One of the more outsized personalities in Israel's history is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the longtime head of the Shas political party, who has just marked his ninetieth birthday. Rav Ovadia, as he is known, rose from a poor and undistinguished family to the summit of rabbinic—and then political—leadership through the sheer force of his learning and personality, and the coincidence of his passions with some of the deepest currents in Israeli society. The foreign public knows of him, vaguely, as a right-wing fanatic. But the truth and perhaps the tragedy of the man are far more complicated and fascinating.
Born in 1920 in Baghdad, he came to Jerusalem with his family at the age of four. From early on, he displayed a stupendous photographic memory, a prodigious capacity for study, religious fervor, and scholarly ambition, all fused in fierce traditionalism and equally fierce independence. By his late teens he was both a rising star in the Sephardi rabbinic world and a beloved teacher of Jerusalem's day-laborers and tradesmen.
His ability to merge the intellectual elitism of the yeshiva with a common touch was to become one leitmotif of his career. Another was his pride, together with his boiling resentment of those who ignored or dismissed his accomplishments. Foremost among the latter were the members of the Ashkenazi establishment, religious and secular alike. They would come to regret it.
Rising through the ranks, Rav Ovadia served as a rabbinic judge in Cairo, Petah Tikvah, and Jerusalem, and as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, teaching all the while. In dozens of immensely learned books and countless rulings, he staked out a distinctive judicial philosophy with two components.
The first was encapsulated by the slogan "to restore the crown to its former glory (l'hahazir atarah l'yoshnah). The "crown" was the tradition of Sephardi halakhah that had come to full fruition in Joseph Karo, the 16th-century author of the still-authoritative law code, Shulhan Arukh. This tradition, in Rav Ovadia's view, had been contaminated if not downright smothered by centuries of Ashkenazi stringencies, dialectics, and arrogance. By returning to Karo as the starting point, and creating a uniform and pristine Sephardi halakhah, he hoped to forge an authoritative and centralized body of Jewish law that could stand on its own vis-à-vis the governing institutions of the secular Jewish state. It was an ambitious program, buttressed as always with formidable learning, and it led him to override existing authorities and customs in a way that unsettled many, including within his own Sephardi camp.
The second component of his legal philosophy was his leavening of unshakable traditionalism with a humane responsiveness to changing times and circumstances—for instance, in rulings welcoming Ethiopian Jews of uncertain ancestry into the community. In this, too, he reflected Sephardi legal tradition, which had been relatively free of the ideological conflicts wracking European Jewry in the early modern period and leading to the creation of Orthodoxy. He was also personally tolerant of less observant Jews, even while maintaining an unmistakable hostility to modernism.
Authoritative, audacious, and decisive, Rav Ovadia eventually got the better of his rivals. In 1972, he unseated his long-time nemesis, Yizhak Nissim, to become the Rishon l'Tsiyon, the Sephardi chief rabbi. And then his real troubles began.
His Ashkenazi counterpart in the chief rabbinate was Shlomo Goren, who had become famous as chief IDF chaplain in the 1967 Six-Day War. A halakhic liberal and fervent Zionist of great learning and great imperiousness, Goren rang his own changes on the Ashkenazi condescension that had dogged Rav Ovadia all his life. As their joint ten-year term neared its end, Rav Ovadia desperately sought an extension, but the political establishment, eager to rid itself of Goren, had other plans.
His lifelong goal of a massive religious revival having been stymied in the rabbinate, he turned to politics. The means were already waiting. In 1982, the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim had sponsored the creation of a Sephardi party, Shas, which they assumed would be a pliant tool in their hands. But once Rav Ovadia, by dint of his stature, assumed unquestioned leadership of the party, it went on to chart its own course as the vehicle of a defiant politics of Sephardi identity.
Like Rav Ovadia himself, Shas did not conform to the usual categories of Israeli life. It was a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party most of whose voters lived un-haredi lives. While, like its Ashkenazi counterparts, it formally rejected secular Zionist ideology, it accepted and even embraced the reality of Israeli life and took responsibility for its institutions. Another anomaly: on issues of peace and security, Rav Ovadia was a decided dove, a position he maintained even as the vast majority of his followers drifted rightward and that he himself modified only in the years after the intifada of 2000.
In the ever-shifting scales of Israeli coalition politics, Rav Ovadia's dual ability to command the allegiance of tradition-minded Sephardim and to contemplate compromise on issues of security and statecraft made him something of a pivotal kingmaker and an undoubted guarantor of patronage. Under the political leadership of his star protégé Aryeh Deri, Shas came close to mainstream status by winning an extraordinary seventeen Knesset seats in 1999. Later that year, Deri went to jail for corruption; his successor Eli Yishai has charted a more avowedly sectarian course.
No one can deny Shas's ability to energize so many of Israel's disenfranchised and forgotten. But its extraordinary success has come at a cost. In order to succeed, Rav Ovadia at times turned against some of his own deepest principles (for instance, by using popular Kabbalah for electoral gain). At other times, he unleashed furies that took on a life well beyond his control, turning his public image from a humane traditionalist to a populist demagogue. Deri was hardly the only one of his political minions to earn a reputation for corruption. For his constituents, a great deal of economic and social development was sacrificed in the pursuit of haredi religious revival. Although his disciples and appointees now occupy rabbinic posts all over Israel, he has never quite achieved the independence he sought from Ashkenazi dominance in the ultra-Orthodox world.
And there has been another, subtler, price. In order to beat the Ashkenazim at their own game, Shas adopted the fiercely ideological brand of Ashkenazi politics. In the process, the character of Sephardi Judaism metamorphosed from, one might say, tradition to Orthodoxy. One of the last great inheritors of that humane tradition, Rav Ovadia had set out to restore it but ended by remaking it through an imposed, alien uniformity. He also amassed more political power than any rabbi in post-talmudic history; but will he be remembered for that, rather than for his truly awesome learning and teaching?
Today, Rav Ovadia continues to write his books and elaborate his jurisprudence, and is still visited by a regular stream of politicians and public figures seeking his approval and endorsement. And every Saturday night, he still teaches in a local Jerusalem synagogue, offering simple lectures and folksy homilies to people from all walks of life, just as he did for their grandparents a lifetime ago.