Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Radical Break With the Past

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef fundamentally changed how the Sephardic world makes its religious decisions, and this halakhic agenda also brought the absorption of Sephardic Jewry into Israeli culture and political power.

There is no doubting that some will primarily remember Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for his provocative statements about his opponents. Though understandable, such a perspective fails to separate the wheat from the chaff. It relies on an unfortunate dependence on a news media appetite that knows that controversy sells and that broader and more serious analyses don’t. But perhaps now is the time to try to appreciate the important place this brilliant and charismatic Sephardi leader has held in world Jewry over the last 50 years.

It actually takes a historian to appreciate the importance of Yosef’s contribution to the contemporary Jewish world in its true perspective. Marc Shapiro, professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton, certainly came close to truly recognizing the importance of this highly unusual rabbi in his review article of Yosef's “Torah revolution.” Though I have some points of contention with his findings, he hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “the halakhic enterprise that R. Ovadiah created has altered permanently the halakhic tradition of Sephardic Jewry.”

Shapiro writes about Yosef's successful campaign to eradicate the local halakhic traditions of the various Sephardic communities that immigrated to Israel and to unify them under the banner of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch. Shapiro also importantly notes that this generally represented a more lenient direction in deciding halakha.

Yet even Shapiro skips over some of the broader implications of Yosef’s bold halakhic leadership: While not necessarily intentional, his halakhic agenda dovetailed the absorption of Sephardic Jewry into Israeli culture. Over the last few centuries, Sephardi halakha had been heavily influenced by the mystical teachings of the kabbala, making it both more stringent and more esoteric. And as modernization reached the Sephardi world with its insistence that personal autonomy requires understanding what one chooses to do, a more esoteric approach made halakha less accessible to all but the very learned. For those who had not already been hit by this modernization in their countries of origin, they were certain to confront it when they reached Israel.

By contrast, although Karo was also influenced by kabbala, most of his decisions follow the highly rationalist interpretations of Maimonides. And by reverting to these teachings, Yosef allowed a much greater number of Sephardic Jews to understand what the halakha was asking of them, as well as to moderate its demands to a level of observance more broadly acceptable. Both of these factors were key to the religious resurgence that he masterminded as the head of the Shas movement and as the leading decisor of the Sephardic world.

The upshot of what he was trying to do had often been summarized by the phrase lehachzir ha-atara le-yoshno, which loosely translated means to bring back the grandeur of the past, referring to the glory days of the Sephardim several hundred years ago. As opposed to the Ashkenazi focus of the contemporary Jewish world, it was a time when they dominated world Jewry, both in terms of numbers and influence. Certainly, that was an appealing message to Israeli Sephardim who had been thought of as less educated and less capable in both secular and religious Israeli circles alike. It was all the more appealing since Yosef presented a moderation and practicality that struck a chord among Sephardim who failed to appreciate the polarization and extremism that they often found among their Ashkenazi neighbors.

For Yosef, the way to regain that glory was to unify the Sephardim under one tradition. A unified tradition would make it easier to spread Torah knowledge to the large number of Sephardim that had remained sympathetic to their heritage, even as they were not all so observant. It would also allow for the creation of a much larger cadre of rabbinic students who carry on his work to this very day and can be expected to continue to do so in the future.

It is hard to overestimate the success of Rabbi Ovadia’s agenda. In the context of Israeli society, it is largely due to his influence that a sizable portion of the Sephardic population of Israel sits squarely in the religious camp. This was not always the case and represents a major shift from the days when Likud came to power largely thanks to this same sector. It is a shift that continues to have a major impact on Israeli politics and society today.

But his impact on society pales in comparison to his impact on halakha. Even if his halakhic decisions have not become universally accepted, he was able to become the preponderant voice in Sephardi halakha. This would not be unusual if he was just following preexisting trends. But given that he was ushering in a radical change as to how the Sephardic world should make its decisions, his success is quite remarkable.

Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator, writer and thinker. He is the author of the “Redeeming Relevance” series on the books of the Torah (Urim Publications).

Daniel Rosenblum