Grumpy Old Man: Who was that rabbi?

Ovadia Yosef was so many different things to so many different people that thus far, there’s no one word to describe him.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To say that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was controversial is like saying the Atlantic Ocean is a body of water. I mean, the man was not yet cold and in the grave, and already pundits, both the influential and those known mostly to themselves, were debating what he’d be remembered for – the saintliness he radiated as one of our day’s great Judaic intellectuals, or the polarization he embodied as the figure behind one of the most provocative political parties to have graced these shores.
Dalai Lama, meet Boss Tweed.
Yosef had two distinct careers and he excelled at both. The first was as a rabbi and Torah scholar, a path that took him from ordination at the age of 20 to a long stretch as a wise rabbinical judge and finally as chief rabbi of Israel’s vast Sephardi community. That Jews from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds tend to lean toward tradition meant his influence while in office was keenly felt even among secular Sephardim, so that when well past what should have been his prime he emerged as the face of Shas – a party forever pigeonholed as ultra-Orthodox, yet which historically has attracted legions of voters from far beyond the study halls of the country’s yeshivot.
As a halachic adjudicator, he was willing to tread where lesser sages feared to go. He declared that the wives of soldiers who had gone missing in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and were presumed dead were free to remarry. He declared Ethiopian Jews to be real Jews despite widespread opposition to this among other rabbinic sages, a move that opened the way for bringing them to Israel.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Jeremy Sharon put it in his fine review of the rabbi’s life, “One of the principal 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.”
Perhaps the epitome of Yosef’s willingness to go against the flow was his psak, or religious ruling, saying it was permissible to relinquish parts of the Land of Israel if doing so would save lives. It was a decision (actually, a series of decisions) that stunned many on the Right, especially those who had viewed Shas, with its generally hawkish voters, as part of the firm underpinning of Jewish steadfastness in Judea and Samaria.
It was a stance that allowed the party to join Yitzhak Rabin’s government. And while Shas MKs apparently did not want to support the Oslo Accords, Yosef’s views kept them from voting against ratification, with all six having to be satisfied with mere abstentions.
To some in Jewish religious circles, Yosef’s relatively liberal positions were almost as much a heresy as Reform Judaism.
Yet this should surprise no one because through the ages, Sephardi Orthodoxy has been much more accommodating to its surroundings than has its Ashkenazi counterpart, which to this day remains much more closed-minded to many aspects of modern life. (Just witness its political parties, which historically have attracted few voters outside the haredi milieu.) It was as “mentor” to Shas starting in the early 1980s that another side of Yosef emerged – at least in the eyes of secular Ashkenazi Jews, who viewed the new party much the way a white American looked at a muscular black man sauntering down the street a decade earlier with a 2,000-watt boombox blaring James Brown at full volume.
“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…” wrote the Post’s Sharon.
“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.”
At the same time, though, the face of the party quickly became the robed and turbaned Yosef, who often was caught uttering cringeworthy pronouncements on issues ranging from the Holocaust to homosexuals to Hurricane Katrina, in a Hebrew so guttural and breathless that it required subtitles on the evening news. It didn’t help at all when the shenanigans of some of the men he sent to the Knesset landed them in jail, or at the very least in the grilling room at the local police station. In no time he was reduced to a caricature lampooned everywhere, from the political cartoons in the daily papers to the television satire show Hartzufim, which in the late 1990s employed exquisitely detailed puppets to mercilessly skewer the power players of the day.
The peak of all the ridiculousness came in 1999 when Nitzan Chen, a reporter for Channel 1 who would go on to co-write a biography of Yosef, asked party chairman Deri live on camera about the recent conviction on charges of corruption that ultimately would send him to prison.
“Don’t answer him!” a visibly angered Yosef instructed Deri. “Get out!” he shouted, turning and gesturing to Chen and literally foaming at the mouth. Had YouTube been around, the scene would have gone viral faster than you could say “click,” and become what is widely called in today’s web-infused culture a “meme.” As it was, Hartzufim milked it for all it was worth, and the moment is indelibly imbued in the mind of just about any Israeli who had access to a TV and was old enough at the time to take interest in crooked politicians.
THE TRULY sad part, though, is that this is the way a relatively large segment of the Israeli population – this writer included – saw Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In fact, despite being a Jerusalemite for over three decades and thinking I had seen every sendoff the Orthodox world could throw for its greatest leaders, I was stunned to find myself stalled in traffic far from the funeral venue and well ahead of the time it was supposed to get under way, surrounded by a sea of quiet, subdued people walking, riding bicycles, hitching rides or pouring into the city aboard bus after bus so as not to miss out on the final honor accorded this man.
They were mostly males, and most wore the white shirts and black velvet kippot that are a signpost of Shas affiliation.
But there were plenty of the national-religious sector’s crocheted kippot, too, and even heads that were entirely bare or sporting the type of kippa that clearly is put on just for life-cycle events such as a funeral. As stated above, Shas and Yosef have proven appealing to so many outside the ultra-Orthodox and even Orthodox world that at one time – right after Deri’s conviction and Yosef’s apoplectic response to TV reporter Chen – voters gave it 17 seats, making it the third-largest faction in the 15th Knesset.
Indeed, the funeral is already being called the largest Israel ever saw, with estimates of anywhere from 750,000 to a million people turning out to pay their respects in person. It was a sendoff that any luminary can only dream about, one that shows how many people saw – and appreciated – the other side of Yosef.
Time will tell what the rabbi will be remembered for. Time, and where you hang your coat.