Obituary: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef / Spiritual leader held great sway in Israel

Sept. 23, 1920 - Oct. 7, 2013

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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who as the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party became a forceful figure in Israeli politics fighting for the interests of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, died Oct. 7 in Jerusalem. He was 93.

His death was announced by Avigdor Kaplan, the director of the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, where the rabbi had been treated, and by Dan Gilon, his cardiologist.

Rabbi Yosef, in his distinctive turban, gold-embroidered robe and dark glasses, embodied a particular blend of religion, tradition, populism and ethnicity. As the leader of a Sephardic council of Torah sages that founded Shas in the early 1980s, he harnessed the underdog sentiment of many non-European Israeli Jews, worked to restore their pride and turned them into a potent political force.

Shas became a major player in governing coalitions under Rabbi Yosef's leadership. Israeli leaders of all stripes made pilgrimages to his home in Jerusalem seeking his support. As a Sephardic Torah scholar and arbiter of Halakha, or Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef was often described by his followers as "the greatest of the generation." He wrote Talmudic commentaries and volumes of answers, known as responsa, to questions on religious law. In 1970, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Torah literature.

Yossi Elituv, editor of the Orthodox family magazine Mishpacha and co-author of a book about the life and works of Rabbi Yosef, said the rabbi's greatness in interpreting religious law was based on his chronicling of rulings of the past 200 years and the boldness with which he issued his own, often lenient rulings, sometimes on sensitive issues that other rabbis dared not approach.

In one landmark ruling that challenged the traditional Ashkenazi Orthodox camp, Rabbi Yosef determined that it was permissible for Israel to concede territory in return for true peace, based on the halachic principle that saving lives comes above all. But he and Shas began to take a more hawkish line, especially after 2000, as the peace process broke down into the violence of the second Intifada, arguing that the Palestinians' intentions were not genuine.

In another unconventional ruling, the rabbi allowed hundreds of women whose husbands were missing after the 1973 war to remarry, although, traditionally, remarriage is allowed only after a woman has received a religious bill of divorce from her former husband or there is incontrovertible proof that her former husband has died.

Rabbi Yosef's weekly sermons, delivered on Saturday nights after the Sabbath, were broadcast by satellite to wide audiences and in the last few years were uploaded to YouTube. While dealing with the intricacies of the laws of the Sabbath and festivals, the sermons also became the rabbi's platform for lashing out against those he despised -- rival politicians, gays and perceived enemies of Israel.

When Ariel Sharon was pushing his plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Rabbi Yosef said, "God will strike him with one blow and he will die; he will sleep and not awake." (Mr. Sharon suffered a devastating stroke in early 2006 and remains in a coma.) In 2009, Rabbi Yosef cursed the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he hoped he got sick. In 2010, he described President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority as "evil."

Ovadia Yosef was born on Sept. 23, 1920, in Baghdad, Iraq, to Yaakov Ben and Gorgia Ovadia. He was 4 when his family moved to Jerusalem, where his father ran a grocery store. He was ordained at 20 and began working as a judge in a religious court.

In 1947, Rabbi Yosef moved to Cairo, where he ran a religious court, then headed a yeshiva, before returning to the newly founded state of Israel in 1950. He went on to become the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. In 1973, he was elected the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, serving alongside the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, for a decade.

(Sephardic Jews were originally those who left Spain or Portugal after the 1492 expulsion, many of whom settled in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. In modern Israel, the term generally refers to Jews who came from North Africa and the Arab world and who complained of decades of discrimination and humiliation at the hands of the Ashkenazim, Jews of European stock who made up Israel's early leadership elite.)

With his popular touch, Rabbi Yosef had a galvanizing effect on working-class Sephardic Jews, also known as Mizrachim.

Shas first ran candidates for Parliament in 1984, winning four seats in the 120-seat Knesset and joining a national unity coalition led in rotation by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. By the late 1990s, Shas -- a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians -- controlled 17 seats in Parliament and had become the third largest party. It has participated in most of the country's governing coalitions for almost 30 years.

The party now sits in the opposition with 11 seats. Some political analysts have suggested that infighting after the rabbi's death could weaken it.

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First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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