Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rabbi Eliyahu leaves legacy of integration

A follower of the Ben Ish Hai, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who died this week, was a force for integration and unity in Israeli society, the Jerusalem Post reports:

The death Monday of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu at the age of 81, after a long battle with heart disease, marks the passing of one of the two most dominant Sephardi rabbinical leaders in contemporary times, the other, of course, being Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

But Yosef, who set in motion a political and cultural movement by and for Sephardi Jews, and Eliahu, who was identified with the religious Zionist stream of Orthodoxy, represent opposing models for the integration of Jews from Muslim countries into Israeli society.

Yosef advocates a monolithic approach. He believes that Jewish Moroccans, Algerians, Yemenites, Iraqis, Persians, Egyptians and others should all abandon their unique customs that developed in exile and embrace instead a unified halachic system based on the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulhan Aruch, the definitive codex of Jewish law.

Yosef has argued that upon returning to Israel, all should embrace the rulings of Karo, who lived in Israel and is therefore to be considered the uncontested local authority.

Ironically, Yosef's view is reminiscent of the “melting pot” system of integration adopted by Mapai’s Ashkenazi elite in the first decades of the state of Israel that strove to reeducate Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries to adopt the dominant secular socialist-Zionist culture.

In contrast, Eliyahu, who, like Yosef, has roots in Iraq, encouraged Jews hailing from diverse communities that developed in the Maghreb and the Mashreq to maintain their own distinctive customs.

He was personally influenced by Rabbi Yosef Haim, the Ben Ish Chai, a major halachic authority who lived in Baghdad in the first part of the 20th century.

And he strove to maintain this uniquely Iraqi Jewish tradition through his halachic decisions.

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