‘One should protest,” wrote an 18-year-old student in 1938, “that Sephardic
scholars are hiding rather than display their greatness and
Seventy-five years on, as his funeral was followed by the
largest multitude Jerusalem has seen since the pilgrimages to the Temple,
Ashkenazi rabbis have long learned to respect sages of Middle Eastern stock, as
have the worlds of politics, diplomacy, business and academia.
again, with all due respect to this week’s unlimited applause for Rabbi Ovadia
Yosef’s political sway, his revolution’s scope was limited and its failures are
As evident in the lines he penned at 18, Yosef’s original agenda
was religious rather than social.
Found by Rabbi Benny Lau in an
unpublished notebook while researching Yosef’s rulings, the future Shas
founder’s statement was about pride.
Back in 1938, with hardly
half-a-million Jews in British Palestine and the large immigrations from the
Middle East more than a decade away, the social gap Yosef would later decry,
confront, exploit and also preserve had yet to emerge. However, the Land of
Israel’s Jewish elite was already predominantly Ashkenazi, as was the rabbinical
elite, reflecting previous centuries’ demographic revolution, whereby world
Jewry became 90 percent European.
Yosef’s refusal to accept this
marginalization was not only emotional.
He actually confronted it from an
early age, basing his rulings on 16th-century Sephardic sage Rabbi Yosef Karo,
and while at it never fearing to confront and also overrule the greatest
Ashkenazi rabbinical authorities. One such anecdotal, but telling, case was his
reply to a question about whether to conduct bat mitzvot for girls.
ruled categorically in favor, despite a ruling by the era’s greatest Ashkenazi
ruler, New Yorkbased Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in which he called bat mitzvot
“nonsense” originated by “the Reform and Conservative,” and forbade conducting
them in synagogues.
This side of Yosef’s revolution, the juridical, will
surely outlive him. Yosef not only restored the pride and confidence of Judaic
scholars of North African, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni descent, he also created a
vast network of yeshivot, high schools, elementary schools and kindergartens
that produces more scholars than the academies of Babylonia ever did.
daring though it is, this revolution is relevant to a comparatively narrow
swathe of the public, and leaves open the bigger question: How, if at all, did
Ovadia Yosef change Israel itself? YOSEF’S 62 YEARS in Israel’s public arena
climaxed neither in his decades as a rabbinical judge nor in his stormy terms as
chief rabbi, first of Tel Aviv and then of Israel, but in the 30 years that
followed these positions – the years of his political creation, brokering,
maneuvering and arguable self-destruction.
Surely, Ovadia’s creation of
Shas is with no parallel in Israel’s rich political history. In terms of his
movement’s identification with and dependence on him, Yosef’s role is even more
impressive than David Ben-Gurion’s in Labor or Menachem Begin’s in the Likud,
because their dominance in their parties never made of them one-man shows. And
those who did stage one-man shows, from Rafael Eitan in the ’90s through Yosef
Lapid last decade to Avigdor Liberman this decade, were no match to Yosef’s
magic among his constituents.
What made Yosef unique in politics was what
made him unique in religion: his combination of charisma and scholarship.
Philosopher William James observed that religious leaders generally fall in
either category, with charismatic leaders including people like the Baal Shem
Tov and Reverend Sun Myung Moon, whereas the scholars include intellectuals like
John Calvin and the Vilna Gaon.
Yosef was both a scholar who knew by
heart thousands of books, and a charismatic leader who could capture an
unlearned audience like a stand-up comedian.
In Shas, Yosef’s charisma
brought the votes, and his intellectual authority decided disputes. That is how
the party settled personal disputes, appointed ministers and decided weighty
issues without any votes or open debates, like what to demand in a coalition
negotiation, and whether to support a budget or back the Oslo
The success of this formula has been phenomenal. In its first 15
years of existence, Shas grew from four to 17 lawmakers, before stabilizing at a
tenth of the electorate in the last five elections. All this success came at the
expense of another party: the Likud.
A simple analysis of election
results, before and after Shas’s creation, makes it plain that its entire
following previously voted Likud.
It follows that the Likud will now wage
a war of revenge in order to repatriate the electorate that was once its own.
Indeed, from the Likud’s viewpoint, this electorate’s departure was an
aberration all along.
To shrink Shas, Likud’s leaders will have to
understand why they lost its electorate in the first place.
entered the Knesset in 1984, the morning after Begin’s resignation. The
charismatic Begin’s succession by the uncharismatic Yitzhak Shamir created a
charisma vacuum, into which Yosef was soon sucked. To restore his voters, the
Likud will have to offer them the kind of charisma that shaped their voting
patterns since 1977.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s charisma works
wonders in UJA functions in Beverly Hills, but less so in Shas bastions like
Jerusalem’s Bucharim neighborhood.
Netanyahu’s tactic in the face of this
will be to make extravagant moves involving non-Ashkenazi
This can include fielding former foreign minister David Levy
as his candidate for President Shimon Peres’s succession when his term expires
next year, and of popular former communications minister Moshe Kahlon as the
Likud’s candidate for next finance minister. In the current cabinet, Energy and
Water Minister Silvan Shalom is the party’s lone non-Ashkenazi
Such an attitude may prove dated, but if it doesn’t, and the
Likud manages to repatriate a significant portion of Shas’s electorate, it will
mean that Yosef’s revolution has come to its end even in the narrow political
But even if Shas retains a sizable Knesset faction, down in the
field Yosef’s revolution has already spent itself.
OVADIA YOSEF supplied
his constituency, in addition to the charisma it craved, with a measure of the
self esteem and pride of which it had been deprived by Israel’s founding
The party he established was also instrumental in creating
thousands of jobs for its followers in its elaborate educational
Shas’s voters also appreciated the party’s fiscal populism, which
made it consistently demand higher social spending on anything and everything,
from exponential child allowances to subsidized mortgages for yeshiva
Yet Yosef failed the big social test history presented his
This test came with the great post- Soviet immigration,
which arrived here powerless when Shas was already powerful.
Much of the
so-called Russian immigration began 25 years ago as menial workers. Since then,
they have long joined the middle and upper middle classes, whereas Yosef’s
constituency remained mostly in the working class.
That is a major
failure, which is directly attributable to his encouragement of religious
studies at the expense of military service, professional training and academic
The Russians, by contrast, flocked to the army and to the
universities, realizing the former is the entry ticket to the Israeli
mainstream, and the latter is the key to success in a modern economy.
recent years, Yosef has lent his quiet approval to newly opened colleges,
including one led by his daughter, where ultra-Orthodox men and women study
professions like law, computers and accounting.
Sadly, he never said
something about this publicly and openly, possibly because that would have
constituted an admission of failure on his part.
In any event, the
proliferation of such colleges means that his political project’s great effort,
to make thousands of young non-Ashkenazim join ultra-Orthodoxy’s avoidance of
professional fulfillment, has exhausted itself.
Whether or not this will
ultimately generate a new voting pattern in the ballots, there is a growing
“voting by the feet” movement against this formula.
In one realm,
however, Yosef’s political impact will prove timeless: peace.
moment, people remember his occasional anti-Palestinian exhortations, which were
mostly spontaneous responses to specific events. Such pronouncements don’t
matter when it comes to decisions.
In this regard, what will matter is
Yosef’s principle ruling in 1979 that turning over land for peace is
permissible, when experts deem it lifesaving.
This statement will be
referred to in the future whenever such deals are tabled, not necessarily in
order to adopt them, but to counter messianic rabbis’ claim that relinquishing
land is religiously forbidden, even for peace.
revolution may be over, his social impact may prove limited and his
land-forpeace ruling may take generations to take effect, but thousands of his
other rulings leave him in a position to last the ages, like his alteregos Karo
and Maimonides: relevant, followed and revered.