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)

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)

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 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.”