‘800,000 just attended the funeral of a rabbi in Israel. Who was he? Why did he matter to so many?” These questions posted on Tuesday on the Facebook page of Radio New Zealand’s Nights show were not rhetorical.
They went up on the site shortly before I was expected to answer them, a few hours after the end of the largest funeral procession ever seen in Israel.
The same questions, I realized, were being asked around the globe. They were also being discussed in the Israeli media. I was asking them myself.
What made Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died at the age of 93, such a striking figure that an estimated 10 percent of the population dropped everything on Monday to pay their last respects, amid talk of feeling “orphaned”? Jewish tradition maintains that going to a funeral is the most noteworthy mitzva because it is the most altruistic – you do it for someone who cannot repay the favor.
Not all those following the rabbi’s prayer shawl- wrapped body were there for purely altruistic motives, I suspect. Some politicians and public figures probably thought it a good place to be seen. But undoubtedly the vast majority of the crowds were there to genuinely honor the man they considered a spiritual guide and modern sage.
Even people who didn’t attend the funeral had the feeling that Harav Ovadia, or Maran (our rabbi and mentor), as he was often known, was someone unlikely to be matched in the Jewish world in this generation.
Harav Ovadia was one of a kind, but he had, in effect, two personas. There was the political leader, the eminence grise of the Shas political party, and sometimes kingmaker in Israeli governments; a rabbi whose comments (particularly in recent years) often seemed crass and offensive. But there was also Harav Ovadia, a Torah scholar who used his wisdom and learning to make courageous decisions in Jewish law; a symbol who managed to reinstill a sense of pride in the Sephardi Jewish community; a man who – while the secular ridiculed him – reached out to the disenfranchised: to Ethiopian Jewry, to Russian-speakers undergoing conversion courses while serving in the military, to war widows, the poor and others in times of suffering.
The decision most discussed on his death was his ruling made at the time of the peace process with Egypt in 1979 that Jewish law permitted ceding parts of the Land of Israel if doing so could be proven to save Jewish lives.
His scathing comments and penchant for playfully slapping interlocutors on the cheek will soon be forgotten. And although it is too early to say how Shas will fare as a political party, Harav Ovadia had barely been buried before the political knives came out, or at least forked tongues.
What will live on is the huge body of his written responsa and rulings. Learning is not wasted; it is passed on. It is up to every generation to use the resources responsibly to leave the world a better place.
THE FUNERAL took some five hours not because of the eulogies but because the vehicle carrying Harav Ovadia had to inch its way through the crowds.
Part of that time I spent at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center in the picturesque Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood.
I went to hear the acclaimed British- Jewish author Howard Jacobson deliver this year’s B’nai B’rith World Center “Jerusalem Address” titled “When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?” (Yes, you read that correctly.
And, at the risk of being a spoiler, his answer is “never.”) Jacobson is the type of author you either love or hate. Strangely, in my case, I loved his Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question, hated his Zoo Time, and, after hearing him speak, can’t wait to start his Kalooki Nights.
It’s the book he recommended when someone in the audience raised the issue of circumcision.
The topic has been on my mind lately, too, for the best and worst of reasons (friends becoming parents and grandparents being the former; the recommendation by the Council of Europe to outlaw circumcision, the latter).
The 71-year-old novelist and columnist proudly avoids his father’s advice to observe British Jewish tradition to “stay shtum.” He speaks out, in his own pithy style, sometimes paying the price and sometimes gaining fame (or notoriety), if not exactly fortune.
With so many roads closed and hardly any public transport, many of those sitting near me had walked, cycled or otherwise made a major effort to reach the convention hall on time (expat Brits, in particular, couldn’t conceive of being late no matter how many years they’ve lived in Israel).
We were rewarded with a witty and thought-provoking speech, the sort that made us involuntarily nod and smile as it was being delivered and whose theme continued to accompany us after we’d set off back home.
Extracting a quote here and a quote there does not do the talk justice; he read from his notes relatively smoothly, but anyone who has had to deliver a speech – let alone a writer – can imagine the work that went into getting the phrasing and pace just right.
Jacobson put forward the argument that criticism of Israeli policy today is held to preclude anti-Semitism. “The syllogism goes like this: ‘Not all critics of Israel are anti- Semites. I am a critic of Israel. Therefore I am not an anti-Semite.’” His conclusion: “Jews are considered to have forgone their right to own even a partshare in defining anti-Semitism, or to judge the extent to which they are, or indeed ever were, its victims.
“Thus has the shame of thinking anti- Semitic thoughts been lifted from the shoulders of liberals. Since there can be no such thing as anti-Semitism – Jews having stepped outside the circle of offense in which minorities can be considered to have been offended against – there is no charge of anti-Semitism to answer. The door is now wide open, for those who truly believe they have nothing in their hearts but love, to stroll guilelessly through to hate.”
I HATE to accuse such a supposedly august body as the 47-member Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of anti- Semitism, though the latest vote supporting a ban on circumcision cut deep. And while it is not binding, it does reflect the recurring attempts to outlaw the very rituals that give Jews their identity.
It is hard to explain to a non-Jew the significance of circumcision to the Jewish People, especially as you can often feel the men wincing at just the thought.
I usually point out that Jews have been circumcised since the time of the Abraham.
That’s some 4,000 years. Handing over my son to the mohel was an act of faith in every sense, but I was not going to be the one to break a four-millennia-old chain linking me, my family and my People wherever they may be and whenever they lived.
Brit mila is, as the words in Hebrew suggest, the physical sign of entering the Covenant. God did not give all Jews big noses, despite the stereotype; He did command male circumcision as a sign.
It is not by chance that the topic is being raised today under the banner of human rights – apparently Jews don’t have rights, they just violate them. Circumcision is the almost perfect modern blood libel.
Over the millennia, Jews have suffered: Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans all tried to put an end to our religious practises; we’ve survived Crusades, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and, yes, the Holocaust.
The quick procedure carried out on an eight-day-old son, surrounded by family and friends offering blessings, is not what caused the most suffering to Jewish children over the years. It was the attempts to stop us living in accordance with our traditions and laws that have caused us the greatest pain.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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