Today, the Jewish world mourns a great loss: Rav Ovadia Yosef, a spiritual leader of the Sephardic community and founder of the Shaas Party has passed away.
The Baghdad-born rabbi, who died at the age of 93, will be remembered as an active political player and major Torah scholar. And although not all of his views towards women were progressive, his efforts towards helping Jewish women is something not to be overlooked. Indeed, he was heavily involved in permitting more than 1,000 agunot — literally, women chained — to remarry after the Yom Kippur War.
While Rabbi Yosef was serving as Tel Aviv’s Chief rabbi in 1973, he was approached by IDF General Mordechai Piron regarding a serious problem: nearly 1,000 women were left in a state of limbo. Their husbands had not returned from the battlefield, but there was no way to confirm their deaths. Without obtaining evidence of death, or a get, a religious divorce, these women were left as agunot — “chained” and unable to remarry.
Rav Ovadia Yosef spearheaded this effort, creating a Beit Din, or religious court, that would meet twice a week. They worked tirelessly to find some basis of proof to free those 1,000 women. Referring to his two-volume book on religious rules, “Responsa: Yabia Omer,” where he dedicated many chapters to the Agunah problem, he treated each case with special importance. Working with the Beit Din of Agunot affairs, he went around seeking testimony and researching evidence on a topic that is heavily complicated within Jewish tradition.
By the end of his work, the newswire JTA reported in April of 1976, “there was no longer a single case of Agunah.” Some cases of agunot he worked on did not require so much labor, such as collecting testimony from fellow soldiers. In other cases, Rav Ovadia Yosef ruled on evidence which could seem slightly farfetched: researching dental records, doctor records, even discovered jewelry from the battlefield. In one case, a soldier was found wearing a wedding band with a wedding date inscribed, and his wife had a matching ring. The Beit Din sifted through various marriage registrars and once proving she was married on that date, they concluded the body found was her deceased husband, and permitted her to remarry.
Allowing these women to simply remarry once they assumed their husbands were dead was not so easily determinable: Rabbis feared those pronounced dead who were actually alive might return home in a few years to heartbreak — if their wives were, indeed, remarried. (Think of Hollywood blockbusters like “Pearl Harbor” and “Castaway.”)
In his 1974 Responsa, addressing the concern of these Rabbis, he wrote:
I am aware of how some scholars in our generation, a way of light, of fleeing from every doubt in the world so that they will be able to present clear and decisive halakhic ruling to the point that it is incontrovertible. Indeed their way is good and honest in all other teachings, but when it comes to the agunot of a woman, I do not take the same approach. I only follow in the path of our early and late rabbis, who sought other sides and other sides of sides with all their might in order to be lenient in the matter of the agunot. (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6: E.H. 3 — hat-tip to my father for finding this for me.)
I am deeply inspired by Rav Ovadia Yosef’s sensitivity towards these women. While the thought of marrying again after losing a spouse might seem daunting, remember that Israeli soldiers called up to war can be as young as in their 20s. Some of the women who lost their husbands in the Yom Kippur War were, no doubt, not much older than I am. Rav Ovadia Yosef and his Beit Din’s efforts gave these women the opportunity to start fresh — if they wanted to — and his leading commentary paved the way to help agunot many years down the line, including helping women who turned into agunot after losing their husbands on September 11.