Death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is the end of an era

Shas spiritual leader, a controversial figure who sometimes generated animosity, changed the landscape of Israeli politics; the way ahead for Shas and religious politics in Israel is shrouded in the unknown following his death.

Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died on Monday at the age of 93, was one of the most respected arbiters of Jewish law of this generation and the spiritual leader of the Shas movement since its inception in the 1980s.
His scholarship and deep knowledge of Jewish law gave him unparalleled control over the Shas political party for almost two decades, which changed the landscape of Israeli politics and gave Shas and its Sephardi voters, both haredi and and nonreligious, unprecedented influence over the course of events in the country.
Yosef was a controversial figure, also known for his frequent outbursts regarding public figures, political concerns and current affairs, while Shas’s political tactics often generated animosity among the secular public and contributed towards increasing societal division on religious grounds.
Born in Baghdad in 1920, Yosef emigrated with his family to Israel in 1924. A student at Jerusalem’s Porat Yosef yeshiva, he was identified early on as having special abilities and talents.
He was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 20.
Before reaching 30, Yosef was already serving on the rabbinical court of Cairo, where he resided from 1947 to 1950. Upon his return to Israel he became a rabbinical judge – first on the regional court in Petah Tikva and then in Jerusalem.
He became Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, was awarded the Israel Prize for rabbinic literature in 1970, and in 1972 was elected to the position of Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, also known as the Rishon Lezion – a position he held until 1983.
One of the principle pathways Yosef adopted in his approach to Jewish law was leniency, which he believed was preferable to stringency.
He noted in particular that in the modern generation, ruling stringently could have the effect of discouraging any compliance with Jewish law, and that lenient rulings were therefore advisable.
In one of his most well-known rulings, Yosef liberated almost 1,000 women from the halachic status of an aguna, or a “chained woman,” by allowing partial testimony and evidence to determine a soldier’s death.
Jewish law requires a husband to give a bill of divorce before a woman can remarry, and the disappearance of a soldier from the battlefield causes severe problems in this regard.
Similarly, Yosef ruled in favor of a leniency which permits the consumption of agricultural produce from Israel during the Sabbatical year by symbolically selling land to non- Jews. This leniency, which is heavily opposed by Ashkenazi haredi rabbis, circumvents restrictions on working the land during the Sabbatical (Shmita) year, which is often considered crucial to the economic viability of farming in the country.
Following his retirement as chief rabbi, Yosef’s influence and power grew immeasurably upon his becoming spiritual head of the Shas movement.
Founded in 1982 ahead of municipal elections scheduled for 1983 by haredi Sephardi politicians in Jerusalem, including current MK Nissim Ze’ev, Yosef was made head of a four-man Council of Torah Sages for Shas to provide halachic and spiritual leadership to the new party.
Shas took four Knesset seats in the national elections in 1984 and was on its way to gaining power and relevance, both politically and culturally.
Shas, established as an explicitly religious political faction, increasingly looked towards Yosef for guidance in all its political activities.
In 1990, the spiritual leader of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi world, Rabbi Elazar Shach, who had hitherto been a political patron of Shas, abandoned the party due to political differences. Yosef became the undisputed spiritual guide and ultimate political arbiter for Shas.
In 1992, in contrast to many leading Ashkenazi haredi rabbis, Yosef wielded his new, unchallenged authority by giving the green light to Shas political leaders to enter into the Labor-led government of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
With Rabin seeking to create a formula to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Yosef’s opinion on such a process became critical.
He had previously ruled that the principle in Jewish law of pikuah nefesh – saving a life, which overrides almost all other laws – permitted the return of the Sinai Peninsula, captured during the Six-Day War of 1967, to Egypt.
Similarly, Yosef ruled that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict endangered human life and that if lives could be saved by reaching an agreement, then such a process was permitted under Jewish law.
He therefore instructed Shas MKs not to vote against the Oslo Accord in 1993. The political party eventually abstained in the vote, but the fact that Yosef had refused to consider bringing down the government, which needed the six Shas seats to maintain a workable majority, was critical in allowing the Accord to be negotiated and passed in the Knesset.
On other issues as well, Yosef, as the ultimate arbiter of party policy, became an indispensable political fulcrum through which the fate of governments and political leaders was decided.
Since Shas’s inception, the party has been out of government on just three occasions, including the sevenmonth term of Shimon Peres between November 1995 and June 2006.
Under Yosef’s authority, the party frequently held the balance of power within the governments it had joined, and the weight of its political strength was made apparent by its propensity to create severe political crises in order to secure the implementation of certain policies it had deemed necessary and the failure of others toward which it was hostile.
In 2009, for example, Shas refused to join a coalition led by newly installed Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, resulting in fresh elections. The party then joined with Likud to form a government of the Right.
Beyond the realm of politics, Shas had deep societal influence. Led by Yosef, it restored a sense of pride among the Sephardi population in Israel, which made him a superstar in the eyes of that community.
The slogan of “restoring the crown to its glory” became the motto of Shas; it expressed determination to restore pride in Sephardi heritage and identity by raising the population from its low socioeconomic status and addressing inequalities. Yosef’s unquestioned expertise in Jewish law, along with his obvious charisma, energized this mission.
Along with the dynamic and ambitious figure of MK Arye Deri, who quickly rose to the head of the Shas political machine, Yosef and his party were able to secure not just religious supporters, but also tens of thousands of traditional and non-observant Sephardim who took pride in their history. Shas led a renaissance in Sephardi culture and religious observance and revived the community’s tradition of scholarship in Jewish law and Torah study.
Undoubtedly, Yosef also generated considerable controversy in his lifetime and much opposition from segments of the public. Many of his opponents viewed Shas as a mechanism for taking control of religious life in the country, for imposing its agenda on Israeli society and for creating fiefdoms within the state bureaucracy through which it could assert its influence while providing opportunities for financial gain to those in its inner circle.
Political appointments abounded when Shas held political office, and through its political and religious patronage the party installed rabbis and judges in powerful positions who, under the influence of Yosef, deeply influenced Israeli society.
The recent elections for chief rabbi, and the fealty of the delegates of the Election Committee to their patron Yosef, are just one example.
Shas and Yosef’s modus operandi aroused such ire that new political parties sprung up in opposition.
In 2003, Tommy Lapid’s Shinui party ran on a platform explicitly opposing the potent mix of religion and politics perfected by Shas and he won 15 seats.
Shinui refused to join a coalition with either Shas or the Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism party.
During its participation in the government of Ariel Sharon from 2003 to 2006, Shinui disbanded the Ministry of Religious Services, a major Shas fief and source of political patronage, although it was subsequently revived under Ehud Olmert’s premiership in 2008.
Yosef was inclined to make public pronouncements on sensitive issues that frequently generated widespread denunciations, albeit sometimes due to a lack of understanding as to the context and background of his comments.
In 2000, Yosef said that victims of the Holocaust were the reincarnations of Jewish souls who had sinned in previous lives.
Although widely criticized for seemingly attributing blame to Holocaust victims for the Nazi genocide, Yosef’s comments were in keeping with mystical Jewish teachings regarding the destiny and purpose of Jewish souls. He later insisted that all Holocaust martyrs were holy and pure saints and that he had been trying to provide a theological explanation for their suffering.
In 2005, Yosef attributed the catastrophic damage and loss of life caused by Hurricane Katrina in the United States to “godlessness” in New Orleans and the pressure brought to bear by the US for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
In more recent years, Yosef’s denunciations of political figures and parties in Israel – including, less than a year ago, the national religious Bayit Yehudi party and its chairman, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett – continued to create consternation even in the weeks before his final hospitalization.
Without doubt, Yosef’s presence on the national stage as a person of supreme halachic authority has had a profound influence on Israeli society for decades.
His passing truly marks the end of an era, with the future of Shas and religious politics in general shrouded in the unknown.
What is certain is that Shas itself will be increasingly divided without its iconic rabbi and the unquestioned leadership and authority he wielded, which will not be replicated by anyone claiming to be his successor.
Yosef is survived by 10 children and dozens of grandchildren.