Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Religious leader who became a kingmaker

 

To his supporters, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a spiritual sage who empowered disenfranchised Sephardic Jews. To secular Israelis he was a medieval figure in flowing robes occasionally given to bizarre rants. But through his control of the Shas party Yosef wielded influence over all Israelis. His death leaves a vacuum that could see the party splinter, reshaping Israeli politics.

Yosef, a religious scholar and spiritual leader of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent, spent his lifetime transforming the downtrodden Sephardic community into a potent political force. Yet the 93-year-old rabbi left no clear successor, raising questions about the future of Shas.

Born in Baghdad in 1920, Yosef was four when his family moved to Jerusalem. His abilities and rebellious nature emerged early. As a student, he chafed under the strict rule of his European rabbinical instructors, writing conflicting opinions based on Sephardic tradition while still a teenager. His insistence that Sephardic tradition is as valid as the Ashkenazi, or European, version of Judaism spawned a religious and cultural awakening. Sephardic Jews make up roughly half of Israel's Jewish population but the community was long impoverished and faced discrimination from Ashkenazi Jews, who dominated government and religious institutions.

Yosef came to prominence when he served as Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi from 1972 to 1983. While he was revered by his followers, his critics said he exacerbated tensions. His ornate outfit, with a gold-trimmed black cape and upswept hat, his ever-present dark glasses and habitually slurred speech made him an easy target for caricaturists. He would greet visitors, whether followers or prime ministers, with a playful slap to the face.

Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas in the early 1980s. The party won four seats in the 120-seat parliament in its first election, in 1984, but at its peak won 17 seats in 1999, making it the third-largest party. Even after being hit by scandals, it remained a mid-sized party that delivered a string of prime ministers their majority. Shas currently has 11 seats.

For three decades, Yosef held the final word over party decisions, its leaders seeking his guidance in all matters. It won huge government funding for schools, charities and seminaries that became a source of power and patronage, as well as a cause of resentment among the secular public.

The author of dozens of books about Jewish law and practice, Yosef was a master of communication. His weekly sermon packed his neighbourhood synagogue, overflow audiences listening outside on loudspeakers to his often earthy remarks. In recent years the sermons had been broadcast on television. His influence reached beyond the party, and he was known for fierce statements that offended widely disparate segments of society, including Holocaust survivors, gays, Palestinians and secular Jews. During a sermon in 2010 he said the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should "perish from the world" and described Palestinians as "evil, bitter enemies of Israel." He later apologised.

In 2007 he said that Israeli soldiers died in battle because they were not religious enough and said the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US suffered "because they have no God."

Yet Yosef's could be a voice of moderation. On questions of war and peace, he made his biggest waves by ruling that Israel may give back parts of the West Bank in exchange for peace, invoking the Jewish concept that preserving life is the highest commandment. The ruling countered decrees by other rabbis, who declared that no Jew had a right to hand over any part of the biblical Land of Israel to a non-Jew for any reason.

But in later years, he appeared to retreat. He called for the then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be struck down by illness after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006 and remains in a coma. In recent elections Shas hadaligned itself with parties opposing territorial concessions.

Earlier this year, Yosef criticised the strict prohibitions issued by hard-line rabbis. "That's not the way of the Torah," he said. "The way of the Torah is to search and find ways to solutions, to make it easier for the people of Israel and not make it harder for them."

Ovadia Yosef, rabbi and politician: born Baghdad 24 September 1920; Margalit Fattal (died 1994; 11 children); died Jerusalem 7 October 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us