Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was hospitalized in Jerusalem on Saturday.
According to his physician, Yohanan Shtesman, Yosef suffered a minor stroke. Shtesman told Israel Radio that the 92-year-old rabbi was awake and aware of his surroundings, adding that he was conversing with his doctors.
Earlier Saturday, Hadassah hospital spokeswoman Etti Dvir said that Yosef was conscious and in stable condition, adding that doctors had requested he remain in the facility for several days for observation and further check-ups. She did not provide further details on his condition.
The enigmatic, Baghdad-born Yosef is the chief spiritual adviser of the Shas party, which represents Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent.
With elections only 10 days away, a dramatic decline in his health could shake his party’s fortunes and mute one of Israel’s most influential voices.
His followers consider his decisions as binding religious law — rare discipline in Israel’s otherwise fragmented political landscape.
But Yosef’s influence extends beyond the party, which holds 10 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.
Comments from Yosef, with his trademark turban, gold-embroidered robes and dark glasses, have cast a pall over political debates ranging from whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should be conscripted into Israel’s military, to war and peace with the Palestinians.
He is known for his fierce statements that have offended widely disparate segments of society, including Holocaust survivors, homosexuals, Palestinians, and secular Jews.
The rabbi said during a sermon in August 2010 that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should “perish from the world” and described Palestinians as “evil, bitter enemies of Israel.” He later apologized for the remarks.
In 2007, he said that Israeli soldiers died in battle because they were not religious enough and said the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US suffered “because they have no God.”
In 2008, Shas under his direction forced new elections by refusing to remain in the government after then-prime minister Ehud Olmert resigned.
Olmert’s successor, Tzipi Livni, was unable to preserve a governing coalition because Yosef insisted she commit to not discussing the future of Jerusalem in expected peace talks with Palestinians.
Politicians from outside Yosef’s party often lobby for his support on tough decisions, including whether to target arch-foe Iran.
Despite his often hawkish stances, Yosef has signaled he would support Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, a territory Palestinians seek for their future state, if it saves lives.
Shas was predicted to recoup its seats when Israelis vote later in January, but the party’s fortunes are unclear if Yosef — the face of the party — remains hospitalized.
Yosef has been hospitalized with heart problems in the past.
Dvir would not say what ailment the Rabbi suffered, citing patient-doctor confidentiality. “He is conscious, awake,” Dvir said.
Shas party members were unavailable for comment because it is the Jewish Sabbath, when the devout refrain from non-lifesaving work.
Yosef is a highly respected religious scholar, often called the outstanding rabbinical authority of the century from the Sephardic tradition, that of Jews from Arabic-speaking and other Middle Eastern nations.
His insistence that Sephardic tradition is as valid as the European Ashkenazi version of Judaism spawned a religious and cultural awakening among Jews of Middle Eastern, or Mizrahi, background.
He used that influence to transform the Mizrahi Jews from a downtrodden community of immigrants into a proud, powerful force in Israeli politics. Jews who originate from Arabic-speaking countries make up nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population.
Yosef came to national prominence when he served as Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi from 1972 to 1983.
Born in the Iraqi capital in 1920, Yosef was four years old when his family moved to Jerusalem.