Author Topic: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Spiritual Leader of Israel’s Sephardic Jews, Dies at 93  (Read 875 times)

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Ovadia Yosef

JERUSALEM — Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who became a fiery figure in Israeli politics as the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, championing the interests of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, died here on Monday. He was 93.

His death was announced by Avigdor Kaplan, the director of Hadassah Medical Center in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, where the rabbi had been treated. It set off a huge outpouring of grief and one of the biggest events the city has seen.

By police estimates, 700,000 people — almost one-tenth of the population of Israel — swept into the streets and onto rooftops along the route of the funeral procession, many of them chanting prayers and tearing their clothes in a show of grief that brought much of the city to a standstill.

The van carrying Rabbi Yosef’s body took more than four hours to inch through the throng, mostly men and boys in black Orthodox dress, on its short journey from the Porat Yosef yeshiva in the Geula neighborhood to Sanhedria Cemetery, where the rabbi was buried shortly before 11 p.m.

Rabbi Yosef, instantly recognizable by his lush gray beard, gold-embroidered robe, turban and dark glasses, embodied a particular blend of religion, tradition, populism and ethnicity. As the leader of a Sephardic council of Torah sages that founded Shas in the early 1980s, he harnessed the underdog sentiment of many non-European Israeli Jews, worked to restore their pride and turned them into a potent political force.

Under Rabbi Yosef’s leadership, Shas became a major player in governing coalitions, and Israeli leaders of all stripes made pilgrimages to his home in Jerusalem seeking his support. As a Sephardic Torah scholar and arbiter of Halakha, or Jewish law, he was often described by followers as “the greatest of the generation.” He wrote Talmudic commentaries and volumes of answers, known as responsa, to questions on religious law. In 1970, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for rabbinical literature.

“The Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Monday. “Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands.”

President Shimon Peres said he had been at the rabbi’s bedside hours before his death. “When I pressed his hand, I felt I was touching history,” Mr. Peres said, “and when I kissed his head, it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel.”

Yossi Elituv, editor of the Orthodox family magazine Mishpacha and co-author of a book about the life and works of Rabbi Yosef, said that the rabbi’s greatness in interpreting religious law was based on his chronicling of rulings of the last 200 years and the boldness with which he issued his own, often lenient rulings, sometimes on delicate issues that other rabbis dared not approach.

“Life challenges the Torah with questions because the world changes, and those changes need to be contended with,” Mr. Elituv said. “Rabbi Ovadia took on every mission.”

In one landmark ruling that challenged the traditional Ashkenazi Orthodox camp, Rabbi Yosef determined that it was permissible for Israel to concede territory in return for true peace, based on the Halakhic principle that saving lives comes above all. But he and the Shas Party began to take a more hawkish line, especially after 2000, as the peace process dissolved into the violence of the second intifada. The Palestinians’ intentions were not genuine, he said.

In another unconventional ruling, the rabbi allowed hundreds of women whose husbands were missing after the 1973 war to remarry, although, traditionally, remarriage is allowed only after a woman has received a religious bill of divorce from her former husband or there is incontrovertible proof that her former husband has died.

Rabbi Yosef’s weekly sermons, delivered on Saturday nights after the Sabbath, were broadcast by satellite to wide audiences and, in the last few years, uploaded to YouTube. While dealing with the intricacies of the laws of the Sabbath and festivals, the sermons also became the rabbi’s platform for lashing out against those he despised — rival politicians, gay people and perceived enemies of Israel.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was pushing a plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Rabbi Yosef said, “God will strike him with one blow and he will die; he will sleep and not awake.” (Mr. Sharon had a devastating stroke in early 2006 and remains in a coma.) In 2009, Rabbi Yosef cursed Iran’s president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he hoped he got sick. In 2010, he called President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority “evil” and asked God to strike “these Ishmaelites and Palestinians with a plague, these evil haters of Israel.”

Ovadia Yosef was born on Sept. 23, 1920, in Baghdad to Yaakov Ben and Gorgia Ovadia. He was 4 when his family moved to Jerusalem, where his father ran a grocery store. He was ordained at 20 and began working as a judge in a religious court. When he was 24, he married Margalit Fattal, the daughter of a respected rabbi of Syrian Jewish descent. They had 11 children.

She died in 1994; their second child, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, died earlier this year. The elder Rabbi Yosef is survived by his 10 remaining children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Rabbi Yosef moved to Cairo in 1947. He ran a religious court there and then headed a yeshiva, before returning to the newly founded state of Israel in 1950. He went on to become the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. In 1973, he was elected the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, serving alongside the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, for a decade.

(Sephardic Jews were originally those who left Spain or Portugal after the 1492 expulsion, many of whom settled in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. In modern Israel, the term generally refers to Jews who came from North Africa and the Arab world and who complained of decades of discrimination and humiliation at the hands of the Ashkenazim, Jews of European stock who made up Israel’s early leadership elite.)

With his popular touch, Rabbi Yosef had a galvanizing effect on working-class Sephardic Jews, also known as Mizrachim.

“He restored the pride of the Mizrachi public because nobody could deny that he was a great authority,” said Yehuda Ben-Meir, a public opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies and a onetime politician in the Ashkenazi National Religious Party. “He could compete with the greatest Ashkenazi rabbis as a Torah authority. That was the essence of his power.”

Shas first ran candidates for Parliament in 1984, winning four seats in the 120-seat Knesset and joining a national unity coalition led in rotation by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. By the late 1990s, Shas — a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians — controlled 17 seats in Parliament and had become the third largest party. It has participated in most of the country’s governing coalitions for almost 30 years.

The party now sits in the opposition with 11 seats. Some political analysts have suggested that infighting after the rabbi’s death could weaken it.

Shas’s primary agenda is to ensure state financing for its independent religious school system and to aid needy families among its constituency. Many Israelis criticize the Shas schools for imitating Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy, neglecting secular studies and turning out a new generation ill equipped for the modern workplace.

Rabbi Yosef was often featured in the party’s colorful election campaigns. During the 2003 campaign, he was shown telling congregants that when they were judged after death, an angel would reassure them: “Don’t worry, relax. You went to the ballot box, and you put in a ballot for Shas. You go to heaven — go to the fifth floor.”