In the past weeks we discussed numerous areas in which Hacham Ovadia Yosef showed distinction. This week we will conclude with further examination of exceptional aspects of his life.
Facet #6 – Unifying Sephardic Practice
Yet another major contribution would have been sufficient for us to consider Hacham Ovadia as the most accomplished Rav of the past half century. Sephardic Jews hail from a wide variety of countries and maintain a dizzying array of customs. Yemenite Jews (properly described as Eidot HaMizrah), for example, maintain practices that differ significantly from other Sephardic Jews. Moreover, there are three major sub-groups of Eidot HaMizrah; Baladi, Shami and Dor Da’im. The first immigrants to Israel and elsewhere were able to maintain their specific Minhagim as they tended to cluster and reside among those who emigrated from the same region. However, in subsequent generations many Sepharadim no longer lived in such groups. Thus, it is not uncommon to find in one Sephardic community individuals who hail from a wide variety of countries. For example, included in Congregation Sha’arei Orah in Teaneck (the Kehilah I have the privilege of serving as its Rav) are Sephardic families who come from thirteen countries (Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen).
In such communities, which Sephardic customs should be followed? How can a compromise be forged between the myriad of Sephardic customs? Hacham Ovadia came to the rescue with a Halachic approach presenting, in Yalkut Yosef and in Siddurim published under his auspices, unified customs suitable for all Sephardic Jews that accentuate Minhag Yerushalayim and the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Aruch. Hacham Ovadia often writes that Rav Yosef Karo is the Mara DeAtra, the Halachic authority for Eretz Yisrael and ultimately for all Sephardic Jewry. Hundreds of Kehilot inside and outside of Israel, such as Congregation Shaarei Orah in Teaneck, rally around Yalkut Yosef. Rav Yosef also endorsed Siddurim to create a coherent and unified Sephardic custom appropriate for all Sephardic and Eidot HaMizrah Jews.
Facet #7 – Educating Jewish Children: Rav Yosef’s Political Activities
We continue with what is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of Hacham’s Ovadia’s accomplishments – his political activities. Many Rabbanim would argue that Rabbanim should stay far removed from politics, since, almost by definition, politics is divisive and controversial. It is important, though, to understand why Hacham Ovadia in the last thirty years of his life was not only a leading Rav, Poseik, and Dayan, but also reigned as one of the major political leaders in Israel.
Rav Shlomo Aviner, in his eulogy for Hacham Ovadia, presented a poignant quote from Rav Ovadia which succinctly explains his choice to enter politics in 1984 after completing his ten-year tenure as Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. He cited Hacham Ovadia saying that he cannot sleep at night worrying about how 10,000 more Jewish children will be reading Keri’at Shema. Hacham Ovadia was a great man who had great ambitions and plans for the Jewish people, especially Sephardic Jewry. Hacham Ovadia understood that the only manner in which he would be able to make a profound and lasting impact on the education of Jewish children in Israel is by becoming a powerful part of the Israeli government. Rav Yosef understood that the Israeli government has more influence over Jewish children than all other entities combined. He realized that if he became an influential part of the Israeli government his impact could be extraordinary.
Hacham Ovadia also recognized that he lived in a time of profound spiritual crisis and opportunity. The transition into the modern era was a difficult one for many Jews in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Tragically, many were lost to Torah observance and ultimately lost their Jewish identity entirely in the course of a few generations. However, in most cases, those Sephardic Jews who stopped rigorously observing Torah law nonetheless remained “traditional.” They would, for example, honor the holidays, light candles and recite Kiddush every Friday night, and observe Kashrut at least at home. Moreover, they would retain belief in the fundamentals of Torah belief and respect for Rabbis and Torah.
It is relatively easy to shepherd traditional and believing Sepharadim to Torah belief and practice when there remains a residual level of observance and belief. Hacham Ovadia knew very well, though, that this type of traditional Judaism has a limited shelf life. Such residual practices and beliefs are difficult to transmit to succeeding generations and the allegiance to Torahbecomes diluted as the generations pass. Thus, Hacham Ovadia knew he had a limited window of opportunity to reach out to the masses of traditional Sephardic Jews and LeHahzir Atarah LeYoshenah, restore their full observance and allegiance to a Torah way of life. If he did not act when he did, tens of thousands of families would most likely lose any semblance of Jewish observance for eternity.
Hacham Ovadia’s political success permitted him to lead to the building of the El HaMa’ayan Sephardic school system. The school day was made longer to provide parents, especially poor parents, coverage for their children while they were at work. El HaMa’ayan schools would also provide quality meals to the children during longer school hours, making the schools even more attractive to traditional Sephardic Jews, especially the poor.
We must emphasize that this teaching of Keriat Shema and providing of food to tens of thousands of Jewish children could have been accomplished only by the Israeli government and only by those who have major clout in the Israeli government. Hacham Ovadia’s involvement in politics facilitated teaching Torah and feeding tens of thousands of poor Jews. For this alone Hacham Ovadia deserves to be regarded as a man of extraordinary accomplishments.
It is important to remember that politics anywhere is a very rough and tumble sort of enterprise, and in Israel it is even more so than in America (as anyone who has watched the Kenesset in action has observed). Thus, the words of an Israeli politician will often be expressed sharply and will not be well-received by many. Accordingly, even if we do not agree with everything Hacham Ovadia uttered and did in his role as the leader of a political party, we must understand that Rav Yosef did so in the pursuit to insure that as many Jewish children as possible be adequately fed and taught to read the Shema.
I am certain that in whatever way we evaluate his political activity, Hacham Ovadia’s intentions were directed purely and entirely towards Hashem. This assertion stems from two points. My Talmid, Rav Ezra Frazer, reports that when the Orthodox Union decided to open Israeli branches of its NCSY youth outreach program, its leaders met with Hacham Ovadia. Hacham Ovadia, the leaders report, was convinced of the sincerity and Torah fidelity of its leaders and said “I have seventeen members of Kenesset at your service to help further your programs.” We see that Hacham Ovadia saw his political involvement as focused on furthering Torah observance even by organizations whose style and character differed significantly from Shas schools and programs.
Moreover, Hacham Ovadia in his writings refers to Religious Zionist Posekim such as Rav Kook and Rav Herzog as ‘HaRav HaGa’on.’ Hacham Ovadia regularly visited Yeshivot Hesder and Yeshivot Bnei Akiva to deliver Shiurim. He visited Yeshiva University a number of times and showed deep respect for Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Hershel Schachter. Rav Ovadia Yosef endorsed in writing the Rabbinical Council of America’s prenuptial agreement and endorsed in writing a permission to remarry issued by the Beth Din of America to an Agunah from the World Trade Center terrorist attack (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 10: Even HaEzer 18). Hacham Ovadia consented to have this Teshuvah translated into English and included in a publication of the Beth Din of America. On a personal note, Hacham Ovadia’s 1993 endorsement of my credentials as a Mesader Gittin (Jewish Divorce Administrator) is a signature, to paraphrase Rav Aviner, worth a billion dollars to both me and the people I have serviced.
Similarly, Rav Yosef (see, for example, Teshuvot Yabia Omer 10: Even HaEzer 14) refers to Rav Elyashiv as Yedideinu, our friend, even though the styles of these two eminent Torah scholars differed significantly.
I am convinced that Rav Yosef’s political involvement was intended purely to advance the cause of Torah in a manner that is unparalleled in scope and reach. Thus, I firmly believe that when judged objectively we can say that had Hacham Ovadia served only as the political leader of Shas, he would still have been considered a great man.
Facet Number Eight – Students
Fortunately, Hacham Ovadia did not leave us without great leaders to follow in his path. Among his most outstanding Talmidim are his son Hacham Yitzhak (the current Sephardic chief rabbi of the State of Israel), his son Hacham David, Rav Pinhas Zabihi, Rav Shmuel Pinhasi and Rav Shlomo Amar. Although no one can completely fill Hacham Ovadia’s shoes, Hacham Ovadia trained many great scholars, Posekim, and leaders who will guide us in Hacham Ovadia’s path.
The breadth of Hacham Ovadia’s Torah accomplishments are unparalleled and unequaled by any other rabbi of the past fifty years. While many of the Gedolim share some of Hacham Ovadia’s accomplishments and may exceed him in certain specific areas, no one can compare to his multifaceted and wide-ranging areas of outstanding accomplishments. The giant of Torahhas fallen, but we are left an unparalleled legacy of greatness which will inspire the current and future generations to devote themselves to excellence in Torah study, activity, and living. We thank Hashem for having sent Hacham Ovadia at the perfect time – a time of extraordinary spiritual challenge and crisis – and for giving him the extraordinary talents, wisdom, and energy that facilitated his rescue of the spiritual life of hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide.