The Shas Saga

It was bound to happen. The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the Shas party’s life-giving force, its raison d’etre. With him gone, the party has lost its way.

December 29, 2014 22:15
3 minute read.
Ovadia Yosef

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It was bound to happen. The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the Shas party’s life-giving force, its raison d’etre. With him gone, the party has lost its way.

After a 2008 video surfaced this week in which Yosef is shown voicing concern that Arye Deri’s criminal past will hurt Shas electorally and vociferously deriding the present Shas chairman for being too “independent-minded,” it is doubtful that Deri will succeed in carrying his party across the 3.5 percent threshold into the Knesset.

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The incident illustrates perfectly the dangers of blind allegiance to a rabbi, a seer, a dictator or anyone else making claims to supernatural powers of discernment and decision-making abilities not shared by mere mortals.

It is noteworthy that in the video Yosef voiced no moral qualms about allowing a convicted criminal from returning to Shas. His concern was functional – will Deri’s return help or harm the party? Yosef also did not like that Deri had the courage to voice dissenting opinions, a trait highly valued in less dictatorial political frameworks.

For the uninitiated, the responses of Deri supporters to the video must seem strange. Did Shas voters need Yosef to tell them that Deri is a convicted criminal? And if Rabbi David Yosef, the great rabbi’s son, now tells us that his father changed his mind about Deri between the time the video footage was shot and his death, should voters forfeit their autonomy and abandon their inner voice and vote for Shas even if they personally feel uncomfortable supporting a party led by a man with a criminal past? David Yosef seems to believe his words carry more weight because he said them at his father’s gravesite. Even necromancy, a phenomenon which Yosef bitterly derided and fought against in his lifetime (he despised the practice of visiting Rabbi Nachman’s grave in the Ukraine on Rosh Hashana), is justified in the pursuit of political power.

Shas’s implosion was expected. But the decline of rabbinic influence on Israeli politics is a broader trend that should be welcomed. Religious-Zionists were never overly impressed by bossy rabbis who, claiming to speak in God’s name, interfered in political matters. But Bayit Yehudi under the leadership of Naftali Bennett has consciously distanced itself from rabbinic oversight, which has angered the rabbis who direct the Tekuma faction that is part of the right-wing party.

People like Ayelet Shaked – who is both female and secular – have already found a place for themselves in the party. And other non-religious figures, such as Ronen Shoval and Danny Dayan hope to serve as MKs in the next Knesset. Thanks to Bennett’s insistence on freedom from rabbinic control, Bayit Yehudi initiated important reforms in the Chief Rabbinate. Annexation is the right thing to do, says Bennett, not because God said so but because, he argues, it makes good sense from a security perspective and because of Jews’ historical ties to the land.

Even among the haredim there are signs of declining rabbinic influence or at the very least of a fracturing of centralized authority. The friction between Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman has led to the establishment of a pro-Auerbach haredi daily – Hapeles – that competes with the older pro-Shteinman Yated Ne’eman and the creation of a pro-Auerbach political party – Netzach.

Auerbach’s people have refrained from running a separate list in the national elections for fear they will not receive enough votes to pass the minimum threshold. But the very fact that this rivalry exists undermines the idea that God speaks in one voice. Fundamentalism cannot thrive where there is a plurality of opinions.

Shas’s fratricide, Bayit Yehudi’s insistence on autonomy from rabbinic control and the increasing infighting between the Auerbach and Shteinman camps (we did not even mention the various hassidic streams vying for power) are all positive developments.

Increasingly, religious voters of all stripes are being forced to think for themselves instead of relinquishing their own common sense and relying blindly on a rabbi whose ability to make political decisions is no better than anyone else’s. Indeed, it is humiliating to see a nonagenarian or a centenarian rabbi manipulated by canny politicians and functionaries. It is an affront to the haredi constituency’s intellect when the ensuing “rabbinic decision” is handed over as if spoken from the throat of God.

Religious faith is a comfort and a source of meaning for many. But it should not be allowed to interfere with the intellectual autonomy of voters. We want thinking constituencies, not captive electoral blocs.

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