HomeNovember 2013An Eminent Rabbi

An Eminent Rabbi

Nearly 800,000 people attended the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem October 7, making it the largest funeral in Israeli history.  The former Sephardic chief rabbi, who was 93, left his mark in nearly every possible field of Jewish law.
Perhaps the most famous of his rulings – and the one with the most far-reaching political implications – was Yosef’s 1979 opinion that halacha permitted ceding parts of the Land of Israel if doing so could be proven to save Jewish lives.
The Camp David peace accords with Egypt – including the return of the Sinai Peninsula – were being negotiated at the time of the ruling and Yosef, who was then Sephardi chief rabbi, provided Prime Minister Menachem Begin with a halachic justification for clinching a deal with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
Though Yosef was praised at the time by the Israeli Left, he came under fire for breaking with haredi rabbis, who tend to distance themselves from “political” questions of Jewish sovereignty resulting from the creation of the State of Israel, and from right-wing religious-Zionist rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served at the time as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi.  According to Nitzan Chen and Anshel Pfeffer in Maran, in their biography of Yosef, it was the rabbi’s experiences dealing with over 900 widows whose soldier husbands had been killed in the Yom Kippur War which made him more dovish.
In 1973, in another controversial move, Yosef broke with the consensus of haredi Ashkenazi rabbis and ruled that the Beta Israel from Ethiopia were full-fledged Jews, thus facilitating their immigration to Israel.
Arguably, Yosef’s biggest impact was in improving the religious prestige of Sephardi Jewry.  He leveraged his influence in the religious establishment by creating Shas, which ran for the Knesset for the first time in 1984.  Thanks to Shas’s political success, Yosef managed to get more Sephardi rabbis and judges appointed in the Chief Rabbinate and the religious courts, institutions that had once been dominated by Ashkenazim.
The political movement that he led also created the El Hama’ayan network of schools, with 40,000 students and the lucrative Beit Yosef kosher supervision apparatus.  Both institutions have helped strengthen the Sephardi customs and culture endorsed by Yosef.
Yosef, who reached out to a large segment of Sephardi Israelis whose observance was not rigidly Orthodox, promoted a “melting pot” approach of unifying the customs of Sephardi Jews and rejected the traditions that developed in the Diaspora.  He insisted that Sephardi young men keep their separate Sephardi customs, even while studying in Ashkenazi yeshivot.
Yosef strove in his rulings to be lenient in a wide range of issues – recognizing conversions performed by IDF rabbis, placing fully cooked dry food on a hotplate on Shabbat and supporting his daughter’s project – the first haredi academic college – which provides haredi men and women with university degrees in fields such as computer science, social work and psychology.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Yosef as “a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands” whose rulings enhanced Jewish heritage yet also took into consideration modern times.  “The Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.”
– From The Jerusalem Post

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