Who was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef? An aged rabbi responsible for countless offensive statements (on Arabs, Ashkenazim and countless others he saw as opponents) and the head of a political party with a reputation for corruption? Perhaps. But also the most significant halachic authority of the last 100 years, whose positions helped fashion a balanced and moderate Judaism that could rise to the challenges of the 20th century and of the state of Israel.
I first encountered Rav Ovadia when, as an 18-year-old studying in Israel, I would on occasion attend his public lectures. He had been made head of the rabbinical courts in Cairo at age 27, had won the Israel prize for his contributions to Torah scholarship and was renowned for a photographic memory.
But at the lectures, a different side was revealed. He may have been a Torah giant but he was also human, and possessed an ability to connect with the masses through stories and jokes that one would expect from a good campus rabbi but not from one of the sages of the generation.
Well aware from a young age that his legal writings would be of lasting significance, he can be seen as having two central aims: to unite Sephardi religious practice around the rulings of the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, and wherever feasible, ruling leniently to ensure that the maximum number of people would be able to lead religiously observant lives. With the 30-volume Yalkut Yosef compiled by his son, he has become the de facto authority for Sephardi religious practice.
But he was not only significant for his religious scholarship. After decades of being considered second-class citizens, it was he, above all, who restored pride in the culture and heritage of Israel’s Sephardim. Shas, the political party he founded, originated as a movement whose primary aims were to ameliorate the conditions of Israel’s working-class Sephardim, while restoring a sense of pride in their identity.
The story of its break from the Ashkenazi Charedi parties reflects his fierce independence and political cheek. In 1992, Rav Shach, the undisputed leader of Ashkenazi Charedim, stated that “the Sephardim were not yet ready for leadership” (a sentiment not so dissimilar from many secular Zionist leaders throughout the 20th century). This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and within hours, cars were driving through Sephardi development towns repeating Rav Shach’s statements over megaphones, with Shas reaping the benefits at the ballot box.
By bringing ethnic discrimination to the fore and drawing on the affinity that many non-religiously observant Sephardim feel for tradition, Shas built itself into one of the major power blocs of Israeli politics. This success has brought with it corruption and hard-line positions that many of its early admirers find jarring. Nevertheless, all admit that Shas brought about a seismic shift in Israeli politics and society, giving representation to an ethnic group after decades of discrimination.
Beyond ethnic politics and decisions affecting observant Jews, he had far-reaching impact, especially during his decade as Chief Rabbi of Israel in the 1970s. His ruling that the Ethiopian Beta Israel were completely Jewish resulted in the government’s operations to bring the community to Israel and without his staunch support there would be no Ethiopian Jews in Israel today.
During and after the Yom Kippur war, he spent sleepless nights to successfully resolve every agunah case, whereby wives of soldiers missing in battle could be left unable to remarry without certain proof of their spouses’ death. In the 1980s he wrote the weightiest halachic opinion in favour of territorial concession for peace, arguing that the value of saving lives took precedence over maintaining sovereignty over all of biblical Israel. This latter ruling shows personal integrity, given that a hawkish position vis-à-vis the Palestinians would surely have been a better vote-winner for Shas’s constituency.
In this age of gender-segregated buses it is also worth recalling how he met his wife. Returning home from the Bet Din in Jerusalem, the bus stopped at the old market of Machane Yehuda where a woman was struggling with her shopping bags. He helped her on to the bus, they sat next to one another and began talking and were married the following year.
During his funeral — the largest in Israeli history — a Sephardi shopkeeper in sports clothes turned to an elderly Ashkenazi Charedi rabbi and me, saying “Surely Mashiach [the Messiah] must come now”. To my Charedi neighbour, it was Rav Ovadia’s talmudic brilliance which had brought him to the funeral, whereas for the shopkeeper he had restored pride in Sephardi identity. For me, as a modern Orthodox rabbinical student who considers himself a religious and political moderate, Rav Ovadia meant something else again: a model of Jewish leadership who felt a responsibility for those close and far.
His desire to rule leniently was enabled and justified by a Torah knowledge unparalleled in our generation. He launched a religious and cultural renaissance, by being simultaneously able to connect with the masses while drawing from the wellsprings of Jewish religious and historical wisdom.
He had his failings. He defended corruption, his statements were frequently offensive and sometimes unforgivable. But from the standpoint of his historical legacy — to use a halachic notion — his failings were batal b’shishim – nullified within a ratio of one to sixty. His outstanding contributions will remain long after the controversial statements have been forgotten.