Requiem for a Revolutionary Rabbi

Requiem for a Revolutionary Rabbi
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Amotz Asa-El

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, sage, rebel and kingmaker, left this world at age 93 the way he conquered power: with a tour de force.

Followed to his resting place by more than half-a-million people on Oct. 7, apparently the largest gathering Jerusalem had seen since antiquity, Rabbi Yosef’s religious stature and social impact are undeniable. What is less clear, and in fact now looms as Israeli politics’ most significant riddle, is the future of his political creation, the Shas party.

Raised in Jerusalem since age six, when his family moved there from Baghdad, Yosef was educated at Middle Eastern Jewry’s flagship religious school, the Porat Yosef Talmudic Academy, where he loomed tall as a monumental genius already as a teenager.

Blessed with a photographic memory and a sharp legal mind, Yosef knew by heart much of the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud, as well as numerous books of rabbinical responsa. His detailed quotations from varied sources while answering complex legal questions in public lectures and a popular radio program astonished people regardless of their ideological, social or intellectual backgrounds.

Though humbly born to a family of modest grocers, Yosef never lacked a decent income, having been appointed a judge in the state-run rabbinical courts already at age 30, before becoming Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv at 48, and Chief Rabbi of Israel at 52.

However, the more he interacted with the new immigrants from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Iran in an Israeli society dominated by a European-born, secular elite, the more Yosef resolved to restore Middle Eastern Jewry’s pride in its heritage and to raise its social standing.

In the early 1980, after losing the Chief Rabbinate in the wake of struggles between and within the veteran religious parties, Yosef decided to challenge them by establishing a party of his own. He called it “Shas”, acronym for “Observant Sephardim,” an allusion to the Jews who originated in Spain and, after their expulsion in 1492, largely regrouped in Muslim-majority lands.

Shas was initially seen as a flash in the pan, but soon emerged as a fixture of Israeli politics, its support growing during its first 15 years of existence from 3% to 15% of the electorate.

Eventually stabilsing at one-tenth of the electorate, Shas became a permanent force to reckon with, joining at times centre-right governments like Netanyahu’s and at other times centre-left governments like Yizhak Rabin’s – and throughout it all making no major decision without the approval of its revered founder, Rabbi Yosef.

Yosef’s political success reflected his rare combination of charisma and intellect, as well as an ability to tap into his constituents’ frequent sense of disenfranchisement.

Religiously, Yosef stood up to the rabbis of European, or “Ashkenazi”, background – even as a young religious judge basing his rulings on those of previous rabbis of the Sephardi tradition, led by 16th century sage Yosef Karo.

Due to his confidence as a scholar, Yosef also stood up to the Ashkenazi rabbis who forbade ceding any part of the Promised Land in turn for peace. As he saw it, such deals were not only legitimate, but a religious duty if statesmen thought they would save lives.

It was the same legal rationale by which Judaism not only allows, but requires desecration of the Sabbath for the sake of saving lives, leaving it to doctors to decide what religious compromises saving a life might require. Yosef thus backed the peace deal with Egypt in 1979 and then had his party’s ministers abstain in the vote that approved the Oslo Accords. The abstention reflected his realisation that the statesmen were themselves divided over that deal’s merits, but even then he did not reject it in principle.

At the same time, Yosef knew his constituency was mostly hawkish. Sometimes this made him pander to his audiences with public statements that were controversial and also coarse – including one where he dubbed the Arabs “snakes” and wished assorted liberal politicians an untimely death.

Yosef later apologised for such statements, saying for instance that his remarks concerning Arabs referred to terrorists only. Still, his occasionally loose tongue underscored a narrow intellectualism that shunned the studious, let alone scientific, observation of phenomena, and focused only on the interpretation of texts. Though he read incessantly and wrote profusely, Yosef is not known to have read any secular literature.

In this spirit, the sprawling educational empire he established, which includes some 650 schools and 300 kindergartens, focuses on religious studies and avoids teaching secular subjects on a level that would lead to university studies. At the same time, Yosef’s own daughter Adina Bar-Shalom established, with her father’s blessing, an ultra-Orthodox college that teaches professions such as accounting and software engineering to men and women – separately, of course.

This kind of duality animates Yosef’s religious legacy of strict observance and social pragmatism, an attitude that has set him apart from Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy whose suspicion of modernity runs deeper – harking back to struggles with Reform Judaism that were not part of the Sephardi experience due to the absence of the Reform movement in the Middle East.

The need Yosef recognised in tacitly opening up higher education in the ultra-Orthodox community is economic. After decades of idealising the Talmudic scholar, and financing his lifelong studies with state-funded stipends that barely suffice for a large family following an ascetic way of life, it had become clear that ultra-Orthodoxy has grown too big to continue to live off of the fiscal formula that Yosef’s politicians helped nurture.

However, the quiet, partial compromise of this formula still leaves a critical mass of Shas voters ill-equipped to move ahead economically and socially. This predicament is best illustrated by a comparison of this constituency’s progress with the that of the wave of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in Israel 25 years ago or so.

Back when the so-called “Russians” began arriving in the late 1980s, Shas was already well established politically, whereas the new immigrants lacked both resources and leadership. Initially, they joined the lower classes, taking badly-paid unskilled jobs and renting shoebox apartments in poor neighbourhoods in remote towns.

A generation on, while Shas voters largely remained in the working class, the Russian immigrants have often joined the middle class. Similarly, Shas has failed to enlist the public support of any of Israel’s many self-made men of Middle Eastern background. This elite, which includes some of Israel’s most successful bankers, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs, real estate tycoons, as well as academics and literati, feels uncomfortable with Shas’ suspicion of modernity and rhetoric of polarisation.

Now, with Shas’ larger-than-life founder gone, there is general agreement that he successfully instilled in his followers a new social confidence and cultural pride. Yet this consensus leaves open the question of Shas’ political future, and in fact raises the possibility that, Yosef’s revolution having achieved its primary goals, Shas will therefore fail to sustain an ongoing sizeable presence in the political arena.

Besides the questions about its social utility, Shas will have to confront the loss of its main electoral asset – its founder’s aura. It is no coincidence that the party first entered the political fray the year after Menachem Begin left it. Though hailing from very different backgrounds and representing different value systems, Yosef and Begin appealed to the same electorate and did it with the same tool – charisma.

Now, with Yosef gone, Likud will make a vigorous effort to restore its grip on Shas voters, a constituency that originally followed Menachem Begin. Rival religious parties are also gearing up to storm Yosef’s orphaned electorate.

At the moment, Shas has no substitute for Yosef. Several months ago the dying sage restored as the party leader the controversial Aryeh Deri, a former Interior Minister who served a jail term for taking a bribe. Deri, in addition to his criminal record, lacks scholarly standing, and while he has charisma, is devoid of religious authority.

His strategy, therefore, is to become the champion of the poor, while nurturing the educational empire Yosef built over the decades.

Under Deri, Shas is already intensifying its longstanding populism. Now in the opposition, the party that has always backed and often initiated expanded social spending is cultivating a socially-oriented alliance with Labor, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy and the Arab parties. Himself a political dove, Deri’s vision is that the sizeable population of Jews from Muslim lands can best bridge a future Arab-Israeli peace, and that Israel’s downtrodden can be galvanised to confront the country’s increasingly criticised financial elites.

Before any of that materialises, however, Deri will have to prove that his target audience is prepared to follow him to the ballot box the way they followed their spiritual leader to his grave.