Hundreds of thousands of Jews from Israel and abroad are following the news from Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, praying that 93-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef makes some sort of (miraculous?) recovery and regains some of his strength.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef isn’t only an individual, he’s the last giant standing, the man who symbolizes the end of an era. A well respected rabbi since well before he formed Shas and became a political figure and leader, he’s always been, first and foremost, THE Rav Ovadia.
Like superstars Madonna, Pele or Sting, the figure of Judaism’s last giant only needs his name, no family name attached, to be recognized. Every Israeli (and many Jews from around the world) know exactly which Rav Ovadia people are talking about when they mention his name.
Considered a prodigy from a young age, at 17 Rav Ovadia started teaching a weekly Torah class at a neighborhood synagogue in Jerusalem, at the request of his rabbi and teacher. The next few years saw him grow into a household name in the city. Shortly after his 20th birthday he was ordained as a rabbi by then chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Benzioin Meir Uziel. At the age of 27 that same Rabbi Uziel asked him to move to Egypt and head its rabbinical court.
In the years since that 1947 move to Egypt, Rav Ovadia left his mark on the entirety of Israeli society and also on many Jews living across the world. He did so in the political world – where he created a party that gave a large social group a renewed sense of communal pride, – but he also made drastic moves as a rabbi issuing rulings in Jewish law.
Two of his most significant moves as Israel’s chief rabbi were the decision to recognize the self-named Beta Israel as descendants of Jews, opening the country’s gates to the immigration of Ethiopian Jewry; and his ruling which recognized the hundreds of soldiers killed in the Yom Kippur War as dead, rather than missing, thus enabling their wives to remarry.
Rav Ovadia was, in short, THE person you needed to consult if you wished to make a significant decision related to Jewish law (halacha). He was the one who started writing about the topic at the age of nine; the one who, at age 18, confronted and disagreed with halachic traditions of those who were older and more widely accepted than him; the one who, until the very end, wrote hundreds of responses – usually quoting lengthy passages from his phenomenal memory.
Rav Ovadia became known as Maran – a traditional Jewish title meaning the head rabbi of a place. Even when he was no longer the official chief rabbi of Israel, the title remained.
Let us not forget, that Rav Ovadia had his parallels in the Ashkenazi world. Both Rabbi Elazar Shach, who lived for more than 100 years before passing away in 2001, and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, who died at the age of 102 in July 2012, had the same aura around them while they lived.
All three were considered hardline idealists, each with his one special mindset and take on life (in fact, they even criticized one another harshly from time to time). As hardliners, each of them also issued statements frowned upon by many. However, they were also looked up to as the leaders of the Torah world, where no one challenged their position.
Also from outside the ultra-Urthodox world, complex cases were referred to them by thousands of rabbis, from Israel and other communities, who sought their counsel and guidance.
Some might say the three only guided a narrow sect, since the Orthodox community – even while counting the national religious sectors in Israel and the modern-Orthodox people around the globe – is still relatively small. These people forget one important thing: their rulings rippled and affected Jews around the world. Like Freud’s psychological theories, their verdicts became the ones people needed to address – whether they accepted or dismissed them.
Despite the abundance of rabbis, scholars and teachers in the Jewish world, none of them come close to having the influence these three held. Whether attempting to be ordained as a rabbi (at Schechter, JTS or YU), or simply studying halachic texts, Rav Ovadia’s rulings and books were something you couldn’t ignore.
Even as Rav Ovadia fights for his life, the inheritance battle has begun, with people clamoring to gain his title of Maran. While someone might net a political victory and be called by the name Rav Ovadia was, it’s clear that, at this time, no rabbi can fill the giant void he’ll leave behind.
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