By Mirsky, Yehudah
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 238
On October 7, some eight hundred thousand people, about 10 percent of Israel's population and roughly 13 percent of its Jews, attended the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem. Ninety-three at his death, he was the single most powerful rabbi in history and for decades the kingmaker of Israeli politics. His extraordinary, complicated life reshaped not only traditional Judaism and Israeli politics and society but also scrambled familiar categories--of religious and secular, tradition and change, Israeli-ness and Zionism--in ways both petty and profound.
Born in Baghdad in 1920 to an undistinguished family, he immigrated to Jerusalem at age four and from childhood on displayed rare powers of memory and study, as well as a striking mix of religious fervor and intellectual independence. Rising through the ranks of the religious hierarchy, Rav Ovadia, as he was known, served as rabbinical judge in Cairo, Petah Tikva, and Jerusalem; as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa; and, beginning in 1973, as the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel.
In his many books and countless rulings on matters of Jewish law, Rav Ovadia deployed an encyclopedic knowledge of rabbinic law to develop a new judicial philosophy with two components. First, he combined a deep adherence to tradition with responsiveness to changing times and a powerful strain of humane sympathies for the downtrodden and disenfranchised, such as Ethiopian Jews, the disabled, and the poor. Second, he sought to recover what he saw as a pristine Sephardic halakhah that would serve as the authoritative--and centralized--body of law that would stand alongside, and perhaps even surpass, the institutions of the state.
Here as elsewhere, he drew on the vast literature and deep historical experience of Sephardic Jewry, whose experience of modernity had been far freer of the fierce European ideological conflicts that yielded both Zionism and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy. The State of Israel was for him neither the harbinger of the Messiah, as it is for religious Zionists, nor, as it is for the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Haredim, the work of the devil.
Rather, as sociologist Shlomo Fischer, one of the keenest observers of Israeli religious life, has brilliantly put it, Rav Ovadia bypassed the Haredim and the utopianism of religious Zionists, as well as secular Jewish nationalism, by seeing the state and its institutions as yet another, albeit deeply significant, body to be judged, case by case, according to the traditional law that historically shaped Jewish private and collective life.
His tenure in the rabbinate was cut short in 1983 when the political establishment, eager to rid itself of his Ashkenazi counterpart, the intellectually formidable and cantankerous Shlomo Goren, enacted new term limits that got rid of him too. It was only the latest in a lifelong string of humiliations the proud Ovadia was made to suffer at the hands of Ashkenazi elites, religious and secular alike.
For decades, Sephardi resentment had sought some political outlet. The humiliation of Rav Ovadia at the apex of his career finally let it out. In 1984, he endowed his considerable prestige onto Shas, a hitherto small, Jerusalem-based party. Shas went national and received the backing of the then-unquestioned head of the ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Menachem Shach. Shach hoped the party would be a pliable tool of his own camp, but, as so often happens, his would-be beneficiaries had minds of their own. Over time, Rav Ovadia became the power broker of Israeli politics. One politician after another donned a yarmulke and came begging at his door.
Shas broke the mold, not only of Sephardi disenfranchisement but of religious politics. It was and remains an avowedly ultra-Orthodox party whose rank and file are themselves traditional but not ultra-Orthodox. The Sephardi encounter with modernity was not as jagged and brutal as that of the Ashkenazim, and Sephardic Judaism was as a result less ideologically mobilized when it came to fighting for or against change. …