The NY Times and Israeli media are filled with articles memorializing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died at the age of 93 two days ago. He was the leader of the Shas movement. It’s hard to pin down precisely what Shas is. Certainly a political movement with Knesset members who dish out traditional pork-like (in the sense of politics, not food) benefits. Certainly a movement that offers Mizrahi Jews a strong measure of ethnic pride. But is it a religious movement? Does Yosef deserve the title, “Israel’s spiritual leader,” which the Times and so many others have accorded him?
To the extent that Shas followers are Orthodox (and most are), it is a religious movement. But that phrase deserves an asterisk. Though Yosef was a rabbi and his followers were observant Jews, Shas is a hybrid (or more aptly, a mongrel). Shas’ real significance isn’t so much its religious role as its political one. It is a power base for Mizrahi Jews, who are shut out of Israel’s mainstream in so many other ways. Shas, like Hamas, is all things to its followers: it gets them jobs, offers them welfare, educates their children, offers all manner of support. It’s a combination of the Vatican and Tammany Hall. It’s motto (in American slang) might be: “Gonna get me mine.”
Judaism as practiced in Israel by many of its Orthodox adherents is little more than a racket. Rabbis competing to be chief rabbi physically assault their opponents and heap epithets on them. These learned sages operate their fiefdoms like little feudal barons doling out lucrative kashrut certifications, preventing men and women from marrying, divorcing, or attaining citizenship sometimes based on little more than whim or prejudice. In the case of Women of the Wall, these rabbis enlist the Israeli police to rough up and arrest their Jewish enemies in order to prevent them from access to religious sites.
Returning to Shas and Yosef, if Israel was not such a racist, hierarchical society, then Mizrahim would be far-better integrated and enjoy a higher level of success and achievement. Then corrupt (Shas’ penultimate leader went to jail on a corruption charge), pork-barrel groups like Shas wouldn’t have to exist. But Israel is dominated by Ashkenazim who control power, both political and economic.
One thing’s for sure: calling Ovadia Yosef a “spiritual leader” does a grave disservice to those who truly are spiritual leaders. Even Yosef’s religious edicts were highly politicized. Some years ago, just after Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed New Orleans, Yosef told his believers that the Hurricane wiped out the city because African-Americans neglected their Bible study and because George Bush supported the Gaza withdrawal. Which of course is laughable because African-Americans, one of America’s most highly-churched groups, know their Bible far better than their Jewish counterparts. Yosef also taught that non-Jews were created by the Lord to serve Jews. And he meant this literally and even used the term “donkey” as a comparison.
Reuters adds these other “bon mots” of the saintly rabbi:
Dubbed ‘Israel’s Ayatollah’ by critics who condemned many of his pronouncements as racist – he likened Palestinians to snakes…
“Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world,” Yosef said in a sermon in 2010, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”
Yosef also drew fire from Israelis when he once suggested that six million Jews had died in the Nazi Holocaust because they were reincarnated souls of sinners.
No doubt, Yosef’s followers saw him as a saintly figure. A friend who is a learned Orthodox Jew actually long ago admired Yosef for what he called his “progressive” halachic rulings. Here is a Facebook posting from a Bar Ilan University graduate offering his own encomium:
The most significant religious-spiritual authority since the state of Israel formed, and the greatest icon of the sefaradi judaism, beyond being a leading and breakthrough religious arbiter in the eyes of the historic judaism.
If he had retired from public life twenty years ago, he might rightly be lauded for his positive role. But instead, he lingered and made a laughingstock out of himself, Shas, and those Mizrahim who worshipped him.
700,000 Israelis attended his funeral. When you consider that only 20-30% of Israel’s 7-million are Orthodox, it’s a remarkable number, indicating that some secular Jews also admired him. But that is only 10% of all Israelis and an even smaller percentage of world Jewry. So I think a high level of skepticism is called for in according Yosef an honor most Jews did not believe he deserved.
Someone ought to tell erstwhile progressive New York mayoral candidate, Bill deBlasio who and what he’s endorsing in lamenting the late rabbi’s passing:
Bill de Blasio’s office issued a statement hailing the “wisdom, charity and sensitivity” of [Rabbi Yosef].
Note that New York City electoral politics are, in some senses, not that dissimilar from Israeli politics. Democratic candidates all have to kowtow to the Lubavitcher rebbe and in this case, the large Sephardi population in Brooklyn devoted to Yosef. These religious communities tend to vote en masse and as the “spiritual leader” tells them to. Just as with Yosef and Shas!
The following is precisely the sort of inflated assessment that Yosef does not deserve:
“He was the rabbi of all the Jewish people, not just of one sector,” said Tel Aviv’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.
If you do want to call him that, then Yosef was the rabbi of a racist, hateful religion that disdained non-Jews as something less than human. Is that what we believe about Judaism? Not my Judaism, that’s for sure. Rav Yosef no more represents Judaism than Osama bin Laden represents Islam.