It was a testimony to the influence and longevity of the life of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that the health updates on an ailing rabbinic leader were headline news in Israeli newspapers and broadcasts in recent weeks. Outside of haredi, or ultra-Orthodox circles, in which Rabbi Yosef played a prominent role for more than a half century, most Israelis have little interest in aging rabbis.
But Rabbi Yosef, who died on Monday in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem Hadassah Hospital, was not like most rabbis.
Scholar and politician, Rabbi Yosef was a voice of Israel’s increasingly assertive Sephardi community, restoring self-respect to the families of emigres from the Middle East and North Africa who for decades were treated with condescension by the country’s largely Ashkenazi political establishment.
Born in Baghdad and educated in Egypt, Rabbi Yosef established his original reputation as an expert in Jewish law, frequently drawing criticism for rulings on a wide variety of subjects that were considered unduly liberal and often at odds with established Sephardi tradition. He allowed women who had become widows in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to remarry, although their husbands bodies were never found; he urged the Israeli government to enter into peace negotiations with Arab states and sanctioned return of Israeli-controlled land as part of a peace settlement, all under the principle of saving Jewish lives; he approved the putative sale of Israeli land to non-Jews during the shmitta year to protect the livelihood of Jewish farmers; he ruled Ethiopian Jews Jewish according to halacha and therefore eligible for aliyah.
Clad in his distinctive uniform of turban, gold-embroidered robe and dark glasses, he established a legacy both for his work as Sephardi chief rabbi in 1973-’83, and his role in establishing the Shas Sephardi political party that became a crucial coalition member in several Israeli governments.
In the eyes of many Israelis, especially those outside the Orthodox community, the rabbi’s legacy seemed tarnished in recent years by a series of intemperate statements: he called Arabs “evil and damnable,” said the Six Million victims of the Holocaust were the reincarnation of sinful souls from earlier times, and declared Hurricane Katrina the result of U.S. support for Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.
Many observers attributed such declarations to Rabbi Yosef’s deteriorating mental state and to his reliance on aides who selectively provided information on which he issued pronouncements.
On balance, Rabbi Yosef’s life was filled with accomplishments on behalf of the State of Israel and its Sephardi citizens.