The frenetic media speculation these past few weeks over whether Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had appointed or would appoint "a successor", and if not why not, confirmed, for me at least, the tragic aspect of the rabbi's remarkable life.
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I found myself wondering if anyone asked the same question about Albert Einstein, who very nearly became president of Israel. Did Einstein name "a successor" who might be considered for the presidency of the Jewish state?
That question, of course, would have been mad. Einstein was in a league of his own in physics. A unique scholar. How could he "appoint" a "successor"?
Einstein, moreover, had the good sense to decline the Israeli presidency. To have accepted would have meant, inevitably, a diminution of his studies and extensive confusion over where his true greatness lay. People, perhaps naturally, would have begun relating to him as an international statesman, perhaps a mediocre one, forgetting that he was only offered the Israeli presidency because of his genius as a physicist.
That, in effect, is the sad fate that befell Rabbi Ovadia. He is identified, mourned and eulogized as "the spiritual leader of Shas," as though that political designation were his greatest honor.
In fact, that political honor was the direct consequence of his genius in Jewish learning (and of his lack of good sense in not declining it.)
I was able to witness his transformation from close up, and felt then and thereafter a bitter resentment towards the Shas apparatchiks for their cynical kidnap of the greatest living Talmud scholar and rabbinic judge for their own political purposes.
Their plot was unfortunately made easier by the death in 1994 of Margalit, Rabbi Ovadia's modest but tough wife. While both the Yosefs' heads were turned by the excitement and publicity of politics, Margalit determinedly guarded Rabbi Ovadia's study and barred the apparatchiks from entry while he was studying or writing. Now their way was clear, and steadily, with the help of some of his children, they acquired a grip on his life and thought. In their hands he indeed became "the spiritual leader of Shas" and was reduced to pathetically defending a series of corrupt politicians.
His own standing as the most authoritative Sephardi halachic authority in centuries was compromised. But – and it's a huge but – his role as spiritual leader, not just of Shas but of virtually all traditionalist Sephardim [Mizrachim] in Israel and to some extent abroad too, was a significant success. Thanks to him, Judaism for these people has become in recent years far more cerebral and far less ritualistic and superstitious than it used to be.
Sephardi synagogues today will have, as a matter of course, sets of Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Arukh for worshippers to study. That was not necessarily the case before Rabbi Ovadia launched his "Restoring the Crown to its Ancient Glory" campaign. Yes, this has now become a mere Shas slogan; but the change it reflects within Orthodox Sephardi society cannot be denied. There has been a marked increase in the number of Sephardi scholars in the yeshiva world. And the broader "chazara b'tshuva", or return to religion, trend in Israel, under Rabbi Ovadia's influence, affects Sephardi families more than it does Ashkenazi.
For Rabbi Yosef, these developments within his community vindicated his own sacrifice of the quiet, scholarly life. His mind was so phenomenal that he forgot nothing, literally nothing, of his learning, despite his political preoccupations. I once saw him walking up the steps of an American yeshiva and asking the dean matter-of-factly what tractate they were studying and where they were up to. Ten minutes later, he was giving a lecture to the whole yeshiva – on precisely the issues of that page of Talmud.