The Hijacking of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's Legacy

Shas leader Aryeh Deri is no longer the figure that swept and unified hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis; his sole political asset these days is his monopoly over the late rabbi's likeness.

Emil Salman

Monday, the third of Heshvan, marks a year since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. However, both Shas, the political party he founded, and the Israeli media celebrated his memory over a month ago with a series of public memorial events and special features summing up his legacy and what has happened to Shas since his departure. Why were they so hasty?

There are, of course, technical reasons. Religious Jews end the year of mourning after 12 months, and since 5774 was a leap year with thirteen months, the memorial took place before the usual date. For Israeli television channels, which are obligated by the regulators to dedicate a certain number of hours to religious affairs, it was particularly useful for filling their quota. In death, as in life, Rabbi Yosef was good for ratings.

But the fact that the actual date of his passing is receiving much less attention is another sign of how the legacy of the man whom hundreds of thousands called "Maran" (Aramaic for "our master") has been hijacked by others, especially by Shas' political leader, Aryeh Deri, the indisputable star of the memorial events and television shows.

Deri, whose popularity once outshone even the rabbi's, is no longer the figure that swept and unified hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. His sole political asset now, aside from his experience in Knesset back-corridor maneuvering, is his monopoly over the rabbi's enigmatic visage on which he projects his political aspirations and failures as well. When Shas embarked on its annual series of public "awakening" events during the month of Elul, it was clear that the 83-year-old puppet Deri placed in Yosef's stead as president of the Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, would not draw more than a few hundred yeshiva students, who rely on Shas for their livelihood. Rabbi Cohen is Yosef's equal in only one aspect, his loose tongue. He also employs vicious and inflammatory slurs when speaking of political rivals. But in every other field, he is an uninspiring and unpopular figure. The only way to avoid total humiliation and empty halls was making the month-long campaign into an earl
y memorial for the rabbi. Even then, it usually failed to draw crowds.

The cynical use of the rabbi's memory for Deri's political needs was evident already last year during the mayoral election in Jerusalem, where he was humiliated along with his old friend Avigdor Lieberman, when their handpicked candidate, Givatayim accountant Moshe Leon, lost to incumbent Mayor Nir Barkat. Deri claimed that he had wanted to go with Barkat all along but that it had been Yosef, on his deathbed, who had ordered him to back Leon. It will be interesting to see for how long Deri can keep explaining his every political move and fall with "it was Maran's will."

Under Deri and Cohen, Shas has contracted and ceased to be a wider Mizrahi working-class movement. Today it is mainly the party of Sephardi Haredim – a spiritual twin of the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism. This should at least have meant that they would continue Rabbi Yosef's true legacy, the dozens of volumes of detailed rulings on Jewish Law he wrote and which he believed were his life's work to stand for centuries. But in the unchanging ultra-Orthodox world, Sephardi dayanim (rabbinical court judges) know they have to take the uncompromising and rigid line of the senior Ashkenazi rabbis, those that Deri is continuously courting. A Sephardi-Haredi rabbinical judge who would dare to use the precedents set by Rabbi Yosef in his "Yabia Omer" books, will not get far in the system. How ironic that the only judges seeking to use the flexible and groundbreaking rulings are those who graduated from the rival national-religious yeshivas. These are the judges Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is trying to get on the bench instead of the Shas rabbis.

Last week, Deri took another political blow when, at the last moment, he was forced to support Rabbi Shlomo Amar in the race for Jerusalem's chief rabbi. He had no choice as Mayor Nir Barkat and Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett had stacked the election committee so that no Shas candidate, Rabbi Yosef's son David or Deri's brother Yehuda, could be elected. Amar was for many years Yosef's favored disciple, but shortly before his death, they were estranged and he fell out with Deri as well. But if there is any rabbi who personifies Ovadia Yosef's legacy today it is the popular Amar who, like Yosef, grew up poor in a non-Haredi family and made his way in the rabbinate on his own merits, without the benefit of nepotism. Amar, like his mentor, is not afraid to overrule Ashkenazi rabbis. How ironic that the rabbi who most resembles Ovadia Yosef today is also seen as the biggest political threat to Shas.

Anshel Pfeffer co-authored "Maran, a biography of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef" with Nitzan Chen.