With the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l at the age of 93, Israel lost a giant in Torah and statecraft, a seminal figure who lifted the status of downtrodden Sephardi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa and provided them with the pride and political strength to revolutionize Israeli society. In the history of the re-born State of Israel, political leaders have, for the most part, occupied one domain and Torah scholars another. Rabbi Yosef will long be remembered for combining the two roles. In so doing, he established himself as one of the great figures in Jewish history.
Before and after his election as Sephardic Chief Rabbi (Rishon Letzion) in the early 1970s, Rabbi Yosef was considered the most esteemed posek (legal scholar) of the Sephardi community, one who favored leniency over stringency so as to encourage compliance with Jewish law. He was a prodigy, a genius with an astounding memory; as an authority in all areas of Jewish scholarship, particularly halacha, other major rabbis turned to him for guidance. Rabbi Yosef was also a prolific writer who published hundreds of books and dozens of learned articles. Some were for scholars, but he also wrote popular books for the public and had a radio program for many years explaining halacha to the populace at large.
His followers were members of the Shas Party, which he founded in 1984, allowing once-powerless Sephardim to play a major role in the political life of Israel, particularly in the establishment of Israel’s governing coalitions. Rabbi Yosef’s political leadership was generated directly from his Torah leadership. He traveled to far-flung Sephardic communities all over the world, emphasizing pride in their heritage, and left behind thousands of students and disciples and several sons, each a master of Jewish learning in their own right, including the newly appointed Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
Rabbi Yosef was not without controversy. Many of his halachic rulings were opposed by Ashkenazi poskim; opponents criticized his political clout; his early openness to the peace process galvanized much opposition on the Israeli right; and his public pronouncements, to many Israelis, even those who were committed to Torah observance, often seemed incompatible with a modern state and with modern sensibilities.
Yet, it is noteworthy that expressions of grief and condolence came from all aspects of Israeli society, even those who were opposed to Rabbi Yosef’s Torah or political decisions, and extending even to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. In the history of modern Israel, there has not been a leader like Rabbi Yosef. Because of his advanced age, he influenced many and diverse generations and populations.
The Orthodox Union extends its deepest condolences to Rabbi Yosef’s family, his followers and to the State of Israel upon his passing. Rabbi Yosef was one of a kind, truly “the greatest of his generation.” May his memory be a blessing for all of Klal Yisrael.