Monday, October 07, 2013

Baghdad-born rabbi Ovadia Yosef is dead

An estimated half a million mourners converged on the Porat Yosef yeshiva in Jerusalem to accompany Ovadia Yosef's body on its last journey (video: JPost)

  Many Israelis of Sephardi/ Mizrahi background are in mourning today at the news of the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, aged 93.  Sephardi synagogues around the world are organising memorial services 'to mark the passing of a great tzadik, halahist and talmid haham, widely acknowledged as the greatest of our generation.' Yosef will be remembered for his lenient rulings, as well as his sharp tongue, writes David Shamah in The Times of Israel.

Ovadia Yosef, an outspoken rabbi who combined religious and political leadership into a role as one of the most powerful religious figures in Israel’s history, died Monday. He was 93. 

Yosef, who was vocal and active even as he ailed in recent years, was hospitalized repeatedly as his condition worsened. 
The Baghdad-born rabbi will be remembered for building the support of traditional Jews from Arab countries, long marginalized in the Israeli political system, into a powerful political machine in the form of the Shas party, a key power-broker in the Knesset.

One of Yosef’s sons is currently the country’s chief Sephardi rabbi, a role Yosef himself held in the past. But the elderly scholar has no clear successor, and some experts expect his death to throw Shas, whose appeal has always been largely based on the rabbi’s authority, into turmoil that could jeopardize its future.

Beyond his large circles of followers and students, Yosef will be remembered by many for his sharp tongue, which became less restrained as he aged. He once famously referred to Yossi Sarid, a leftist MK, as “the devil,” recommended 40 lashes for smokers, and pilloried non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. 

Once a political moderate, in 2010 he called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “evil” and suggested a plague should strike Palestinians. That comment earned him a condemnation from the US State Department.

But in the world of Jewish law and practice, Yosef will be remembered most for his role at the forefront of adjudicating almost every issue over a period of nearly six decades. His stance was often relatively liberal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the bar mitzvah of party chairman Eli Yishai's son, in February 2011. (photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the bar mitzvah of party chairman Eli Yishai’s son, in February 2011. (photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Flash90)

It was Yosef, for example, who ensured that the widows of hundreds of IDF troops killed and missing in action in the Yom Kippur War would be able to remarry, even if their husbands’ bodies were not recovered. While some rabbinical leaders believed that there was no choice but to declare those women agunot, or women who are “chained” to a marriage because a husband’s whereabouts cannot be determined, Yosef provided the legal rationale for allowing them to remarry.

Yosef was unique among ultra-Orthodox religious leaders in his handling of the quandary of “shemita” — a Biblical precept according to which farmers are forbidden to work their land every seventh year. Observing the practice is impossible for modern farmers and would cripple the agricultural economy. Yosef supported an arrangement whereby Jewish farmers can sell the land to non-Jews, usually Muslims, putting the land officially under non-Jewish ownership and allowing work to continue. Of the range of current legal opinions on how to integrate the tradition into a modern economy, Yosef’s interpretation stands out as the most liberal.

The complicated discussions in which Yosef engaged in order to push through these and other groundbreaking decisions appear in the hundreds of books and articles that he authored, many of them based on lectures he gave in synagogues and yeshivas around the world. In 1970, Yosef was awarded the Israel Prize in Rabbinical Literature for his seminal work of legal decisions, “Yabia Omer.”

A prodigy born into poverty

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was born in 1920 in Baghdad, Iraq, and emigrated with his family to Jerusalem in 1924.

Despite the family’s poverty — and the long hours young Ovadia spent helping his father, who supported the family as a peddler — Yosef was recognized as a child prodigy by Jerusalem’s elite Sephardi rabbis. He wrote his first published Torah commentary at age 9, and at 12 began studying at the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva, where he learned Torah and Talmud with study partners far older than he and became close to the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attias. 

In 1937, Attias assigned Yosef to give Torah lectures to members of a Persian synagogue in Jerusalem. In a pattern that would become a hallmark of his career in Jewish law, members of the congregation rejected Yosef’s teachings because he presented a legal point of view that differed from that of the famed Iraqi sage Rabbi Yosef Haim, known as the “Ben Ish Hai.” Haim, who died in 1909, was considered the premier legal authority in much of the Sephardi world at the time. 

But Yosef contended that the sage’s rulings were more stringent than necessary.
It was an argument that Yosef would make throughout his career. Yosef contended that for Sephardi Jews the decisions that mattered were those of the 16th-century legal work known as the Shulhan Arukh, and in his halachic decisions the rabbi would review decisions on related issues in the past to determine how the Shulkhan Arukh would have ruled on the question at hand. The final decision was often more moderate than the ones promulgated by the students of the Ben Ish Hai.

In the 1940s, Yosef penned a series of books in which he specified his dispute with the Ben Ish Hai’s point of view on each point of Jewish law. But Yosef postponed publishing the series for more than 40 years, until 1998, at least in  part because of his fears over the controversy they would engender. Indeed, several of the top Sephardi rabbis in Israel criticized Yosef for his position.
At age 20, Yosef was appointed a dayan, a judge in a religious court, and went on to head the Sephardi Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. By 1945 Yosef was known throughout the Jewish world and received daily requests for advice and guidance.
At around the same time, he became close with members of the Irgun, the armed group headed by Menachem Begin. Several of Yosef’s brothers joined the group, and some Irgun members have said Yosef himself participated in its activities, including helping Begin and others escape the clutches of British police by dressing them as rabbis. Yosef also became acquainted with other Zionist leaders, including Shimon Peres, with whom he had a long friendship.

In 1947 Yosef moved to Egypt and headed the Jewish community’s religious court. He remained there for three years, during which time he found himself at odds with lay leaders of the Jewish community, whom Yosef felt were lax in their observance. He returned to Israel in 1950.

In the early 1960s, he established a yeshiva in Jerusalem specifically to train Sephardi youth for for the rabbinate. In several of his writings, Yosef bemoans the fact that Sephardi students were forced to attend Ashkenazi yeshivas, where he felt they were considered second-class students and were trained to make legal decisions in a manner not consistent with Sephardi tradition.

A lenient religious legal authority

Yosef became the country’s chief Sephardi rabbi in 1972, and was involved in several groundbreaking legal decisions. During his tenure, large numbers of Soviet Jews arrived in Israel, many of them married to non-Jews or without clear proof of their Jewish heritage. Yosef was able to ensure that many of them were accepted as Jews, or were able to convert under the auspices of the rabbinate. In perhaps his most dramatic decision from the period, Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia were indeed Jews. As such, they qualified for assistance under the Law of the Return, and as a result, the entire community was airlifted to Israel over the following three decades.

In cases involving converts, divorce and mamzerut — the status of a child born of a forbidden union, and who cannot marry someone who does not share that status – Yosef’s position was to seek out lenient solutions wherever possible in order to protect children.

Read article in full 

BBC News article


Sylvia said...

Half a million people according tp the police and the procession hasn't even started yet. Roads are blocked and people can't reach the place. And people haven't had time to arrive from overseas yet.

Police are hysterical and have called in homefront command for help.

One kilometer procession only.
It'll probably last well into the morning.

Eulogies from Bibi Shimon Peres and condolences from Mahmoud Abbas to the family among others.

Israel TV1 is covering the funeral

Sylvia said...

Now more than 600 000 people and thousand trying to get through according to the police.

The media are obsessed with the succession.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

they are obsessed with the succession because in general politics is like a cult interest for them. And in particular they are wondering what will happen to Shas and what that will mean for their beloved "peace process."

Sylvia said...

I think the Palestinians are aware that this is a turning point, the funeral is widely covered by many Palestinian journalists and attended by personalities and as I said Mahmoud Abbas sent his condolences.

One million people according to estimates in such small area is outright dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't want all these people at my funeral.just my family!!!Of course you'l say I am nothing compar ed to him!!!

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I offended some of you!!!
I won't do it again!!!