I first became aware of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef over 40 years ago, as a yeshiva student in Israel. I came across his edition of the Passover Haggada. I have no recollection of his comments on the Haggada itself. But his extensive halachic section was an eye-opener. I was stunned by his clear statements of Sephardi halachic positions, expressing an outlook that I had barely heard in my training in Ashkenazi yeshivot.
Perhaps there was also a personal fascination, since my upbringing exemplified the results of the overall Ashkenazi cooptation of Sephardi traditions. My mother was the daughter of Syrian immigrants while my father was the son of Polish-Lithuanian immigrants. It was my father’s heritage that reigned in our home. The ringing confidence of Rabbi Yosef’s teachings awoke me to another dimension in Jewish tradition. Of course this would be his crowning achievement for the entire people of Israel.
Some years later, in 1979, Rabbi Yosef issued his extraordinary ruling that Israel could cede land to the Palestinians if that would bring peace. My wife and I were living in Israel and knew firsthand that this belief, which we embraced, was a radical idea, held by a minority of Israelis in general and almost unheard of in the Orthodox community. While the rest of the religious Israeli public was in thrall to messianic nationalist passions, Rabbi Yosef’s pronouncement sent me into semi-messianic fantasies of a soon-to-be-achieved peace breakthrough.
Many years passed. My last reaction to Rabbi Yosef’s teachings was in 2010. By then he had marshaled his preeminence as a religious leader of Sephardi Jewry to forge a powerful political and social movement, Shas. His public pronouncements moved into realms that were not halachic per se, but included harsh and disturbing attacks against political opponents within Israeli society and against Israel’s neighbors and non-Jews in general. That year, as efforts were restarted (again) to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table, Rabbi Yosef publicly made insulting and racist remarks about all non-Jews. I and a colleague, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, initiated a public statement signed by over 200 rabbis and leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish denominations to counter those statements.
Of course, none of the signatories to that statement had anything close to the stature of Rabbi Yosef. But we felt compelled to go on the record and not simply mutter in dismay under our breaths. This has been the intractable problem posed by this great figure. Is there a way to reconcile his greatness in Torah learning with his inability to control his steady stream of vile and hateful attacks on others?
When Rabbi Yosef passed away earlier this month at age 93, various eulogies extolled his brilliance as a halachist or social change-agent, or, on the other hand, condemned his racism and sanctioning of political corruption. Some attempted to be even-handed, always choosing to have his rabbinic and social accomplishments outweigh his human flaws.
But I believe that Rabbi Yosef’s supreme erudition and halachic courage combined with disgusting expressions of hate and vindictiveness cannot be so simply smoothed over. We must grapple with the terrible question that this man represents for the Jewish people. Long ago Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught: “The Torah came to make a mensch.” Can it be that the life of this generation’s greatest Torah figure proves that Rabbi Salanter was wrong, or, worse, that the Torah is a failure?
Rabbi Yosef was not simply a learned or accomplished Jew. He was totally and uniquely immersed in Judaism. Yet none of his Torah availed him when dealing with anyone he feared or with whom he disagreed (including political leaders, learned and pious rabbis, non-Jews, or adamantly secular Israelis, among others). His flaws were not simply personal quirks. On the contrary, his attacks and curses defined Torah values for multitudes of Jews today.
We who wish to “restore the crown to its former glory,” to borrow a watchword of Rabbi Yosef, don’t need surveys to tell us that Jewish identity is being buffeted by change. We who care about the beauty of Judaism work incessantly to foster a Jewish way of life that draws its wisdom and elan from traditional sources, constantly trying to show skeptical and alienated Jews that our Torah is a wellspring of meaning and goodness, that a commitment to Torah can make a real difference in one’s life. Yet, how can we make this claim when it is disproved by the example of one of the greatest Torah sages of the generation? I believe that we cannot hope to successfully respond to this challenge if we do not first confront it honestly.