It is exceedingly rare that the death of a 93 year-old should inspire widespread grief and mourning, and even rarer when a nonagenarian is able to remain active, vibrant, razor-sharp and influential until his final breath. But certainly the uncommonness of those two phenomena pales before the stark reality that a funeral of someone that attracts more than 800,000 participants – the largest by far in Israel’s history, and involving almost one out of every seven Jews in the land of Israel – is a singular event marking the passing of a singular personality – HaRav HaChacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l.
He wore many different hats – and most famously the turban and robes of the Rishon L’Tzion, the Sefaradic Chief Rabbi of Israel – as a scholar, leader, political figure, father figure, and role model. Foremost, his loss will be most acutely felt in the world of Torah. In a world where the title of Gaon is tossed about like a used baseball, Chacham Ovadia was that extraordinary individual before whom the entire gamut of Torah was an open book from which he could recite verbatim. That is a marvel that one reads about in connection with rabbis of prior generations; but reading about history and experiencing it in real life are two different things. To anyone who values Torah scholarship, the ability to internalize G-d’s word, both written and oral, from Sinai until modern times, and to comprehend, memorize, categorize and apply it to modern life, is simply remarkable.
For sure, every generation is blessed with great Torah scholars; that is a divine guarantee. Recent generations have been blessed with outstanding Torah scholars, in Israel and in the United States, and far be it from me to rate them on a scale of greatness. But Chacham Ovadia was unique in one respect:
he revived in the Torah world the halachic decisions of the great Sefaradic decisors of the last few centuries, many of whom were essentially lost to the Ashkenazic Torah world. The responsa of most Ashkenazic Torah giants of recent times referred almost exclusively to Ashkenazic decisors, not a sign of prejudice as much as the simple lack of exposure in pre-modern times to the works of the poskim of the Edot Hamizrach. Chacham Ovadia’s major halachic writings – the voluminous major halachic writings – the voluminous Yabia Omer and the more readable Yechaveh Da’at – are veritable encyclopedias that cite (what seems to be) every known opinion on the subject, from both Ashkenazic and Sefaradic authorities.
By way of illustration: a well known rabbi whom I met a few nights ago was carrying with him one responsum of Chacham Ovadia to study on his travels. Just that one – numbering six or seven pages in total – could take hours to study. If all the sources quoted were studied in the original, the review could take days. And the Chacham wrote thousands upon thousands of them, with all the sources in front of his mind’s eye, and was able to analyze, draw his conclusions, and set his answers on paper in comprehensible form to give appropriate guidance to both the questioner and to all students of Torah. That is exceptional genius that is not encountered very often.
That revival of the role of Sefaradic decisors was the tip of the spear in the general revitalization of Sefaradic life, culture, pride and Torah observance that Chacham Ovadia promoted. It is undeniable that the European Jewish elites who were largely responsible for the establishment of the State of Israel did not always look with respect upon the Sefaradim native to the land of Israel or those who came as refugees from Arab lands (like the four year-old Ovadia Yosef, who was born in Baghdad). Discrimination was rampant, educational and employment opportunities were limited, and the culture was perceived as primitive and backward – too Arab and not at all European.
Chacham Ovadia led that revolution as well – l’hachzir atara l’yoshna (to restore the crown to its former glory) restoring pride and dignity to all and Torah observance to many, providing social support to those who needed it, and founding a special educational system to cater to Sefaradim (utilizing the Sefaradic method of Torah study which differs from that of Ashkenazim). It was during his tenure as Chief Rabbi that the late PM Menahem Begin began the process of integrating Sefaradim into the mainstream of Israeli life, riding their support to electoral victory in 1977. That, unwittingly but predictably, gave rise to the formation of ethnic sefaradi political parties which have been a mixed blessing for them and for Israel – first the Tami party of Aharon Abuchatzeira, and then Chacham Ovadia’s radical founding of the Shas party, which broke with the Haredi political establishment – to the mortification and disapproval of Rav Shach and others – and began to attract widespread Sefaradic support.
Certainly, the party was founded on ethnic grievances, and even in the most recent election, ran on a platform of eternal grievance against the establishment notwithstanding that it has been part of that same establishment for almost 30 years. Because of the ethnic label, it is the only Haredi party that draws many secular votes; but parties founded on grievances tend to stultify over time, and such has happened to Shas. Its support has dwindled in recent years as its erstwhile supporters have entered the mainstream, and its political leaders have feuded. It is headed into some rocky territory without its spiritual leader. Nonetheless, its electoral strength – it has always had almost double the number of Knesset mandates of the Ashkenazi Haredi parties – has afforded it substantial control over the religious establishment for almost two decades, with not always positive results.
The clichés that unknowing journalists used to summarize his life have focused on two areas – his leniencies in Jewish law and his leftish politics. Both are misnomers. Chacham Ovadia was certainly a posek who weighed all opinions and perceived halacha as the means by which we serve Hashem, not punish ourselves. As he himself said, one unversed in Jewish law can easily prohibit anything; it doesn’t take much knowledge to say “no” (see Rashi, Masechet Beitza 2b). But he didn’t just arbitrarily say “everything is permissible” to make people happy. He could be strict also. (ModOs take note: in some circles, it also doesn’t take much knowledge to say “yes,” if halachic process and methodology are construed as trifles.) And he had the courage to stand behind controversial decisions, even those which defied the consensus of rabbinic opinion.
Most infamously, Chacham Ovadia issued an opinion in the 1990s in support of surrendering parts of the land of Israel for the sake of peace, and the Oslo debacle could not have occurred without the support of Shas, either implicitly or explicitly. From this vantage point, his political instincts were not always keen. But two points must be underscored that are widely overlooked: his decision was in favor of real peace, not the piecemeal destruction of Israel. (And few authorities would argue that maintaining every inch in the land of Israel in the face of national suicide is a plausible halachic approach; if it were, then even a tactical retreat in the heat of battle would be prohibited.)
The second point is even more telling: he publicly retracted his decision in 2003, writing that “the Oslo Accords are null and void” and that the peace of Oslo –the death and maiming of thousands of Jews – is not what he meant by “peace.” But the left has largely ignored the retraction. Two truths must be recognized: if another surrender agreement is tabled, Chacham Ovadia’s psak will be trotted out again, whether warranted or not (one can always argue that the coming peace will be the glorious peace anticipated by the psak, whether true or not – always the weakest link in the decision itself); and his support of Oslo was utilized disingenuously by Oslo-ites. They would have paid no attention to him had he opposed it like more than 90% of the Rabbis in Israel, to whom they paid no attention. (His late son, Rav Yaakov Yosef, notably disagreed with his father on this issue.)
He was fearless and colorful, which occasionally prompted him to speak somewhat caustically, all points catalogued enthusiastically by the “Gotcha Gang” of today’s faux moralists. Personally, I give a lot of verbal slack to people over 80 years old; they can speak freely! And despite these blips, his love of Israel was enormous, and his anguish over those Jews who are unfaithful to Torah was immense.
The 800,000 people at his funeral were about 800,000 more people than any of us mortals will attract to ours. It was a testament to the honor due to the Torah and its Sages, and to this exalted individual, who was blessed by G-d “who apportioned of His knowledge to those who revere Him.”
May his memory be a blessing and inspiration for all Jews.