Before his passing in 2013, I didn’t know much more about Rav Ovadia Yosef than he always wore sunglasses, and that he was the spiritual head of the Israeli political party Shas, that served the interests of the frum Sephardi world.
After his death, more than 850,000 turned out for his funeral in Jerusalem, temporarily closing the capital down. I happened to be on one of the last buses headed out of Jerusalem just before the funeral, and all the way down to the Mevasseret turnoff, there was one coachload of mourners after another, coming to pay their last respects.
In the weeks that followed, even the secular papers were full of stories recounting Rav Ovadia’s selflessness, generosity, kindness, humility and vast Torah knowledge. Over the course of his lifetime, Rav Ovadia had been a staunch defender of the Torah world, and particularly the needs of his Sephardi brethren, and his sometimes uncompromising idealism had earned him a lot of enemies and detractors, particularly in the political sphere.
Much slander had been spread about the Rav in his lifetime, but when almost a million people made the effort to turn out for his funeral, it finally put those lies to rest, as story after story surfaced about how the Rav had sacrificed so much of his time, effort and even own meagre funds to help his fellow Jews.
Often, they were people who had been at the lowest rung of Israeli society – new Sephardi immigrants, who often arrived penniless from their Arab home states, and then found that the virulently secular Ashkenazi ruling elite in Israel was not exactly pleased to have a bunch of poor, religious people turn up on their doorstep.
It’s an article for another time, but the Sephardim faced a great deal of antagonism and outright abuse from the Israeli establishment, who went to great pains to tear them and their children away from their ‘primitive, outmoded’ religious traditions.
Into this chaotic swirl of hardship and suffering, stepped Rav Ovadia Yosef. Rav Ovadia’s own family had immigrated to Israel from Iraq around the turn of the century. His father has brought a fortune with him, but was swindled out of it by a dishonest business partner, plunging the family into crushing poverty.
Even though Rav Ovadia was a childhood prodigy in Torah learning – regularly learning with – and teaching - men more than three times his age, at the tender age of 10 – his family’s financial circumstances forced his father to pull his precocious son out of the Porat Yosef yeshiva in the old city, to come and help him with his grocery store.
When his teachers found their star pupil missing, they went to visit the father to enquire why. Once they realized what the problem was, one of Rav Ovadia’s rebbes told his father that he would work in the young prodigy’s place, for 2 hours a day, only his son’s learning shouldn’t be interrupted.
Even though his star started rising from a very young age in the Torah world, life was anything but easy for young Ovadia, and his new bride Margalit, who he married in Jerusalem in 1944, as the devastation of World War 2 was finally starting to wind down.
The Rav moves to Egypt
For the first 20 years’ of their married life, the Ovadias lived in abject poverty, barring a 3 year stint when Rav Ovadia accepted the post of deputy Chief Rabbi in Egypt, between 1947-50.
The Ovadias moved around frequently during that time, spending a few years in Petah Tikvah, and also in Tel Aviv, where Rav Ovadia started to gain much wider fame as the Sephardic Rav of Tel Aviv.
Everywhere he went, he continued to study Torah at every opportunity, to teach Torah to anyone who wanted to learn, and to try to improve the lot of the Sephardim in Eretz Yisrael. By the time Rav Ovadia become the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, at the age of 62, he’d already accomplished more than most people achieve in twenty lifetimes.
A true 'man of the book'
By the end of his life, Rav Ovadia had authored more than 50 books of halachic responsa, and he’d became the undisputed Torah decisor of the generation. His approach to making a ruling was to comb through all the many different sources available, find a consensus approach, and then to apply that logic to present day issues and difficulties.
While Rav Ovadia’s approach to Torah was one of impeccable scholarship and respect for halacha, his responsa were characterized by compassion and wherever possible, leniency. He tried to make the Torah as easy for people to follow as possible, without ever compromising it – which was not an easy feat, especially in a world where pressure was mounting to find ‘solutions’ to things like insincere conversions, illegitimate children (not children born out of wedlock, but children who were the result of an adulterous relationship etc), and agunot, or ‘chained’ wives, whose husbands had either disappeared or were refusing to give them a get.
As each challenge was presented to Rav Ovadia, he went back to his 40,000 books (most of which he knew by heart) and poured over them until he found an halachically-acceptable response. But he wasn’t just dealing with dry laws, he was dealing with people, and he felt the pain of those who turned to him for help and clarity acutely.
Biographies of Jewish leaders are nearly always inspiring and uplifting, but often also a little unreal and ‘too perfect’. There’s an understandable tendency to gloss-over their challenges and personal difficulties, and to magnify their almost super-human achievements. Rav Ovadia was so well-known, and his battles were so often fought in the public arena, that in many ways, his biography just levelled the playing field by telling us more about his tremendous achievements and abilities.
He wasn’t just the sunglasses-wearing leader of Shas; he was a man who from his early youth literally put everything he had on the line to further the cause of Torah in Eretz Yisrael, and to help out his fellow Jew. But his message to the next generation was clear: Don’t think that only an ‘Ovadia Yosef’ can make such a big difference to the world! Every Jew can do the same, if they only want to enough.
Whisper it quietly, but I actually really enjoyed this Artscroll Biography of Rav Ovadia – so much so that I finished it in one sitting. I didn’t come away feeling bad that I don’t know 40,000 Torah books by heart, or that I’m not ‘gadol hador’ material. I came away knowing that every single Jew can make a massive difference in the world, including me. And that’s something that every single one of us occasionally needs reminding about.
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