Over the past two weeks, the name of 92-year-old spiritual leader of Shas Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef came up in the media in several contexts. The first was when he
badmouthed all the judges in the Israeli court system, claiming that none of
them – not even those who are religious – are eligible to be witnesses according
to the Halacha, because their verdicts are not based on the Torah but rather on
“the law of the gentiles.”
The second was when he was recorded mumbling
profanities about Israel’s first prime minister because, according to him, David
Ben-Gurion was an enemy of the Jewish religion. The third time was when it was
reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had sent messengers to Rabbi
Yosef, including the head of the National Security Council, Maj.-Gen. (res.)
Ya’acov Amidror, to try and convince the old rabbi to approve a possible attack
on Iran’s nuclear facilities; this in order to ensure that if and when the issue
comes up for a decision in the cabinet, the Shas ministers vote in
Even though it was reported that Rabbi Yosef was not convinced
with regard to an attack on Iran – which is good news for all those who object
to an Israeli attack that is not fully coordinated with the US – neither what is
happening to the spiritual leader of Shas, nor the state of his movement, are
Shas was established in 1984 as an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi
party, against a backdrop of discrimination against Oriental Jews within the
Ashkenazi haredi establishment, and out of a desire to restore the “pristine
glory” of the former.
In many respects Shas has been a grand success.
Over the past 28 years it has developed an independent education system. It is
represented today in the Knesset by 11 MKs, compared to the five of its
Ashkenazi counterpart. It has been a member of most of the governments since it
first entered the Knesset, and today controls at least two important ministries
– the Interior Ministry and the Housing and Construction
Furthermore, the mere fact that the prime minister goes to the
trouble of consulting with the spiritual leader of the party can also be viewed
as a success, though it is doubtful whether Netanyahu is really interested in
what Rabbi Yosef has to say, rather than in how the Shas ministers will
However, over the years quite a few Shas MKs have ended up in
prison for offences connected with the mismanagement of funds, bribes, and the
disruption of legal proceedings. These included the one really impressive
political leader of the movement, Arye Deri, who appeared in the early years to
be truly on the way to returning the pristine glory of, or at least of bringing
honor to the Sephardi community.
In addition, while it is certainly
legitimate for a spiritual leader to dream of the day Halacha is the law of the
land, the character of the state is religious and women are excluded from the
public domain, his apparent refusal to accept the legitimacy of the current
situation, in which the laws of the land are those enacted by the Knesset, the
state is pluralistic and individuals – men and women alike – are evaluated on
the basis of their achievements and integrity and not their religious
observance, is truly disturbing.
Furthermore, while no one disputes that
Rabbi Yosef was in the past a great halachic scholar and spiritual leader, there
is no doubt that his mental condition has deteriorated with age, and that some
of the “pearls of wisdom” that have dropped from his mouth in recent years have
been embarrassing, to say the least.
We do not know how many Shas
supporters actually take everything the old rabbi says as “gospel truth.”
However, we may assume that most Shas supporters listen to the Shas radio
station – Kol Baramah, which almost completely excludes women from its
broadcasts, spends much of the time dealing with questions of religious faith at
its most unsophisticated level, and provides news broadcasts that are very
professional in their presentation, but occasionally as outrageous in content as
some of Yosef’s utterances.
For example, after radical settlers recently
set fire to a mosque in a West Bank village and left an inscription reading,
“price tag” on its walls, Kol Baramah reported that “the attack might have been
performed by Palestinians, due to an internal dispute.” Add to this the
xenophobic utterances and policies of Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the
conclusion is that Shas is responsible for the promotion of ignorance, prejudice
and racism – certainly not a recipe for any “pristine glory” or honor and
How will all this end? Even if Ovadia Yosef lives to the ripe
old age of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who passed away several weeks ago at age
102, his day will come. By the look at things, after the old rabbi’s passing,
Shas will simply disintegrate.
Presumably Arye Deri, who will be
returning to the political scene in the next general elections, will manage to
muster some support among Shas voters, despite (and perhaps because of) the
stigma of his conviction and prison term. The question is whether Deri’s
pragmatism, wisdom and good sense, which he demonstrated time and again when he
became Interior Minister back in 1989 at the age of 30, is something most Shas
voters are willing to accept today after all the brainwashing they have
undergone in recent years.
Time will tell.
The writer teaches at
the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.