New Bio Of Rav Ovadia
Posted 03 October 2004 - 10:04 AM
From Shop to Top
by Benjamin Lau
"Maran Ovadia Yosef: Habiografia" ("Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: The Biography") by Nitzan Chen and Anshel Pfeffer, Keter, 437 pages, NIS 89.
Nitzan Chen and Anshel Pfeffer have written a biography that is over 400 pages long, laden with information and anecdotes, in an attempt to portray the complexity of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The book explores Rabbi Ovadia as a religious leader, a political leader and a family man, delving into his childhood, his marriage and his relationship with his children. The authors have left no stone unturned. They have gathered data from every possible source - family archives, books and articles, newspaper reports and interviews. Future biographers will have to be very enterprising to come up with anything new on the subject.
My one complaint about this book is that it is too much like a newspaper. The authors - professional journalists - have left their sources unnamed to protect their confidentiality. The end product is thus an enormous conglomeration of data that readers have no way of judging. They must accept it all at face value. If they want to believe it, fine; if they don't, they don't. Bearing in mind that there is more than one camp here, one suspects that the book is biased in favor of those who supplied the information rather than the other side. If this book is really a biography, as it professes to be, it should include a list of sources.
Rabbi Ovadia's life story contains all the stuff of myth: growing up poor, setting oneself an ambitious goal from childhood, a meteoric rise to fame, and upon reaching the top, a tug-of-war between heirs and members of one's inner circle. This book contains quite a bit of gossip dished out by relatives fighting among themselves for a spot next to the Great Father. From my point of view, these parts border on tabloid journalism and make no real contribution to our understanding of Rabbi Ovadia. In both the political and family chapters, "facts" are presented without attribution. Thus we read about Shas leader Aryeh Deri's alleged attempt to attract public attention on the eve of his trial by having Rabbi Ovadia hospitalized and treated for heart problems just when his personal doctor was away. That is a very serious accusation - worse than any he has been charged with in a court of law - as well as the source of a bitter dispute between family members, some on Deri's side and some not. Here again it would have been proper for the authors to reveal their sources.
I believe that Rabbi Ovadia's character was formed more outside the family circle than within it. His family and associates tell the story of how his father needed his eldest son to help him run the family grocery store in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem. At the age of 14, he was forced to leave the yeshiva, until one day the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attia, came to the store and begged the father to let the boy return. "If you need help in the store, I'll stay. Keeping me away from Torah study matters less than keeping this boy away."
Thus he went back to his studies and became an eminent Torah scholar. In 1937, Rabbi Attia, head of the Porat Yosef yeshiva, asked Ovadia, who was all of 17 at the time, to teach a class every evening at the Persian synagogue in the marketplace of the Bukharan Quarter. The people who came to study were stall owners and local workers who were accustomed to learning a little halakha (Jewish religious law) livened up with quotes from the sermons of Rabbi Yosef Haim, author of "Ben Ish Hai." This was the most popular religious text in the Sephardi Jewish community, and it reigned supreme. Most of the residents of the neighborhood were Iraqi Jews, and their local synagogue was Ohel Rachel.
In one of his letters, Rabbi Ovadia describes what happened during that lesson: "Before the class, I would seriously study each and every halakha until I had a firm grasp of the material and could teach it to others. In `Ben Ish Hai' I found certain discrepancies with the Shulhan Arukh [the Jewish code of law] and felt that it was the author of the Shulhan Arukh who was right. Although some of the Iraqi Jews were angry with me for disagreeing with `Ben Ish Hai,' my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Ezra Attia of blessed memory, stood by my side and encouraged me to go on teaching as my heart told me to, and not to listen to the masses who did not understand."
In this manner, Rabbi Ovadia worked his way up the ladder, waging a one-man campaign to "restore the glory of Jewish tradition" - which he did without any organization behind him or any financial backing. The outcome was not only a political party with 17 seats in the Knesset, but an educational network from kindergarten to higher yeshivas devoted to disseminating Rabbi Ovadia's own teachings. These teachings were not a recycling of what he learned from his rabbis, but an attempt to create a cultural renaissance that would link Jews living in Israel today with the halakhic traditions of the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael in the 16th century, when Rabbi Yosef Caro wrote the Shulhan Arukh.
In telling the story of Rabbi Ovadia's rise to the top at Porat Yosef, the authors trace his move from a traditional home to the yeshiva, where books became his mentor and guide. The day that Rabbi Attia went to the grocery store and brought the young Ovadia back might be described as the day of his adoption by another world. From then on, he immersed himself in the world of Torah. The head of the yeshiva became his spiritual father; his study partners became his best beloved; and books became his playing field. Protected by a spiritual father, he left the yeshiva to give his first classes, served as a judge in the Sephardi rabbinical court and went on a mission to Cairo. Rabbi Ovadia's repeated attempts, almost unknown to the public, to establish study centers for Sephardi spiritual leadership based on his pedagogic methods, illustrate how high he sets his sights: producing the next generation of rabbis and dayanim (religious judges) to proudly continue Sephardi Jewish tradition in Israel.
The paragraph cited above from Rabbi Ovadia's correspondence shows the first step he took in this direction, as a boy of 17. He dared to disagree with the most revered figure in the world of Sephardi religious law: Rabbi Yosef Haim. Even before the issue of ethnic discrimination rose to the fore, Rabbi Ovadia was challenging the standing and dominance of the author of "Ben Ish Hai." Sephardi religious law, he argued, was being influenced by factors external to halakha (the Ashkenazi tendency to interpret the law strictly, kabbalistic influences going back to the Ari, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, in the 16th century).
Rabbi Ovadia's dream was to restore the primacy of halakha as set out by Rabbi Caro. This is the sacred mission to which he devoted his whole life. Only when he was older did he begin to feel that Sephardi tradition was being treated as inferior in the world of Jewish law and jurisprudence in the State of Israel. It was then that he added another item to the "production line": restoring the pride and heritage of Mizrahi Jewry. Whenever he teaches a class or participates in a halakhic debate, he slips in some mention of the superiority and originality of Sephardi-Mizrahi halakhic rulings (linking the Talmud, Maimonides and the Shulhan Arukh). This is the other component of Rabbi Ovadia's doctrine of "restoring Jewish tradition to its former glory." He has been waging this double campaign of his for more than 60 years now. For much of that time, he forged ahead without support and without recognition, relying only on his faith in himself. Only after many years did the Israeli public begin to recognize his greatness, and only after the founding of Shas was there any organizational support for bringing his teachings and halakhic decisions to a wider audience.
One of the more conspicuous ways of disseminating his teachings was through a siddur - a prayer book - that he compiled. In the 1950s, Rabbi Ovadia lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem's Bukharan Quarter and barely eked out a living from his books and teaching (this was before he became a judge). His son, Rabbi Yitzhak, says that one of the punishment he remembers receiving as a child was being sent to the local synagogue, where he was given a pile of books and assigned the task of correcting a single word in each one. In the prayers recited on the 10 Days of Atonement between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it was customary to change the wording of a certain passage in the Amidah prayer from "melekh ohev tzedakah umishpat" ("Praised are You, O Lord, King who loves justice") to "hamelekh hamishpat" ("Praised are You, O Lord, King of judgment"). In the 1950s, the Tefilat Yesharim siddur based on "Ben Ish Hai" was widely used in Sephardi synagogues. According to this prayer book, a worshiper who mistakenly used the wrong wording was not obligated to go back and repeat the prayer. The verdict was "eino hozer" ("no need to repeat"). This was the custom among all the Ashkenazi communities, and the author of Ben Ish Hai ruled in the same vein. Rabbi Ovadia, however, instructed his son to erase "eino," thereby reversing the ruling.
Without budgets, without a foothold in any ministry, Rabbi Ovadia began to spread his teachings, with a little help from his son. Only after Shas was founded and its people were instated in the Ministry of Religious Affairs did the marketing machine go into full gear. Today, nearly all Sephardi synagogues use Rabbi Ovadia's siddur, "Yehaveh Da'at." This is only a small example of how Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has climbed to the top.
Reading about his efforts to establish study frameworks for cultivating Sephardi leadership from the 1950s until today, one realizes that his burning desire is to shape Sephardi-Mizrahi tradition, which will never survive without an active leadership. To Rabbi Ovadia, the price paid by various ethnic groups in the bid to unite all Sephardim under one roof seems worth it. His dream really is to "restore Jewish tradition to its former glory" in the shape of Sephardi religious scholars teaching and deciding halakhic issues in fine Sephardi style - but, above all, in keeping with the legacy of Rabbi Yosef Caro.
The immigration of Jews from Muslim countries in the early years of the state, apart from the encounter with Israeli-Ashkenazi culture, brought about a meeting of Sephardi Jews of all stripes. These newcomers, most of them with very distinct ethnic traditions, found themselves living in ma'abarot (transit camps) in a jumble of communities and customs from every corner of the Muslim world: Jews from Moroccan villages side by side with aristocratic families from the cities; Jews from Baghdad alongside Jews from Djerba, and so on. Each group had its own religious leadership and its own traditions, from different melodies for prayers, to different foods. With such a motley group, there were bound to be issues regarding the preservation of tradition as opposed to uniformity in Jewish law.
In many towns and neighborhoods, rabbis continued to teach their flocks and call for the perpetuation of ethnic customs, so as to create a sense of belonging and allow newcomers to feel connected. Dr. Neri Horowitz calls the rabbis of these community synagogues "walking repositories of Mizrahi Jewish heritage." Working like an archaeologist, Horowitz exposed the layers of Mizrahi culture that merged with Israeli culture to produce the Shas movement when conditions were ripe. The duality of Rabbi Ovadia's halakhic rulings is more comprehensible in this light. In relating to the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, he waves the banner of diversity and careful preservation of ethnicities: "Each community should follow its rabbis - Sephardim following the author of the Shulhan Arukh and Ashkenazim following the Rama - without fear that this will produce two Torahs." But when it comes to Sephardi communities, he preaches uniformity and tries to create a "melting pot" whereby all Sephardi groups adhere to a single tradition. On many halakhic issues, he steers those who come to him (especially if they are Sephardi) to "go back" to the practices of Rabbi Yosef Caro, even if this is not their family tradition. This approach coincides with efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to create a shared Sephardi culture for all Mizrahi communities, in Israel and abroad.
Rabbi Ovadia's historic halakhic enterprise is moving swiftly ahead, founded on his unchallenged authority, although some pockets of local resistance are inevitable. On various issues, some of them rather minor, he has aroused the ire of local rabbis anxious to preserve age-old traditions. These rabbis are in an uncomfortable position because they know, on the one hand, that Rabbi Ovadia has done much to elevate the standing of Sephardi rabbis locally and gain respect for the rabbinic rulings of the Judeo-Spanish world. On the other hand, they are hurt by his rejection of customs they brought with them, which have been handed down over many generations.
There is no one, from any of the Sephardi communities in Israel today, who can challenge Rabbi Ovadia. A uniform tradition is being imposed on all these communities through the synagogue, via prayer books and halakhic texts. A growing number of synagogues are purchasing Rabbi Ovadia's siddur and using an anthology of his halakhic rulings, "Yalkut Yosef," for study purposes. In this way, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is building up a solid reputation as the sole halakhic authority for the Sephardi-Mizrahi community - a position that he will probably retain for a long time to come.
Has dried the sap out of my veins
Posted 03 October 2004 - 10:59 AM
Posted 03 October 2004 - 02:48 PM
melech - you really need to check out the thread on transliteration schemes! :D
אוֹר, זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק; וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה
or zru'a la-tzadik u-leyishrei simchah
"The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same; namely, the despot the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual. But as a perishable perfect man must die, and leave his despotism in the hands of an imperfect successor, an earthly despotism is not merely a bad form of government, it is the worst form that is possible."
Posted 03 October 2004 - 02:58 PM
Posted 29 October 2004 - 12:04 AM
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