Chaya Tal
Blogger, social activist, border crosser

Maran Ovadia: The Art of Judging Favorably

My fellow students were shrugging their shoulders, having a flimsy grin on their faces, when one of them told me the news of the day: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has passed away. Why the grinning?, I asked. Well, they answered with a slightly sarcastic undertone, it’s been time. He was 93 years old. Another continued reflecting on the numerous political affairs the elderly rabbi seemed to have dragged himself into due to his frank and radical statements during the last years. All of a sudden, an impulsive discussion broke out. The flaws and failures of the minutes ago deceased rabbi were shouted out loud, as if no basic respect the Torah teaches us to have towards the elderly and the teachers could ever come up with what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef reportedly said and did. Someone tried to calm down the situation:
Don’t you think that 93 means being very old?
I do. Does it mean it’s old enough to die?
Well, I don’t wish death to anyone. Whenever a person dies, even when they are old and crazy, it’s a sad fact…
A statement like this intended to convey some sort of compassion, but the sound of it was like a piercing shriek in my ears, breaking through the gates of what the Torah considers Favorable Judgement.

Achievements we should remember.

Many of us have been aware of the many publications, commentaries, lectures and lessons the former Chief Rabbi of Israel contributed to the Jewish world. Rabbi Ovadia, born as Abdallah Yousef in Baghdad, Iraq, started teaching Torah at a young age, and during the years of study he published numerous Halachic texts and rulings, prayer commentaries and books, which I personally perceive as being omnipresent in today’s Sefardic synagogues and yeshivot. This proves the title of Maran added to his rabbinic title by Jews who follow and/or respect his authority. During his ordination as the Chief Sefardic Rabbi (1973-1983) he actively supported and commanded rulings which religious nature had a tremendous impact on the Israeli society: The decision to grant Halakhic allowance to remarry for wives of missing Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the assurance of the Jewish status of the Beta Israel tribe in Ethiopia. He was known to assist Russian Jews to affirm their Jewish identity, and most of all, was active to unite and strengthen the traditions and self-identification of the Sefardic Jewish community over the decades.

I am sure that there are many out there who took these achievements for granted and indirectly appreciated the changes Maran Ovadia initiated. Still, people prefer to focus on what they consider to be negative milestones in the rabbi’s political career.

The art of judging favorably.

How comes the art of judging favorably became so difficult to implement?

I don’t know if rabbis should join politics. I don’t know if this rabbi should have joined politics.

I strongly believe that Maran Ovadia could claim tons of merits for himself due to his immense dedication to the Holy Scriptures, to the revival of the Sefardi Jewish laws and customs and the constant care for the Sefardic community in the whole Jewish world.
I do have my questions about this man’s role in local politics, and about the party he founded. Nowadays the foundation of political parties is associated with lobbying, political games, power and corruption. In the beginning of Shas, there was a tremendous need to somehow give the Sefardi population an independent voice. Rabbi Yosef did this. Maybe he thought he could continue to represent a party for years as easily and as wisely as he did with his Tora study. I have never studied the Shas’ history and I don’t intend to – because I honestly think this is irrelevant. There are questions I admit I am afraid to ask. I leave them to the ones who considered Maran Ovadia their leader. This is not my case. I am neither qualified nor daring enough to investigate the matter. The rabbi has passed away. Who am I to trace down his misdemeanors?

Not every truth hurts.

Just as many companions my age, I read and heard about controversies which kind of shook my admiration of this Torah sage, which, despite my respect for Jewish wisdom and teachings, sparked my disbelief and anger regarding his political and religious views. Some of them seemed to be his own opinion, others looked politically motivated, and made the impression that someone was putting words into his mouth – whether in real or on paper.
For example, I did feel offended when reading about the insults attributed to Maran Ovadia against the National Religious community. These are insults which many from this movement (which I myself belong to) cannot forget nor forgive. From experience I know, that every prominent figure is usually surrounded by a media hype, so the statements Rabbi Yosef issued and those interpreted by reporters, opponents or rivals may have mixed up badly over the years.
There must be a trace of truth in each rumor, facts in each media update we get to read, and honesty in each expression of criticism – that’s why they are sometimes so painful to hear.

But not every truth hurts. There are many positive achievements and aspects we can honour on the last day of this man. And this is what makes happy among the grief for a great rabbi’s loss, and the inconvenience some might feel due to certain issues. That’s the point of favorable judgement – praising the good with the same desire we open our eyes to failures. It is a guaranteed strategy to both stay realistic, but pay honor and respect to the good in Maran Ovadia.

Paying tribute to the leader of the old generation.

Rabbi Ovadia Haim Yosef ztz”l was a “Gdol haDor”* who immensely contributed to the society, who supported and nurtured it with his knowlegde, and was ready commit himself to his values.
Maran Ovadia was a leader of a generation which was ready to stand up and defend uncompromisingly its beliefs and ideas, regardless of the rift it caused between its supporters and opponents. Just as we have witnessed the Maran’s death, we are witnessing the disappearance of a generation of this kind. Now we need a new Gdol Dor; a spiritual leader for the new generation who will seek to build bridges and look for unity beyond the ideological differences.

There is a time to tear, and there is a time to sew together.
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

    (*Gdol haDor – the “Greatest of a Generation”, title usually provided to outstanding Torah sages of enormous relevance to the Jewish society.)

Click here to read what other bloggers are saying about the death of Rav Ovadia Yosef.

About the Author
After moving to Germany from Russia, Chaya spent most of her teenage years with Jewish community involvement as counselor and coordinator for young Jewish adults in Germany. Chaya discovered tradition and languages on her own which has shaped her identity since early age. She made aliyah in 2011 and has since then worked as a translator, freelance journalist, media analyst and tour guide, while blogging in German for 4 years about Jewish life in Judea and Samaria. She is part of the "Roots" movement for understanding, nonviolence and transformation between Israelis and Palestinians.
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