As Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Fights for His Life, a Battle to Succeed Him

With Shas spiritual leader fighting for his life, it seems the main candidates are primarily engaged in shooting themselves in the foot.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The seriously ailing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has broken off ties with his former protege for the second time since the summer, bringing their brief reconciliation to an end as the question of who will replace the 93-year-old Yosef as the Shas party’s spiritual leader remains unanswered.

Yosef’s daughter-in-law and the strongwoman of Shas, Yehudit Yosef, on Tuesday called Mazal Amar, the wife of recently retired Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, to deliver an unequivocal message: Amar should stop visiting Yosef, whether at home or in the hospital.

Yosef was in serious but stable condition at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital Ein Karem TUesday. Over the past few days, he has been put on a respirator, had a pacemaker inserted and undergone dialysis. Followers of the rabbi said he was fighting for his life.

The relationship between Yosef and Amar was fragile, given the fact that Yosef had cut off Amar after he ran a candidate against Yosef’s son Yitzhak in July’s chief rabbinate election.

But Yitzhak Yosef won the post, becoming Amar’s successor as Sephardi chief rabbi, and Amar and the elder Yosef seemed to be on the road to reconciliation, having met five times since Yom Kippur. Ovadia Yosef even asked Amar to pray for his recovery.

Amar was kicked to the curb again after the Maariv daily quoted one of his associates as saying that Yosef had chosen Amar as his spiritual heir from his hospital bed. That infuriated the Yosef family, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and many rank-and-file Shas members.

“Rabbi Amar was close to receiving a pardon from Rabbi Ovadia, but he destroyed it all with his own two hands and buried any chance of this happening,” an associate of Yehudit Yosef’s quoted her as saying.

Amar hastened to deny the Maariv report, saying he was “disgusted” by it, and that it clearly hadn’t come from anyone who wished him well. Whatever the effect of the statement in the long run, it clearly hurt him in the short run. Many Shas members deemed it disgraceful for anyone to even be thinking about the inheritance issue while they were still praying for Yosef’s recovery, and Yosef’s family even charged that the drastic deterioration in the rabbi’s health was caused by Amar’s rebellion this summer.

The claim that Yosef had crowned Amar as his heir rested on a previous phone call from Yehudit Yosef to Mazal Amar, which took place last Saturday night. Nobody disputes that during this call, Yehudit Yosef asked Amar, on her father-in-law’s behalf, to pray for his recovery. Nor does anyone dispute that she delivered another conciliatory message: Yosef feared Amar was hurt when he wasn’t called to the Torah the previous day at Yosef’s synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

The dispute is over Yehudit Yosef’s third message: that her father-in-law wanted Amar to help Yitzhak Yosef in his new job as chief Sephardi rabbi. Amar’s supporters interpreted this as meaning that Ovadia Yosef wanted Amar to mentor his son, while others viewed it as a rebuke of Amar’s disloyalty in backing a rival candidate for the post.

Shas’ inner circle has been increasingly preoccupied over the last two or three years with the question of who will inherit Yosef’s mantle. Though there is no acknowledged spiritual heir, there are really only three plausible claimants to the throne.

One of them is Amar, and in many ways he is a strong candidate. Aside from being Yosef’s only protege from outside his immediate family, he is a former chief rabbi, a senior rabbinical court judge, an acknowledged authority on Jewish law, and admired by many Sephardim in Israel and abroad. That appears to be why he has abased himself in an effort to earn Yosef’s forgiveness in recent months, and why some members of Yosef’s family were ready to welcome him back. But Tuesday, one member of the Yosef clan said Amar had “hammered the last nail in his chances of ever becoming Shas’ [spiritual] leader.”

Of course, that isn’t necessarily the last word. Yet the biggest threat to Amar’s ambitions may not be the Yosefs, but his long-time rival Aryeh Deri.

Deri, the longtime Shas chairman who came back to head the party earlier this year after a 13-year hiatus that included a prison term for corruption, originally favored Yitzhak Yosef as Rabbi Ovadia’s heir. But he has many drawbacks: He lacks charisma, he has no leadership experience and worst of all, his current job as chief Sephardi rabbi legally bars him from political activity for the next 10 years. Therefore, Deri has recently considered backing Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages and head of Israel’s flagship Sephardi yeshiva, Porat Yosef. But Cohen has recently earned much negative press by repeated vicious attacks on a rival religious party, Habayit Hayehudi. For instance, Cohen compared the party’s supporters to Amalek, the nation the Bible describes as the Jews’ eternal enemy.

Thus it seems the main candidates for Yosef’s mantle are primarily engaged in shooting themselves in the foot: Amar can’t control the “associates” who speak in his name; Cohen can’t control his own tongue; and Yitzhak Yosef just won election to a job that bars him from politics for the next decade.

Meanwhile, official Shas is still insisting that no one can ever replace Ovadia Yosef. Citing the Jewish tradition that sets a person’s maximum lifespan at 120 years, one Shas official declared, “From our standpoint, the day after Rabbi Ovadia’s 120th birthday, there is nothing.”

Aryeh Deri.Credit: Oren Nahshon
Shas coleaders Aryeh Deri (left) with Eli Yishai after the exit poll results were announced on Tuesday night.Credit: Emil Salman
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.Credit: Michal Fattal

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