More than 800,000 people (one-tenth of the population of Israel) attended Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s funeral earlier this week. Rabbi Yosef died Monday at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem of complications from multiple organ failure. He was 93.
Since his passing, countless articles and statements by some of the world’s most important Jewish (and some non-Jewish) people have been published. The Facebook feed of an Orthodox Jew, even in the United States, is cluttered with pieces bemoaning the loss of a Torah giant, a man who elevated the ethnic and religious pride of Sephardic Jews in Israel and around the world.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder termed Rabbi Yosef “a scholar of great renown … [who] re-energized Israel’s Sephardic community.”
Rabbi Yosef presided over a veritable empire of Sephardi religious services. He opened a network of schools that now has 40,000 students. He managed a kosher certification called Beit Yosef that has become a standard for many religious Sephardim. He was a dominant power broker when it came to electing Sephardic chief rabbis and appointing Sephardic judges in religious courts.
Rabbi Yosef’s impact, according to Ben Sales who attended Rabbi Yosef’s funeral as a reporter for JTA Wire Service, said the event demonstrated the diversity of the lives that Rabbi Yosef touched. While aerial photographs shown afterward illustrate a sea of black choking the broad avenues of Haredi Orthodox northern Jerusalem, Sales said up close he saw a different scene.
“As the group coalesced, men in polo shirts mixed with boys in sweatshirts and soldiers in full uniform — some still holding their guns,” Sales wrote on Oct. 8. “Knit kippot bobbed in the crowd with black hats, Sephardi Haredim in wide fedoras walked with Ashkenazi chassids in bowlers. A man in a black coat made conversation with another in short sleeves.”
The funeral, which started at 6 p.m., lasted upward of three hours.
“A man of strong opinions who was not afraid of clashing with others, Rabbi Yosef engaged in many ideological battles. But few shaped the modern State of Israel as much as he did, which is why more than a half-million attended his funeral,” Lauder said.
Rabbi Yosef’s History
Ovadia Yosef was born Abdullah Yosef in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sept. 23, 1920. Four years later, his family moved to Jerusalem, in what was then Palestine, where Rabbi Yosef studied at the Porat Yosef yeshiva, a well-regarded Sephardic school. At 20, he received ordination as a rabbinic judge, and at 24, he married Margalit Fattal. She died in 1994 at the age of 67.
Rabbi Yosef began serving as a rabbinic judge in 1944, and in 1947, he moved to Cairo to head the rabbinic court in the Egyptian capital, returning in 1950. He continued serving as a religious judge until becoming Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position he held until he was elected Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel in 1973. During that period, he began publishing his well-known works, beginning with his Passover Haggadah, “Hazon Ovadia,” in 1952. In 1955, he was awarded the Kook Prize for Religious Literature. In 1970, the government awarded him the prestigious Israel Prize in recognition of his books.
Rabbi Yosef defeated a sitting chief rabbi in the 1973 election, itself a controversial move. He founded the Shas political party in 1984, one year after finishing his term as chief rabbi. The party now holds 11 Knesset seats.
Rabbi Yosef’s Rulings
Rabbi Yosef favored leniency over stringency so as to encourage compliance with Jewish law. But he based his decisions on Torah knowledge. Rabbi Yosef was considered a genius with an outstanding memory and authority in all areas of Jewish scholarship. Over his lifetime, he published hundreds of books and dozens of articles. Some were for scholars, such his most famous “Yalkut Yosef” and “Yabia Omer.” But he also wrote popular books for the public and had a radio program for many years, explaining Torah to the masses.
“Chacham Rav Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory, was a man of great vision, who worked indefatigably to fulfil his life’s mission to restore the crown of Torah to its ancient glory,” said Rabbi Leonard Matansky of the Rabbinical Council of America in a statement.
Yosef was responsible for several breakthrough halachic rulings, including allowing more than 1,000 women — the wives of Israeli soldiers who were killed in Israel’s wars and declared military fatalities whose resting places were unknown — to remarry, in a decree known as “the release of agunot;” declaring a collective recognition of the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews; and in more recent years, ordering the Shas party to vote in favor of a law recognizing brain death as death for legal purposes.
Rabbi Yosef supported peace treaties involving Israeli withdrawal from conquered territory. He argued that such deals were allowed under Jewish law because they saved Jewish life.
Rabbi Yosef In Politics
In the history of the modern State of Israel, political leaders and Torah scholars have occupied separate domains. Rabbi Yosef will be remembered for combining those two roles.
Rabbi Yosef formed the Council of Torah Sages, the body that holds the top rabbinic authority in Shas. Under his leadership, Shas became a pivotal player in Israeli politics and has cast the deciding vote in numerous political battles.
Because the party represents both Haredi and poor Sephardim, it advocates a unique mix of dovish foreign policy, conservative religious policy and liberal economic policy.
“Shas is Yosef’s most controversial creation,” wrote Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner on Monday. “It made him a villain in the eyes of many Israelis. It made him a divisive figure. … Yet, he was a revolutionary.”
Rabbi Yosef’s Rhetoric
In his later years, Rabbi Yosef stirred controversy with a number of inflammatory statements, often made at a weekly Saturday night sermon. In 2000, he said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners, and in 2005, he said that the victims of Hurricane Katrina deserved the tragedy “because they have no God.” In 2010, Rabbi Yosef said, “The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews.”
He once noted that the public should “hold a feast” in the event of Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni’s death and called her fellow party member Yossi Sarid “the devil” and an “Amalek” (the biblical archenemy
of the Israelites). He wished for the “ruination of the home” of Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, who in 1993 pushed to indict Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, effectively forcing him out of politics.
Still, expressions of grief and condolence came from all aspects of Israeli society (and even from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas). In the history of modern Israel, wrote the Orthodox Union in a statement, there has not been a leader like Rabbi Yosef.
“Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher of tens of thousands,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a statement. “He worked greatly to enhance Jewish heritage and at the same time his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel. He was imbued with love of the Torah and the people.”
Said President Shimon Peres in his eulogy: “When I pressed his hand [in the hospital, just after he passed], I felt I was touching history and when I kissed his head it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel.”
So what’s next?
“There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about the question of his heir apparent,” wrote Rosner, noting it could be one of Rabbi Yosef’s sons or Rabbi Shlomo Amar. “The thing about the question is that if we even need to ask it, this means there is no heir. There is no one that is acceptable to everybody, no leader like Rabbi Yosef.”
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef visited Baltimore in 1983 to meet with Rabbi Herman Neuberger, Z”l. He also traveled to Washington on that trip to meet with President Ronald Reagan. Rabbi Yosef is survived by 10 children.
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org