Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic sage and founder of Shasby aben sales, jta
|Follow j. on||and|
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli sage who founded the Sephardic Orthodox Shas political party and exercised major influence on Jewish law, has died. He was 93.
Yosef died on the morning of Oct. 7 at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. More than 800,000 people — about 10 percent of the country’s population — filled the city’s streets for his funeral later that day.
Though he adhered to a haredi Orthodox ideology, Yosef, a charismatic speaker, published relatively liberal Jewish legal rulings and drew support both from traditional and secular Sephardic Israelis. Known to his followers as Maran, “our master” in Hebrew, Yosef’s main Jewish legal goal was to take diverse Jewish practices from the Middle East and North Africa and mold a “united legal system” for Sephardic Jews.
As his influence grew, Yosef presided over a veritable empire of Sephardic religious services. Shas opened a network of schools that now has 40,000 students. Yosef managed a kosher certification called Beit Yosef that has become the standard for many religious Sephardim. And he was a dominant power broker when it came to electing Sephardic chief rabbis and appointing Sephardic judges in religious courts. This year, Yosef’s son — and preferred candidate — won the Israeli Sephardic chief rabbi election.
Through his work, Yosef hoped to raise the status of Israel’s historically disadvantaged Sephardic community, both culturally and socioeconomically. He dressed in traditional Sephardic religious garb, including a turban and an embroidered robe, even as most of his close followers adopted the Ashkenazi haredi dress of a black fedora and suit.
Outside the religious community, Yosef was best known for his sometimes controversial political stances. His authority within Shas was virtually absolute, and even in his ninth decade he remained closely involved in the party’s decisions.
While Yosef favored policies that served the religious community’s interests, he also supported peace treaties involving Israeli withdrawal from conquered territory. He argued that such deals were allowed under Jewish law because they saved Jewish lives.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Shas joined left-wing governing coalitions multiple times, allowing for the advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — though Yosef opposed the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip because it was done unilaterally.
In his later years, Yosef also stirred controversy with a number of inflammatory statements, often made at a weekly Saturday night sermon. In 2000, he said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners, and in 2005 he said that the victims of Hurricane Katrina deserved the tragedy “because they have no God.” In 2010, Yosef said, “The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews.”
Ovadia Yosef was born Abdullah Yosef in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sept. 23, 1920. Four years later his family moved to Jerusalem, in what was then Palestine, where Yosef studied at the Porat Yosef yeshiva, a well-regarded Sephardic school. At 20, he was ordained as a rabbinic judge, serving until becoming Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position he held until he was elected Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel in 1973. In 1970, the government awarded him the prestigious Israel Prize in recognition of his books.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War he ruled that women whose husbands were missing in action could remarry. Later in his term, he endorsed the Ethiopian Jews’ claim to Judaism, helping them immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
Yosef founded Shas in 1984, a year after finishing his term as chief rabbi. The party now holds 11 Knesset seats.
Except for four years, Shas was part of every governing coalition between 1984 and 2013, acting as a kingmaker in Israeli politics. Because the party represents both haredi and poor Sephardim, it advocates a unique mix of dovish foreign policy, conservative religious policy and liberal economic policy.