In a first for Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties, the Sephardi-dominated Shas party has joined the World Zionist Organization—another step on the road to becoming a fixed presence in the country's political landscape. Founded in the mid-1980's, Shas has long scrambled conventional categories. Although the party is avowedly haredi, and its leaders tend to imitate both the garb and the ideologically-mobilized politics of Ashkenazi haredim, most Shas voters conduct their lives in a non-haredi, if traditional, style. As for attitudes toward the state, Shas politicians, unlike their more squeamish Ashkenazi counterparts, serve in the Israeli cabinet and, sometimes, in the IDF.
The success of Shas would be unimaginable without the party's spiritual leader, Ovadiah Yosef, a stupendously learned authority in Jewish religious law (halakha) with a rare common touch. As a halakhist, Rabbi Ovadiah merges unmistakable traditionalism with relative moderation on a number of fronts, from women's issues to the idea of trading land for peace. His political program is twofold: to place as great a Sephardi stamp as he can on Israeli public life in general and, for Sephardim in particular, to create a uniform body of halakha behind which all those represented by his party can march more confidently forward.
But Rabbi Ovadiah is nearing ninety. What will happen to Shas after his passing is anyone's guess.
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