Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Leaves Behind a Leadership Vacuum That Cannot Be Filled

Yosef has no heir because he was a figure irreplaceable in terms of his political weight, but especially in terms of his weight in the world of Torah observance and Jewish ritual law.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The day before the Sukkot holiday, the weekly bible-study session at the prime minister’s home convened in the presence of the newly elected chief rabbis of Israel. Opening the proceedings, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef gave a sermon connecting Adam with Moses (the weekly Torah portions read during the Jewish High Holy Days describe Moses’ death east of the Jordan River, as God had decreed Moses would not enter the Land of Israel.) The rabbi explained that Moses tried to appeal the heavenly decree, but only because “he understood the value of each and every moment of life,” even though he departed for the hereafter after a life filled with commandments and good deeds. After the brief sermon, the participants debated whether the words were the personal lament of an orphan. At that point, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [the chief rabbi’s father] was very ill, although not yet hospitalized. That happened later, during the seven-day Sukkot festival.

As we all remember, Moses had Joshua, but who will be the successor or heir of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef?

The question of succession must be asked, but the very act of asking points to a severe flaw in our historical orientation. It’s really very simple: There is no heir. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a phenomenon of tremendous magnitude, a figure irreplaceable in terms of his political weight, but especially in terms of his weight in the world of Torah observance and Jewish ritual law. He was active in eras and locations that allowed him to influence and outshine all other leaders, including his Ashkenazi colleagues and counterparts. It is doubtful that such circumstances will repeat themselves and allow anyone else to attain his stature. In the vast range of different hats he wore, he leaves a vacuum that cannot be filled.

And nonetheless the question arises, and is being asked within the inner circles of the movement he founded: how to fill the vacuum, at least in part? Is former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar capable? Or Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the son who was appointed Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi in the summer of 2013 and who has developed a symbiotic relationship with Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri? Or perhaps one of the other sons, who fought over the family inheritance in the period preceding the chief rabbi election? Some other rabbi identified with Shas? None of the answers is serious, unless the term “heir” is reduced to mean leadership of Shas, and it clearly can’t be. With all due respect to Shas – a social and political movement whose glory days may well be in the past – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was not merely the founder and leader of the utra-Orthodox Sephardi party.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef himself did not raise an heir apparent or even successor. In recent months, when he was already ill and the voices whispering in his ear multiplied, certain loose ends were tied up. The leader appointed Aryeh Deri as party chairman and managed to shepherd his son Yitzhak to the seat of the chief rabbi. A few days before his last hospitalization, three days before Sukkot, he managed to have his picture taken with his son in a ceremonial robe, but it is doubtful whether any Shas member really sees the photo as the passing of the spiritual leadership scepter.

Perhaps some other member of the Yosef household? Rabbi Ovadia Yosef leaves four sons (after the passing of his son Rabbi Yaakov Yosef in 2012), all of whom have earned rabbinical titles, but under their belts they have too many years of conflict and too little leadership and charisma. It seems that the question of the successor will split into several answers, and each answer will be interpreted differently by different factions within Shas. As for the question of heir, we may as well stop asking. There won’t be one.

The statement that there will be no heir doesn’t stem from any attempt to put Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on a pedestal. Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, a leading religious-Zionist rabbi and research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, called the book he wrote about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s approach to Jewish law “From Maran to Maran” - a play on a Hebrew saying equating the stature of Moses Maimonides with that of the biblical Moses. The term “maran” commonly refers to Rabbi Yosef Karo, a 16th century rabbi and mystic who codified Jewish law in a monumental work called “Shulhan Arukh.” The title of Rabbi Lau’s book refers to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s life work - the actualization of Rabbi Karo’s thinking as the prevailing legal approach in Israel; one that would obligate all Sephardi Jews from all Arab-speaking and Muslim countries and blur the ritual differences among them. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef regarded the adoption of this method, while erasing the uniqueness of the eastern ethnic groups, as “restoring Judaism to its former glory.”

Lau looks at the current period of Jewish history, the so-called period of Aharonim (later rabbis), and says that previous eras of Jewish history – for example, that of the Sages, from the 3rd century BCE to the end of the 6th century CE, that of the Gaonim (late 6th to mid-11th centuries), and that of the Rishonim (or early rabbis, in the 11th to 15th centuries) – lasted about 500 years each. “It is only now that I’m looking at the title, “From Maran to Maran,” in a different sense,” Lau says. “Between Maran Rabbi Yosef Karo and Maran Rabbi Ovadia Yosef there are 500 years of Aharonim, including the whole period of Hassidism and the Mussar movement and the great decisors of Jewish law. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is without a doubt the last of the later rabbis. His passing is the capstone of that era.”

Lau says that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef “was active from the time of early Zionism and the return to the land until we established ourselves as a free, secular society. He was born just after the Balfour Declaration and lived closed to 100 years, during which Judaism returned to the land of Israel. Before Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Jews had no common ground for discourse on Jewish law. There were only shards and remnants brought here from disparate locations. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef constructed a house that not everyone was happy with; some fought it. But before him, there simply was no building. He came up more or less in tandem with Ben-Gurion and he was the Ben-Gurion of the Torah, because he constructed a melting pot of Jewish law that purported to obligate everyone, even if it didn’t always succeed. Now there won’t be anything like it. Now that the emigration from Russia is over and the return to Zion is all but complete, something else will begin. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is the end of the era of accepted, top-down authority, and perhaps the start of something that might grow from the bottom up. What is about to start is our own awakening.”

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, and his son, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Emil Salman
Ultra-Orthodox on a rooftop.
Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef.
Young Haredi boys.
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Ultra-Orthodox on a rooftop.Credit: AP
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Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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Young Haredi boys.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Israelis mourn the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

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