Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death marks the passing of one of the most creative and
original halachic minds of the modern era. In nearly every possible field of
Jewish law, Yosef left his mark.
Perhaps the most famous of his rulings –
and the one with the most far-reaching political implications – was Yosef’s 1979
opinion that Halacha permitted ceding parts of the Land of Israel if doing so
could be proven to save Jewish lives.
The Camp David peace accords with
Egypt – including the return of the Sinai Peninsula – were being negotiated at
the time of the ruling and Yosef, who was then Sephardi chief rabbi, provided
prime minister Menachem Begin with a halachic justification for clinching a deal
with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
Though Yosef was praised at the time
by the Israeli Left, he came under fire for breaking with haredi rabbis, who
tend to distance themselves from “political” questions of Jewish sovereignty
resulting from the creation of the State of Israel, and from right-wing
religious-Zionist rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served at the time as the
Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
According to Nitzan Chen and Anshel Pfeffer in
Maran, their biography of Yosef, it was the rabbi’s experiences dealing with
over 900 widows whose soldierhusbands had been killed in the Yom Kippur War
which made him more dovish.
In 1973, in another controversial move,
Yosef, as newly appointed Sephardi chief rabbi, broke with the consensus of
haredi Ashkenazi rabbis – including rabbis from Chabad, a movement normally so
active in Jewish outreach – and ruled that the Beta Israel from Ethiopia were
full-fledged Jews, thus facilitating their immigration to
Arguably, Yosef’s biggest impact was in improving the religious
prestige of Sephardi Jewry, a process he referred to as “returning the crown to
its rightful place” (hachzarat ha’atara la’yoshna). He leveraged his influence
in the religious establishment by creating Shas, which ran for the Knesset for
the first time in 1984. Thanks to Shas’s political success – which unlike
Ashkenazi haredi parties rested on a less religiously observant constituency of
Sephardi Israelis – Yosef managed to get more Sephardi rabbis and judges
appointed in the Chief Rabbinate and the religious courts, institutions that had
once been dominated by Ashkenazim. Today, someone named Vaknin has an as good if
not better chance of being appointed to a rabbinic position as someone named
The political movement that he led also created the El
Hama’ayan network of schools, with 40,000 students and the lucrative Beit Yosef
kosher supervision apparatus.
Both institutions have helped strengthen
the Sephardi customs and culture endorsed by Yosef.
Yosef, who unlike
haredi or even religious-Zionist rabbis, reached out to a large segment of
Sephardi Israelis whose observance was not rigidly Orthodox, promoted a “melting
pot” approach of unifying the customs of Sephardi Jews and rejected the
traditions that developed in the Diaspora. With the return of the Jewish people
to the Holy Land, argued Yosef, the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of
the Shulchan Aruch who lived in the Land of Israel, should take precedence – at
least for Sephardi Jews. He insisted that Sephardi young men keep their separate
Sephardi customs, even while studying in Ashkenazi yeshivot.
Yosef clashed with those among Sephardi Jewry – particularly Iraqi and North
African Jews – who wanted to maintain their old customs.
Yosef strove in
his rulings to be lenient in a wide range of issues, large and small. While many
haredi rabbis refused to recognize conversions performed by IDF rabbis and
considered those who underwent these conversions gentiles, Yosef ruled these
conversions were completely kosher and that those who underwent them were
fullfledged Jews. Unlike most Ashkenazi rabbis, he permitted placing fully
cooked dry food on a hotplate on Shabbat.
And he supported his daughter’s
project – the first haredi academic college – which provides haredi men and
women with university degrees in fields such as computer science, social work
Unfortunately, Yosef will be remembered by many – at
least in the short term – for his outrageous outbursts, usually made during his
weekly Saturday night sermons. But in the long term, hopefully he will be
remembered for his tremendous Torah scholarship and his transformation of
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