Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.
One of the more outsized personalities in Israel’s history was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the longtime head of the Shas political party. Rav Ovadia, as he was known, rose from a poor and undistinguished family to the summit of rabbinic–and then political–leadership through the sheer force of his learning and personality, and the coincidence of his passions with some of the deepest currents in Israeli society. The foreign public knew of him, vaguely, as a right-wing fanatic. But the truth and perhaps the tragedy of the man were far more complicated and fascinating.
Born in 1920 in Baghdad, he came to Jerusalem with his family at the age of four. From early on, he displayed a stupendous photographic memory, a prodigious capacity for study, religious fervor, and scholarly ambition, all fused in fierce traditionalism and equally fierce independence. By his late teens he was both a rising star in the Sephardi rabbinic world and a beloved teacher of Jerusalem’s day-laborers and tradesmen.
His ability to merge the intellectual elitism of the yeshiva with a common touch was to become one leitmotif of his career. Another was his pride, together with his boiling resentment of those who ignored or dismissed his accomplishments. Foremost among the latter were the members of the Ashkenazi establishment, religious and secular alike. They would come to regret it.
Rising through the ranks, Rav Ovadia served as a rabbinic judge in Cairo, Petah Tikvah, and Jerusalem, and as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, teaching all the while. In dozens of immensely learned books and countless rulings, he staked out a distinctive judicial philosophy with two components.
The first was encapsulated by the slogan “to restore the crown to its former glory (l’hahazir atarah l’yoshnah). The “crown” was the tradition of Sephardi halakhah that had come to full fruition in Joseph Caro, the 16th-century author of the still-authoritative law code, Shulhan Arukh. This tradition, in Rav Ovadia’s view, had been contaminated if not downright smothered by centuries of Ashkenazi stringencies, dialectics, and arrogance. By returning to Karo as the starting point, and creating a uniform and pristine Sephardi halakhah, he hoped to forge an authoritative and centralized body of Jewish law that could stand on its own vis-à-vis the governing institutions of the secular Jewish state. It was an ambitious program, buttressed as always with formidable learning, and it led him to override existing authorities and customs in a way that unsettled many, including within his own Sephardi camp.
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