A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Slate entitled will the great American rabbi please stand up? It was a controversial piece to which the response was not all positive. Here’s one paragraph from that long-forgotten article – one that I was reminded of when hearing the news on the passing of rabbi Ovadia Yosef:
This is a relatively new and perplexing phenomenon, and it's difficult to pinpoint why great American rabbis seem to be a thing of the past. Within Jewish tradition, the thesis of the "decline of the generations" (in Hebrew: Yeridat Ha'Dorot) is a very prevalent one, inversely related to the distance from Sinai. Is what we see in America today proof of this thesis (though not all great Jewish thinkers accept it)? Is it a problem with today's rabbis, students, and scholars? Are we in the early years of a drought in Jewish thought? Or maybe the problem is not the rabbis but rather the changing times and changing nature of Judaism, which makes it more difficult for anyone to acquire greatness.
Today I’m almost certain that the problem isn’t the rabbis – it’s us, the unworthy generation. Unworthy in the sense that to have great rabbis one needs to want to have great rabbis, to want an authority to which many people adhere, to want to really respect someone special.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was one such rabbi. Politics aside, rhetoric aside, misunderstandings and differences of culture aside, he was a giant- possibly the last of Israel’s giant rabbis. The last one to whom all other rabbis referred with respect, the last one whose greatness was commonly acknowledged, unchallenged. He was a successful revolutionary – always a tricky position- courageous enough to set precedents and to fight against foes, but also acceptable enough to the masses and established enough so as not to be shunned, marginalized, and destroyed by the anti-revolutionaries.
It isn’t easy to explain to non-Israelis what was so unique about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Today at the office, I asked my colleague Dr. Shlomo Fischer – a true expert on Yosef and his party, Shas – to try and define for me in a paragraph why Yosef was so important. Fischer told me the story of Yosef’s first demonstration of courageous independence: It was when he was the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and when the rabbinate was still totally loyal to Ashkenazi custom. Ashkenazi Jews don’t register people for marriage between the fast of the seventeen of Tamuz and until after Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Yosef saw no reason why he should follow this habit, and ordered Sephardic rabbis to keep registering people until the first day of the month of Av – according to Sephardic custom.
This was a small change, Fischer told me, but symbolic of much greater changes to come. Yosef’s greatest achievement was to release Sephardic custom from Ashkenazi rabbinical tyranny. He did this by issuing halachic decisions such as this one – and later by forming a religious Sephardic party, Shas, that became a political powerhouse.
Shas is also Yosef’s most controversial creation. It made him a villain in the eyes of many Israelis. It made him a divisive figure. Indeed, Rabbi Yosef didn’t always mince words, and didn’t usually hide his low opinion of many of Israel’s political leaders. Yet make no mistake: He was a revolutionary also in his treatment of the Jewish state. A notable case: his bold insistence on releasing the “agunot” – the 'chained' women of the missing soldiers of the Yom Kippur war, who could not remarry. "Rabbi Yosef was called upon to deal with one of his greatest legal, dramatic and humanitarian issues, and by definition one of his toughest Israeli assignments," journalist Adam Baruch wrote years later. “His halachic work on the matter of the agunot was a humane example and a halachic example; an undertaking that reverberated deeply in Israeli society as a whole”.
He was also the one to insist that giving land in exchange for peace was permissible, that territorial compromise is halachically allowed should it lead to the saving of lives. Some observers from the right have interpreted his ruling as being a sign of him a leader of the Haredi and Diasporic flock. That’s not necessarily true: it can be seen as a testimony to Yosef’s pragmatism, and his insistence to weigh options and to choose the lesser of two evils (or the better of two good things).
There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about the question of his heir apparent. Will it be one of Yosef’s sons, or maybe Rabbi Shlomo Amar? The thing about this question is that if we even need to ask it, this means that there is no heir. There is no one that is acceptable to everybody, no one that has the combination of knowledge, leadership skills, popularity, and courage to needed be a leader like rabbi Yosef. People might tell you that they want a successor for Rabbi Yosef to somehow emerge. But in fact, they’d probably do everything in their power to prevent such a successor from having any chance to rise above the wannabes.