Saturday, October 12

Torah and Curses

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Rabbi Ovaid Yosef
Rabbi Ovaid Yosef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Shas party logo
Shas party logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We witnessed a great burial circus on 7th Oct 2013 when the icon of a rather twisted, macabre mix of politics and "hell and brimstone" pseudo-Sephardi Judaism, sought greener pastures. According to estimates, 850 000 people attended his funeral. Time will tell what legacy he left his followers and even further afield beyond Israel's borders in the Jewish world of the diaspora.

There is no doubt that he was a genius in interpretation of Torah and Talmud as well as being an expert on Halacha (Jewish Law). He had made some rather revolutionary rulings in his time as well as justifying the return of occupied territory for true peace in the name of "pikuach nefesh" (saving of lives). Another example is the permitting of women (agunot), whose husbands, declared missing because of Israel's wars, to remarry. He also made rulings on Ethiopian Jewry accepting them as true Jews in Israel. We can give Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef credit for these rulings. He had made other rulings that were less publicised that in the context of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism were progressive rulings.

In this article, my intention is not to write a biography but to write about some aspects of his behavior and utterances which were intolerant, lacking in tact and were down right insulting towards many Israelis and non-Jews who did not hold his world view (or lack of it).

He began his involvement in politics and became the mentor of the Shas Party, whose sole purpose was to be in the coalition of any Israeli Government in power in order to further their own partisan interests.

These interests involved syphoning some of the tax-payers' money into their own coffers for their Yeshivot (Religious schools of Torah Studies). The purpose of the Shas Party was to fight for equality of religious Sephardi Jews from North Africa and Arab countries in the Middle East, who felt downtrodden by the Ashkenazi "elite" who were the policy makers in the Knesset.

There was a great "persecution complex" amongst many Sephardi Jews. This was partly justifiable. Anyway he got a rather motley crew of ultra-Orthodox Sephardi supporters whose records were dubious. Some of these questionable characters were charismatic and they played on the feelings of many religious Sephardim, brainwashing them about their suffering and being the underdog of the Ashkenazim. These tactics were very successful and the Shas Party gained 17 seats in the Knesset in the 1999 general election.

This Shas Party has done very little to help their Sephardi supporters. Sephardi interpretation of Judaism was always tolerant and liberal in the countries of its origin. Families were close and loving and there was never religious coercion as in the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian tradition. Shas became a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) religious paradox with an increasing show of intolerance towards the secular and Arabs. This was a result of the control of the Shas Party by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

His legacy was divisive, creating polarization between Ashkenazim and Sephardim at a time when the peoples that compose Israel's Jews were a new generation that went to school together as well as growing up in the same towns.

The paradox in the Shas Party was such that its members copied the Lithuanian Haredi-style of dress and many of them were educated in Lithuanian-style yeshivot. If you look at a Haredi from Shas and a Haredi from the Torah Judaism Party you cannot tell the difference. Many Shas members were educated in Ashkenazi Lithuanian Yeshivot which is a far cry from Sephardi institutions of Torah learning. They even sent their offspring to Ashkenazi yeshivot.

On the one hand Shas members spoke on Sephardi religious issues and uplifting their communities, in practice, they did neither. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef remained their mentor and became an icon until his death. Who knows the degree of manipulation he underwent in the inevitable factional fighting amongst the various party members in their scramble for influence and power coupled with returning many "lost souls" to the macabre Shas religious fold based on the Lithuanian Haredi tradition.

Shas established institutions not for the purpose of educating their communities to have professions that were marketable but rather to be dependent on Shas handouts to keep them learned in Torah and be "Talmidei Hahamim"( clever students eternally studying Torah in their style). This created total dependence on Shas and on handouts from the state. This remains the Shas power base today for which Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z"l played an important part in achieving.

Those Sephardim who managed to reach a par with their Ashkenazi counterparts achieved this despite Shas because of their desire to progress and achieve. Shas, by indoctrination of the economically weak, by using their narrow world view to fill their coffers and increase their power base. They provided soup kitchens for their poor and social services in order to gain power. In this tactic they are no different from Hamas.
In the last decade or two, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef z"l had upset many people with his curses and hateful rhetoric against those who did not hold his narrow world view. His remarks about those who perished in the Holocaust lacked sensitivity and was appalling.

Was this an act of desperation against those whom he failed to return to the Ashkenazi or pseudo-Sephardi religious fold that he had devoted his life or desired to keep the Sephardi community dependent on Shas handouts from coalition deals? Who knows? He had made some horrible, hateful statements unbecoming of a person of his stature. Every time he did this he caused stormy reactions. He was surrounded by self-style "interpreters" stating that "he must not be taken literally and this is his way of spreading his wisdom in a rather original way". Weird but true.

In retrospect, he failed to uplift those Sephardim who were economically weak because of his world view - the enemy of the people his party claimed to represent and uplift to get them into the job market. He received funds for creating a greater Sephardi religious ultra-Orthodox community that does not work or serve in the Israeli Army. He was no progressive rabbi by any stretch of the imagination, the day he entered politics. He enlarged an already growing community of "hazera l'thsuva" - return to a fundamental, racist, religious fold.

One may ask: What has this to do with peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Plenty! The followers of Shas are hawkish and in later years Rabbi Ovadia Yosef spared no words in his hate for Arabs and non-Jews. If this legacy is followed, this country will move further to the right and its racist overtones.

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