Israelis unite in grief over Yosef’s death
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Israelis unite in grief over Yosef’s death

Controversial views and disagreements of past take backseat to praise for rabbi’s Torah genius

Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in April 2012.  The Rabbi's approval is being courted for a strike on Iran (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)
Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in April 2012. The Rabbi's approval is being courted for a strike on Iran (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)

Figures from across the political and religious spectrums expressed condolences over the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Monday, playing down his sometimes polarizing statements and praising his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement calling Yosef “one of the most important Jewish legal authorities of our generation.”

“Rabbi Ovadia was a Torah and halacha giant, and a guide to tens of thousands,” Netanyahu said. “He worked tirelessly to glorify the Israeli heritage, and his decrees took into consideration the changes in time and the renewing situation in Israel.”

President Shimon Peres, who met with Yosef many times, including a visit in the hours before the rabbi’s death, was to eulogize Yosef at his funeral later Monday.

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 at 93.

Vocal and active even as he ailed in recent years, Yosef was hospitalized repeatedly as his condition worsened.

Chief Rabbi David Lau joined in expressing condolences to the family, saying that “we knew the goodness of his heart and his love of Torah and of others. He was a caring father to the people of Israel. We have suffered a huge loss.”

Yosef was often called the outstanding Sephardi rabbinical authority of the century. His prominence helped boost the confidence of his community, which makes up roughly half of Israel’s population but was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi — or European — Jews who traditionally dominated Israel’s government and religious institution.

Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas, a party representing Sephardi Jews that became a kingmaker in several government coalitions.

Rabbi and politician Haim Amsalem, who had a public falling out with Shas, said upon learning of Yosef’s death that the rabbi “was always a man of the Torah,” adding that “his status never changed for me… I always made sure to treat him respectfully… I greatly appreciated him.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein also spoke highly of the late rabbi, saying “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a great leader, singular in his generation and admired by tens of thousands of the people of Israel. He always stood by the weak and the downtrodden, and his decrees lit up the way for a whole generation and raised the beam of Sepharadi Judaism.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a frequent critic of ultra-Orthodox politicians, sent Yesh Atid’s condolences to the rabbi’s family.

“Yosef was one of molders of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and one of the greatest arbiters of halacha,” he said, adding that “his passing away leaves a gaping hole in the world of Torah.”

Education Minister Shai Piron, himself a rabbi, also expressed his grief at the news of Yosef’s death, saying, “The rabbi was one of a kind in his genius, his decrees and his leading of the public. The rabbi left an indelible mark on the history of the people of Israel. His halachic heritage will continue to accompany the people of Israel for many more years to come.”

Yosef could often be a controversial figure.

He made his biggest political-religious waves by ruling that Israel may give back parts of the West Bank in exchange for peace, invoking the Jewish precept that preserving life is the highest imperative. In an attack on the 1990-1992 government of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, the rabbi asked, “What have you (Shamir) done to prevent bloodshed?”

“The sanctity of life overrules the slogan of not giving up an inch,” he added.

The ruling countered decrees by other rabbis, who declared that no Jew had a right to hand over any part of the biblical Land of Israel to a non-Jew for any reason.

Gilad Kariv, who heads the Reform movement in Israel, wrote on Facebook that the movement was grieving over Yosef’s death despite “bitter disagreements.”

“These are exactly the moments when we remember that the disagreements — bitter and piercing as they may be — are disagreements within the Israeli and Jewish family,” he wrote. “In the halachic understanding and political-communal leadership of Rabbi Yosef, there were no doubtalso important periods of moderation and social sensitivity.”

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that “the people of Israel have lost a great leader today, one of his kind and a powerful leader who influenced Israeli society for many years.”

Former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, who had a falling out with Yosef in the run-up to elections for his successor, said the Jewish people “have lost what’s dear to us most,” and asked people to join the funeral Monday evening in Jerusalem.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to the report.

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