The interesting thing about “Greatness” is that just about anyone can recognize someone who is “Great” at something, even if they don’t understand what it is exactly that makes that person great. Few people actually understand the Theory of Relativity, but everyone knows Albert Einstein was a great physicist. Some of this is picked up through common wisdom and culture, but there is also a nearly instantaneous reaction you may have when you see someone being “Great” at something. For instance: you may have no idea who LeBron James is, you may have never seen a basketball game before – but watch him for a few minutes and you rapidly recognize he is “Great”.
I make this point as a very roundabout (and hopefully not disrespectful) way to mourn the loss of a Great leader; thinker; decisor; teacher; and innovator – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Nearly eight percent of the Israeli population went to his funeral yesterday and around the world Jews and non-Jews read obituaries and looked at pictures. Rav Ovadia wasn’t great because his halakhic decisions had near universal respect (if not observance), nor was he great because he “[brought] back the heritage of the rabbinic heritage of that (Sephardic) community, to restore its pride” as Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf said.
No, R. Ovadia was great because he just was. From an early age he was a prodigy and over 93 years, his “Greatness” became recognized around the globe, even if you didn’t know what Talmud was or had no idea the amount of power his Shas Party had in Israel.
In college, I didn’t have the fortitude or real desire for a regular Talmud chavruta, so instead the Hillel rabbi and I would go through one of R. Ovadia’s responsa in Yechaveh Da’at, the collection of his responses to very “ordinary” questions. Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I entered R. Ovadia’s world. His encyclopedic answers would trace not just the halakhic aspects of the issue but would touch on the cultural evolution and current status/symbolism as well. These multi-page answers are dense, but understandable (once you get past the Hebrew). One thing that struck me was it seemed like R. Ovadia wanted the questioner to care as much about the issue as he did himself and wanted the questioner to understand the answer in a larger context (check his response to the kippah question as a good example).
Yes, he had a sharp tongue – some of the insults are remarkable in their use of language. But more importantly he had a huge heart for the Jewish people. One that allowed him the foresight to reach ground-breaking halakhic decisions when few else agreed with him. His decision to recognize the Ethiopian Jewish community as Jewish has changed the very fabric of Israel. His decision to “free” hundreds of women who otherwise would have been agunot after the Yom Kippur war allowed a damaged country to grow. His decision to allow for the exchange of land for peace set the stage for the future. Politically, while we can disagree on policy and positions and tactics no one can disagree with the results his Shas Party has had for its community.
While the arguments of his place in the pantheon of Jewish greats will continue and scholars will debate if his encyclopedic memory overpowered his powers of analysis. The reality is we will not see someone of his Greatness anytime soon. The outpouring of grief in Israel and throughout the Jewish world is not just about the loss of a leading rabbi, but of a Great man.