Ovadia Yosef, outspoken spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardi Jews, dies at 93

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 1920-2013

A child prodigy born into poverty in Baghdad, the former chief rabbi was a lenient religious authority who forged the increasingly hardline Shas political party.


Ovadia Yosef, an outspoken rabbi who combined religious and political leadership into a role as one of the most powerful religious figures in Israel’s history, died Monday. He was 93.

Yosef, who was vocal and active even as he ailed in recent years, was hospitalized repeatedly as his condition worsened.

The Baghdad-born rabbi will be remembered for building the support of traditional Jews from Arab countries, long marginalized in the Israeli political system, into a powerful political machine in the form of the Shas party, a key power-broker in the Knesset.

One of Yosef’s sons is currently the country’s chief Sephardi rabbi, a role Yosef himself held in the past. But the elderly scholar has no clear successor, and some experts expect his death to throw Shas, whose appeal has always been largely based on the rabbi’s authority, into turmoil that could jeopardize its future.

Beyond his large circles of followers and students, Yosef will be remembered by many for his sharp tongue, which became less restrained as he aged. He once famously referred to Yossi Sarid, a leftist MK, as “the devil,” recommended 40 lashes for smokers, and pilloried non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Once a political moderate, in 2010 he called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “evil” and suggested a plague should strike Palestinians. That comment earned him a condemnation from the US State Department.

But in the world of Jewish law and practice, Yosef will be remembered most for his role at the forefront of adjudicating almost every issue over a period of nearly six decades. His stance was often relatively liberal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the bar mitzvah of party chairman Eli Yishai's son, in February 2011. (photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Flash90)

It was Yosef, for example, who ensured that the widows of hundreds of IDF troops killed and missing in action in the Yom Kippur War would be able to remarry, even if their husbands’ bodies were not recovered. While some rabbinical leaders believed that there was no choice but to declare those women agunot, or women who are “chained” to a marriage because a husband’s whereabouts cannot be determined, Yosef provided the legal rationale for allowing them to remarry.

Yosef was unique among ultra-Orthodox religious leaders in his handling of the quandary of “shemita” — a Biblical precept according to which farmers are forbidden to work their land every seventh year. Observing the practice is impossible for modern farmers and would cripple the agricultural economy. Yosef supported an arrangement whereby Jewish farmers can sell the land to non-Jews, usually Muslims, putting the land officially under non-Jewish ownership and allowing work to continue. Of the range of current legal opinions on how to integrate the tradition into a modern economy, Yosef’s interpretation stands out as the most liberal.

The complicated discussions in which Yosef engaged in order to push through these and other groundbreaking decisions appear in the hundreds of books and articles that he authored, many of them based on lectures he gave in synagogues and yeshivas around the world. In 1970, Yosef was awarded the Israel Prize in Rabbinical Literature for his seminal work of legal decisions, “Yabia Omer.”

A prodigy born into poverty

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was born in 1920 in Baghdad, Iraq, and emigrated with his family to Jerusalem in 1924.

Despite the family’s poverty — and the long hours young Ovadia spent helping his father, who supported the family as a peddler — Yosef was recognized as a child prodigy by Jerusalem’s elite Sephardi rabbis. He wrote his first published Torah commentary at age 9, and at 12 began studying at the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva, where he learned Torah and Talmud with study partners far older than he and became close to the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attiyeh.

In 1937, Attiyeh assigned Yosef to give Torah lectures to members of a Persian synagogue in Jerusalem. In a pattern that would become a hallmark of his career in Jewish law, members of the congregation rejected Yosef’s teachings because he presented a legal point of view that differed from that of the famed Iraqi sage Rabbi Yosef Haim, known as the “Ben Ish Hai.” Haim, who died in 1909, was considered the premier legal authority in much of the Sephardi world at the time. But Yosef contended that the sage’s rulings were more stringent than necessary.

It was an argument that Yosef would make throughout his career. Yosef contended that for Sephardi Jews the decisions that mattered were those of the 16th-century legal work known as the Shulhan Arukh, and in his halachic decisions the rabbi would review decisions on related issues in the past to determine how the Shulkhan Arukh would have ruled on the question at hand. The final decision was often more moderate than the ones promulgated by the students of the Ben Ish Hai.

In the 1940s, Yosef penned a series of books in which he specified his dispute with the Ben Ish Hai’s point of view on each point of Jewish law. But Yosef postponed publishing the series for more than 40 years, until 1998, at least in  part because of his fears over the controversy they would engender. Indeed, several of the top Sephardi rabbis in Israel criticized Yosef for his position.

At age 20, Yosef was appointed a dayan, a judge in a religious court, and went on to head the Sephardi Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. By 1945 Yosef was known throughout the Jewish world and received daily requests for advice and guidance.

At around the same time, he became close with members of the Irgun, the armed group headed by Menachem Begin. Several of Yosef’s brothers joined the group, and some Irgun members have said Yosef himself participated in its activities, including helping Begin and others escape the clutches of British police by dressing them as rabbis. Yosef also became acquainted with other Zionist leaders, including Shimon Peres, with whom he had a long friendship.

In 1947 Yosef moved to Egypt and headed the Jewish community’s religious court. He remained there for three years, during which time he found himself at odds with lay leaders of the Jewish community, whom Yosef felt were lax in their observance. He returned to Israel in 1950.

In the early 1960s, he established a yeshiva in Jerusalem specifically to train Sephardi youth for for the rabbinate. In several of his writings, Yosef bemoans the fact that Sephardi students were forced to attend Ashkenazi yeshivas, where he felt they were considered second-class students and were trained to make legal decisions in a manner not consistent with Sephardi tradition.

A lenient religious legal authority

Yosef became the country’s chief Sephardi rabbi in 1972, and was involved in several groundbreaking legal decisions. During his tenure, large numbers of Soviet Jews arrived in Israel, many of them married to non-Jews or without clear proof of their Jewish heritage. Yosef was able to ensure that many of them were accepted as Jews, or were able to convert under the auspices of the rabbinate. In perhaps his most dramatic decision from the period, Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia were indeed Jews. As such, they qualified for assistance under the Law of the Return, and as a result, the entire community was airlifted to Israel over the following three decades.

In cases involving converts, divorce and mamzerut — the status of a child born of a forbidden union, and who cannot marry someone who does not share that status – Yosef’s position was to seek out lenient solutions wherever possible in order to protect children. On numerous occasions, for example, Yosef was asked to rule on cases in which the children of a second marriage, whose parents’ first marriage had been conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis in the US and dissolved by a civil divorce, were seeking to be married by Orthodox rabbis, in Israel or abroad.

Under Jewish law, a child whose mother was not properly divorced from her first husband, and who was born of a union with a second man, is considered a mamzer, and not permitted to marry. Yosef’s solution was to declare the non-Orthodox marriage null and void under Jewish law, meaning that the first marriage and subsequent divorce were rendered inconsequential and the children of the second marriage were therefore not born of an illicit union and their status was unblemished.

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef attends the wedding of the grandson of the Belz Rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Rokach, to Hana Batya Pener in Jerusalem on May 22, 2013. (Photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Yosef remained chief rabbi until 1983. The next year, he established the Council of Torah Sages, the body that would guide Shas as a political force in Israeli politics. The party has been a key player in almost every government since then, giving Yosef almost as much political influence as religious influence over Israeli life.

Shifting politics with Shas

The purpose of Shas, Yosef has said, is to do for politics what his yeshiva did for rabbinical students — to “restore the glory” of Sephardi Jewry. Just as the yeshiva championed “Sephardi rights” in the yeshiva world, Shas was to champion the traditions of Sephardi Jews in Israeli society.

As head of the Council of Torah Sages, Yosef was asked to rule on a number of political issues, such as whether Jewish law permits ceding land in peace agreements. In general, Yosef ruled that such decisions were the business of military experts: If they believe that handing over land will make Jews safer, then Jewish law supports doing so.

It was on that basis that Shas abstained in the 1993 vote to approve the Oslo Accords, which placed Gaza and Jericho under the authority of the Palestinian Authority. The decision cost Yosef the support of many on the religious right. By 2005, however, after the breakdown of the Oslo agreements and the terrorism of the second Palestinian intifada, Yosef’s thinking had changed, and he was vehemently opposed to the disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria that year.

Yosef often insulted those he disagreed with. One target of his ire was Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Responding to the fact that some of the Rebbe’s followers considered him the Messiah, Yosef said this was “heresy and idol worship. He has fooled those around him into believing he is a god.” (On other occasions, however, he praised the Rebbe and especially the activities of his movement in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews around the world.)

In a lecture in 2012, Yosef reiterated the religious edict against bringing cases to secular courts, calling the courts of the state “courts of non-Jews” who “hate the Torah.” In 1993, he called David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, “evil,” saying “there was none more evil than him.” More recently, Yosef called the Jewish Home party, a member of the current government that Shas saw as its chief rival in the recent Knesset elections, “a party of non-Jews” and “haters of Torah.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, left, with his father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef after results of the election for chief rabbi were announced (photo credit: Flash90)

Rabbi Benny Lau, who researched Yosef’s life for a bestselling book on the rabbi, said he admired Yosef for many years because of his bold legal decisions — but that in recent years Yosef’s legacy had been marred by the controversies surrounding his comments.

In a recent interview, Lau expressed hope that legacy could be rescued by Yosef’s son Yitzhak, now the Sephardi chief rabbi.

“Over the past 15 years, I have seen how a court has grown around the rabbi, not allowing anyone from the outside access — in essence taking control of the rabbi,” Lau said.

According to Lau, the politicians of Shas are at least partially responsible for many of the controversies, because Yosef is only responding to what they tell him. “It is heartbreaking to see how they control the rabbi,” said Lau. “I believe that Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef can truly ‘restore the glory’ of his father to its proper place.”


Child’s attacker still at large in West Bank

9-year old victim of suspected terror attack in stable condition, soldiers scour nearby Palestinian town in hunt for assailant

A 9-year-old girl, who was shot Saturday night in the settlement of Psagot, is brought to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Flash90)

A 9-year-old girl, who was shot Saturday night in the settlement of Psagot, is brought to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Flash90)

The perpetrator of a suspected terror attack Saturday on a 9-year-old Israeli girl in the West Bank settlement of Psagot has likely escaped the area, the IDF said early Sunday. The search continued throughout the day, and Psagot residents were told they could return to their normal routine, after overnight fears that the attacker was still hiding out in the settlement.

The girl, Noam Glick, was injured Saturday night while playing in the yard outside her home. She said she was shot by a Palestinian gunman at very close range.

“I went outside, and Noam told us there was an Arab there,” the victim’s father, Yisrael Glick, told Army Radio on Sunday morning. “I understood this was a security situation, dangerous to our lives, the most frightening thing that can happen to a family — that a terrorist came into the house.”

He said that he heard gunshots and was able to pull his daughter into the house. The assailant fired “three shots” at her from point-blank range, he said. By the time he emerged from the house again with his weapon, he said, the attacker had fled.

Glick said that the attacker was “startled” by the girl playing in the yard, “so instead of entering the house he shot her.”

Doctors at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek medical center said the girl, who did not lose consciousness during the incident, had sustained light injuries and was in good condition. It was “not clear” whether she had been shot or stabbed, according to hospital physician Dr. Danny Fink.

“The girl’s survival is a miracle,” Fink told Maariv Sunday. The victim, who underwent surgery overnight, had a deep gash along the base of her neck and her upper chest area and was wounded in one ear, he said. She was slated for release Sunday afternoon.

According to Noam Glick’s account, the distance between her and the attacker was basically “zero,” Fink said. “The wound does not look like a gunshot,” he added, “but there were testimonies that said there were gunshots.”

Defense officials said they believed the incident was a terror attack, but were not ruling out other unspecified possibilities.

Authorities said a breach in the Psagot fence was discovered overnight, with signs of forced entry and footprints nearby.

Shortly after the incident, Israeli forces numbering in the hundreds entered the neighboring Palestinian town of al-Bireh, where the shooter was thought to have come from. Security forces, said to include troops from elite IDF units, began the search on the outskirts of the town, near a soccer stadium, and Palestinian security forces had been called in to clear the area.

The Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported two Palestinians were lightly injured by rubber bullets in an altercation with troops that erupted during the incursion.

Shortly after the Psagot attack, shots were reportedly fired at a motorcyclist on the road between Psagot and the nearby settlement of Kochav Ya’akov. No injuries were reported. A police official also said rocks were thrown at vehicles on the road leading into Psagot after the child was shot.

Psagot residents were told to stay in their homes past midnight Saturday; those with firearms were instructed to keep them by their side. Soldiers conducted a house-to-house search of the settlement. Residents were informed via text message to anticipate a knock on the door, to answer in Hebrew, and to await identification.

Early Sunday morning, after an overnight search, the authorities gave residents permission to resume their normal routine.

Saturday night’s incident came two weeks after an IDF soldier was killed while on duty in the West Bank city of Hebron by an unidentified shooter. The culprit remains at large despite investigations by Israeli authorities. Another soldier, off duty, was killed near the West Bank town of Qalqilya that same weekend.


Rouhani, on Iranian TV in May, detailed how he broke nuclear pledge

Candidate’s interview from just before his election gets fresh attention as West seeks to judge Iran’s credibility ahead of new negotiations

n a video clip now gaining fresh attention as the international community seeks to assess his credibility, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani bragged on Iranian state television just four months ago that he and the regime utterly flouted a 2003 agreement with the IAEA in which it promised to suspend all uranium enrichment and certain other nuclear activities.

Rouhani, who was being interviewed by Iran’s state IRIB TV (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) on May 27, less than three weeks before he won the June 14 presidential elections, was provoked by the interviewer’s assertion that, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-5, “everything was suspended” on the nuclear program under his watch.

Smiling but evidently highly irritated by the suggestion, Rouhani called it “a lie” that only “the illiterate” would believe, and said that “whoever is talking to you in your earpiece” was feeding false information. He proceeded to detail how Iran, in fact, had flagrantly breached the October 2003 “Tehran Declaration,” which he said “was supposed to outline how everything should be suspended.”

Although Iran issued a joint statement with visiting EU ministers in October 2003 setting out its pledged obligations under the Tehran Declaration, in practice, Rouhani said in the interview, “We did not let that happen!”

The interview, conducted by Hassan Abedini, was one in a series of shows in which the presidential candidates were questioned by the widely watched channel. The TV station is closely controlled by loyalists of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Rouhani clearly felt the imperative to underline that he was no Western pushover.

Far from honoring the commitment, in which Iran said “it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities,” Rouhani told the interviewer that all Iran did was merely suspend “ten centrifuges” in the Natanz enrichment facility. “And not a total suspension. Just reduced the yield.”

Unimpressed, interviewer Abedini asserted that work had been suspended at the UCF — the Uranium Enrichment Facility at Isfahan. Quite the contrary, Rouhani countered, detailing the completion of various phases of work at Isfahan under his watch in 2004 and 2005. He went on to state proudly that the Iranian heavy water reactor at Arak was also developed under his watch, in 2004.

“Do you know when we developed yellowcake? Winter 2004,” Rouhani went on. “Do you know when the number of centrifuges reached 3,000? Winter 2004.”

Incredulous at the notion that Iran had bowed to international pressure and halted nuclear activities in that period, Rouhani asked the interviewer, “We halted the nuclear program? We were the ones to complete it! We completed the technology.”

He clarified that this was not his solo success, but was rather thanks to the work of “our valuable nuclear scientists. Our beloved ones. We kiss their hands.” But he stressed, “We were the first to initiate this. By ‘we,’ I mean the whole government, not Hassan Rouhani. By we, I mean the supreme leader. We were all hand in hand. That is why the supreme leader in his speech of November 11, 2003, said that in those negotiations, the conspiracy of Washington and Israel was shattered.”

Iran had taken “the correct stance [in the nuclear talks], without submission and coercion,” he said.

Rouhani then again attacked the interviewer, and “the guy who talks into your earpiece” for allegedly misleading viewers, to which Abedini replied: “I have read your book from cover to cover, twice.”

“Good job,” retorted Rouhani. “Then read it for a third time, Mr. Abedini. This is how we completed the nuclear enrichment program.”

In his speech to the UN General Assembly last week, and in a succession of other statements and inteviews, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged that Rouhani, in his current outreach to the West, is misleading it by professing a willingness to negotiate over the nuclear program. Netanyahu warned the international community not to be “fooled” by Rouhani as it enters new diplomatic negotiations set to start next week.

As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, Netanyahu said at the UN, Rouhani “masterminded the strategy which enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smokescreen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing rhetoric.”

Netanyahu then quoted from Rouhani’s 2011 book, in which he wrote, “‘While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan.’ Now, for those of you who don’t know,” Netanyahu explained, “the Isfahan facility is an indispensable part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That’s where uranium ore called yellowcake is converted into an enrichable form. Rouhani boasted, and I quote, ‘By creating a calm environment — a calm environment — we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.’ He fooled the world once. Now he thinks he can fool it again.”

In Rouhani’s address to the UN, on September 24, the president said “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region,” and offered “to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks” over the nuclear program, “to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.” At the same time, he warned, “Nuclear knowledge in Iran has been domesticated now and the nuclear technology, inclusive of enrichment, has already reached industrial scale. It is, therefore, an illusion, and extremely unrealistic, to presume that the peaceful nature of the nuclear program of Iran could be ensured through impeding the program via illegitimate pressures.”

Female Palestinians take to the sky in futile Palestinian PR stunt

Four Palestinian recruits said to be first Arab women to undergo parachuting training

The Palestinian Authority may not have any combat jets or control over its airspace, but it does have female paratroopers ready to leap into the void upon command.

Four young recruits belonging to the PA’s National Security apparatus recently took part in a parachutists course in Russia. In an interview with official Palestinian TV, two of the women spoke of their training as part of the women’s special unit in the National Security, including 30 Palestinian female recruits.

Lieutenant Colonel Hefez Al-Rifai told the channel that the training in Russia was the first time in history that female Arab soldiers underwent parachute training, according to a MEMRI transcrpit.

Lara Abu-Kuweik told Palestinian TV that she joined the special unit seven months ago in order “to make a change.”

“Women are not just administrators, they can also operate in the field in combat positions. Combat is not the monopoly of men; we can also do what men do,” Abu-Kuweik, who broke her leg on the third jump out of the plane, told the channel.

“It was a bit like dying,” she added. “We were prepared to die in order to bring pride to our nation.”

The National Security apparatus was created as part of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1994 to constitute the PA’s paramilitary security force. It is trained and funded by the United States.