Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Complicated Legacy

The State of Israel, and indeed the entire Jewish world, lost one of its greatest and most prolific Torah scholars two weeks ago with the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory. Universally recognized, both within his own Sephardic world and the Ashkenazi world as well, as being among the greatest poskim, or adjudicators of Jewish law, of the modern era, Rabbi Yosef left behind a body of work that will be respected and studied for as long as Jews learn Torah. There is no way to overstate his significance as a scholar.

To understand Rabbi Yosef’s significance, however, one needs to fully appreciate the degree to which his scholarship was not shared from an ivory tower. He was the very opposite of a removed academic, whose scope was limited by the four corners of his study hall. Rabbi Yosef issued halakhic rulings that were among the most important, and often progressive, of any scholar in the Haredi world, Ashkenazi or Sephardi.

It was Ovadia Yosef who issued the critical ruling declaring the Ethiopians of Beta Israel to indeed be Jewish, thus facilitating their Aliyah and absorption into Israel. It was he who issued the critical ruling declaring that women whose husbands were missing for extended periods of time after the Yom Kippur War should be allowed to re-marry, and not considered agunot. And it was he who ruled that land from the biblically ordained Land of Israel could be surrendered for the sake of achieving a true peace.

Each of these three rulings, in its own way, evidenced a forward thinking and courageous interpreter of Torah for our times, and impacted Israeli society for the better in ways that religion all too often fails to do. Credit where credit is due…

And, of course, there is Shas, the Sephardic Haredi political party that Rabbi Yosef was instrumental in forming. As a means for empowering poorer Sephardi Jews who had been frozen out of the Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli political system, it would be impossible to overstate the significance of Shas through the years. Until the current Israeli government, Shas invariably played a critical role in coalition negotiations, and ultimately, in governing Israel.

In so many ways, Ovadia Yosef was a towering figure in the Torah world, as well as in the rough and tumble political world of today’s Israel. His death leaves a tremendous void that will not easily be filled.

Were the story of Ovadia Yosef to stop here, his legacy as a giant in both Torah and Israeli history would be secure. But there was another side to Ovadia Yosef, one that manifested itself more and more in his later years, and which, to my mind, makes his legacy far more complicated than would otherwise be the case.

Ovadia Yosef–the same man who displayed such courage and vision and breadth of learning in his halakhic rulings– said some very outrageous and offensive things.

It was Ovadia Yosef who said that the Shoah was God’s punishment of the reincarnated souls of Jewish sinners. It was he who declared that it should not be a surprise when secular Israeli soldiers are killed in battle, since they, too, in their non-observance of mitzvot, are sinners. It was he who said that Hurricane Katrina, and the horrific damage that it wreaked, was divine punishment for the evacuation of Israelis from Gaza, he who said that women are far more suited for sewing and making hamin– cholent­– than being involved in matters of Torah, and he who said that Gentiles were created to serve Jews, and that that is their truest reason for being.

Really? I mean, really? What are we to make of these kinds of statements? That they were “taken out of context,” the favorite excuse of people caught having said unfortunate things? That this is the way of Torah scholars, to be sharp of tongue and unsparing in their critique of the non-Torah world? That the sheer brilliance of Rabbi Yosef’s Torah must be allowed to obscure the more troubling aspects of his teaching, since he so clearly is a g’dol hador… a giant of his generation?

I know that some 800,000 people lined the streets of Jerusalem for Rabbi Yosef’s funeral, but as great a scholar as he was, and as critical and courageous as some of his rulings were, the rabbi in me- infinitely inferior in Torah knowledge and political influence- cannot regard him as a true gadol… a true giant. At this time of year, when we are so close to the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, it seems to me that the power of inflammatory rhetoric to create a culture wherein the unthinkable becomes thinkable makes even a prolific Torah scholar obliged to be mindful of the words that come out of his mouth.

I am reminded of the words that we sing every Shabbat as we return the Torah to the Ark, where it rests: D’rakheha darkhei noam, v’khol n’tivoteha shalom. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

If your Torah belittles and demeans “the other,” whether of our tribe or not, it is flawed, no matter how deep your learning and how courageous your teachings. I certainly pray that Rabbi Yosef rest in peace, and that his legacy of learning, teaching and activism be a source of blessing. But I don’t believe in pretending that the other things that came out of his mouth are to be ignored. If we’ve learned anything at all from the Rabin assassination, then surely it must be that we ignore hateful speech at our own peril– even when people whom we respect are the guilty parties.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.