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By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

With so much controversy, why so many at the funeral?

 


Rabbi Ovadia died at noon on Oct. 7, at the age of 93, after more than two weeks in intensive care and hourly reports of his decline, improvement, and final decline. The eulogies were scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., with burial in the small cemetery of Sanhedria about a kilometer distant. The vehicle carrying the Rabbi’s body moved at a rate of inches per hour, and had not approached the cemetery by the time I went to bed.

From the time of the Rabbi’s death, the three television channels had little more than coverage of the clogged streets, occasional transmission of the eulogies delivered by prominent rabbis, commentary about the religious and political legacies of the deceased, and speculation on the near and distant future of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi political movement (SHAS) that he founded and headed until his death.

The rabbi’s genius was apparent at an early age. He is credited with having memorized the entire Talmud, and issuing persuasive religious rulings while still a teenager. He earned a reputation as an innovator of religious law while serving in rabbinical positions of increasing prestige, culminating in his selection as chief Sephardi rabbi.

His reputation gains weight when viewed in the context of rabbinic traditions. While the creators of Rabbinic Judaism were creative in producing what became detailed precedents for numerous issues contemporary to them that they derived from the language of the Torah, most rabbis since then have been conservative in adhering to what they consider to be established, Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox, even to the considerable discomfort of their congregations.

Among the rulings that marked the career of Rabbi Ovadia were liberal decisions that declared the wives of soldiers and others who had disappeared and could be presumed to have died to be widows, and thereby allowed to remarry. Other rabbis had adhered to conventional rulings that without a body there could be no proof of death, and no freedom to marry for the women who considered themselves to be widows. 

He ruled that Ethiopians who claimed to be Jewish were in fact Jews, and entitled to immigrate to Israel. 

At a crucial point in Israel’s international relations, he ruled that it was not only permissible, but desirable to give up part of the Lord’s grant of the Land of Israel for the sake of peace. This put him at odds with a substantial part of his natural constituency—Jews from Arab countries, who have tended to be the most reluctant of Israelis to rely on any Arabs to keep their word and behave decently.

The rabbi was born in Baghdad, and was brought to Israel as a boy of four. His political importance derived from his creation of a movement that mostly attracted Israeli Jews from North Africa. Some 200,000 had migrated from Morocco in the 1950s, along with smaller numbers from Libya, Tunis, Egypt, and Algeria. Most were settled in outlying “development towns” and less desirable neighborhoods and suburbs of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. Subsequent generations, especially Moroccans, were more likely than other Israelis to be poor, to have left school early, and to be involved in the dirty work and leadership of organized crime. The better educated and more well-to-do North African Jews generally migrated elsewhere, mostly to France, when conditions in North Africa turned sour after Israel’s creation. 

Rabbi Ovadia worked to provide these Jews—along with others with backgrounds in Iraq, Iran, and Yemen-—with a communal identity and greater self-respect, as well as to create a system of primary schools through yeshivot that would bring them closer to their religious roots.

Rabbi Ovadia was an outlier as well as an innovator among Israel’s prominent rabbis. He suffered criticism because of his interpretations of religious law, and ridicule for promoting what was termed a mimicking of the more prestigious Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox in the education and dress of the faithful. Still on the public agenda are charges that some Ashkenazi schools refuse admission to Sephardi children due to doubts that Sephardi Jews are sufficiently knowledgeable or observant of religious law.

Rabbi Ovadia moved rightward toward the postures of his constituents, in keeping with the epigram, I am their leader and therefore I must follow them. He opposed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, and spoke out—in a mumbled Hebrew that required networks to add text at the bottom of the screen, and in rather vicious terms—against Arabs, non-Orthodox Jews, and left of center politicians.

The political party that he created was strong enough to provide the balance of power in several governments, and used its weight to gain public resources for its schools and key appointments for those who were close to its leadership. Ranking secular politicians donned skullcaps or, if females, dressed according to rules of modesty, visited the rabbi at his home, discussed policy options, and typically received a friendly slap on the face.

On the day after the rabbi’s death, Ha’aretz headlined a prominent article on its internet site, “This is the way that politicians kidnapped the religious genius.” The lead paragraph began: “The great man of his generation became a tool in the hands of political operatives and was dragged to defend their corruption.”

There is an economic side to SHAS which has attracted its own criticism, as well as several indictments and prison sentences for leading politicians. The rabbi established his own institution for granting certificates of kashrut to restaurants and other businesses that produce and sell food, which cause the owners of those establishment to pay an additional cadre of kashrut inspectors, who are most likely to be loyal supporters of SHAS or family members of party leaders. A disproportionate number of SHAS Knesset members, including two who held prominent ministerial appointments, served time for one or another form of corruption. Supporters asserted that they were picked upon unfairly by prosecutors and courts dominated by the Ashkenazi elite.

The most prominent of the felons, Ariyeh Deri, was rehabilitated and accepted back into the fold by Rabbi Ovadia after a prison term and several additional years meant to reform him via further study in yeshivot, and won the rabbi’s blessing to return to the Knesset and head the party.

Deri’s return to grace required his overcoming the opposition of a Knesset member and minister of interior who had been the leader of SHAS. Also in the background are antagonisms between the sons of Rabbi Ovadia, who have themselves become prominent rabbis but who have competed with one another and with their father on matters of doctrine and politics. Another former chief Sephardi rabbi, from outside the family, was featured in competitive endorsements and nasty politicking for the recent election of the chief Sephardi rabbi, in which one of Ovadia’s sons eventually received the position from the body with responsibility for the selection. 

Speculation is that the various personal, family, doctrinal, and economic frictions within the SHAS establishment will fracture the organization that will lack someone with Ovadia’s status to settle disputes, quiet the unhappy, and set the overall direction. Some of this was already apparent in the news stories about competition for inheriting Rabbi Ovadia’s leadership that circulated in the last two weeks of his life. Among the projections are that the outpouring of support associated with Ovadia’s funeral may help the party in municipal elections scheduled in the coming month, but that the longer term prospects are of decline and factional splits in national politics.

What remains are provocative questions about the meaning of the masses who honored the rabbi in his final days and at his death. Most prominent among the 800,000 to a million who crammed the streets were Sephardi-looking men dressed in the style of SHAS ultra-Orthodox. However, there were also Ashkenazim, Orthodox as well as ultra-Orthodox, and even Israelis dressed in the casual manner of the secular, with or without head coverings. The overwhelming majority were men, with only a scattering of women.

Some of the country’s leading Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis came with escorts to create for them a path through the congestion to the site of the eulogies, and participated in the fulsome praise of Rabbi Ovadia’s contributions to Judaism. 

While internal conflicts may determine the fate of SHAS within a few years or even less, the reputation of Rabbi Ovadia is likely to be a matter of dispute for much longer. Close supporters compare him to the geniuses of rabbinic history, in the league of Joseph Caro and the Rambam, i.e., Maimonides, who also suffered severe criticism, and in the eyes of some rabbis remain as outliers. 

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) at the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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