death of Israeli soldiers on their lack of religiosity. And in 2010 he denounced upcoming peace talks with the Palestinians, saying in his weekly sermon that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and “all these evil people should perish from this world…. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians," though he later claimed his comments were taken out of context and referred specifically to terrorists.

In one of his more noteworthy rulings, at the time of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the rabbi declared that the importance of peace outweighed the importance of holding on to territory, which some religious Jews see as a divine commandment. The extent to which he remained committed to that in later years remains unclear, but despite his sometimes blunt language toward Israel’s Arab neighbors, he apparently inspired respect even in PA President Abbas.

"I met with the rabbi's familiy in the Muqata [the presidential headquarters] in Ramallah in the past, and I would like to convey my condolences and the condolences of the Palestinian people over his death," said Mr. Abbas today.

'Orphaned' supporters

Yosef’s son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef was recently elected the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and thus is in a position to carry on his father’s halakhic [Jewish law] teachings.

But many Sephardic rabbis agree that the elder Yosef, a formidable blend of spiritual and political leadership, will be hard to replace.  

“He was really the most important halakhic [expert] in the Sephardic world in the second half of 20th century,” says Rabbi Lau. "On the political level everyone in Shas knew their political strength was due in no small measure to his leadership. So no one dared dispute his authority lest they cut the branch upon which they were sitting." Now, “there’s no one single authority that they can unite around,” he says, explaining that the centralist concept of authority embodied by Yosef “won’t prevail” as other rabbis push for a more pluralistic approach.

For Yosef’s followers, not least of all the leading politicians of Shas, many were left feeling marooned today after decades under his charismatic leadership.

"We are as orphans," said Shas leader Aryeh Deri, weeping as he announced Yosef’s passing.

At the start of the funeral procession in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem tonight, the streets were packed with all sorts of Jews – the top hats of the ultra-Orthodox, the knitted kippas of the religious Zionists, and even the bare heads of secular Sephardic Jews.

"It is a very sad moment," says Asaf, a secular Sephardi Jew who had driven all the way from a village near Tel Aviv to pay his respects to a leader who brought more dignity to his community. "By creating Shas, he brought the Sephardi Jews more respect, both politically and culturally."

Yosef Cohen, whose grandfather was a student of the rabbi and would bring him to see Rabbi Yosef when he was a little boy, said at the funeral procession that moving forward it was important not to feel sorrow but to follow the rabbi's teachings.

"Now we need to study Torah, to pray ... to help people, to love people more," he said.

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