He was a caricaturist’s dream come true.
With long, bushy white eyebrows that angled down to the center of his forehead, and ubiquitous dark wine-colored glasses, he vacillated between traditional ultra-Orthodox garb and robes that made him look like an Eastern potentate. His slurred Iraqi-accented Hebrew practically ensured that he could never be quoted on the television without subtitles.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, or Abdullah Youssef in his native Arabic (Obadiah Joseph in English), was a spiritual father of the current Israelite generation for more than half a century.
With upwards of six hundred thousand mourners pouring in to the funeral from all over the globe, Jerusalem is in lockdown. The whir of helicopters pierces the air, mixing with the sound of every radio in TV blasting out the screams and wailing of the Rabbi’s sons and students gripped in the throes of fresh eulogy.
He was known as a great halachic (Jewish law) authority, the founder of a political movement aimed at bringing Israel’s Sephardic (of Spanish, Arab-land and North African origin) Jews back into the limelight after pushed back stage by European Zionism, and a champion of the little man. In an ironic tip of the hat to their Muslim cousins, truly atheist or agnostic Sephardim are almost non-existent. And though prone to publically deriding detractors with razor sharp wit, showing no mercy for Jew and non-Jew alike whom he saw as acting against the interests of the Jewish nation – no one here denies the impact the man had on our national life.
Rabbi Ovadiah – known simply as Maran, an Aramaic phrase for ‘our teacher’, to the tens of thousands who adhered to his view of Jewish law – was a child prodigy who ruled with absolute confidence in every corner of the vast ocean of Jewish traditional teaching called: Torah. For those who are unfamiliar with the workings of the Jewish Orthodox universe, a leader like Rabbi Ovadiah has no parallel in the non-Jewish world. While Islamic or Christian religious figures may be revered as saints and respected for their wisdom, nothing compares with the level of knowledge needed to be a gadol hador, a ‘Great One’ of the generation.
In Jewish tradition, mastery of the Torah only begins with the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible. The real test lies in the application of the endless sea of Halacha, bringing the Divine Will as outlined in the Bible down to earth in the form of practical human behavior in the everyday world. At the pinnacle of each generation stand single individuals who have spent each day of their lives since children pouring through the thousands of volumes of legal principles and decisions that make the Torah not just a concept, but a living driver in the lives of individuals and the entire nation.
Jewish tradition understands that the spiritual and physical welfare of the nation has been entrusted to a chain of special men since the day that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. And though not everyone agreed with Rabbi Ovadiah – not in his legal pronouncements, nor in his understanding of modern Israeli society – no one in Israel can dispute his right to make his thoughts known. This privilege was derived from his singular achievement as true champion of knowledge of what Judaism sees as Godliness in human beings: knowledge of what God wants at the end of the day for us to do in order to honor His Name in His world.
The loss of such a colossal figure leaves us in confusion. Who will continue the work of this giant? How will his students manage to bring forward what he worked for, to protect the rights of those who talk little but believe in the truth of our tradition? As we feel the loss slip over us, we realize we are – orphans.
Yet orphans eventually pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.
Jewish tradition teaches that the loss of a generational leader of the magnitude of Rabbi Ovadiah does not bode well for the generation. Yet at the same time, it the departure of such a figure carries with it the power to atone for the sins of the nation. If so – through the perplexity of the loss, perhaps we should prepare ourselves for some kind of quantum collective leap that only our most distant ancestors, the Hebrew Prophets of Israel, envisioned in their biblical books. These books are to be found in the billions of copies of the Bible, the greatest best seller in history, that are found in every place where human life thrives – all over the planet, hundreds of languages, for all who wish to see.
Rabbi Ovadiah never stopped telling us of the power of our national potential. Perhaps we, his own orphans, may yet be comforted soon by the realization of his visions.
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