Wednesday, October 09, 2013
The Convoluted Legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef
All of Israel is in convulsion this week over the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef. His funeral was the largest in the history of the country. Yossef was indeed a distinguished Torah authority and "Posek." Unfortunately he was also a politician. Many of the gushing praises being tossed out about him and his career are ignoring the many negative sides of that career. Yossef was not only a Rabbinic giant, he was also a vulgar and foolish dabbler in politics who turned "Lashon Hara" or "the evil tongue" into something of his calling card.
An example of the imbalanced praise being heaped upon Yossef is the column by my friend Seth Frantzman in Jerusalem Post, http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Terra-incognita-The-Rav-and-his-detractors-328184 . By and large I agree with Seth's thesis, which is that much of the hostility towards Rabbi Ovadia and his SHAS party always came from bigoted Ashkenazi secularist leftists. Seth documents many such cases of bigotry in a convincing manner and his article is worth reading. But he too chooses to overlook the negative sides of Ovadia's behavior and personality. For full disclosure, I should point out that there is even an indirect connection between Ovadia's career and my own family. My wife's grandfather was a leading Rabbi in Egypt. When he made aliyah in 1947 (by train!!) to Haifa he was replaced by the young Ovadia Yossef, whose rabbinic career developed for a while in Egypt. (Many web sites are attributing the Ovadia the rabbinic ruling that a Jew may marry a Karaite without the Karaite converting, but in fact this was a ruling by my wife's grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Ohana.)
On halakhic questions, most of Ovadia's rulings were intelligent and sensitive. He was the authority who ruled that Ethiopian Jews are bona fide Jews. He issued rulings making it easier for wives of MIA soldiers to remarry. He issued rulings that allowed farm owners to evade the economic damages of "Shmita" years. He ruled that brain death is death and so it was not necessary to keep a brain dead body alive. He opposed wearing of wigs and hair shaving by religious women. A Palestinian terrorist group attempted to assassinate the Rabbi in 2005.
Ovadia was born in Iraq and his family moved to Israel when he was quite young. He was ordained a rabbi at age of 20. He was obviously extremely bright and possessed enormous analytic power. He served as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel beginning in 1973. On matters of rabbinic discourse or halakha, his rulings tended in most cases to be tolerant and moderate. In general, Sephardic religious tradition has long been calmer, gentler, less extreme, and more moderate than that of Orthodox Ashkenazim, and Sephardim are renowned for their sensibility. Traditionally it would be rare to find Sephardic Jews who eat pork or openly violate Yom Kippur restrictions, and at the same time it would be unusual for Sephardim to choose to spend their entire lives as yeshiva students living off the dole paid by others who work, or to behave rudely towards people who attend soccer matches on the Sabbath.
Much of the traditional sensibility of Sephardim came under attack by the politicized religious institutions erected by Rabbi Ovadia, and in particular by the SHAS party. Originally set up by Yossef and others as a "revolt" against the Chareidi Ultra-Orthodox parties and their attitudes towards Sephardim, SHAS itself developed into its own manifestation of politicized religion, in many ways as bad as the Ashkenazi Chareidi parties. SHAS was first and foremost a party for extortion of funding and favors from the secularist-dominated governments of Israel. While parasitic non-working yeshiva study had always been absent from the Sephardic religious world, SHAS embraced the idea and expanded it with a vengeance. Like the Ashkenazi chareidim, the "flour" from the famous religious mantra of "flour with Torah" was ejected, replaced by welfare distributions at taxpayer expense, enraging and alienating the secular Israeli. SHAS yeshiva students adopted the black chareidi clothing of the Ashkenazim, a manner of dress with no basis in Sephardic tradition. As the party morphed into a mechanism for extraction of "rents" from the taxpayer, its involvement in dubious financial affairs increased. The SHAS underboss Aryeh Deri may have been unfairly targeted for prosecution by an Attorney General with an axe to pick against SHAS, but Deri was hardly an epitome of purity, hardly a Tallis that is entirely azure (tachelet). Deri and Yossef collaborated with Shimon Peres in the now infamous 1991 "stinky trick" attempt to topple the national unity government in which Peres sat (for details, see this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_dirty_trick_(Israel) ).
Even worse was the cynicism with which SHAS dealt with the national challenges and political issues Israel faces. SHAS was willing to oppose Oslo appeasement or to endorse it, depending on whether doing so would serve its transient appetite for public funding. An old joke held it that SHAS would vote for turning the Golan Heights over to Syria if it earned SHAS some funding, just as long as the withdrawal would not take place on the Sabbath. While Rabbi Ovadia's own brothers served in the Irgun or Etsel before Israel's independence, he and SHAS joined the chareidi campaign to grant wholesale exemption from the military service of all yeshiva students. Yossef attacked vulgarly any politician, even religious ones, who supported recruiting yeshiva students into military service. In his last weeks of life, Yossef's vulgar and ad hominem defamations of Naftali Bennett because of the latter's proposals to draft yeshiva students will haunt Yossef into his grave. While shifting its position back and forth, SHAS by and large aligned itself with the Left and endorsed Oslo appeasements. To its credit, it opposed the Gaza "disengagement." The ugly squabbling of the SHAS party hacks and their positioning for power even as the Rabbi's body was being borne to the grave illustrates SHAS values wonderfully (see http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/yishais-men-accuse-deri-of-overtaking-shas-with-force-and-cynicism/2013/10/09/ ).
Yossef had a foul tongue and thoughtlessly defamed anyone whose opinions were not to his liking in often-obscene and disgusting rhetoric. He would dismiss those he disliked as "men who have sex with menstruating women." As such, he was a disgrace and was committing sacrilege. He played into the hands of the anti-religious secularists who could paint him as a foul-mouthed buffoon sitting at the pinnacle of Rabbinic authority. He also tossed out silly comments, such as his claim that Hurricane Katrina was a Divine retribution for insufficient study of Torah. He was misogynist as the day is long. At times, his acid tongue was at least focused in the correct direction, such as some comments he made about MERETZ or the "Reform" synagogue movement.
The SHAS party is his legacy of demagoguery and cynicism.