Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Sephardi Revolutionary

Rav Chaim Ovadia Yosef, according to  the three channels of Israel Television's nearly non-stop coverage of the funeral, was buried in the largest procession in Jerusalem's history, perhaps Israel's history, when nearly 800,000 people packed into the streets to be near the burial.

 In an interview heard last night on TV,  then Ministry of Education Director-General Eliezer Shmueli was once invited into Rav Ovadia's  book-lined study. "Pick a book," Rav Ovadia reportedly told Smueli. Who dutifully chose a book from the thousands on the shelves. "Now open it to any page." Shmueli did. "Now put your finger on a line." Shmueli did. "Now tell me the name of the book." Shmueli did. And Rav Ovadia then recited the line word for word.

During another interview Israel's President Shimon Peres spoke of Ravi Ovadia's amazing memory. Another interviewee recalled how, late in life, nearly blind, Rav Ovadia could pass the eye exam in the optometrist's office. How? He'd memorized the eye chart.

Shas leader Ariah Deri spoke of how Rav Ovadia had risen to prominence, starting at the age of 12 when he'd written his first book. The head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva had come to Rav Ovadia's father, who ran a grocery store, and said that rather than put the young student to work in the grocery store, the Rosh Yeshiva would work there and let the genius study.

Rav Yosef, according to Deri, rose to prominence, from Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv to Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel, and then fell from grace when the government, in a move to shorten his term as Chief Sephardi Rabbi, changed the rules, cutting the job down from a life-time appointment to one limited to a certain number of years, that had already passed. Out of work, Rav Ovadia retreated to his study, along, ignored, and depressed.The phone was silent. Invitations to speak, to meet with Israel's leaders, to speak at important events, no longer arrived. All that had stopped, dead in the water, like an ocean liner adrift without an engine. The only one to keep him company was Deri, a close friend of Rav Oavadia's son from the time  the two had been in Hevron Yeshiva together. During these long sad evenings Rav Ovadia decided to form a political party. Thus Shas was born, so that Rav Ovadia could continue to have influence on the Sephardi community, and lead them on the way to Torah. Between the lines it was clear Rav Ovadia missed the limelight. The invitations to important events, and the kavod.

Shas luminary, former Minister of Housing Ariah Atias, had a gleam in his eye when he told of how Shas, once the foundling child of Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox leader Rav Shach, had risen in prestige and power to the point that the "Ashkenazim" were now coming to Shas, rather than the Sephardim seeking favors from the Ashkenazim.

During the long evening of eulogies, some spoke of Rav Ovadia in glowing terms, citing his brilliance, his modesty, his devotion to Torah. But a few said that the circus surrounding his funeral would have pleased the great rabbi, bringing even his death to a position of prominence. Indeed, Rav Ovadia unified the Sephardi community, brought honor back to their heritage, gave them power, money, and position. Some said that's all Rav Ovadia was really interested in. While Shas was a major player on Israel's political stage, Rav Ovadia's minions established a government within a government, funneling state funds to poor Sephardi families, through patronage jobs, free schooling, free day care, and other methods, while nudging the followers to a path of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Aryeh Deri's hand could be seen guiding Rav Ovadia during the dark days when the rabbi had been stripped of power. How easy to manipulate a once powerful man who had fallen on hard times, whispering in his ear how power could be had by starting their own political party. Not by accident Deri became the leader of Shas, and by guile, charisma, and intelligence, turned the party into one that commanded enormous power, providing knee-bending respect to Rav Ovadia. More than one Shas follower mentioned the leaders of Israel who came seeking the rabbi's blessing. This from a man who had been dismissed like an ornery servant who had forgotten his place at his master's table.

Rav Ovadia brought pride back into the Sephardi community, and while Shas is no longer the powerhouse it once was, there is no turning back. Much as Obama represents the African American community that rose to power, Shas represents the coming of age of the Sephardi community. And Rav Ovadia was the guiding force, even if only as a figure-head, of that revolution.