If 800,000 people at a funeral were not enough, Jerusalem is awaiting another 500,000 at the memorial service today. For the past week, incredulous journalists and bloggers have worked hard to figure out why Rav Ovadia Yosef mattered so much.
Still, both the personal stories and the political commentary missed the elephant in the room. Rav Ovadia Yosef led perhaps the greatest social revolution in Israel’s recent history. Let me explain.
The story of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s funeral and today’s memorial service starts in 1948. That year my husband’s family made its way to Israel from Yemen.
Though my husband’s grandfather made a living in construction, he devoted much of his time to Torah learning. Waking up at 5 AM and going to sleep well after midnight, with many hours of learning in between, he knew most of Rambam’s Mishna Torah by heart. (Knowing all of the Torah by heart was a prerequisite for any Yemenite worth his salt).
Yet despite staunch loyalty to religious values and extraordinary efforts to pass this tradition to his children, many of them left religion. Some slid so far as to get involved in drugs and otherwise dip into counterculture. Removed from the heritage of their fathers and kept out of the mainstream, their alternatives were few.
This story is by no means unique. It is the rule rather than the exception. During the 40s and 50s, almost 1 million Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries were absorbed by Israel. Though successive Israeli governments showed extraordinary vision in taking responsibility for the physical safety of Jews everywhere, they failed in the cultural absorption of many an immigrant wave.
Besides economic and educational discrimination, the establishment made every effort to separate the Sephardi Jews from their heritage. Through active anti-religious coercion, propaganda of the “new sabra” model, and inadequate funding of education, the second generation of Sephardi Jews was removed from the identity of their families and the values of their parents. Kept at arm’s length by the mainstream establishment, they found themselves marginalized and disillusioned.
During the 70s, thousands of Sephardi youth joined militant resistance organizations like the Black Panthers or took part in spontaneous riots such as the one at the Nurit housing project in Jerusalem.
Even after reaching economic and social success, many people of that generation carry the scars of discrimination. Every rejection is perceived as an ethnic slight. Following one of the elections, my uncles-in-law debated hotly the make-up of the ensuing government coalition. “Mark my words,” said one of them, “they will not have two frankim [derogatory for Sephardi] in senior positions.” The fact that two Sephardi politicians were installed as high-ranking ministers two weeks later did nothing to dissuade him of societal prejudice.
It is against this backdrop that we can appreciate Rav Ovadia Yosef’s greatest achievement in changing the face of Sephardi Jewry.
The 800,000 mourners at his funeral didn’t lament the passing of a political leader. They came to pay respect to the man who restored them to their identity. Instead of sinking into a culture of disenfranchisement, anger, and resistance, they embraced the new mainstream culture created by Rav Ovadia.
Rav Ovadia’s Shas Movement, founded in 1984, was far from being just another political party. Its aim was to create a social revolution and combat the wholesale Sephardic loss of identity. Shas’ slogan “restoring the crown to its former glory” told Sephardi youth, loud and clear, that they were far from being the dregs of society. On the contrary, they had a noble and distinguished tradition and embracing it was the path to rediscovering their selves.
Shortly after forming Shas, Rav Ovadia established the Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani educational system, catering primarily to Sephardic children in the country’s poorest towns and neighborhoods. Having almost dropped out of school at the age of 12 to help with deliveries at the family’s grocery, Rav Ovadia appreciated the need for quality education. Together with the standard curriculum of language, math, and English, the children thrived in a wholesome atmosphere, which promoted personality development, non-violence, and family values. Thousands of families, even those far removed from religious observance, opted to enroll their children into these institutions as an alternative to the violence and drug-ridden schools of the slums and development towns.
The next step was to create a layer of leadership that understood the mentality and spoke the same “language”. By creating a network of yeshivot for Sephardi youth, Rav Ovadia raised an entire generation of scholars, who could serve as spiritual leaders to their people. Though Shas is often accused of promoting chazara betshuva (return to religion) much of the adult education provided by the graduates of its institutions focuses not only on Torah observance, but on healthy family relations, child rearing, character improvement, and respect.
Finally, Rav Ovadia addressed the breakdown in religious education, hereto passed from parents to children, by creating an encyclopedic body of halachic rulings and uniting the various Sephardic communities around the common denominator of Shulchan Arukh. Though he was known for his lenient rulings, few are aware that Rav Ovadia did not follow many of his own leniencies. While he demanded more of himself, he tried to make observance as accessible as possible for everyone else.
To be sure, in its 30 years Shas has seen its highs and lows. Quite often politicians’ interests hijacked the educational agenda. In recent years, the tone of intolerance towards the Russian immigrants did little to promote communal coexistence. Finally, the “Land for Peace” ruling (though rescinded by Rav Ovadia in 2003) paved the way for the controversial Oslo Accords.
Yet in final analysis, Rav Ovadia’s initiative is unmatched in its success in turning the tide of societal disintegration. His work empowered two generations of Israelis to leave behind the comforting realms of victimhood and reclaim the most precious of assets – self-respect.