Last Monday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away. According to reports the number of persons who participated in the funeral procession was 850,000 – an unlikely figure, since the whole Jewish population of Jerusalem is around 500,000, of whom about half are haredim (ultra-Orthodox), including women and children. So even assuming that all the haredi men in Jerusalem – Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike – attended the funeral (there were no women or children in sight), and that another 100,000, from other parts of the country, managed to get through the traffic jams into Jerusalem on time, the figure of 300,000 seems more likely.

But let us not be petty – the same ridiculous bandying about of statistics occurred in 1982 with regard to the number of participants in the Sabra and Shatila demonstration in Tel-Aviv, in which 400,000 persons allegedly (but not necessarily) participated.

I admit that last Monday I was glued to my TV set, and listened avidly to the reports of the events, even though everything the Shas party and its leaders stand for is totally irrelevant to my personal life as an independent, secular, educated Ashkenazi woman who believes in the total equality between men and women in terms of personal status, rights and duties, and who admires many men and women for their intellect, wisdom, resourcefulness and achievements, but reveres no one to the extent of absolute submission and obedience.

I accept the Shas phenomenon as an integral part of the Israeli society of which I am part, and am even fascinated by it.

However, since a large portion of the Israeli population is Sephardi, and even though, according to my personal experience, many Shas supporters do not accept the principle of women's equality, have no sympathy for the secularism of Sephardi intellectuals trying to offer an alternative path to that of Shas, and are inclined to blindly follow their Rabbis and other "holy men"- I accept the Shas phenomenon as an integral part of the Israeli society of which I am part, and am even fascinated by it.

As to the late rabbi, I always viewed him with a mixture of awe and disgust. The man was undoubtedly a great scholar regarding religious texts, had a phenomenal memory, and his goal of restoring the pristine glory of the Sephardi community was certainly a worthy cause. Furthermore, some of his halachic rulings in the more distant past – such as regarding the right to give up territories if this will result in lives being saved; agunot, “chained” women unable to obtain a Jewish divorce; and the Jewishness of the immigrant from Ethiopia – were truly enlightened and humanistic (at least in religious terms).

However, the man also had a foul mouth, and his inclination to wish for the death of those who opposed him ideologically and personally bordered on the criminal, while his total contempt for all things secular was reminiscent of extreme fundamentalist Islam at its worst (though without the accompanying terrorism).

Equally distasteful and shocking were his sayings regarding gentiles in general, and the Palestinians and “negroes” in particular, which would have been considered vile anti-Semitism had they been uttered about Jews (incidentally, the Christian Science Monitor, among others, picked up on some of these sayings).

The attempts of many, including former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, to belittle the severity of the rabbi’s utterances by explaining that he merely spoke “in the language of his flock,” adds insult to injury – isn’t it part of a rabbi’s duty to set an example to his flock, rather than justify and fortify their worst prejudices and biases? In addition, I doubt whether what Shas, as designed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, offers its followers will bring back the pristine glory of the Sephardi community, or help the Sephardim in Israel achieve the equal status in the society that they yearn for, and are entitled to.

As to the rabbi’s halachic rulings, most of them were trivial, and many of them tricky solutions to problems created by previous religious rulings, such as regarding the phenomenon of agunot, or getting around prohibitions connected with the preservation of the Sabbath.

The fact that the rabbi forbade his daughter Adina, when she was young, to receive a proper formal educated, and sent her to learn to be a seamstress, and later in life prevented her running within Shas for a Knesset seat, allegedly in order to “protect her,” says everything about his approach to women.

That today Adina Bar Shalom stands at the head of the haredi college of Jerusalem, which she established in the year 2000, and freely expresses her views on various political and social issues, is proof of her own mettle, not the greatness of her father, who initially objected to her activities.

There is no doubt that the hundreds of thousands who participated in the funeral, and numerous others, are genuinely grieved by the passing of the rabbi, who many viewed as a demi-god, beyond any reproach or criticism. Many Sephardim in Israel today feel orphaned, and fearful of the future, since there does not appear to be anyone of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s stature to step into his shoes in the foreseeable future.

However, side by side with genuine disciples of the rabbi, there are the hypocrites, among them (sadly enough) our president, Shimon Peres, who termed Yosef “mori verabbi” – my teacher and rabbi. If Peres ever had a teacher and “rabbi” it was David Ben- Gurion, who stood against everything Rabbi Ovadia Yosef represented. At most the rabbi was, in the past, one of Peres’ fickle political partners.

Unfortunately, Peres played into the hands of those in Shas who are attempting to bestow on the rabbi, post mortem, a formal national status, which he only held during the 10 years (1973-83) that he was the Sephardi chief rabbi.

These efforts, including the distasteful and embarrassing attempt by some of the rabbis’ sons to take advantage of the visit of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at their father’s shiva (seven days of mourning) to get him to give up the government’s plans to mobilize haredi youths to the IDF, because that – so they claim – is part of the rabbi’s will and testament, are unacceptable, and should be brushed aside with contempt.

Somebody ought to also explain to the Shas hoodlums who have made it their business to harass anyone who dares criticize the deceased rabbi (former Knesset Member and education minister Yossi Sarid was one of them) that Israel happens to be a democracy where free speech is the norm, and if they do not stop their harassment, they will be arrested and prosecuted.

What will happen to Shas now is anyone’s guess. I am inclined to agree with those who foresee Shas splitting up and losing much of its following and clout. My hope is that now that the charismatic rabbi is no longer with us, other, more enlightened Sephardi forces – both religious and secular – will emerge, and lead the Sephardi population to assume a more significant role in Israeli society, and help extract its poorer, socially deprived sections from their current predicament.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef failed in this mission because he did not find an adequate balance between religion and modernism. The truth is that he did not find such a balance because he did not seek it.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.

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