Would the real Rav Ovadia Yosef please stand up?

Rav Ovadia Yosef receives visitors from Sderot in 2006

Is Rav Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, the Orthodox Sephardi party, a sophisticated man of peace or a racist rabble rouser? The leading halachic theorist of his generation or a populist reactionary? Anshel Pfeffer in The Jewish Chronicle speculates on what makes this powerful Iraq-born rabbi tick.

Thirty-one years ago, Rabbi Yosef, then the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, scandalised the religious world with his ruling that for peace, Israel should retreat from the territories it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

But over the last two decades, the rabbi’s actions and words seem to have worked for the opposite cause. In 1993, Shas, the political party he founded after being forced to leave the chief rabbinate and over which he still exercises complete control, abstained in the vote over the Oslo accords. In 2000, the party left the coalition on the eve of the Camp David talks and in 2005, it opposed disengagement from Gaza.

Three weeks ago, on the eve of the Washington summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the rabbi caused an international stir when he wished in his weekly Torah lesson that “our enemies and haters come to an end. May Abu Mazen [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] and all those wicked men be lost from the earth. May God smite them with the plague of pestilence, including all those Palestinians.”

The Americans demanded that he apologise for the remarks.

So who is the real Rav Ovadia?

A sophisticated man of peace or a racist rabble-rouser? The leading halachic theorist of his generation or a populist reactionary?

To try and understand his contradictory character, we have to go back to his early childhood in Iraq and remember that he was named after a grandfather murdered in a Baghdad pogrom; to take into account the three years he spent in his late twenties as a young rabbi in cosmopolitan Cairo; and that he has spent his entire life in struggle.

He fought against a domineering father who did not want him to pursue a life of study. He was banished from Cairo by the secular community leadership when he refused to fulfil only
a ceremonial role.

His early books were banned and even burnt by the Iraqi elders in Jerusalem for spurning the traditions on which he himself was brought up, preferring what he saw as a more authentic halachic system.

Even after earning recognition, he continuously took on both the patronising Ashkenazi Orthodox leadership and the secular establishment.

Over the last 40 years he became the most significant leader of Sephardi Jews in Israel and around the world.

He inspired not only the strictly Orthodox but also many “traditional” Jews, who warmed to his outgoing personality and his undying campaign for their cultural heritage.

But he also paid a heavy price.

Shas, a permanent fixture in almost every government since 1984, may have consolidated his political power and public influence, but it has also taken away attention from his real life’s work; over 40 volumes of responsa, halachah and commentary designed to update Jewish law to
a daily modern law.

It has also forced him to acquiesce to the party’s right-wing line rather than alienate voters.

His loyalists insist that he has not given up his pro-peace positions; he merely does not trust the Arabs.

Read article in full


  • The five dancing Mossad Agents arrested
    on 9/11 in NYC love Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

    By deception ye shall wage war

  • Anshel Pfeffer co-authored with Nitzan Hen a biography of Rav Ovadia Yosef a few years ago. Remember Nitzan Hen? He was the TV 1 reporter whom Ovadia Yosef kicked out during a press conference a few years ago with the now famous words: "Tseh baHutz!".
    I caught part of a radio interview of Nitzan Hen very recently (within the past week) so it is quite possible that they are publishing a revised edition of the book and this article could be the teaser.
    Nitzan Hen said that Rav Ovadia Yosef is the only Gadol haDor in the past 200 years. He also thinks his strange tirades are gimmicks meant to wake people up to a situation or another.

  • What an awful "article". And I´m not even talking about his opinions…

    This Anshel Pfeffer guy… is he a professional journalist? If this guy gets paid to "write" there is something really wrong with this world.

    Believe it or not, I´ve seen better written articles about Rav Ovadiah on Haaretz and in school newspapers…

    When the Rav was really sick (a few years ago) Haaretz made something that looked like an obituary (really!) for him. It was well written and really informative (hard to belive, but true). In fact, I think this guy ripped that thing.

  • Thank you for this history of the Rav. I see him in the tradition of the old prophets of the Torah: he has been forged in the heat of struggle and pain. Long live the Rav Ovadia and may God bless him.


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