Whither Shas?

Even if Ovadia Yosef lives to the ripe old age of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who passed away several weeks ago at age 102, his day will come. By the look at things, after the old rabbi’s passing, Shas will simply disintegrate.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the past two weeks, the name of 92-year-old spiritual leader of Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef came up in the media in several contexts. The first was when he badmouthed all the judges in the Israeli court system, claiming that none of them – not even those who are religious – are eligible to be witnesses according to the Halacha, because their verdicts are not based on the Torah but rather on “the law of the gentiles.”
The second was when he was recorded mumbling profanities about Israel’s first prime minister because, according to him, David Ben-Gurion was an enemy of the Jewish religion. The third time was when it was reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had sent messengers to Rabbi Yosef, including the head of the National Security Council, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya’acov Amidror, to try and convince the old rabbi to approve a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; this in order to ensure that if and when the issue comes up for a decision in the cabinet, the Shas ministers vote in favor.
Even though it was reported that Rabbi Yosef was not convinced with regard to an attack on Iran – which is good news for all those who object to an Israeli attack that is not fully coordinated with the US – neither what is happening to the spiritual leader of Shas, nor the state of his movement, are good news.
Shas was established in 1984 as an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, against a backdrop of discrimination against Oriental Jews within the Ashkenazi haredi establishment, and out of a desire to restore the “pristine glory” of the former.
In many respects Shas has been a grand success. Over the past 28 years it has developed an independent education system. It is represented today in the Knesset by 11 MKs, compared to the five of its Ashkenazi counterpart. It has been a member of most of the governments since it first entered the Knesset, and today controls at least two important ministries – the Interior Ministry and the Housing and Construction Ministry.
Furthermore, the mere fact that the prime minister goes to the trouble of consulting with the spiritual leader of the party can also be viewed as a success, though it is doubtful whether Netanyahu is really interested in what Rabbi Yosef has to say, rather than in how the Shas ministers will vote.
However, over the years quite a few Shas MKs have ended up in prison for offences connected with the mismanagement of funds, bribes, and the disruption of legal proceedings. These included the one really impressive political leader of the movement, Arye Deri, who appeared in the early years to be truly on the way to returning the pristine glory of, or at least of bringing honor to the Sephardi community.
In addition, while it is certainly legitimate for a spiritual leader to dream of the day Halacha is the law of the land, the character of the state is religious and women are excluded from the public domain, his apparent refusal to accept the legitimacy of the current situation, in which the laws of the land are those enacted by the Knesset, the state is pluralistic and individuals – men and women alike – are evaluated on the basis of their achievements and integrity and not their religious observance, is truly disturbing.
Furthermore, while no one disputes that Rabbi Yosef was in the past a great halachic scholar and spiritual leader, there is no doubt that his mental condition has deteriorated with age, and that some of the “pearls of wisdom” that have dropped from his mouth in recent years have been embarrassing, to say the least.
We do not know how many Shas supporters actually take everything the old rabbi says as “gospel truth.” However, we may assume that most Shas supporters listen to the Shas radio station – Kol Baramah, which almost completely excludes women from its broadcasts, spends much of the time dealing with questions of religious faith at its most unsophisticated level, and provides news broadcasts that are very professional in their presentation, but occasionally as outrageous in content as some of Yosef’s utterances.
For example, after radical settlers recently set fire to a mosque in a West Bank village and left an inscription reading, “price tag” on its walls, Kol Baramah reported that “the attack might have been performed by Palestinians, due to an internal dispute.” Add to this the xenophobic utterances and policies of Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the conclusion is that Shas is responsible for the promotion of ignorance, prejudice and racism – certainly not a recipe for any “pristine glory” or honor and respect.
How will all this end? Even if Ovadia Yosef lives to the ripe old age of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who passed away several weeks ago at age 102, his day will come. By the look at things, after the old rabbi’s passing, Shas will simply disintegrate.
Presumably Arye Deri, who will be returning to the political scene in the next general elections, will manage to muster some support among Shas voters, despite (and perhaps because of) the stigma of his conviction and prison term. The question is whether Deri’s pragmatism, wisdom and good sense, which he demonstrated time and again when he became Interior Minister back in 1989 at the age of 30, is something most Shas voters are willing to accept today after all the brainwashing they have undergone in recent years.
Time will tell.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.