Major communities around the world, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, have had memorial evenings, or dedicated a special Shiur in memory of this ’Torah Giant’ (I dislike that artscroll term, but in the case of Rav Ovadya, it’s an apt description). It would not be an exaggeration to say that after Rav Yosef Caro, the Mechaber and Beis Yosef, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Sephardim have not had a greater Chacham. I’m not sure people realise how incredible Chacham Ovadya’s Halachic expertise was. Stories abound. Yes, there were some unfortunate remarks, but in that regard, I found it very enlightening to read the powerful article from Rav Yisrael Rosen from Machon Zomet, below. A similar scenario occurred with Rav Elyashiv ז’ל. The so called “political apparatchiks” who take advantage of a Gaon, and start to control who comes to see him, his level of interaction with real world, let alone what is going on, have a lot to answer for. These Misaskim, the self-made “important ones” manage to present a fake world to the Chachmei HaTorah by hiding the world from them as they advance in age, feeding them all manner of untruth.
What about Melbourne? Chacham Ovadya was a Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. I would like to think that despite the fact that he disagreed with the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the issue of “Land for Peace” and subsequently changed that view after the Gaza fiasco, that our community could get together for an evening of Torah, in memory of his soul. 850,000 or so attended his funeral. If Melbourne, through the RCV, or the JCCV/ZFA, or the COSV or whatever, can’t or won’t organise an evening for his Shloshim, then it is a sign that we are a very disconnected and remote community. I include here even those who are normally at the fringes: Adass, and Beth HaTalmud. They know only too well that Chacham Ovadya was a once in 10 generations genius, with a Hasmada for learning, that was incredible.
R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was once sitting next to Rav Ovadya and remarked that he couldn’t find a Rashi that he was looking for. Rav Ovadya asked him what Rashi said. When Rav Shlomo Zalman told him, Rav Ovadya replied that it wasn’t a Rashi, rather it was a Korban Nesanel on the Rosh in Masechta Rosh Hashona, and opened it up to the spot.
When in his thirties, a set of defaced seforim arrived from Morroco. The librarian of Porat Yosef couldn’t make head or tale of 20 of the seforim. He didn’t know what they were, let alone who wrote them or when. Rav Ovadya looked at them, and after perusing the first few lines of each sefer, he identified 17 of the 20, including the authors and the date and place of publication.
I hope you enjoy the strident view of Rabbi Rosen (re-published below without permission) as much as I did. Much light is shed, and he speaks his mind. [I admit to some pride that Rav Rosen is also an alumnus of Kerem B’Yavneh 🙂 ]
As one who from the very beginning has spent my time on questions of the practical aspects of modern halacha, I grew up on the halachic rulings of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His image was always before me as one of the ancients – a fearless knight, with a talent to delve into realistic rulings, based on (and in spite of) his intimate knowledge of an amazing abundance of sources which sprawled over the “oceans” of halacha throughout all the generations.
Rabbi Yosef’s works contributed greatly to molding my own path into the field of creative halacha, appropriate for modern times. In preparation for ordination, in the first kollel in the Yeshivat Hesder at Kerem B’Yavne, we visited and were tested by a number of rabbis, crossing over the lines of the different sectors. Among my papers, I have Semicha – an ordination – signed by “the young one, Ovadia Yos ef, S.T., a member of the great Beit Din and previously the head of the Beit Din in Egypt” (5726 – 1966). In his own pearl-like script, he wrote, “He came before me… His name is oil poured forth (see Shir Hashirim 1:3), and he was tested by me… and answered everything correctly… Anybody who wants to can depend on him.”
Zomet Institute was founded (in 5736, 1976) during the time that the rabbi served in Rishon Letzion (4733-5743, 1973-1983). The halachic support that we received from Rabbi Yosef and from his colleague Rabbi Shlomo Goren (together with others, such as Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach) provided us with “support of bread and water” (see Yeshayahu 1:3). Rabbi Yosef’s door was always open to us. As an example, take one of our earliest developments – the “Shabbatphone,” a telephone operating on the principle of “gramma,” for the use of medical staff and for security needs. We presented i t to the rabbi and received detailed approval, which in a way can be viewed as acceptance in principle of the many “gramma” devices which followed. (Rabbi Yosef’s responsa was printed in volume 1 of Techumin, together with the approval by Rabbi Goren. Rabbi Yosef noted that he asked the advice of “Torah giants.” Thirty years later we found that the “Torah giant” whom he consulted was Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli. His reply to Rabbi Yosef was given to us from his papers, and it was published in volume 31 of Techumin.)
While the rabbi held his position in Rishon Letzion, I visited him at home now and then at lunchtime. The rabbi – with the permission of his wife, who was serving soup – was kind enough to answer the questions of the pesky visitor, in a pleasant manner and with great love for “halacha and reality.” His halachic approach, which was widely discussed on the occasion of his passing, was – and remains – a guiding light for us, together with that of other halachic experts who went and continue to go in the same path.
All of this was true until the Shas movement was formed as a political entity and entered the Knesset (5744, 1984). In a short time, step by step, the way to the rabbi was blocked for people like me, and possibly for the entire community of rabbis (or perhaps only the Ashkenazim). I checked with friends and colleagues, halachic experts and practicing rabbis, and clearly they too were not allowed to have any contact with the illustrious rabbi and author of the multi-volume responsa, Yavia Omer.
Rabbi Yosef was “locked” for many years in a palace whose doors (and the pathways of incoming information) were controlled by people with vested political and social interests. It seems to me that most if not all of his rulings which were so “revolutionary, dramatic, public-oriented, and considerate” were written in the period before all of this happened. Such matters were blocked at the time, because of the formation of the Shas movement. I admit that if the rabbi had continued exclusively on his halachic path he might well have had a funeral attended by a mere 300,000 people, similar to the number who came to pay their respects to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The additional half a million people who came were there because of his sectorial and political activities. But the world of Torah and halacha suffered a great loss…
I remember attempting to catch up with the rabbi, after he finished his term at Rishon Letzion, to discuss possible solutions for the Shabbat desecration at the “Shabbat-tarbut” (cultural meetings on Shabbat) in the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv. My efforts were in vain! Similarly, I was unable to reach the rabbi when I was encouraged by the Chief Sephardi Rabbi Bakshi-Doron to establish the Conversion Authority (5755, 1995). On the other hand, I note that as a halachic expert Rabbi Yosef had a fondness for the volumes of Techumin and kept them in a prominent place in his library. He evidently wrote comments in the margins of the books. Every few years his people allowed me a short visit in order to give the rabbi the latest volume and to accept a compliment and his blessings, but never to ask any questions about the issues that interest us at Zomet Institute.
My feeling of a missed opportunity is not only with respect to the matter of halachic rulings. It is even greater with respect to the realm of politics and the various sectors. In spite of the love that Rabbi Yosef had for rabbis and men of halacha, such men were systematically culled from the list of Shas in the Knesset. And of course this was always done in the name of the rabbi and with his approval. We can name a number of such men whom I remember now, some of them alive and others who ha ve passed on: Rabbis Yitzchak Peretz, Shalom Ben Shimon, Yaacov Yosef (the rabbi’s son), Yosef Azran, Aryeh Gamliel, Moshe Maya, and Chaim Amsalem. And there may have been others. The Council of Wise Men of the Torah, which could have included first-rate men of halacha from the Sephardi sector, is made up today of two or three yes-men who are not in this category at all. The council lacks names of prominent men with authority, and I will not name any of them here. Was it Rabbi Yosef who pushed them away, or was it politicians who have a controlling interest in the party? You can make your own guess.
The missed opportunity that is most widespread, in my opinion, is the way that the rabbi’s heart and the Shas movement were pointed in the direction of the Chareidi-Lita’i path. The ultimate proof of the failure of Rabbi Yosef to bring back the old glory and to lift up the banner of Torah of the Sephardim is the fact that most of the children of the Shas MK’s study in the schools connected to Ashkenaz and Lita…