Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi-born sage who turned an Israeli underclass of Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern heritage into a powerful political force, has died at the age of 93, plunging masses of followers into mourning.
Dubbed Israel’s Ayatollah by critics who condemned many of his pronouncements as racist – he likened Palestinians to snakes and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews – Rabbi Yosef was revered by many traditional Sephardic Jews as their supreme religious leader.
Through the Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians) party he founded in the early 1980s, Rabbi Yosef also wielded unique political influence from his modest apartment in Jerusalem.
“The people of Israel lost one of the wisest of a generation,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement yesterday. “Rabbi Yosef was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a mentor to tens of thousands.”
At its height, Shas – now in the opposition – held 17 of parliament’s 120 seats. For years, Rabbi Yosef, as its leader, served as political kingmaker whose party could make or break Israeli coalition governments.
His political messages were sometimes mixed: he viewed the occupied West Bank, captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of the biblical Land of Israel, but in a challenge to mainstream rabbis, he said it was permissible to cede land to prevent bloodshed.
Although Shas served in governments that pursued peace talks with the Palestinians, he voiced strong anti-Arab sentiments in sermons.
Rabbi Yosef also drew fire from Israelis when he once suggested that six million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust because they were reincarnated souls of sinners. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, meeting Israeli legislators in the West Bank after news of the death yesterday, asked them to convey his condolences to the rabbi’s family.
Rabbi Yosef’s heavily Arabic-accented Hebrew may have been difficult to understand, but Shas members followed his political policy pronouncements and the biblical religious edicts as if they were divine commandments.
His major work, Responsa, Yabia Omer, is a ten-volume collection of his rulings on questions pertaining to Jewish law and customs.
Weaving a new social fabric in a Jewish state dominated by a so-called elite of Ashkenazim, or Jews of European descent, he oversaw the establishment of Shas-run religious schools and charity institutions that drew a new generation into his rabbinical fold.
Outside Yosef’s home, weeping Jewish seminary students, in a traditional sign of mourning, tore their white shirts with a razor blade. Hundreds of thousands attended his funeral later yesterday in Jerusalem.
“How will the world run without the sun? How will the world run without the moon?’ lamented Shas legislator Arye Deri.