How Great Are the Words of the Sages?

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is an important leader who makes a great many wrong decisions, just like any other political leader. Knowledge of halakha does not give him any advantage.

"How great are the words of the sages," the ultra-Orthodox love to tell themselves and those around them. Great, not only because Torah sages excel at making the right decisions - but also because they are far-seeing and anticipate implications that us simple people cannot envision.

And why are the words of the sages so great? Because of heavenly guidance and because the presence of God (shekhinah) speaks from their throats, and their views are Torah and they are like walking books of Torah - that is, the Torah itself is involved in their decision making. And also because they are impartial and unbiased. (They do not, heaven forbid, consider personal interests when making decisions.)

And why present this summary of the ability attributed to Torah sages to make the right decisions and anticipate the future? In the summer of 2000, the Knesset chose the president of the state. At the last moment, Shas - upon the instruction of its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - abandoned its ally Shimon Peres and voted for the candidate Moshe Katsav. They did so out of the desire to elect a religious president and someone of Sephardic descent. It is still too early to determine whether Katsav is guilty of the charges leveled against him. But it already can be stated that, whether he is guilty or not, he did not bring honor to his supporters and he will apparently never "restore the crown [of Sephardic Jewry] to its past glory."

This is not the only case that raises questions about Rabbi Yosef's judgment. He was the one who stood up and shouted after the conviction of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri "Aryeh is innocent," and also shouted at television reporter Nitzan Chen "Go outside." The rabbi did not succeed in foreseeing how much damage and hatred the innocence campaign would sow, and how Shas would become an outcast associated with criminals. Ultimately, he was forced to dismiss Deri. Time after time, Rabbi Yosef sent ministers and MKs to the Knesset who rebelled against him, defied him and even tried to compete with him. A partial list: Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (Rabbi Yosef's son) and Rabbi Joseph Azran.

Rabbi Yosef is the one who instructed Shas in 2001 to support Ariel Sharon's candidacy for prime minister in the race against Ehud Barak. It is not at all certain that this decision was bad for the state, but it clearly was bad for Shas. Sharon humiliated Shas when they were partners and subsequently formed a government with Shinui that drastically cut child allowances. Did Rabbi Yosef fail to see all this in advance? The rabbi likes to compare public figures to animals; thus it is difficult to refrain from asking who the real "blind goat" is here.

And it is not that someone is contesting Rabbi Yosef's right to make decisions in his party. Since Deri was deposed, it is perfectly clear that the rabbi is the party's sole "vote contractor." The voters vote for him with the intention that he will make the decisions. They see Eli Yishai as an authority because Rabbi Yosef said he is an authority. It is his right to decide, his right to make mistakes.

These remarks should not be understood as suggesting that the judgment of the Ashkenazi Torah sages is any better. But they are simply irrelevant. There is no Ashkenazi rabbi today who approaches Rabbi Yosef in terms of importance and influence. The divided United Torah Judaism is actually five factions with six MKs. Therefore, the responsibility placed on the shoulders of the Ashkenazi Torah sages is very limited.

There is not even an attempt here to cast doubt upon the fact that Rabbi Yosef is the most important Jewish religious leader since the establishment of the state. The dispute is with the claim that his views are Torah and his decisions are holy and correct. Rabbi Yosef is an important leader who makes a great many wrong decisions, just like any other political leader.

Knowledge of halakha does not give him an advantage. Perhaps the opposite is true. For some of his erroneous decisions, Shas is paying a heavy price. For some of them, like the election of Moshe Katsav, we all are paying.