Politicians, rabbis fight to succeed Rabbi Ovadia

Politicians, rabbis fight to succeed Rabbi Ovadia

While Shas’s spiritual leader battles for his life, the race for one of Israel’s most influential positions gets underway

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

From left: Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Aryeh Deri, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party attend a circumcision in January, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
From left: Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Aryeh Deri, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party attend a circumcision in January, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A bitter succession battle has erupted around the hospital bed of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the critically ill spiritual leader of the Shas political party and patriarch of a powerful — and well-financed — Israeli religious dynasty.

As Yosef remains in hospital in serious but stable condition, a number of prominent rabbis, among them several of Yosef’s own sons, have stepped up their efforts to assume leadership of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Sephardic community once Yosef, 93, is gone. Others, however, have tried to distance themselves from reports of such activity.

“I don’t know how people in this situation aren’t ashamed to deal with such things,” Rabbi David Yosef, one of the ailing rabbi’s sons, said Sunday. “Dealing with inheritance battles on such days is a very ugly thing… I hope those dealing with it will regain their senses and return to praying [for Yosef’s health] instead of thinking who will reign.”

On top of steering Shas, the fifth-largest party in Knesset and the political voice for many of the country’s Sephardic Jews, Yosef also heads the Badatz Beit Yosef kashrut certification organization — a business reportedly worth tens of millions of shekels.  A number of his sons and relatives serve as municipal rabbis, controlling kosher certification, and one son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, was recently elected chief Sephardic rabbi.

Since founding the Shas party, Yosef has always dictated its candidate lists for each election. Current leader Aryeh Deri and former head Eli Yishai, who are each surveying their political chances and jockeying for position, know that after his death the procedure will be different — and each is hoping to run the show.

‘I’m crying day and night. Hopefully the prayers will be accepted and Maran will stand on his feet again’ — former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar

However, it’s not only a battle over political leadership — it’s also a battle over the spiritual sway held by the rabbi. In this race, former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar is at the heart of things along with family members from Rabbi Yosef’s inner circle.

Until last year Amar was considered heir apparent, since no other Sephardic rabbi had the reputation or experience needed to become “Maran” — a title traditionally given to the head rabbi of a location, in this case the State of Israel, and what Shas voters and followers have called Yosef for years.

From a young age, Amar was considered a possible successor to Yosef, the only one outside the family. Well respected even by the more liberal rabbis in the Orthodox world, the 65-year-old Amar is considered by many an authoritative halachic figure who is fully immersed in the outside world.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, January 2013 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, January 2013 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

But his status changed when Shas decided not to fight for a second term for him as chief rabbi, opting instead to support Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef for the job. Following Shas’s decision and Amar’s subsequent decision to openly back a different candidate for the job, a rift was formed between Amar and Deri.

Now, with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death seemingly only a matter of time, the battle over the inheritance is gaining momentum — and turning public and dirty.

A report by Maariv quoted sources close to Amar who claimed Rabbi Yosef had forgiven him and asked his forgiveness for the battles of the past year, and then crowned him as his successor. The message, they said, was passed on by Yosef’s influential daughter-in-law Yehudit Yosef, who some say calls the shots in Shas.

Amar distanced himself from the report within hours, but the damage was done. Shortly after the publication, Yehudit Yosef issued a statement which made it clear the former chief rabbi was no longer welcome at the hospital room where Rabbi Yosef was being treated. In fact, Haaretz reported, some Shas officials even blamed Amar for the rabbi’s ailing health.

“They say I’m guilty of everything, I know,” Amar said Sunday night in his first public acknowledgement of the situation. “I’m crying day and night. Hopefully the prayers will be accepted and Maran will stand on his feet again. All the accusations don’t matter, if only he’d get up and be healthy.”

The report in Maariv, according to Haaretz sources, “hammered home the last nail in Rabbi Amar’s chances of ever leading Shas.” Yehudit Yosef was quoted by the paper as saying Amar “was close to being forgiven by Rabbi Ovadia, but ruined everything with his own hands and buried the chances of that happening.” If this is true, Amar’s successor as Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, could become Shas’s next spiritual guide.

Another name recently thrown into the mix is that of Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of Shas’s rabbinical council who has made some controversial statements regarding the Jewish Home party, including saying that national religious community members “aren’t Jewish.”

Reports have suggested the rabbis and politicians are building and strengthening their alliances ahead of Rabbi Yosef’s death, whenever that may be. According to various reports, Amar and Yishai are working together, as are Cohen and Deri.

The political game of thrones and the battle for control over Shas is far from over. So long as Yitzhak Yosef is chief rabbi he’ll be banned from making political decisions (at least officially), but neither Deri nor Yishai plans to sit idly by and let fate determine the future of Shas — and their own political careers.

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