The Paradox that was R. Ovadia Yosef z”l
What was the secret of the charm of Rav Ovadiah Yosef?
On the one hand there were his fans and followers through fire and water who related to every word of his as holy; yet on the other, a whole swathe of Jews who saw him as a leader whose statements were hurtful and communally insensitive?
How is it possible that there can be those who saw him as a great leader who established the tent of the Torah, and others who saw him a leader of a crowd of primitives?
How can it be that a man of phenomenal intellect and superlative expertise in all areas of Judaism, failed again and again by shaming and slandering other leaders?
A simple solution would be to differentiate between the person and the knowledge. This we learned from Plato: a knowledge of good and evil is no guarantee of moral conduct. A person can morally stumble on purpose or by mistake, and all his knowledge will be of no use.
Or perhaps it’s just about character? We might say that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was argumentative by nature, which forced him to behave in ways that he could not control.
Yet this solution is problematic for a few reasons: a) because a Halachic judge of the stature of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was asked to address terribly personal issues, and his reputation as a Torah Great was built in no small measure on his ability to hear the cry of the weak and the weeping of the oppressed: acceptance of agunot and the illegitimate, recognition of the Jewish status of Ethiopians, and acceptance of those who do not keep Torah or Mitzvot into the Jewish world. So it would be hard to say that the man was morally insensitive or unaware of vulnerabilities. b) Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had a sharp political resourcefulness, and a deep understanding of the public: He was aware of the power of the word, and while his disciples worked hard at explaining his curses metaphorically, he himself never bothered to apologise for his statements – which suggests that he did not see the need.
For those who believe that the world is divided between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, and that there is an enlightened camp and a primitive camp – there is no issue here. But to one who knows well the world and work of this wise man – these explanations explain nothing at all.
I should like to suggest that an understanding of the problem lies in the mixing of religion and state: Rabbi Ovadiah’s utterances always appear in the context of political rivalry, out of a sense that the Torah institutions under his political protection were under threat. Statements about Yossi Sarid, Shulamit Aloni, The Jewish Home or the Reform Movement were made in the context of political power and not in a discourse of values.
In his thinking there was no place for secularization or for secular Judaism, but the Rabbi in him would always try, against his own better judgment, to bring this population closer and even open up revolutionary halachic concepts to do so.
But whenever it came to questions of power and control, of votes and budgets – the language of Halacha was abandoned and replaced by the language of competition and mudslinging. And since his strength was in words, so he would mobilize them for his political needs.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will not be remembered as one who developed dizzying messianic ideas, nor as one who used mysticism and the supernatural to establish his authority. He will be remembered as a realistic and pragmatic giant of Torah whose open and lenient halachic legacy was swallowed up by his divisive and severe political world.