Rabbi Eliahu’s legacy of integration

He helped to break down old boundaries.

rabbi eliyahu 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rabbi eliyahu 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The death Monday of Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu at the age of 81, after a long battle with heart disease, marks the passing of one of the two most dominant Sephardi rabbinical leaders in contemporary times, the other, of course, being Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
But Yosef, who set in motion a political and cultural movement by and for Sephardi Jews, and Eliahu, who was identified with the religious Zionist stream of Orthodoxy, represent opposing models for the integration of Jews from Muslim countries into Israeli society.
Yosef advocates a monolithic approach. He believes that Jewish Moroccans, Algerians, Yemenites, Iraqis, Persians, Egyptians and others should all abandon their unique customs that developed in exile and embrace instead a unified halachic system based on the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulhan Aruch, the definitive codex of Jewish law.
Yosef has argued that upon returning to Israel, all should embrace the rulings of Karo, who lived in Israel and is therefore to be considered the uncontested local authority.
Ironically, Yosef's view is reminiscent of the “melting pot” system of integration adopted by Mapai’s Ashkenazi elite in the first decades of the state of Israel that strove to reeducate Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries to adopt the dominant secular socialist-Zionist culture.
In contrast, Eliahu, who, like Yosef, has roots in Iraq, encouraged Jews hailing from diverse communities that developed in the Maghreb and the Mashreq to maintain their own distinctive customs.
He was personally influenced by Rabbi Yosef Haim, the Ben Ish Chai, a major halachic authority who lived in Baghdad in the first part of the 20th century.
And he strove to maintain this uniquely Iraqi Jewish tradition through his halachic decisions.
Under the influence of Sephardi mystics, Eliahu also sought to integrate the esoteric teachings of Lurianic Kabbala into Halacha.
THE RIVALRY between the two men was unavoidable and probably began when they learned together as teenagers at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
But tension peaked during the 1983 elections for chief Sephardi rabbi, which Eliahu won, thwarting Yosef’s attempt to be elected for a second term.
The trajectories of the two rabbis’ careers were quite different. Yosef, bitter from his loss to Eliahu, connected himself to the burgeoning Shas movement. There, he set about building a political, educational and religious movement to advance the cause of Sephardi Jewry, who had suffered discrimination, particularly by Ashkenazi haredim, and had gradually developed a collective consciousness demanding, as Shas put it, “to return the crown to its rightful owner.”
Eliahu, meanwhile, chose not to emphasize his Sephardi roots in the political arena. A strong advocate of the settlement movement in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, Eliahu was co-opted by right-wing elements within the National Religious Party, even though he had an essentially haredi background. Eliahu served as a Sephardi rabbinic role model in the NRP, a party that had been dominated by Ashkenazi politicians, and he probably helped the NRP maintain Sephardi constituents who otherwise would have abandoned the party for Shas.
Importantly, by joining the NRP, a party that strove to incorporate both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, he helped to break down old boundaries between the two. For some time now, marriages between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in religious Zionist circles have been just as common as in secular Israeli society. The same is not true in the haredi community to which Yosef’s Shas belongs.
Paradoxically, Eliahu, who in his lifetime showed respect for diverse Sephardi traditions, nevertheless exemplified a strongly integrationist position. In fact, one of his most popular books is a concise compilation of Jewish law that provides rulings for both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews.
If this is Eliahu’s legacy, it is a worthy and important one.