Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, spiritual leader of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Shas party, gestures during a meeting in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011. ( GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Dies at Age 93

The influential and divisive spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardim leaves contradictory legacy

Yair Rosenberg
October 07, 2013
Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, spiritual leader of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Shas party, gestures during a meeting in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011. ( GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi, encyclopedic scholar, political kingmaker, and perpetual source of controversy and fascination, has died at 93. Born in Baghdad, he moved to Jerusalem with his family at age 4. After a short stint in Cairo from 1947 to 1950, he returned to Israel, where he established himself as one of the foremost and fearless halakhic authorities of his generation, and was elected Sephardic chief rabbi in 1973. After completing his 10-year tenure, he channeled his religious authority into political power and established Shas, a party which transformed Israel’s beleaguered and often discriminated against Mizrahi minority into a formidable political force. As this goes to press, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, secular and religious, are attending his funeral.

Yosef was man of complexity and contradiction. He has become infamous for his sharp and often bigoted statements against his political opponents and other ideological foes. He blamed Hurricane Katrina on the disengagement from Gaza. He called the secular teachers in Israel’s education system “asses,” and on another occasion claimed that non-Jews exist to serve Jews. He has repeatedly labeled his political nemeses “Amalek,” in reference to the genocidal enemy of the biblical Israelites, most recently accusing Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett of destroying Judaism. These statements form a long and disquieting litany, one that cannot be excused as mere excesses or mistakes.

Yet Yosef is also renown for his expansive and tolerant jurisprudence. When doubts were raised over whether Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community was actually Jewish, Yosef ruled that they were–in spite of substantial historical evidence to the contrary–enabling Israeli rescue missions to go forward and the Beta Israel to be admitted under the right of return. Yosef repeatedly used his photographic recall of obscure Jewish sources to find legal loopholes to permit agunot (women lacking a halakhic writ of divorce) to remarry, most notably the widowed wives of soldiers who fell in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Breaking from his Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox contemporaries, he permitted the bat mitzvah ceremony, and wrote a detailed ruling about why women could wear pants. (His eldest daughter, Adina Bar Shalom, has become one of the most forceful advocates for Haredi integration and secular education in Israeli society, and runs a college that prepares the ultra-Orthodox to enter the workforce.) Perhaps most famously, Yosef ruled that it was permissible for Israel to cede land for peace, and pressured the right-wing government of Yizhak Shamir to enter negotiations. He was even a longtime fan of Arab popular culture, especially its music, and met with more Arab leaders than any other Haredi rabbi.

Faced with these dueling facets of Yosef’s oeuvre, Scranton University’s Marc Shapiro has written that “he seems to have more than one [personality].” In the wake of Yosef’s death, as during his life, Jews in Israel and around the world will grapple with his difficult legacy and the change he undeniably wrought in Jewish law and politics.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.