Condolences from int'l community highlight Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s controversial legacy

Mix of reactionary statements and permissive rulings contributed to late Shas spiritual leader's complicated reputation.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Statements that Jewish organizations around the world issued following the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Monday highlighted the Shas Party spiritual leader and former chief rabbi’s controversial legacy and ability to elicit admiration even among those with radically divergent world views.
Over 800,000 people, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s population, attended Yosef’s funeral on Monday, according to the JTA, an indication of his broad popular appeal.
While critics condemned many of his pronouncements as racist – he likened Palestinians to snakes and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews – Yosef promoted the political interests of the country’s Sephardic population and was an advocate for minorities such as Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.
His mix of reactionary statements and permissive rulings – he was one of the only leading rabbinic figures to endorse the Oslo process – contributed to his complicated reputation.
Though he adhered to a haredi ideology, Yosef, a charismatic speaker, published relatively liberal Jewish legal rulings and drew support from both traditional and secular Sephardic Israelis.
“Following the death of Rav Ovadia Yosef, leader of Shas, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism joins the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel in sharing the pain and loss felt by so many for whom Rav Yosef was a leading light and a giant in the world of Torah,” said Conservative Movement leaders Rabbi Steven Wernick and Richard Skolnik.
Calling Yosef one of the “great halachic authorities of his generation,” they said that while a “deep chasm divided his world view from ours, his greatness as a scholar, a political leader, and a courageous decisor of Jewish law which often challenged the normative haredi positions, made him stand out as a central figure in the make up of contemporary Jewish thought.”
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman, meanwhile, noted that “Rabbi Yosef was not without controversy, and it is no secret that we disagreed with some of his statements in the past which we considered intemperate and biased.”
In 2010, Foxman condemned Yosef for preaching “hateful and divisive ideas” after a lecture in which he asserted that gentiles were “born only to serve” Jews.
However, Yosef was also “one of Judaism’s towering rabbinic figures who has left a lasting legacy for Sephardic Jews in Israel and for Jews all around the world,” the ADL director stated.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called Yosef “a scholar of great renown and a thoughtful and tolerant religious judge,” and said he “left a lasting mark on Israel and world Jewry. As the founder of the Shas Party, he energized Israel’s Sephardic community, securing for it rights and respect and leading it to political prominence.”
He added that “his rabbinical ruling enabled the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry.”
Lauder referred to Yosef as a “man of strong opinions who was not afraid of clashing with others,” and explained that while the former chief rabbi had “engaged in many ideological battles... few shaped the modern state of Israel as much as he did, which is why more than half a million attended his funeral.”
Yosef’s ruling that the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia was Jewish according to Torah law was important in facilitating that community’s immigration to Israel, according to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
“Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was one of the greatest rabbinic authorities who built the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel,” Sharansky said. “Entire Jewish communities returned to Israel thanks to Rav Ovadia’s rulings. His rulings on conversion reflected first and foremost the importance of building the nation in an era of ingathering the exiles.”
Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that “the passing of the great Torah scholar and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a great loss to all Jewry but to the Sephardi world in particular. His scholarship and charisma brought pride to that venerable community and renewed interest in their ancient traditions.”
It is this charisma that likely allowed Yosef to walk the line between hardline reactionary and progressive successfully and to maintain good relations with large sectors of the Israeli public despite frequent controversial remarks.
The author of numerous volumes, Yosef will be remembered for his scholarship and his “encyclopedic knowledge of the entirety of Torah,” and “his responsa and the literature he left behind will be studied forever as part of the Oral Tradition of the Jewish people,” according to a statement from the National Council of Young Israel, an American modern Orthodox synagogue movement.
JTA and Reuters contributed to this report.