Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died Monday in Jerusalem at 93, filled numerous positions in Israeli public life. As the spiritual mentor of the Shas party, he formed and toppled governments; as Sephardic chief rabbi, he issued innovative and breakthrough halakhic rulings, such as permitting the remarriage of Yom Kippur War widows whose husbands’ bodies were never found, or determining that Ethiopian Jews could immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. He won the Israel Prize for Torah Literature for his halakhic work “Yabia Omer,” and was considered one of the leading adjudicators of Jewish law in recent generations.
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But his ultimate importance was his serving as a symbol of leadership for hundreds of thousands of Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent – both in Israel and the Diaspora. The Shas party under his leadership became a political, cultural and spiritual home for a large population that had felt unrepresented. Under the slogan, “Restoring the Crown to its Glory,” Yosef helped many Mizrahim feel proud of their origins and the culture that had nurtured them.
Yosef was also the only major rabbinic figure to make the courageous ruling that preserving lives was more important than retaining territory. In “Yabia Omer” he wrote, “If the heads and commanders of the army, together with the members of government, determine that saving lives is at issue… it seems that it is permitted to give up territory in the Land of Israel.”
But along with his virtues and achievements, Yosef will also be remembered as a man who contributed a great deal to the polarization and division of Israeli society, particularly between secular and religious, with scathing remarks like “secular teachers are donkeys.” He undermined the legitimacy of the courts when he claimed that “they are unworthy of judging Jews,” calling Supreme Court justices “empty, reckless and wicked.” He called then-State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat “an enemy of Israel.” About former Meretz leader and government minister Shulamit Aloni, he said, “A feast should be made on the day she dies,” and he thought former minister Yossi Sarid should “be hung from a tree fifty cubits high.”
Yosef also represented a racist version of Judaism, claiming that non-Jews were born only “to serve us. Otherwise, they have no place in this world.” Shas under his leadership discriminated against women, forbidding them to run for office under its auspices. When asked about Women of the Wall, the liberal women’s prayer group that seeks the right to conduct its own services at the Western Wall, he said, “There are stupid women who come to the Western Wall … they want equality … we must condemn them and be wary [of them].”
Perhaps the greatest damage of Yosef’s legacy is that Shas, under his leadership, nurtured a large and growing group of citizens who did not work for a living or serve in the army, but instead subsisted on government allowances and charity. Shas even started a new network of schools, Ma’ayan Hahinukh Hatorani, which contributed to alienating its graduates from Israeli society.
We must hope that along with preserving the humane spirit that underlined his earlier rulings, Yosef’s successors will choose to promote a path more favorable to integration in society, the economy and the military.