Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – a Controversial Sephardic Religious-Political Leader

By: Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

On October 7 the Iraqi-Israeli rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away in Jerusalem. More than 700 000 are said to have joined his funeral procession. Yosef was the spiritual leader of the Sephardic party and religious movement Shas and can be described as the guardian of Sephardic identity in Israel. He is widely considered as the greatest Sephardic posek (Halachic arbitrator) in our time and, by some, the greatest rabbi since Yosef Caro who lived 400 years ago.

Ovadia Yosef was born in Iraq in Baghdad in1920 and came to Israel as a child, growing up in the Old City of Jerusalem. He published his first Halachic text at the age of 17 and by the young age of 24 he was the head of a rabbinical court. By 27 he was the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, a position he held from 1947 until 1950. Yosef has written at least 30 books on the Halacha and received several awards for his rabbinical writings, including the national Israel Prize. He served as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983.

In the early 1980s he became the figure head of the new Shas party. The acronym stands for Sephardim Shomrei Torah, meaning Sephardic Jews Observing the Torah. As the spiritual leader of the largest and most successful political party and religious movement representing Jewish Israelis from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA Jews, commonly referred to as Sephardim and Mizrahim in Israel), Yosef had four interrelated goals epitomised in Shas’ slogan To Restore the Crown to its Former Glory: he sought to restore the Sephardic Jewish religious law as re-interpreted by himself; to restore the level of religious observance by the individual (Sephardic) Jew; to restore the socio-economic situation and social standing of the Sephardic/MENA Jews in Israeli society; and to restore the religious identity of the secular state founded by David Ben Gurion and his generation of secular Ashkenazi Zionists.

Yosef was a complex, controversial and contradictory figure. As the leader of Shas encountered and grappled with the principal tensions in Israeli society: the so-called ‘ethnic gap’ between marginalized MENA Jewish Israelis and the Ashkenazi Israeli elite; the religious-secular divide; and the Jewish-Arab conflict. Yosef infamously called Arabs ‘snakes’ and other unpleasant names. However, he did not reserve his name-calling to the Palestinians, Yosef also referred to left-wing and secular Jewish Israelis in various insulting terms and once said that he would hold a party after former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni’s death. Based on these legacies, he has been described as a man who exacerbated tensions in Israeli society.

However, the controversies surrounding Yosef were also caused by his apparent wish for peace. Perhaps most notably, in 1979 he famously ruled that it is religiously permissible to give up territory for peace and in order to save lives. This ruling was the base of Shas’ support of the Oslo agreement in 1993. In religious rulings he was generally more lenient and inclusive than his Ashkenazi colleagues. This was exemplified with his ruling that immigrants from Ethiopia are Jewish (and do not need to convert to become Israeli), as well as his ruling that ensured that Jewish war widows could remarry in accordance with Jewish law.

One question many are asking in Israel after Yosef’s death, is whether Shas will remain one party or will split, and how this will affect its constituency and the wider political scene. In the municipal elections held only days after Yosef’s death, Shas lost many seats and mayoral positions. The ‘blame game’ has already started between the reinstated party leader Aryeh Deri, who returned to Shas last year with the blessing of Yosef after being banned from taking office because of his corruption conviction in 2000, and the interim party leader Elie Yishai who was forced to share his position with his predecessor earlier this year. It remains to be seen how Deri and Yishai will weather the storm without their spiritual leader now that he has the left both the party-movement and this world without an heir to his powerful position.