Jerusalem — Ovadia Yosef, the rabbi responsible for turning religiously observant Sephardic Jews from a marginalized minority into one of Israel’s most politically powerful groups, has died at age 93.
Yosef was widely revered as a kind of living saint during his lifetime. He inspired adoring love songs extolling his virtues, and his death is expected to further cement his iconic status in the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic community which he led.
But Yosef is being mourned far beyond the ultra-Orthodox sector, thanks to enormous emphasis he placed on religious outreach in a way that Israel had never seen before. In terms of courting the non-Orthodox, he was the closest that Israel had to the late New York-based outreach pioneer, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
There is one other similarity between Yosef and Schneerson. Both left, upon their death, a massive power vacuum in their movements and uncertainty among followers about whether or how it could be filled. For Yosef the movement in question was Shas, the political party he established in 1984, with its network of associated welfare and educational institutions. The often-used description of Yosef as Shas’ spiritual leader is an understatement — the movement is, from top to bottom, an expression of his religious outlook and political ethos. The party’s political leaders consulted Yosef — who never sat in Knesset — on virtually every decision they made.
And so, from his home in Jerusalem’s modest Har Nof neighborhood, where he lived surrounded by thousands of volumes of religious law and lore, he cast an enormous influence over the agenda of every Israeli government for nearly three decades. For much of its existence, his party and its demands held the key to whether governments survived or fell.
Ovadia Yosef was born in Baghdad on September 23, 1920, and immigrated to Jerusalem as a young child. He received a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, education, most notably at the newly founded Porat Yosef Sephardic yeshiva. Regarded by his teachers as a brilliant student, he was ordained a rabbi at 20.
In 1948 the Sephardic chief rabbi of then-British-ruled Palestine, Ben-Zion Uziel, appointed Yosef deputy chief rabbi of Cairo and head of that city’s rabbinical court, posts he filled for two years. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he studied in a kolel, or full-time Talmud program for adults.