Sephardic spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passes away at 93

Former Sephardic chief rabbi and spiritual leader of Shas was known for efforts to reconcile Jewish law with modernity, advance the status of Mizrahi Jews in the Israeli religious establishment and in Israeli politics and society.

Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef (Wkimeida Commons CC BY SA 3.0)
Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef (Wkimeida Commons CC BY SA 3.0)

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic-Haredi Shas party passed away Monday at the age of 93.

Yosef recently suffered from a series of health problems, specifically with his heart and lungs. He was hospitalized several times in the last month.

Yosef was a complex and not always well understood figure. He was know for his groundbreaking rulings which tried to incorporate Orthodox halachic (Jewish) law with modernity. Sadly, some of his rulings were often taken out of context and mocked by the secular public – something that almost never happened to the hardline Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox.

Yosef proved to be an even more transformative figure on issues of peace. While he made anti-Arab, anti-leftist and generally racist statements from time to time he led Shas in a moderate direction, getting the party to support the Rabin government and subsequent rounds of negotiations during the Oslo period.

Despite leading a public which tended to adopt hardline positions, and a powerful Orthodox establishment which became closer and closer to the settlers, Yosef was the highest Jewish authority to support the Oslo Accords. One halakhic ruling he wrote clearly stated that giving up parts of the Land of Israel, including Jewish settlements, is permitted when human lives are at stake. Yosef’s daughter, Adina, has also supported various left-wing and pro-peace initiatives, with the blessing of her father.

Yosef was born in Baghdad in 1920 and at the age of four immigrated to Jerusalem with his family. Ordained as a rabbi at age 20, he served in various official religious capacities over the years. In the late 1940s he served as the head of the Cairo religious court and as deputy chief rabbi of Egypt. He later served on various religious courts in Israel. In the late 1960s he became the chief sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, and in 1973, the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel. Upon leaving that position, he established the Shas political party.