During his famous 1989 speech at the Yad Eliyahu stadium, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, then considered to be the greatest Lithuanian rabbi of the generation, posed a question for secular Jews: “In what ways are you Jewish?” he asked. After the memorial service for the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef last Sunday, next to Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery, one may approach Shas with a variation on that question – “in what way are you Mizrahim?” All of the speeches during the event did not fail to mention that Yosef “raised the status of Sephardi Jews,” but often in the same breath, the speakers showered the great Ashkenazi rabbis with praises, as many of them were in fact seated up on the stage.
Most of the credit for this must go to Yosef’s son, Rabbi David Yosef, who just two minutes prior stood at the podium, and was declared to be a new member of the Council of Torah Sages, the rabbinical body that holds the highest authority within Shas. Yosef the son attempted, it seems, to show off his family’s spiritual capital, and perhaps also to say something of his father’s wishes. Thus he said to the crowd, which according to the event’s organizers, numbered over 100,000 men and women: “Father, of blessed, righteous memory, sent all of his children to holy institutions. The girls to ‘Beit Yaakov,’ the sons to the holy yeshivas,” Yosef reminded the crowd. He told the crowd of his brothers, the late Rabbi Yaakov, and rabbis Avraham and Moshe, all of whom he called “great scholars.” The late Yosef sent these sons to Yeshivat Kol Torah, said Yosef, who also spoke of another brother, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, recently voted into the position of Chief Sephardi Rabbi, who learned at Yeshivat Hevron.
The purpose of reminding the crowd of his father’s love for Torah and Yeshiva learning culminated in a declaration against the planned military draft for the ultra-Orthodox. “With the help of God, we, the council of Torah sages, will safeguard the world of Torah! It will not happen! This draft sentence will be canceled!”
Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri seemed to shrink in his char when he heard his good friend speak only of the pure education his family received at Lithuanian, Ashkenazi religious education institutions. Perhaps he thought to himself, if pure is Ashkenazi, then what is Sephardi? Impure? Non-kosher?
Until a year ago, Deri threatened, and some would say planned, to break off from Shas and found a political movement of his own for traditional Sephardi Jews, which could include women alongside the ultra-Orthodox as well. In the end, he returned to Shas after 13 years in exile, and indeed he has come full circle. Today, Deri controls Shas in a way he never did before, even back during the 1990s. Now, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is just a picture on the wall, his strongest son Moshe and his wife Yehudit have been pushed aside, as Deri appointed his friend to the council of Torah sages, where he is expected to be its most dominant member, even if he won’t serve as president. Since last Sunday, Shas is Deri, and Deri is Shas.
Within the party, there are no dangers facing Deri at the moment, not even the stormy clouds of next week’s municipal elections brewing over his head. Deri understands that he will need more than a few miracles, and inter-Haredi juggling to complete the deal he made with his friend Avigdor Lieberman, to get Moshe Leon elected mayor of Jerusalem. Even in Elad – a traditional Shas stronghold – the outcome is uncertain, with a tight race between Tzuriel Krispel and the Hasidic Yisrel Frosh. Deri will be tested in Bet Shemesh as well, and dozens of other places where Shas is competing in the municipal elections.
Until the final results come in, details of Deri’s struggle to control Shas’ reins could fill an entire newspaper. Deri had to fight the council of Torah sages, field activists, Eli Yishai, the Yosef family, rabbinic courts, and the Kol Barama radio station.
But in the end, the most important long-term question is where Deri, holding the reins, will actually take the party, as it appears to be at a major crossroads. Deri planned the rally on Sunday down to the last detail, though it’s doubtful if he planned to have his party appear to be suffering from an identity crisis, as the speeches conveyed. The majority of the speeches was classic ultra-Orthodox, but there were also many speakers who tried to break away from the old Shas, and point out that the party has what to offer the general Israeli public as well. One of them was Rabbi Shlomo Amar, now left of out the circles of power within the party.
Deri, like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is familiar with the Israeli mentality, and well immersed in it, but the rabbinic leaders around him are second and third generation Torah scholars in the ultra-Orthodox world, and their daily lives have little in common with non-Haredi Israel. Many of the speakers at the event dedicated their remarks to the planned conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF, and one rabbi used his speech to denounce impure cellular communications devices – as if he were speaking during a yeshiva class.
Shas was born 30 years ago, into a Lithuanian cradle, (Rabbi Shach served as godfather), and the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox had always played second fiddle to the Ashkenazim. Even when Eli Yishai served as party chairman, the movement made sure not to compete too much with the Lithuanians, perhaps only to save spaces for the children of Shas’ elite at the Lithuanian yeshivot.
Even if Ovadia Yosef and Eli Yishai adopted the same positions as the Ashkenazim during many instances, Shas always made sure to play up the success of hundreds of Sephardi institutions, founded by Yosef. Rabbi David Yosef had a different message on Sunday. He told the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi crowd, the majority of which sends its children to Sephardi schools, whether on purpose or through lack of foresight, that the holy learning institutions are the Ashkenazi ones. He mentioned only Lithuanian schools. On purpose or not, Yosef made no mention of the Sephardi schools his older brothers studied at during their childhoods.
When he took the podium himself, it seemed as if Deri was trying to control the damage done by his friend’s speech. The two learned together at Yeshivat Hevron. As Sephardim at a Lithuanian Yeshiva, Deri would say “we stuck together, and kept our heads down,” until Rabbi Ovadia Yosef founded Shas. Deri spoke of the bravery and conviction shown by Sephardi Torah scholars, thanks to Yosef, that were able to found yeshivas and serve as rabbinic judges.
But also according to Deri, ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi participation in mourning for Yosef – who suffered ridicule from the Ashkenazi all his life – was a kind of victory as well. Deri wanted to show off this victory by inviting great Ashkenazi rabbis to the event, so they could praise Yosef as well. During his speech, Deri said “You heard here great Ashkenazi Torah scholars call our rabbi the leader of the generation, and that we were privileged to be with him in this generation.”
Rabbi Shlomo Amar spoke of a different kind of Mizrahi, more wider-spread than the ultra-Orthodox world. He spoke of the distant past. “Whoever remembers how we looked 50 years ago when we got to Israel, Torah was slipping, and young people from Morocco, Tunisia, Algiers, everywhere, Yemen, they came with Torah, with fear of heaven, but they fell apart. They shirked the Torah, threw it away, and chased after nonsense. They thought their fathers were primitive, and they went off in search of new ways,” said Amar. “Maran, (Yosef), founded this generation, and saved it.”
Where is Deri looking to now? Perhaps he is most concerned with Shas’ support circles, the traditional ones and the Mizrahi ones, or maybe with Shas’ core ultra-Orthodox population? Either way, these are the most pressing political questions facing Shas’ future. One of Deri’s close associates said that Deri is willing, in the meantime, to sacrifice Shas’ wider support base to focus on the ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, even if it costs him Knesset seats. “Without the sons of Torah, there’s no Shas,” said Deri’s associate. “Now, we need to unite them, and that is the most pressing issue, according to Deri."