Politics: What happens when Rabbi Ovadia dies?

Speculation is rife after the Shas spiritual mentor turned 90 this week

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Among the most controversial covers of the respected magazine The Jerusalem Report was a haunting picture of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson with the headline “What happens when the Rebbe dies?” The magazine was published in April 1994, two months before the Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away. Printed after he suffered a stroke, the article said Schneerson had no children and had not chosen a successor, leaving his movement’s future in doubt.
Sixteen years later, the concerns raised in the magazine have undoubtedly been proven unfounded. Chabad has continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and there are now more than 4,000 Chabad emissary families around the world. Yehuda Krinsky, who is the chairman of Chabad’s educational and social service arm, was even named recently by Newsweek as America’s most influential rabbi.
The concerns raised in The Jerusalem Report story came back to the forefront this week when Shas’s spiritual mentor and the leader of Sephardi Jewry worldwide, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, reached the lofty age of 90.
While Yosef is reportedly in relatively good health, even the closest people to God cannot emulate His immortality. He, too, is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, and he has certainly given no indication of who could possibly succeed him.
So what happens when Rabbi Ovadia dies? When Shas chairman Eli Yishai is asked that question the first time, he responds that he does not answer hypothetical questions.
When pressed and told that the rabbi’s death is inevitable, not hypothetical, he gets offended and replies, “Up to 120, period.”
That comparison to Moses, while inadvertent, underscores the problem.
Before Moses died at that age, God insisted on Joshua being named as the new leader of the Jewish people so there would be no leadership vacuum at a critical point in the history of His people. Shas’s leadership says it has made no preparations whatsoever.
But others outside the Sephardi haredi movement are getting ready. Shas’s critics believe that when the rabbi goes, so does his party, and the country’s political landscape will change dramatically overnight.
The six or seven mandates Shas gets from people who are not haredi could return to secular parties. Shas will no longer be the kingmaker in coalition horse-trading. A secular national-unity government that could then more easily be formed could make vast changes in the framework of Israeli politics and society.
Changes in the political system that have long been vetoed by Shas could pass. Direct, regional elections for part of the Knesset could be initiated, the electoral threshold could be raised and prime ministers will be much less vulnerable to political extortion.
Israel might even get its first constitution.
If the secular government changes the status quo on matters of religion and state, Israel may become somewhat less of a Jewish state.
The very secular Supreme Court will most likely not prevent this from happening.
Secular politicians refer to the rabbi’s death as “the ultimate big bang,” much bigger than the bang that formed Kadima, and certainly bigger than any other inevitable political development.
So who could succeed Yosef, who encompasses both the popular appeal to Sephardi Jewry, including the secular constituency that composes Shas’s primary voting power, and at the same time the spiritual leadership, as manifested in his position as head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages? One factor is that while Rabbi Schneerson had no sons, Rabbi Yosef has many.
“There are two different types of successor for Yosef,” a prominent figure close to Shas’s spiritual and political leadership told The Jerusalem Post. “The biological successors from among his rabbi sons would be the charismatic, audacious and prolific David; Ya’acov’s contribution would be primarily to the right wing and the national-religious sector; Yitzhak is the halachicly proficient son; and Avraham is the one with accessibility to the broad Israeli public.
“But the true successors to Yosef will be two. As the leader of the popular Shas movement that reaches out to people’s hearts, will be accessible to all and safeguard the heritage of Sephardi Judaism, this will no doubt be Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Among the Torah-scholars, it will be Rabbi Shalom Cohen,” head of the Porath Yosef yeshiva in Jerusalem and a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages.
Besides Cohen, Rabbis Shimon Ba’adani and Moshe Maya are on the council led by Yosef.
“Have no doubt – everything will fall apart after Ovadia’s departure; there will be infighting and rival parties. Many prominent Sephardi rabbis with followings are currently under the auspices of Shas only due to the respect they hold for Yosef’s leadership, but they won’t remain there after he’s gone,” he said.
“Amar has a bit of all of Yosef’s powerful leadership traits – he’s a deep-seated Sephardi, welcoming to secular people, with a nonpartisan outlook, the halachic ‘broad-shoulders’ to make concessions, a father to the Sephardim. Not to the degree that Yosef is, but no other leader possesses his qualities to that extent.? “Amar has become Israel’s most influential religious leader. To Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, MK Shelly Yacimovich and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he is the religious authority, with the character and standing.
And he is gaining more and more power.
“People close to Netanyahu and Neeman are working to change the law in such a way that would enable Amar to be reelected as chief rabbi after the end of his 10-year term, since they fear that his successor would be problematic – and difficult to cooperate with.”
Another factor to Amar’s advantage is the fact that he is Moroccan, the largest Sephardi group in the country. “The Moroccans sought a father-type for years, and didn’t necessarily find it in Iraqi-born Yosef,” he noted.
As for the graduates of Sephardi yeshivot, to them “Amar is much less significant. It is Cohen, who will take the helm of the Council of Torah Sages. Cohen is the Sephardi ‘rosh yeshiva,’ the spiritual, scholarly authority,” he said.
Here again a parallel between Yosef, who was Sephardi chief rabbi between 1973 and 1982, and Amar emerges.
“Aryeh Deri was once asked why Yosef, and not Cohen, is head of the Council of Torah Sages,” he recalled. “The answer he gave was that Yosef was the one who would leave his home every evening in the early ’80s, when Shas was in its initial states of formation, and attend every possible event, meet any interested group, no matter how small, to spread the word of the emerging Sephardi Torah revolution.
“Social responsibility is also part of Amar’s agenda. Amar didn’t shy away from the conversion bill, for example, and decrees on every topic. He has a statesmanlike, responsible, sensitive and nonpartisan approach, that takes all of the Jewish people into account, and not just one tribe.”
Can Deri himself save the movement he once headed? He has the charisma and can appeal to the Sephardi masses, but he is no halachic authority and is not seen as a religious leader.
So who do Shas officials say can succeed Rabbi Ovadia when speaking off the record and only after looking over their shoulder to make sure no one is listening? Rabbi Ovadia.
Yes, the rabbi himself, or rather, a picture of him on the wall. Shas officials believe that the traditional Sephardi masses, who voted for Shas because of their respect for Rabbi Ovadia, will continue to do so after his death.
“It’s not the ideal situation,” a Shas official said. “But who knows? It worked for Chabad.”