5 of Ovadia Yosef’s most significant halachic rulings

Ethiopians, converts and ‘chained women’ among the beneficiaries of late Sephardi spiritual leader’s innovative, lenient decisions

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died Monday at 93, was a revered halachic scholar whose rulings found solutions for Jews caught in complex situations, brought countless Jews back to Torah observance, and unified the diverse Sephardi community.

Here are five of his most significant halachic decisions.

1. Freeing the chained widows.

Serving as Sephardi chief rabbi after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, IDF General Mordechai Piron asked Yosef for help in finding a solution for the nearly 1,000 women whose husbands were missing in action, presumed dead. If proof of death were not found, the women would be agunot –– “chained” to their marriages and ineligible to remarry under Jewish law.

Yosef created a religious court whose mission it was to find grounds in halacha — Jewish law — for freeing these women. His team worked tirelessly, traveling around the country to interview soldiers and delving into the depths of Jewish teaching on marriage and divorce. In one case, the Forward reported, an unidentified soldier’s body was found with a wedding band. The date inscribed on the ring matched one of the widow’s wedding dates, and Yosef ruled that that was sufficient reason to conclude the body was that of her husband.

Despite serious halachic challenges, by 1976 Yosef had solved all of the aguna cases stemming from the war.

“I am aware of the way of some scholars in our generation,” wrote Yosef, “a way of light, of fleeing from every doubt in the world so that they will be able to present a clear and decisive halachic ruling to the point that it is incontrovertible; and indeed their way is good and honest in all other teachings, but when it comes to the aginut of a woman, I do not take the same approach, I only follow in the path of our early and late rabbis, who sought other sides and other sides of sides with all their might in order to be lenient in the matter of the aginut of a women.”

2. Recognition of Ethiopian Jews.

Yosef was known as a defender of Ethiopian Jewry. In 1973, Yosef, then Sephardi chief rabbi, ruled that the community was Jewish according to halacha, paving the way for other religious authorities to recognize them as well. In the wake of his ruling, Ethiopian Jews were deemed eligible to immigrate to Israel.

He integrated many Ethiopian children into the Shas party’s school system, and blasted the segregation of Ethiopian students in a Petah Tikva school. “Anyone who refuses to accept Ethiopians should get up and head home,” Yosef said.

3. Permitting trading land for peace.

Yosef held the opinion that land should be traded for a sustainable peace due to the supreme religious obligation of pikuah nefesh, preserving human life. Israel has a duty to safeguard its citizens, Yosef reasoned, and if trading land could avert war it must be done to save the lives that would otherwise be lost in conflict.

In 1979, when a peace deal with Egypt was under consideration, Yosef gave a speech in which he declared:

“If the heads and commanders of the army, together with the government, state that the saving of lives is involved; that if areas of Israel are not given back, the danger exists of immediate war on the part of our Arab neighbors; and if the areas are returned to them, the danger of war will be averted; and that there is a chance of permanent peace; then it seems that according to all opinions it is permitted to return areas of Israel in order to achieve this aim, since nothing is more important than the saving of life.”

Yosef maintained the same point of view throughout the years and his Shas party was a part of the Rabin government that signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Although the party abstained from voting in favor of the deal, by not voting against it they ensured that it achieved a Knesset majority. However, Yosef opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza because he believed the unilateral move would not bring an end to terror from the coastal enclave.

4. Recognition of military conversions.

In January 2011 Yosef wrote a halachic ruling that recognized thousands of IDF conversions of non-Jewish soldiers that were performed outside of the framework of the Chief Rabbinate, the body overseeing conversions.

The ruling ran counter to the findings of a special committee that had been set up to look into the validity of IDF conversions. The issue had significant political implications at the time as the Yisrael Beytenu party had drafted a bill to recognize the IDF conversions against the wishes of Shas, which argued that the bill would disrupt the status quo by weakening the Rabbinate. Yosef’s ruling envisioned adjusting the IDF conversion process so that its candidates could be automatically recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as well.

5. Establishing the supremacy of Rabbi Yosef Karo in Israel.

Yosef ruled that Jews living in the Land of Israel should follow the halachic opinions of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the 15th century author of the encyclopedic codification of Jewish Law, the Shulhan Aruch.

In Yalkut Yosef, a halachic work written by Yosef’s son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in which he relies on his father’s rulings, the author quotes Ovadia Yosef as saying that Karo’s opinions should by followed exactly as they are and they may not even be embellished with additional, precautionary, restrictions.

As a result Yosef was known for tending toward more lenient rulings on halachic questions compared to those of Ashkenazi rabbis who tend to strictness when in doubt.

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