It is not necessary to always agree with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died this week, to recognize him as a great light in Jewish learning and Jewish law, and a passionate warrior for the rights of the people he led. Sadly, he often spoke words that were hurtful and even harmful, making him a pariah to many outside his milieu.
For too many years, Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrachi communities were treated as second-class citizens by a hubristic Ashkenazi leadership that despised Sephardi culture. Yosef used his position as Rishon l’Tzion (literally, “first in Zion”), which is the official title of Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbis, to challenge Ashkenazi hegemony head on. Because the best route to accomplish that was the political one, he encouraged the establishment of the Shas Party in 1984; it soon became a force within Israel’s difficult parliamentary democracy.
Yosef is often described as “ultra-Orthodox,” but the label is overly simplistic. He was driven by a love of his people – Ashkenazim included – and an equal love for preserving Torah in their lives. As such, he often took positions that were condemned or looked down upon by his Ashkenazi colleagues.
He had no use for the modern Ashkenazi predilection for chumrot – halachic stringencies. The “growth of chumrot,” he argued, “leads to leniency in the body of the Torah,” meaning that stringencies move people away from observance, not closer to it. Yosef preferred leniencies, as long as they remained consistent with Jewish law.
He accepted conversion for the sake of marriage to a Jew, which is in keeping with the Talmud and the codes, but is not consistent with the hard-line views of most Ashkenazi Orthodox authorities.
He not only ruled in favor of kidney transplants, which charedi authorities forbade, but stated that a person “is required to donate [a kidney] to save his companion from certain death.”
He would use “benefit of the doubt” loopholes to validate witnesses to marriages that others would consider unquialified.
He even issued a ruling that could be seen as challenging the accepted view that every word of the Torah as we have it today is exactly as dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Yemenite scrolls differ in several places from the Torah text accepted by the overhwelming majority of Jews from all streams. Yemenite tradition, he ruled, is no less valid than anyone else’s.
Many of Yosef’s rulings do not sit well with others of any stream, and some of his comments (regarding the character of blacks, the reasons behind natural disasters, the cause of the Shoah) were intemperate and even hurtful. Most of those statements, however, trace back to a talmudic-age worldview, which was his worldview. What his words said and what he thought they said often were totally opposite each other.
Perhaps his most controversial stands, however, involved the Arab-Israel peace process, which he favored on the grounds of p’kuach nefesh – danger to life – which, he argued, took precedence over occupying all the land. If Jewish lives are put at serious risk, even potentially so, then occupying all the land was not permissible.
Even the articles this week criticizing him agree that Yosef was a “gadol ha-dor,” a great Torah scholar of the generation, who had a courage and vision too few of his Sephardi and Ashkenazi colleagues share. May time declare his good, forget the rest, and let his memory be for a blessing.