Netanyahu, Peres remember ‘Torah giant’

PM mourns "one of the great Torah sages of our generation"; Lapid, Bennett praise Yosef but Sarid says he won’t forgive him.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas MK Eli Yishai, and PM Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas MK Eli Yishai, and PM Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed his “profound grief” at the passing Monday of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, calling him one of the “great halachic authorities of our generation.”
Within minutes of the announcement of Yosef’s death, Netanyahu – who a couple hours later visited Yosef’s family at the Shamgar funeral home in Jerusalem – issued a statement expressing his deep sorrow, and calling Yosef “among the greatest rabbis of our generation.”
“Rav Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Halacha and a spiritual leader for tens of thousands,” Netanyahu said. “He worked hard to enhance Jewish heritage, and at the same time his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel. He was imbued with a love of Torah and his people. I very much appreciated his warm personality and his direct manner.”
Netanyahu said that he always learned “very much” from him in their meetings.
“The Jewish people lost one of the sages of the generation,” Netanyahu said, sending condolences to his family, students and “many devoted followers.”
Later in the day, Netanyahu told reporters that he told Yosef’s sons that his death was a tremendous loss to the Jewish people.
“When I think of the chain of generations of scholars from Babylonia, to Spain, to Rabbi [Joseph] Karo, that is Rav Ovadia’s legacy – another link in the chain of love and learning of Torah throughout the generations,” he said.
President Shimon Peres, who was among the last non-family visitors to Yosef in his final moments, kissed his hand and his forehead, embraced his sons and offered words of comfort to other close relatives.
Peres and Yosef had a very long and affectionate relationship. Peres visited Yosef in his home every year to bring him personal greetings for Rosh Hashana and Passover. He was the only person who dared to slap the president in the face without fear of apprehension by the president’s bodyguards. The face slapping, really a flip, was Yosef’s trademark way of demonstrating affection.
Peres was among the first to eulogize Yosef at the funeral home soon after his passing and some three hours before the funeral ceremony.
The president regarded Yosef not only as a treasured friend but as his teacher and his rabbi.
Speaking about his final encounter with Yosef, Peres said that his throat had been constricted with tears as he squeezed Yosef’s hand.
“The hand that was still warm and I kissed his forehead which to me looked more noble than ever. When I squeezed his hand, I felt that I was squeezing the hand of history and when I kissed his forehead, I thought that I was kissing the majesty of Israel,” he said.
Though Israel is a small country, Peres observed, it has been blessed with people with giant minds and hearts and Yosef was one such person.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky called Yosef one of the greatest rabbinic authorities who built the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. He said entire Jewish communities returned to Israel thanks to Yosef’s rulings.
“His rulings on conversion reflected first and foremost the importance of building the nation in an era of ingathering the exiles,” Sharansky said.
On a visit of Knesset members to Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the delegation to send condolences in the name of the Palestinian people to Yosef’s family.
Although Yosef had a history of criticizing Israeli politicians, nearly all of them praised him on Monday, including Netanyahu, who Yosef called a “blind goat;” Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who Yosef called a scoundrel; and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Bayit Yehudi party was called a “house of goyim” by the rabbi.
“The religious-Zionist public and the entire Jewish nation mourns the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” Bennett said in a statement. “He blazed trails with wisdom and sensitivity and united people with one another and Israel with the Creator. The rabbi was one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our people this past generation.
He was a symbol of halachic sensitivity and he had the privilege of making Halacha accessible to the masses while being one of the leaders of the Jewish people for 70 years.”
Lapid said Yosef was “one of the molders of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and one of the great religious adjudicators,” and said his absence leaves a great hole in the world of Torah.
Only former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who Yosef called Haman and Amalek in 2000, had anything negative to say about Yosef on the day of his death. Sarid derided the Jewish tradition of not criticizing people after their death and referring to the recently deceased as saintly.
“We don’t believe in saints, so it is all right to say other things about him too,” Sarid said. “We won’t hold a party the way he said he would after [former Meretz leader] Shulamit Aloni dies. We are not happy about his death but we don’t forget and we don’t forgive.”