Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of Shas and Sephardi sage, dies at 93

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli sage who founded the Sephardi Orthodox Shas political party and exercised major influence on Jewish law, has died.

Yosef died Monday at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem at the age of 93.

Born in Egypt, Yosef served as Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi from 1973 to 1983, and extended his influence over the ensuing decades as the spiritual leader of Shas, which politically galvanized hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Israelis, though Yosef himself never served in Knesset. At its height, in 1999, Shas was the third-largest Knesset party, with 17 seats.

Though he adhered to a haredi Orthodox ideology, Yosef, a charismatic speaker, published relatively liberal Jewish legal rulings and drew support from traditional and secular Sephardi Israelis as well. Known to his followers as Maran, “our master” in Hebrew, Yosef’s main Jewish legal goal was to take diverse Jewish practices from the Middle East and North Africa and mold a “united legal system” for Sephardi Jews.

As his influence grew, Yosef presided over a veritable empire of Sephardi religious services. Shas opened a network of schools that now has 40,000 students. Yosef managed a kosher certification called “Beit Yosef” that has become the standard for many religious Sephardim. And he was a dominant power broker when it came to electing Sephardi chief rabbis and appointing Sephardi judges in religious courts. This year, Yosef’s son – and preferred candidate – won the Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi election.

Through his work, Yosef hoped to raise the status of Israel’s historically disadvantaged Sephardi community, both culturally and socioeconomically. He dressed in traditional Sephardi religious garb, including a turban and an embroidered robe, even as most of his close followers adopted the Ashkenazi haredi dress of a black fedora and suit.

As a scholar, Yosef was known for his ability to recite long, complex Jewish tracts from memory. His best-known works, “Yabia Omer,” “Yehave Da’at” and “Yalkut Yosef,” cover a wide range of Jewish legal topics.

“He was a character that people capitulated in front of, a man of Jewish law that created a political entity with strong influence on Israeli politics and culture,” said Menachem Friedman, an expert on the haredi community at Bar Ilan University. “It raised up Middle Eastern Jewish culture, gave legitimacy to Middle Eastern Jewish traditions.”

Outside the religious community, Yosef was best known for his sometimes controversial political stances. Yosef’s authority within Shas was virtually absolute, and even in his ninth decade he remained closely involved in the party’s decisions.

While he favored policies that served the religious community’s interests, Yosef also supported peace treaties involving Israeli withdrawal from conquered territory. He argued that such deals were allowed under Jewish law because they saved Jewish lives.  In the 1990s and 2000s, Shas joined left-wing governing coalitions multiple times, allowing for the advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – though Yosef opposed the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza because it was done unilaterally.

In his later years, Yosef also stirred controversy with a number of inflammatory statements, often made at a weekly Saturday night sermon. In 2000, he said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners, while in 2005 he said that the victims of Hurricane Katrina deserved the tragedy “because they have no God.” In 2010, Yosef said that “The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews.”

Ovadia Yosef was born Abdullah Yosef in Baghdad, Iraq on Sept. 23, 1920. His family moved to Jerusalem in what was then Palestine four years later, where Yosef studied at the Porat Yosef yeshiva, a well-regarded Sephardi school. At age 20, he received ordination as a rabbinic judge, and at age 24 married Margalit Fattal, who died in 1994.

He began serving as a rabbinic judge in 1944, and in 1947 moved to Cairo to head the rabbinic court there, returning in 1950. He continued serving as a religious judge until becoming Sephardi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position he held until he was elected Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel in 1973. During that period, he began publishing his well-known works, beginning with his Passover Haggadah, “Hazon Ovadia,” in 1952. In 1970, the government awarded him the prestigious Israel Prize in recognition of his books.

Yosef defeated a sitting chief rabbi in the 1973 election, itself a controversial move. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War that year, he ruled that women whose husbands were missing in action could remarry. Later in his term, he endorsed the Ethiopian Jews’ claim to Judaism, helping them immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

Yosef founded Shas in 1984, one year after finishing his term as chief rabbi. The party now holds 11 seats.

Save for four years, Shas was part of every governing coalition between 1984 and 2013, acting as a kingmaker in Israeli politics. Because the party represents both haredi and poor Sephardi Jews, it advocates a unique mix of dovish foreign policy, conservative religious policy and liberal economic policy. Yosef took an active role in shaping Shas through this year’s elections, heading a council of rabbis that chose the party’s slate and mediating leadership conflicts.

What was most impressive about Yosef, says Friedman, was his influence over almost every aspect of Sephardi religious and political life – making it unlikely that another rabbi will be able to take his place.

“He’ll create an empty space politically and an empty space religiously,” Friedman said. “He was a source of strength and great control in Middle Eastern Jewish religious society. I don’t know what will happen.”

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.