There's something a bit unfair about the question being asked in every interview with a Shas politician over the last few weeks: Who is the leading candidate to replace Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party's spiritual leader.
His recent bout of illness notwithstanding, the followers of the rabbi - who will today be celebrating his 86th birthday in a hospital ward, after also spending Yom Kippur there in his third hospitalization in as many weeks - cannot even begin imagining what life without him will look like. It's not only the sanctity of life that makes them insist that Yosef will live to 120, nor is it the awe in which he is held, but the total absence not only of a credible successor, but of an entire substrata of spiritual leadership in the haredi world.
The almost total vacuum that will be caused by Yosef's absence will not be because of the depth and breadth of his Torah learning or the audacity of his halachic rulings, unrivalled perhaps in generations, but the particular brand of leadership he has exhibited for five decades.
The Iraqi-born Yosef came of age as a leader in a new-born State of Israel, as the waves of mass immigration were arriving from the Arab lands of North Africa and the Middle East. Each community had its distinct traditions and religious customs, together with a shared predicament of poverty and Ashkenazi aloofness in the promised land.
Yosef was the first to realize that instead of preserving individual sets of rules, there was a need for one religious system for all Mizrahi Jews - Torat Eretz Yisrael, based on the rulings of 16th-century Safed sage Rabbi Yosef Karo, the Beit Yosef.
In his insistence on a uniform code of Halacha, both in oral lessons and in his monumental Yabia Omer series of responsa, Yosef was on a collision course with the older generation of Mizrahi rabbis, anxious to preserve their fiefdoms. There was even talk of excommunicating the young upstart, but the masses would not stand for that. Yosef managed to talk over the heads of the rabbis to the hearts of the Jews coming to pray in small, cramped synagogues at the end of a long day's work, who craved a short hour of accessible Torah.
There was a reason Yosef was better suited than any of his contemporaries to supply this need. Unique among other senior rabbis, he wasn't the scion of a long-established rabbinic dynasty, pampered and nurtured in a Torah environment from infancy. Instead, his father Ya'acov, a poor grocer with a weakness for arak and singing, did everything in his power to end his son's nascent yeshiva career and set him to work dragging flour sacks.
Even after his father was thwarted, Yosef still had to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles of poverty and position before he managed to establish himself as a professional rabbi and dayan. None of his siblings managed to travel his route; most of them are still secular.
When addressing the spiritual needs of a fragmented Mizrahi community, buffeted by the challenges of poverty and eroding parental authority, Yosef knew exactly where they were coming from. That rapport, together with his prowess in Torah, was the secret of his success. Those strengths enabled him to forge diverse groups into a social force, long before it first took political form when Shas ran in the 1984 elections. It is also what commanded wide respect - not only from Israeli haredim - both within and outside the Mizrahi community.
And it is exactly what the next generation of rabbis, many of whom were fostered by Yosef himself, is sorely lacking.
By creating a network of haredi education, from kindergartens to yeshivot for married men, Yosef and his disciples produced a generation of rabbis who found it increasingly difficult to make contact with non-Orthodox Israelis, including their own family members. The young haredi rabbis, including Yosef's sons, can hold their own against Ashkenazi rivals when it comes to writing scholarly tracts and in the tough world of rabbinical politics, but most of them lack the common touch that was their mentor's biggest advantage.
And the spiritual challenge facing them is much greater. In the 1950s and '60s, rabbis addressed concerns arising from dislocation and poverty, which many of them shared themselves. But when competing with the attractions of ratings-hungry television, celebrity-obsessed culture and the wide-open reaches of the Internet, the rabbis are totally at sea. Without the familiar comfort of Yosef's presence, unable to bask in the almost universal respect he commands, they will truly be lost.
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