Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his office in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his office in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef memorabilia, available on www.cafepress.com

For the many Israelis who loved, revered and respected the Torah sage, spiritual leader and powerful political figure who died Monday, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, knowing how to react to his passing was easy.

For the rest of us, not so much.

The beloved rabbi’s tearful followers and admirers got in their cars and headed to Jerusalem for his funeral - or they gathered locally to mourn and share their deep and genuine pain. But the rest of us spent much of the day sitting uneasily in front of our television sets and computers debating whether or not public expressions of our true sentiments regarding the religious leaders actions and statements were appropriate.

After all, it was clear that at some point, there would be as much criticism and even less than tasteful ridicule of Yosef in death as there had been in his life. The passing of any high-profile public figure - from Margaret Thatcher to Senator Ted Kennedy - who had great influence and controversial views is going to inspire reflection and debate that is less than reverent.

But how long should one wait stops being respectful and dives in? A week? A day? An hour? In this day and age of constant, instant chatter and discussion on Twitter, Facebook and live television, the issue of whether one can speak ill of the dead isn’t an issue - but the question of when is a hot potato.

Back in the old days, the limitations of print journalism meant that there would be at least a short enforced period of grace between the death of a public figure and commentary on their lives and legacy. Today, of course, there are no such limitations. Online arguments repeatedly popped up in both English and Hebrew throughout the day on Monday, regarding the etiquette of pointing out Rabbi Yosef’s less flattering behavior and statements before and during his funeral and burial.

For many journalists, the counterbalance seemed necessarily to add perspective. Nearly immediately after Yosef died, journalist Amir Mizroch began tweeting Yosef’s most problematic utterances - everything from  "There are terrible natural disasters, all of this because of too little Torah study" to "Children in secular schools become evil," to “Gentiles exist only to serve Jews” to "(Muslims are) stupid. Their religion is as ugly as they are,” to what he called his ‘personal favorite’ Ovadia quote "All those poor people in the Holocaust..they were punished because of sins of past generations."

Mizroch was immediately bombarded with angry reactions to his decision to post the quotes and critical commentary ‘while his body was still warm.’ He was labeled tasteless and insensitive, and his writing likened to a ‘toxic bile spill.’

Mizroch asked in response:

When one colleague gently suggested that it was traditional to wait to engage in such arguments until after the funeral, he shot back that “tradition is the first thing to go on Twitter.”

Certainly, Mizroch was far from alone. Many Hebrew-language journalists, notably Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer were also openly critical of Yosef and his legacy - and were hit by angry feedback similar to Mizroch’s.

U.S. journalists were also in the fray. Washington, D.C. journalist, columnist and overall Middle East maven Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted:

In contrast to the pundits, most Israeli politicians - even those who deeply opposed Yosef and his supporters and who had been on the receiving end of his insults - restrained themselves from attacking Yosef on the day of his death, sticking to standard expressions of sympathy. One politician, Labor MK Merav Michaeli, put a thoughtful post in Hebrew on Facebook that was neither eulogy nor attack, writing:

“There are those for whom the day of the death of Rabbi Ovadia is nearly as devastating as the day of the assassination of Rabin was for me. Such a massive sense of a loss of a figure that gave them a sense of certainty and security, a sense of moral direction and conscience.

I certainly don’t share these feelings but one cannot ignore the huge role Rabbi Ovadia played in Israeli society, much of it problematic but some of it very important. Rabbi Ovadia gave expression to an identity that had been trampled for a long time and lent that identity a sense of pride and place. As a result, many many people feel completely shattered by his loss. I urge everyone to remember that each one of us has their own private great rabbi of one kind or another, and we are also shattered and devastated when they die. This is an opportunity for solidarity - not consensus and agreement, but of true consolation for our brothers and sisters.”

The Internet debate over Yosef on the day of his death even reached into American politics, after the frontrunner in the New York City mayoral race, Bill de Blasio tweeted his condolences.

The combination of that sentiment with wide publication of offensive quotes from the rabbi’s past inspired an attack on de Blasio in the form of a barbed post on the website Gawker headlined Bill de Blasio Mourns Death of very Racist Rabbi with quotes and links to Yosef’s “greatest hits” - with many of the same Ovadia remarks that Mizroch highlighted.

What makes the discussion of Yosef different from the recent debate over the way social media treated former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death in April is, of course, religion. The fact that Yosef was both a beloved rabbi and a powerful political figure made the conflicts over the online conversation during his funeral and burial almost inevitable. One wonders if the deaths of the Lubavitcher rebbe or Pope John Paul II had taken place in the age of Facebook and the Twitterverse if the level of mythologization they experienced could have happened, or whether it would have been damaged by the dialogue in forums, where it seems, nothing is holy.