Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Revolutionary

The worldview he expressed resembled the dream of Israel’s founders of a unified national consciousness, but it was better suited to the true Israel.

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
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Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

It’s sad to see how in light of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s serious condition, images empty of wisdom not to mention respect for others are winning out. Those images are reflected in the contempt emanating from political commentaries weighted down with psychology, personal motives and gossip aplenty that are permeated with scorn for the rabbi, and in fact for his many followers.

Yes, yes, you heard right. He cursed, acted the fool, sent people packing and slapped them. That’s all true, and it’s interesting that those who hold him in contempt find it easier to be forgiving when it comes to great turns of phrase like the “blind she-goat” (about Netanyahu) and to be shocked only when it comes to execrations of “our own.” Minimal effort, if any, is invested in an attempt to understand the great value of the man, as if it were not clear that since the 1980s, the social-cultural reality in Israel has changed unrecognizably.

Those who can look at this change without panicking, can perhaps understand that the spiritual leader of Shas is not, as he is often presented, a clown (though he is a gifted stand-up comedian), but rather a revolutionary. The impact of the revolution he generated by way of deep sociocultural changes in Israel has still not been deciphered, but it shows itself in two places: among the large public that is rediscovered anew on the day after every election, and in the academic world, which has so far only touched the fringes of his works.

Ostensibly, these are contradictions: the open, public and political aspect, which expresses itself at the ballot box, as opposed to the aspect of Torah and Jewish law, which are relevant only to a closed, religious world, as it is studied academically. But these two aspects are inseparable parts of he rabbi’s personality and reflect his world. Without understanding the link between them, it is difficult to plumb the depths of the revolution he led. Not only for “his” public, but for all of Israeli society.

Scholars like Benny Lau, Zvi Zohar, Ariel Pikar, Aviezer Ravitzky and others, have clearly discerned this link. Their research shows how Yosef was able to extricate an entire group of people from the stigma of discrimination-driven powerlessness and fill them with pride in their ancient heritage. Under the slogan “restoring the ancient crown,” he combined brilliant, daring halakhic moves with the empowerment of deep social streams.

This complex activity, which was both conservative and radical at the same time, generated huge changes, the political manifestations of which are just the tip of the iceberg, and the real significance of which can be seen in every aspect of public life and discourse.

The most interesting and compelling fact emerging from the research is the national and cultural choice offered by Yosef’s worldview. “Restoring the ancient crown” is not just a proposal to become insularly ultra-Orthodox. On the contrary, it represents the return to the halakha and culture of Eretz Israel.

Rabbi Yosef sought to inculcate throughout society the awareness of the authentic place of the people of this land, in a tolerant and flexible Mediterranean spirit. In this context he dared, for example, to rule that the value of pikuah nefesh – preservation of life – outweighed that of settling the territories; insisted that the establishment of the state was not a religious miracle; did not segregate secular people, and sought to create a single prayer service for everyone, in Sephardi style. The worldview he expressed resembled the dream of Israel’s founders of a unified national consciousness, but it was better suited to the true Israel.

Despite the slander, this view is anti-nationalist and anti-Haredi. Although the leaders of Shas dragged their party into separatism, their rabbi was and is a Zionist leader in the full social and national sense of the word. His worldview, which was distorted, stained and taken advantage of, still exists, crystal-clear, in his writings.

For all the foolish slips of the tongue that he made under the pressure of the power-hungry bullies who surrounded him, and despite his human weaknesses, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is nonetheless a revolutionary. And the revolution he led still issues its own fascinating call to Israeli society.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as a young man.Credit: Daniel Rosenblum

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