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Why Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Mattered

600,000 people attended his funeral in Jerusalem yesterday. Here’s why.

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Jewish mourners observe the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, on October 7, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

As any obituary you read will tell you, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a difficult and complicated man. The sharp contrast between the liberalism evident in his compassionate Jewish jurisprudence and the narrowness evinced by his vicious and sometimes bigoted political rhetoric have long made him one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli society. But to understand why more than half a million Israelis attended his funeral in Jerusalem yesterday, one has to read the story of Sagit Deri. Deri is one of many Israelis who took to Facebook to publicly share her own experience with Yosef, and offer a glimpse into the world of the enigmatic rabbi. Translated from the Hebrew, this is what she wrote:

I want to tell you about my one and only meeting with HaRav Ovadiah Yosef.

When I was 19, my family underwent an extremely traumatic crisis, in the wake of which my mother demanded that we pick up and move. But in my family “picking up and moving” was anything but a simple matter. From the day they married, my parents had lived on the moshav right near my paternal grandparents and … in our Moroccan family, my father, as the first born and the apple of his father’s eye, had both the privilege and obligation to remain with his parents, and looked after them with infinite devotion (which he does to this day). Living near them was part of the package.

Under normal circumstances, the issue would have been immediately decided in accordance with the wishes of my grandfather, but in this case, the crisis had been so severe (literally life-threatening) that my mother’s position received real weight.

And so, after long discussion it was decided that a great crisis calls for a great adjudicator–and the figure who was selected to decide was Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. A meeting was arranged and an entire entourage travelled to Rabbi Ovadiah: My grandfather, may he live and be well, my father, an important rabbi from the regal Abuhatzera family, an additional important Sephardic Rabbi, and…me. Why me? Because my refined and quiet mother could not even think of standing before a room filled with venerable bearded men to present her viewpoint. So she sent me.

The entourage entered the room of Rabbi Ovadiah, who was sitting behind a heavy desk covered with piles of holy books. My beloved grandfather, a deeply distinguished man of royal manner, presented the story and summed up saying, “Now everything is in order. We have returned to our routine, and there is no reason why they should move.” The other distinguished rabbis supported his position and concluded: We should stay put. My father sat silently and did not dare to speak. The speakers created an atmosphere of “Everything is OK; Business as usual.”

I stood alone. I knew that I had to speak now or forever hold my peace. I said, “But, HaRav, it isn’t so.” I told of the great and terrible fear…of my mother fainting…of a family of seven that sleeps in one room for fear of what could befall them in the night…of my 11 year old brother who needed an escort to the bathroom in the night because he was afraid to go alone…of the fear to leave the house…and the fear to remain indoors. I spoke and cried, spoke and cried. Rabbi Ovadiah called me over to his side of the desk. All the bearded and distinguished men were on one side…and Rabbi Ovadiah and I were on the other. He reassured me, saying, “It will be b’seder; It will be b’seder. Now, tell me everything.” I told and I told. When I finished, he turned to them and ruled: “They are moving.” My father said, “But HaRav, what will be with my father? His soul and mine are bound together.” To which Rabbi Ovadiah replied, “First worry about your own family, and then about your parents.”

The ruling was unequivocal. But then the rabbi from the Abuhatzera family called out, “HaRav, she’s studying law!” (Meaning me…[the implication being,] perhaps you can chastise her for it because religious young women don’t study law, and maybe she’s not as innocent as she looks… [It was] a mighty attempt to sway the decision and tar a 19 year old girl with four short words.)

Silence.

I was still sitting next to him. And then Rabbi Ovadiah turned to me and said, “You should have hatzlaha. Just always remember whose are the true laws.”

We left his room. I exited very differently than I had entered. I left with mighty support for the path I had chosen. I left with encouragement for a path in life as a religious woman who wanted a profession and a career, who wanted a voice in a world of bearded and distinguished men. With support from the greatest man of the generation, who essentially said to those bearded men, “Do not doubt her sincerity, her integrity and the honesty of her motives, even if she makes choices that you neither accept nor approve of.” [And saying to me,] “Go, as long as you bear in your heart that on this path of yours, with all its windings and difficulties, you will remain faithful to truth, to Torah and to the Master of the Universe.”

From that moment I loved him so much.

Translation provided by Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg.

Previous: 600,000 Attend Ovadia Yosef’s Funeral
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Dies at Age 93

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Why Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Mattered

600,000 people attended his funeral in Jerusalem yesterday. Here’s why.

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