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October 7, 2013 1:53 pm

The Legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Photo: Tazpit News Agency.

As a young man finding his way forward in the world of Torah study, I was completely bowled over by the genius of Rav Ovadia Yosef, who died Monday. In all the contemporary rabbinic response I had read, nothing came near the phenomenal breadth of his learning, his marshaling of sources, and, above all, his tolerant, often lenient conclusions.

The great Ashkenazi contemporary authorities I was studying tended to use casuistry in the way they dealt with halachic (Jewish legal) issues. They almost invariably came to strict, stoic conclusions. There was an almost undeclared agenda to constantly raise the bar rather than lower it. And they completely ignored the more recent great Sephardi authorities. It was almost as if they thought Sephardi scholarship ended with Maimonides.

From the moment I picked up the early volumes of his magisterial responsa “Yabia Omer” in 1957, I was completely won over by Rav Yosef’s different approach. He brought the widest range imaginable of sources. He weighed up the body of opinion and allowed the pure law to speak for itself and most importantly of all, where he could find a lenient resolution. It was as if a new younger brilliant Chief Justice was suddenly appointed to the Supreme Court, stood head and shoulders above the other Justices, and promised to sweep away all the cobwebs and vested interests. Having such a wider vision, he knew the range of options that went well beyond the conventional wisdom.

He was a product of the East. The Sephardi world was very different than the negative, cramped, inward looking approach of Eastern Europe. Rav Yosef was brought up under Islam where tensions were more political than religious. On many theological fundamentals, Judaism and Islam agreed. Whereas under Christianity, the bitterness of the Jewish experience, as well as the theological differences, all created a far more negative approach to the world. True. the Shia mullahs were just as oppressive as Dominican Friars, but under much of Islam’s rule Jews lived at peace and in cultural symbiosis.

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Under Ahkenaz, the rabbis were constantly fighting an internal schism. Their response was to tighten up, and if you didn’t like it you could jolly well go and join Reform or some other breakaway. The Sephardi world had no Reform Movement. Their rabbis had to deal with the full range of Jewish behavior and their communities embraced the most lapsed as well as the strictest. Their halachic decisions had to take note of the full range of the faithful, not just the most pious.

And thirdly, the Sephardi world seemed much more in sympathy with the poor and therefore more lenient and less financially demanding. You could not ask a penniless family to have two dishwashers!

The downside of the Sephardi world, as much as of poor Ashkenazi communities, was the superstitious belief in wonder, miracle rabbis, and Kabbalists. Rav Yosef bravely and courageously had no sympathy for religious hucksters and snake oil salesmen. Of all the Ashkenazi halachic masters, I dare to say only the late Rav Moshe Feinstein was his equal.

Rav Yosef was a powerful advocate and campaigner for Sephardi rights. In his early editions of “Yabia Omer” he railed against young Sephardi yeshiva students aping the Ashkenazi rabbis in dress and attitude. He insisted that the different Sephardi approach to Torah study be given equal standing in a world that sadly tended to look down on Eastern culture and still to this day too often discriminates against Sephardim.

This led him to form the Shas party in 1984. For years, he was a voice in the wilderness. At last Shas gave him power and a platform, although he had to battle major Ashkenazi authorities like Rav Shach, ultimately leading to an acrimonious split.

That was the moment that I lost my innocent reverence of the great man. I had been disappointed when, in his term as Chief Rabbi, he engaged in unseemly rivalry with his Ashkenazi colleagues.  I put this down to the “Kinat Sofrim”, the Talmud’s phrase for the competition between intellectual giants. But party politics was another matter. I have always detested religious politics.

Much of the good that Shas did, as a social movement, was undermined by the bargaining, haggling, and corruption that inevitably characterizes the world of politics. Of course, religion is concerned with every aspect of human life. And I believe religious people should as individuals be involved in the political process. But when a party devoted specifically to religious issues enters the fray, it invariably, regardless of the religion or the denomination, falls to the worst of political shenanigans. And so it has been with Shas, now divided into warring factions.

There was another aspect to this. Politics requires the sound bite, the crowd pleasing demagoguery, and Rav Yosef allowed himself, as he grew older and feebler, to be used. As indeed have too many venerable religious leaders. He came out with insulting, banal generalizations about non-Jews and other Jews he disagreed with, comments he would never have made in his early days. It is a feature again of Israeli life to argue via humiliation and disrespect instead of ideas. Was it senility, or being surrounded by fixers and middlemen in his old age? Whatever, it remains a shadow on his legacy.

What is his legacy? A polymath like no other in the field of Jewish jurisprudence, an absolute giant. There is no one now in the field to compare with him. A man who helped raise Sephardi pride.  The struggle goes on. Still to this day there is discrimination in Haredi Israel against Sephardim. There is still an excessive preoccupation with minute strictness in Jewish law, and sadly political life in Israel is as disappointing today as when he entered the field hoping to change it.

Although one of his sons is now Sephardi Chief Rabbi, it is his daughter Adina Bar Shalom who has devoted herself to the cause of wider education in the religious world of Israel today. I believe she will be his greatest legacy.

There is no one who comes near to wearing his mantle. No Elisha to his Elijah. The Chariot of Israel has departed.

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  • mig

    Jeremy, I accidentally found this amazing article about Rav Yosef’s decision in supporting a non-shas supporter for the position of Chief Rabbi of Tzfas in 1993. He stood his ground when Chareidim tried to convince him to support the other candidate who was clearly not qualified.

    My respect for Rav Yosef has increased tremendously because of this article.

    http://www.chabadinfo.com/?url=article_en&id=31749

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Thank you Jeremy for this balanced and very moving tribute to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. It was my privilege to stay briefly with the Moroccan parents of Israeli cousins of mine and to appreciate first hand something of the religious life of the Sephardic community. Your aanalysis of his contribution to Jewish life and practice is a valuable pointer to me and I am sure to others.

    Mark

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Mark.
      I think I should have given more attention to his Land for Peace position and maybe to the way his sons capitulated to the Ashkenazi hegemony! But still!

      Do let me know when your calendar frees up!
      Shabbat Shalom
      J

      • John

        Land for Peace position? Are you referring to the one he retracted, in writing, more recently? When he made it clear that it was conditional on having a real negotiating partner and that it was dependent on the real and actual prospect for peace. He strongly criticised the Oslo process in his retraction.

        • Yes indeed thats precisely what I was referring to .

          From a purely Jewish Legal point of view life and security takes priority over territory ( though there are rabbis ho say otherwise). But if you do not trust the other side theres no way to have a genuine peace.

  • albert rosenblatt

    when speaking of Sephardi-Mizrachi traditions why must we always counterpose them to the Ashkenazim?

    • Jeremy

      So how would you transpose or contrast?

  • Sandy Brown

    RIP

  • Jeff Blankfort

    Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a disgusting dung heap who like many Talmudic scholars before him, considered Jews to be superior to all other peoples, called for the deaths of all of Israel’s enemies, not just their leaders, but their whole populations, as if he was channeling Deuteronomy, and was not hesitant to say so in public.

    Had this evil creature represented any religion other than Judiasm, the world would know all about him and he would have been removed from public sight long ago. That he was one of the most influential movers and shakers in Israeli politics tells us all we need to know about that country, as well. Some of us didn’t need Yosef’s welcome departure from the planet to know that, however.

    • Jeremy

      what a crude demeaning comment which only casts you in a negative light. Rav Yosef was a fierce proponent of negotiating with Israel’s enemies and trading Land for Peace. But he had lived under Arabs for the first part of his career and understood the common mentality and the Arab street. Interestingly he met with more Arab leaders than any other rabbinic figure.

      The negative remarks he made which I wish he had not, were born out of his frustration with Arab ledership and the primitive anti Semitism of much of the rab world.

      J

  • h.joseph simckes

    CHAVERIM,
    I AM GRATEFUL FOR THIS PERSONAL, FAIR AND INFORMED TESTIMONY TO THE COMPLEX LEGACY OF RAV OVADIA, OLAV HASHALOM. IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE FOR ASHKENAZIM-ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE BORN IN THE USA – TO APPRECIATE THE DEGRADATION AND DISCRIMINATION EXPERIENCED BY SO MANY SEPHARDIM IN ISRAEL.

    THE HISTORY OF INGRAINED ABUSE IS VERY LIKELY BEYOND OUR EXISTENTIAL AWARENESS. ONLY THOSE WHO GREW UP ON THE OLD SOUTH, I IMAGINE, CAN SENSE THE GENUINE INNER PAIN EXPERIENCED BY OUR SEPHARDIC BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN DEALING WITH THE ASHKENAZI ESTABLISHMENT IN ISRAEL AND IN THE GOLAH.

    I RECALL WHAT WAS FOR ME A SHAMEFUL YET ACTUAL EVENT THAT TOOK PLACE LONG AGO. ONE YEAR WHEN I WAS THE R.A. MEMBER IN CHARGE OF ARRANGING THE PUBLIC TEFILOT SESSIONS AT OUR YEARLY CONVENTIONS, I WAS OVER-RULED BY ONE OF OUR HIGH RANKED OFFICIALS-AN OTHERWISE BRILLIANT AND EXCEEDINGLY ERUDITE AUTHORITY ON MATTERS OF HALACHA – WHEN I ATTEMPTED TO BUILD INTO OUR CONVENTION WORSHIP AND LIMUD PROGRAMS OPPORTUNITIES FOR OUR SEPHARDI CHA- VEIRIM TO TAKE LEADERSHIP POSITIONS DURING OUR TEFILLOT SESSIONS.

    MY GOAL WAS TO PROVIDE A MULTI-FACETED RANGE OF AUTHEN- TIC, DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO JEWISH WORSHIP, INCLUDING THE MINHAGIM OF EIDOT HAMIZRACH. I WAS OVER-RULED.

    WHAT BRUISED MY NESHAMA AND SENSE OF FAIRNESS MOST WAS THE MANNER IN WHICH THIS SIMPLE ATTEMPT FOR STRAIGHT-FORWARD INCLUSIVENESS WAS DISMISSED – WITH WHAT WAS FOR ME A SHOCKING DERISION OF SEPHARDIC STYLE AND CONTENT OF RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION, INCLUDING OVERT DEROGATION OF SEPHARDI VOCALIZATION AND USE OF VARIATIONS OF SOURCE MATERIAL.

    I COULD NOT BELIEVE THAT SUCH DISRESPECT FOR VARIETY AND ETHNIC DIFFERENCES EXISTED IN OUR MOVEMENT, ESPECIALLY SINCE WE WERE TRAINED AT JTS TO FULLY RESPECT VARIETY OF HALACHIC OPINION AND PRACTICE AS REFLECTED, FOR EXAMPLE, IN THE TALMUDIC PRINCIPLE OF “EILU V’EILU”.

    AS A YOUNG RABBI I FELT I HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO FOLLOW THE GUIDANCE OF A FAR MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE, SENIOR R.A. RABBI AND MENTOR.

    TO THIS DAY, HOWEVER, I RECALL MY OWN SENSE OF MORAL EMBARRASSMENT. LATER, IN ISRAEL I WAS PAINFULLY INFORMED BY OLDER SEPHARDI FRIENDS OF HOW THEY OFTEN FELT “DISSED ” BY THEIR ASHKENAZI COLLEAGUES.

    NO DOUBT, THAT WAS PART AND PARCEL OF THE ASHKENAZI-SEPHARDI, RELIGIOUS-SECULAR, CHAREIDI-NONCHAREIDI RIFTS, SPLITS AND SPLINTERINGS THAT CURRENTLY PLAGUE ISRAELI SOCIEY TODAY.

    I ALSO RECALL THE INITIAL SHOCK IN MY MASSACUSETTS CONGREGATION SOME YEARS BACK WHEN I ENGAGED A YEMENITE BAAL KOREI. IN TIME, MY ASHKENAZI CONGREGANTS GOT TO ACCEPT AND APPRECIATE THE BEAUTY AND AUTHENTICITY OF HIS YEMENITE PRONUNCIATION OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT. IN THE BEGINNING, HOWEVER, THERE WAS DISCONTENT AND ANGER.

    THE PASSING OF RAV OVADIA, OLAV HASHALOM, IS A LOSS TO KLAL YISRAEL OF MAJOR PROPORTIONS. I AM DEEPLY GRATEFUL TO REUVEN HAMMMER FOR SHARING SUCH BALANCED, INSIGHTFUL OBSERVATIONS REGARDING THIS COMPLEX, CONTROVERSIAL TORAH GIANT. HIS WORDS ARE WORTH NOTING AND INTEGRATING.

    AS ONE WHO WAS FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO HAVE BEEN TAUGHT BY SOME OF THE “GIANTS” OF OUR OWN MOVEMENT, I.E. HESCHEL, LIEBERMAN, KAPLAN, BAVLI, FINKELSTEIN, COHEN,DIMI-TROVSKY, ETC.- WITH ALL THEIR OWN IDEOSYNCRACIES- IT IS SHOCKING TO ADMIT THAT “NORMATIVE SINAT CHINAM” EXISTS
    SO WIDELY AND DEEPLY IN THE JEWISH STATE WE ALL LOVE , ADMIRE AND DEFEND.

    AS MY ISRAELI FRIENDS SAY, “ZE MA SHE-YEIH”. WITH RE- GIOUS AND POLITICAL FREEDOM COME CONTROVERSY, ETHICAL CONFLICT AND EXISTENTIAL CHAOS.

    THE EARLY ZIONIST FOUNDERS OF ISRAEL WERE NOT SHOCKED BUT ACTUALLY EXPECTED AND WELCOMED SUCH NATURAL NASTINESS
    OF POST GHETTO LIFE. L’HAVDIL, JOSHUA, THE SHOFTIM AND NEVIIM AND CREATORS OF THE POST MOSAIC REALITY IN ERETZ YISRAEL SIMILARLY DISCOVERED MORAL UGLINESS IN JUDEA AND SHOMRON.

    THEIR UNABASHED TASK, OF COURSE, WAS TO RECHANNEL THOSE MISGUIDED SPIRITUAL ENERGIES AND ABUSES OF POWER. LATER, RABBI KOOK ACCEPTED HIS RESPONSIBILITY TO DO SO. OUR GENERATION CAN DO NO LESS.

    RESPECTFULLY,
    JOSEPH SIMCKES.
    BET SHEMESH/QUEENS, N.Y.

    • Jeremy

      That is a most moving and sad contributioin and I am both glad and privileged that you have shared it with us.

      I am frankly ashamed and embarrassed that outwardly Torah Jews could have behaved and still continue to behave in such a manner.

      For the record when I ran a Jewish Residential School in England of 300 students from around the world I made sure we had Sephardi services as well as Ahkenazi ones.

  • Jeremy

    You are right, tht is a most amazing and impressive quote. Thank you.
    J

  • Alter

    “If I was brought into this world only to help the Ethiopians that is enough for me”
    – Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef of blessed memory (September 23, 1920 – October 7, 2013)

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