Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic Kingmaker of Israeli Politics, Dies at 93

Revered Shas Leader Turned Underclass Into Potent Force

Sephardic Legend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, was revered for raising the profile of Sephardic Jews worldwide.
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Sephardic Legend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, was revered for raising the profile of Sephardic Jews worldwide.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 07, 2013.
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He also authored treatises on Jewish law including a much-acclaimed book on Passover, and served in several rabbinical posts. These included stints as judge on the Jerusalem rabbinical court, judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals, and Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. In 1970 he won the Israel Prize for rabbinic literature.

In 1973, after five years in the Tel Aviv post, Yosef became Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. The nation had had only two Sephardic chief rabbis since independence, and the Ashkenazic establishment was not quite ready for the assertive, larger-than-life Yosef. He showed a marked preference for lenient rulings over strict ones, believing that Ashkenazic rabbis leaned too heavily toward ritual stringency, and fought hard to increase the public influence of Sephardic interpretations of rabbinic law over the dominant Ashkenazic interpretations.

Yosef maintained his preference for ritual leniency throughout his life. Unlike his Ashkenazi counterparts, he accepted, if grudgingly, the practice of women wearing pants and enthusiastically embraced the innovation of bat-mitzvah celebrations for girls.

In 1973 he revolutionized Israel’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews by dismissing the longstanding Ashkenazi practice of questioning their Jewishness, ruling that they could be presumed to be descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes. He also eased treatment of agunot or “chained” women, whose husbands refuse or are unable to grant them a religious divorce.

After a decade as chief rabbi, Yosef lost a ballot for re-election in 1983 to Mordechai Eliyahu, his adversary on numerous issues of religious philosophy. Then, in 1984 he catapulted himself into politics as leader of the embryonic Shas party. In taking this step, he received help from the Ashkenazi Haredi leader Eliezer Shach, but the party quickly became independent of the Ashkenazi Haredi community.

Under Yosef’s control, Shas’s agenda has focused heavily on addressing the socio-economic disadvantages facing many Sephardic communities and what the party saw as entrenched, institutionalized discrimination. Shas also sought to strengthen the Sephardi religious sector. Its economic agenda included a mixture of government housing and other subsidies for its constituency and a mildly social-democratic platform. And it went about fulfilling Yosef’s religious priority of zikui harabim (“bringing credit to the multitude”), taking his brand of Judaism to the masses.


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