For the majority of American Jews, who historically resisted the idea of a “chief rabbi” and regard their rabbis as congregational leaders, not political or prophetic figures, it might be difficult to fathom the kind of communal and national outpouring that accompanied the death this week of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The revered Torah scholar and political force, a seminal figure in the rebirth of Sephardi pride and culture in Israel, died this week at 93. Some 800,000 followers — that is, nearly one in every eight Israelis — followed his casket through the streets of Jerusalem.
Yosef’s legacy is twofold. As a “posek,” or legal decisor, he shaped halachic jurisprudence within his Sephardi community and beyond it, demonstrating a surprising leniency at times. In hundreds of books and articles, he argued for a living Torah — that is, one in which people would joyfully comply with Jewish law, rather than chafe under its restrictions.
In the political realm, he founded the Shas Party, which gave a voice to the Sephardi masses who felt overlooked and even abandoned by the Ashkenazi establishment of Israel’s founding generation. A nod from Yosef could tip an election, or at least the often ruthless wrestling of coalition-building that followed a close election. Under Yosef’s influence, Shas was an early proponent of the peace process, as moderate on security affairs as it was stringent on domestic issues.
But as even his fellow Orthodox Jews acknowledged, Yosef was often a controversial figure. Especially in his later years, his comments about women, non-Orthodox Jews, and his political opponents were deeply hurtful and damaged the reputation of observant Judaism. As the Orthodox Union acknowledged in an otherwise glowing tribute to Yosef, his “public pronouncements, to many Israelis, even those who were committed to Torah observance, often seemed incompatible with a modern state and with modern sensibilities.”
The adulation and grief seen during his funeral procession were matched by sober, often thoughtful commentary in the Israeli press. Many observers struggled to reconcile his legacies as religious thinker and political leader, and many wondered if those two roles were, or should be, compatible. For all else that he contributed to the Jewish people, Yosef left us with a debate that remains unresolved: To what degree should religion and state be intertwined, in Israel or any other democracy? On one hand, the rebirth of Torah learning in Israel and the resurrection of the great communities of Eastern Europe and the Maghreb were awe-inspiring. On the other, the blurring of lines between synagogue and state has increased tensions among Jews of various backgrounds and denominations, sometimes driven a wedge between the Diaspora and Israel, and too often diminished Judaism itself in the eyes of many Jews around the world.
Despite our differences, we should all take a moment to remember a leader of Ovadia Yosef’s stature. At the same time, we should rededicate ourselves to a Jewish enterprise that is seeking to reconcile so many Judaisms, within Israel’s borders and beyond.