Opinion

Some Gaon: The Tragedy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Ants are not wise, and Yosef was a gaon in an area to which only an ant could devote itself. Imagine the contribution he could have made to the state and to civilization had he broadened his horizons.

The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, wearing his customary dark glasses and black robe with gold brocade.
Olivier Fitoussi

It’s customary to think of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as a gaon – a sage. Unarguably, the episode about him in “Leading the Camp” (“Holkhim lifnay Hamahaneh”), the Channel 20 documentary series on “great” rabbis, starts by assuming that any arbiter of Jewish law of such magnitude is a sage.

But that doesn’t mean that he was wise. It is hard to see how a person who really and truly believes that God chose the Jews from among all nations could be wise. But the episode presents evidence that Yosef was blessed with a particularly large portion of intelligence: His memory, his rhetorical skills and the powers of mental endurance he demonstrated during his long, arduous hours of study were all extraordinary from a very young age.

What did the Yosef do with that extraordinary intelligence? According to the show, the “one in a generation” dedicated that intelligence exclusively to issues of halakha, Jewish religious law.

During the rabbi’s lifetime, countless infinitely fascinating and complex worlds were pried open in fields including physics, astronomy, evolution, history, philosophy, brain research, psychology and economics. Yet his world remained as narrow as an ant’s, to paraphrase the great Hebrew poet Rachel Bluwstein. He stuck strictly to studying halakha and condescending to unbelievers.

Ants are not wise, and Yosef was a gaon in an area to which only an ant could devote itself. One gathers that his brain was a rather sophisticated thinking device, a rare model, that was pretty much wasted. The loss was his, and Israeli society’s, and humanity’s. Imagine the contribution he could have made to the state and to civilization had he broadened his horizons.

There is a scene where the rabbi is shown discussing whether the Maariv evening prayer service must take place before midnight, in the context of Mishnaic rules on burning the fat and body parts of sacrificial animals, which are supposed to be placed on the altar by midnight of the day the beast was slaughtered.

Given that there is no God, certainly not a god who cares about when the sacrificial animals are burned, the attention given to this issue during Yosef’s lifetime constitutes a kind of eccentric esoterica. And when this chaff is taken for wheat, it becomes an obsession that constitutes some sort of existential stupidity.

So was Yosef pretty intelligent, but a fool? Belief in God such as his (as opposed to the existential faith of Yeshayahu Leibowitz) is a colossal metaphysical error. The thought that the rabbi killed his time with such dedication over this makes him a genuinely tragic figure.

Naturally, the episode completely avoids addressing the tragedy caused to society when his halakhic rulings on political matters decisively affected critical national issues.

A society in which Yosef is a leading political figure is, by definition, not modern. The man was pre-modern; he spent his entire life in an ancient cave that his candle illuminated. His kind of contemptible clericalism was kicked to the curb in France back in 1789. He was, after all, closer to Khomeinism than to democracy. “Leading the Camp”? Yosef belligerently trailed far behind, leading an enormous huge group of people backward in time.