Reviving Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for Political Gain

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The attempt by Shas party leaders and the children of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to turn the deceased rabbi into a living folk figure is a nothing but a cynical political ploy meant for their own gain.

New car stickers in Jerusalem exhort voters to choose Shas in the upcoming municipal elections to make the recently-deceased Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef happy. “Making the Maran happy – voting Shas for the municipality,” they declare. At the entrance to the city, a giant sign carries the likeness of Yosef and a caption that reads, “We have no father.”

If that were not enough, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife visited Yosef's family during the traditional period of mourning, some of the deceased rabbi's sons greeted them with vitriol, berating Netanyahu for not acceding to the deceased rabbi's request to revoke the recent law drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the army. They also complained about cuts in government funding to Haredi educational institutions and yeshiva students.

That is how fame is perpetuated in this world; Shas is capitalizing on the Torah greatness attributed to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in hard political currency. Even before the conclusion of the seven-day mourning period, Shas had begun to use Yosef’s name, prestige and status to reap fruits in the material world. Soon ritual amulets, souvenirs and printouts with his handwriting will pop up to be sold as valuable items. They will become like the keys to Rachel's Tomb and the red string charms that are now distributed throughout Jerusalem by all sorts of non-profit organizations that regularly visit Rachel's Tomb. (“The matriarch is looking upon us,” says an advertisement for one of these groups. “We are with mother on your behalf, connected to mother every moment.”)

Rabbi Yosef was elevated to saintly status and the position of group father within his lifetime and there are already signs that someone intends to make him - a person who stamped himself firmly into the consciousness of traditional Middle Eastern Jewry - an equal in status to that of our matriarch Rachel in popular Jewish folklore.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri cried over him in front of the cameras no less than he mourned the death of his own biological father a year-and-a-half ago. In that moment, he set the range of terms that will be used from now on to describe the deceased rabbi. Senior Shas politician Eli Yishai and the rest of the party heads did not dally after Deri and adopted Rabbi Yosef as the father of the movement if not of all Sephardic Jewry.

In the name of the father, Shas' orphaned leaders permit themselves to make political and financial demands of the country and its leaders, while also promoting their own public and private interests. Deri benefits from the patronage of the rabbi's daughter-in-law, who said in an interview on Channel 2 that her father chose him to lead the party and that this wish must be obeyed.

The rabbi's sons are exploiting his death to grant the status of last will and testament to his expectation that “the evil decrees” that the government placed on yeshiva students be revoked. In their view, the rational and legitimate considerations that motivated the government to compel the Haredi public to increase its participation in the country's economy and to carry some of the burdens the country places on all its citizens pale in comparison to the rabbi's request to Netanyahu to leave the situation as it is. The entire party elite, with all its internal factions and differences, is making cynical use of Yosef's name to improve its standing in this week’s municipal elections. And that is only the beginning.

Those wondering about the character of Shas after the death of its spiritual leader are welcome to take stock of the first indications. The party's leaders (together and separately) are addressing their public when they treat Rabbi Yosef as a living, breathing figure. This is almost as ridiculous as the manner in which the Hasidic Chabad movement's leadership tries to deify the rebbe from Lubavitch (“Long live the King Messiah,”) as if he didn't rejoin his forefathers 19 years ago. While this behavior among those in Chabad affected a not particularly large Hasidic dynasty (its membership is estimated at between 50,000 and 200,00 people around the globe) and is perceived by the general public (including religious and Haredi Jews) as a mere curiosity, the presentation of Rabbi Yosef as a living figure is targeted toward a much broader public.

In Israel alone, there are potentially hundreds of thousands of people, traditional Jews of Middle Eastern heritage, for whom the concept of “father” or “our father” in close proximity to Rabbi Yosef will not be interpreted metaphorically (a spiritual father or source of inspiration), but in its religious meaning. He will be perceived as being analogous to the three patriarchs of the Jewish people, his words will be God-given commands, his being ever-present and watching out over everyone.

In seeking to impart this status to the deceased rabbi, Shas party leaders and the children of the Yosef family are seeking to appropriate for themselves a decisive advantage in the national arena, where the game pieces are politics, the economy - and ignorance, too. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and religion is the springboard of the cynic.

The funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: Shas is portraying him as the living father.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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