Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Who Led Followers Into Politics, Dies

Ovadia Yosef, the ultra-Orthodox cleric who revolutionized Israel by transforming Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent into a powerful political force, has died. He was 93.

Yosef died today at the Ein Kerem Hospital of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, Dan Gilon, one of the physicians who treated the rabbi, said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2. Yosef was hospitalized last month. No cause of death was given.

More than half a million people flooded the streets of Jerusalem as the rabbi’s body was brought in a van to the Sanhedria cemetery, the biggest crowd the city has ever seen for a funeral, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said in a telephone interview.

“The Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an e-mail, expressing “profound grief.”

The Iraqi-born former chief rabbi, with his trademark gold-embroidered dark robes, turban-like hat and sunglasses, was the driving force behind Shas, a political party founded for Sephardic Jews who had long chafed at the control of Israel’s Ashkenazi, or European-descended, ruling elite. His devotion to empowering disenfranchised Sephardim and to religious scholarship won him reverence among followers, while some of his outspoken pronouncements stirred controversy outside his disciples’ circles.

‘Influenced Society’

“What Shas did for the first time in the nation’s history was take democracy and transform it from slogan into reality,” said Avishay Ben Haim, an Israeli author who is writing a doctoral thesis about Yosef, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The Sephardic community voted for itself instead of for others and this influenced society as a whole. The success of Shas brought with it the success of many Sephardic Jews in academia, music and politics.”

As its following grew, Shas -- a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Guardians of the Torah, or Jewish holy book -- soon captured enough seats in parliament to make or break all but three of Israel’s governing coalitions since the party was established in 1984. It was shut out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition by an alliance of parties seeking to break the ultra-Orthodox influence over the budget and draft exemptions for men from the community.

Saving a Life

Yosef was first seen as open to territorial concessions to the Arabs in 1979 peace talks between Israel and Egypt. He ruled that saving a life, or “pikuach nefesh,” was more important than the government’s grip on the war-won Sinai Peninsula. The land was returned to Egypt under an accord that year.

In the 1990s, Shas abstained in the vote on the first Oslo accord with the Palestinians and voted against the second. In 2005, Yosef denounced Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, saying then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was torturing the people of Israel with the plan.

“He was the spiritual umbrella or religious backbone for many important steps in Israel’s history,” Ben Haim said. Yosef didn’t support the second accord with the Palestinians because of the attacks on Israelis that followed the first, he said.

Courting Controversy

Over the years, Yosef’s sometimes unintelligible, mumbled rulings made news as they grew more contentious. He called Netanyahu a “blind goat” and, in 2000, he enraged many Israelis by saying the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust “were the reincarnations of the souls of sinners.”

Born in Baghdad in 1920, Yosef moved with his family to Palestine before the state of Israel was established, according to the Shas website.

Considered an outstanding Jewish scholar in his teens, Yosef was ordained as a rabbi at age 17, according to the Shas party. He spent two years in Cairo as deputy chief rabbi. Yosef left to return to Israel when during its 1948 war of independence he thought Egyptian detectives were constantly following him and his stay in Cairo became unpleasant, according to the Chief Rabbinate’s website.

He served as the spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardic community for 10 years, starting in 1973. Among the Orthodox, especially those of Sephardic descent, he is considered one of the most important religious authorities of recent generations.

His sixth son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, was elected this year to follow his father as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, a position he is supposed to hold for the next decade.

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