How politics hurt Israel's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party, turned 90 this week. But what is his legacy?

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 21, 2010
Rav Ovadia meets representatives from the town of Sderot, which was under fire from Gaza,  in his home in 2006

Rav Ovadia meets representatives from the town of Sderot, which was under fire from Gaza, in his home in 2006

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak received a personal letter last week wishing him good health and thanking him for his involvement in the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"I want to strengthen your hands and bless all the leaders and nations, Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians, who are partners in this important process to achieve peace in our region and prevent bloodshed. May you all have lengthy days and years and succeed in your endeavours for peace," wrote Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the most influential spiritual leader in Israel, who turned 90 years old on Monday.

Thirty-one years ago, Rabbi Yosef, then the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, scandalised the religious world with his ruling that for peace, Israel should retreat from the territories it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

But over the last two decades, the rabbi's actions and words seem to have worked for the opposite cause. In 1993, Shas, the political party he founded after being forced to leave the chief rabbinate and over which he still exercises complete control, abstained in the vote over the Oslo accords. In 2000, the party left the coalition on the eve of the Camp David talks and in 2005, it opposed disengagement from Gaza.

Three weeks ago, on the eve of the Washington summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the rabbi caused an international stir when he wished in his weekly Torah lesson that "our enemies and haters come
to an end. May Abu Mazen [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] and all those wicked men be lost from the earth. May God smite them with the plague of pestilence, including all those

The Americans demanded that he apologise for the remarks.

So who is the real Rav Ovadia?
A sophisticated man of peace or a racist rabble-rouser? The leading halachic theorist of his generation or a populist reactionary?

To try and understand his contradictory character, we have to go back to his early childhood in Iraq and remember that he was named after a grandfather murdered in a Baghdad pogrom; to take into account the three years he spent in his late twenties as a young rabbi in cosmopolitan Cairo; and that he has spent his entire life in struggle.

He fought against a domineering father who did not want him to pursue a life of study. He was banished from Cairo by the secular community leadership when he refused to fulfil only
a ceremonial role.

His early books were banned and even burnt by the Iraqi elders in Jerusalem for spurning the traditions on which he himself was brought up, preferring what he saw as a more authentic halachic system.

Even after earning recognition, he continuously took on both the patronising Ashkenazi Orthodox leadership and the secular establishment.

Over the last 40 years he became the most significant leader of Sephardi Jews in Israel and around the world.

He inspired not only the strictly Orthodox but also many "traditional" Jews, who warmed to his outgoing personality and his undying campaign for their cultural heritage.

But he also paid a heavy price.

Shas, a permanent fixture in almost every government since 1984, may have consolidated his political power and public influence, but it has also taken away attention from his real life's work; over 40 volumes of responsa, halachah and commentary designed to update Jewish law to
a daily modern law.

It has also forced him to acquiesce to the party's right-wing line rather than alienate voters.

His loyalists insist that he has not given up his pro-peace positions; he merely does not trust the Arabs. They shrug off his racist diatribes saying that "he has
a hot temper but he doesn't mean all that he says. The real Rav Ovadia is in his writing".

Others blame his age, faltering health and the opportunistic Shas politicians and family members who easily lead him astray. On Monday, a small gathering of his children and devoted disciples made a birthday party for him at his home in the Har Nof neighbourhood of Jerusalem. After which he went back to writing his next book.

Last updated: 1:53pm, September 21 2010