Ovadia Yosef: A controversial rabbi who redefined Israeli politics

Obituary: Yosef made Arab Jews players in the Israeli political mainstream

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners touch the vehicle transporting the body of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-religious Shas political party, during his funeral in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013.
2013 AFP

Israeli politics is nothing if not complicated, but few of its icons have been quite as powerful, paradoxical and controversial as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died in Jerusalem Monday at age 93. His legacy includes providing the spiritual leadership for Shas, a political party that turned the long-marginalized Mizrahi Jews (those that immigrated to Israel from Arab lands) into kingmakers in a political establishment dominated by Ashkenazi (European) Jews, and also providing key political support that enabled then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to embark on the Oslo Peace Process with the Palestinians two decades ago. But he also strengthened the power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society, and issued a string of harshly intolerant statements about non-Jews.

Yosef was known both for introducing some of the boldest and most permissive edicts in Orthodox Judaism, and also for championing religious conservatism against secular trends. He became a rabbi at 20 and Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi at age 52, dedicating much of his scholarship to improving the standing of Mizrahim in the complex world of ultra-Orthodox theology. But he did even more to empower Mizrahim as a bloc in the worldly realm of politics through his guidance of the Shas party that has been a fixture of all but two of the nine governments Israel has had since 1992.

Yosef was born in Baghdad in 1920, but moved with his parents to British Mandate Palestine in 1924. His rabbinical career was defined by a commitment to finding the most humane solutions possible within a strict Orthodox reading of Jewish law, although he also found himself fighting to establish his community's place of pride at the table of the Chief Rabbinate. Among Mizrahim,  he worked tirelessly to forge the diverse practices of many different communities that had evolved in different countries over centuries into a single broad Sephardic current. At the same time, they used political power to promote their communal interests against an Ashkenazi establishment that had marginalized Mizrahim.  

As Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Yosef made  one of his most significant contributions to Jewish theological history after the October 1973 war -- by releasing nearly 1,000 agunot, or "chained" women. Under Jewish law, a woman whose husband has gone missing -- including on the battlefield -- was not traditionally considered a widow (and therefore could not remarry, or go on with her life in any way) until definitive proof of her husband's demise has been presented. In the aftermath of the  war, the rabbi was presented with nearly 1,000 cases of women married to MIA Israeli soldiers. While most rabbis had traditionally erred on the side of caution, Yosef chose to err on the side of humanity, broadening definitive proof to forensic and dental records, postmortem photographs, fingerprints and eyewitness testimony; his participation in the declaration of these men as casualties whose burial place is unknown released hundreds of women from their chains and established a key precedent.

In the early 1980s, Yosef retired as chief rabbi but remained a rabbinical judge; at the same time, he also became the leader of a "council of sages" that offered spiritual guidance to a newly established Sephardic party, Shas. Launched originally to contest the Jerusalem municipal elections, Shas soon exploded onto the national political scene, achieving the kingmaker role through its agility in playing the Likud-Labor deadlock of the 1980s. The party brought down a national unity government in 1990 and then, under Yosef's guidance, entered government for the first time in 1992, providing crucial parliamentary support to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's involvement in the Oslo Peace Process. Yosef had declared that human life was more valuable than captured territories, and it was permissible to give up land to save lives.

Shas became a fixture in Israeli coalition governments led by both Labor and Likud, using its swing-vote status to leverage government funds for its education networks and to increase the clout of the Sephardi in Israeli politics -- at the same time as making Shas itself a hegemonic patron within that community.

But if Yosef sought humane applications of religious law within Orthodox Judaism, his view of those outside his narrow framework ranged from the derogatory to the ruthless. He publicly declared, for example, that non-Jews "were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world -- only to serve the People of Israel. Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat."

He dismissed homosexuals as "perverse," and made various statements wishing death upon Arabs and Palestinians by plague and by missile, even if later claiming he only meant those among them actively trying to kills Jews.

Nor did he reserve such sweeping judgements to the Middle East. Yosef suggested, in as many words, that the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 died because they were black and didn't study Torah.

Over the past decade, as the pragmatic and moderate Shas leader and Yosef-protege Arieh Deri fell from power on corruption charges while the peace process collapsed into the Second Intifada, Shas moved to the right together with the rest of Israel. The movement's shift, aside from broad populism and the need to attach itself to increasingly right-wing governments, was dictated also by the Shas electorate's increasing vulnerability to the conflict -- many had moved to settlements in the West Bank; others, by virtue of their poverty, were more likely to live within range of the Gaza rockets, or to encounter a suicide bomber in a bus or a marketplace.

Yosef may have not left a clear successor, but legacy he left aplenty; perhaps most important of these is recognizing the front door of the Israeli secular establishment was shut to Mizrachi Jews, and instead bringing them through the window of religious identity politics instead. As Arieh Deri said Monday at Yosef's funeral, Yosef could not find a tougher time in which to depart from his disciples. Deri's own surprise return in 2012 and the sharp lurch to the left the party undertook at his behest have returned Shas to opposition politics; it's unclear when or even whether the party will regain its kingmaker role. Still, there's no question that Ovadia Yosef fundamentally transformed Israeli political and religious life; Israel's public sphere will never again be as monocultural as it was before he burst on the scene.

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