In order to understand how Maran received the position as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, it is important to first understand the system of the Chief Rabbinate and the election process

Israel has two Chief Rabbis – an Ashkenazic rabbi, commonly referred to as “Rav Harashi,”and a Sephardic rabbi, who is called the “Rishon Letziyon.” From 1964 to 1973, Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman zt”l (1886–1976), a student of the great Rav Shimon Shkop and a distinguished scholar in his own right, served as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, as Hacham Yitzhak Nissim zt”l (1896–1981) led as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi.

The 1972 Elections

In the campaign for the 1972 election for the Chief Rabbinate, the Israeli social-democratic Labor Party formed a coalition with the National ReligiousParty (NRP), which represented the religious Zionist movement,  in support of Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s candidacy for the position of Rav Harashi. Rabbi Goren was an acclaimed Torah scholar who founded and served as the first head of the Military Rabbinate in the Israeli Defense Forces, and was a colleague of Hacham Ovadia during the latter’s tenure as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. Although Rabbi Goren attracted many, his uncompromising personality, along with an occasionally unconventional approach to halachah, made him a controversial figure. He was generally more lenient on halachic matters, and his rulings often clashed with the views of Israel’s mainstream rabbinic leadership. This resulted in a good deal of strife between  Rabbi Goren and several prominent figures in the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l (1910–2012) and Rav Betzalel Zolti zt”l (unknown–1982). Of particular concern to the leading sages of the time was Rabbi Goren’s lenient position concerning members of the Langer family who had been declared mamzerim by the rabbinical courts. The rabbis felt that Rabbi Goren’s election as Chief Rabbi would undoubtedly lead to their being permitted to marry regular Jewish spouses.

The gravity of the matter triggered the involvement of rabbis who normally avoided public opposition, such as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (1910-1995) and others, who publicly denounced Rabbi Goren’s candidacy. Rav Elyashiv and Rav Zolti worked tirelessly to appoint a worthy candidate to run against Rabbi Goren, until finally, in coordination with Rav Unterman, they resolved that Rav Zolti would run for the position.

It soon became clear, however, that with the backing of the NRP, Rabbi Goren was guaranteed to win the election. In desperation, Rav Zolti hurried to the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rav Ovadia Yosef and pleaded with him  to run for the position of Sephardic Chief Rabbi. He hoped that a respected sage of Hacham Ovadia’s stature, who was loyal to the approach of the mainstream rabbinical leaders, would provide a counterbalance to Rabbi Goren’s controversial positions, and thus save the Chief Rabbinate from collapse.  “In a situation like this,” said Rav Zolti, “there is no escape from the Sephardic position.” Maran adamantly refused at first, but ultimately relented due to the pressure applied by Rav Elyashiv.

Despite the efforts by several parties in the government, led by former Prime Minister Golda Meir, to prevent Maran’s victory, he won the election. And on March 15, 1973 Maran Hacham Ovadia Yosef was crowned Chief Rabbi of Israel.

The Shas Movement

In 1982, after his 10-year term as Rishon Letziyon,Maran founded the Mo’etzet Hachmei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) along with the “Shas” (Shomrei Sefarad) political party. Founding members of the Council included HaRav Shimon Baadanishelita, HaRav Shalom Cohen shelita, and HaRav Shabtai Aton zt”l (1925-2006). The Council was established to serve as the rabbinical body that would have the ultimate authority in the Shas Party.

Shas’s stated goal was “lehahzir atarah leyoshnah – returning the crown to its former glory,” meaning, to respond to what it viewed as the continued economic and social injustices committed against the Sephardic population in Israel. Under Hacham Ovadia’s leadership, along with strategic help and guidance from the great frontrunner of the Torah World, Rav Elazar Menachem Mann Shach zt”l (1899-2001), Shas focused on the needs of Sephardic Israelis, successfully restoring the ancient pride in the once downtrodden community.

Shas advocates a state run according to halachah, and actively engages in bringing people back to religious observance. The movement established its own government-funded education network called “Ma’ayan HaHinuch HaTorani,” commonly referred to as El HaMa’ayan, whose schools and programs are spread throughout Israel, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south. Over the years, Shas has provided invaluable charitable assistance to countless Sephardic Jews, and is credited with the revitalization of Torah education, observance and pride among Israel’s Sephardic population.

For decades, Hacham Ovadia inspired and strengthened untold numbers of Jews with his fiery, inspiring words of hizuk (encouragement) and mussar (admonition). He founded numerous religious schools, and held scores of fundraisers to support Torah institutions. The hacham also worked to train dayanim for the religious courts, and discretely supported countless scholars so they could continue their intensive Torah study. He would often visit the homes of complete strangers, encouraging them to follow the Torah and keep Shabbat, kashrut, and the laws of family purity. He made it a priority to uplift the hearts of Israeli soldiers, and worked tirelessly to guide them back to their spiritual roots.

Some people enter the political arena for self-aggrandizement, to satisfy the natural human desire for power and prestige. Hacham Ovadia Yosef, by contrast, entered political life reluctantly, upon seeing an urgent need and the opportunity to bring about a desperately-needed change among Sephardic Jewry. He did not relish the publicity or fame, and instead continued his tireless efforts to disseminate Torah through his writings, halachic rulings, lectures, and private meetings with people of all backgrounds and walks of life. For him, political activity was a means to the lofty goal of “lehahazir atarah leyoshnah,” restoring the glory of Torah and Sephardic tradition and bringing the Jewish people back to the faithful service of Gd.

Leon Sakkal is an inspiring author and in the process of completing his own biographical/inspirational work on Hacham Ovadia Yosef, along with several other projects on Sephardic greats. If you, the reader, have any personal accounts or photos of the Hacham, please send them to leonsak10@gmail.com.

SIDEBAR

The Day the Egyptian President Asked Maranfor a Blessing

Peter Miller

When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2012, Hacham Ovadia predicted during one of his weekly Motza’e Shabbat lectures that Mubarak would be exonerated and freed:

“And I pray, I tell you, I am praying to HaKadosh Boruch Hu that He will save Hosni Mubarek from his enemies and will plant in the judges’ hearts wisdom and understanding that his sentence will be ended out of gratitude for what he has done, and he will be found innocent.”

The hacham explained his warm feelings toward Mubarak, recounting an incident that took place 28 years earlier, when a group of senior engineers was constructing a highway in Egypt that would have gone through a Jewish cemetery. “Buried there were gedolei olam [great sages],”he said, “and if this highway would have been built, these graves would have been destroyed.” Hacham Ovadia travelled to Egypt with Rabbi Aryeh Deri and aranged for a meeting with President Mubarak. They were greeted by the President “as if we were kings,” the hacham described. He explained to Mubarak how it would be disgraceful for the dead if the cemetery were destroyed, and asked that the highway’s route be changed so the graves would be left intact.

Despite the costs involved in making the proposed changes, Mubarak agreed to the plan to preserve the dignity of those interred in the cemetery.

“After we finished,” the hacham continued, “the President asked everyone to leave the room. It was only him and me in the room, and he said to me, ‘Rabbi, my master, please bless me. I believe in your blessing.’ I put my hands on his head and blessed him: ‘May you have long days in your presidency.’ This was 28 years ago, and his reign lasted more than 30 years, which is very rare in Egypt. Baruch Hashem, the blessing was fulfilled.”

Hacham Ovadia praised Mubarak for bringing honor to Egypt and preventing wars, calling him a “man of peace” and a “friend to Israel.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it is readily obvious that the deposing of Mubarek was a disaster for Egypt. Mubarak may have been no angel, but he did what was necessary to control the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist riffraff, and provide a semblance of stability for his people.

That Mubarak sought the blessing of Hacham Ovadia speaks volumes. He may not have been Israel’s best friend, but while in power he maintained and honored Egypt’s peace agreement thanks in part to Hacham Ovadia.