Rav Ovadiah’s Approach
About 15 years ago, in response to some negative and rather superficial treatment of Rav Ovadiah in the media, as well as some ignorant comments made by politicians about him, I set out to demonstrate that Rav Ovadiah’s “chareidi” approach had been consistent throughout the years.
Rav Ovadiah had fiercely attacked the secular court, and the Knesset had accused him of “incitement” against the justices. The media suggested that the views he had expressed were a result of the “Deri affair.” Rav Ovadiah had also spoken out, with what seemed to be unprecedented harshness, against the state religious educational system, and once again, claims were advanced that his statements could be attributed to political conflicts between Shas and the political right. And there were other such incidents, as well.
One of Rav Ovadiah’s sons opened his own archives for my perusal, and it was quite a collection of writings. Every article about his father that had ever been published in both the secular and the religious media was now at my fingertips. Rav Ovadiah’s son trusted me enough to give me dozens of binders into which hundreds, even thousands, of documents, pictures, letters and articles had been crammed. I examined them, I photocopied them, and I returned the binders to their owner: Rav Ovadiah’s son, the rosh yeshiva of Chazon Ovadiah, who serves today as the Rishon LeTzion, Rav Yitzchak Yosef.
Informing the Unknowing Secular Public
This is a sampling of the interviews that the secular media conducted with Rav Ovadiah. At the time, he considered it appropriate to grant the interviews since, as an “employee” of the state, he had been told that this was one of his obligations. Rav Ovadiah also considered the newspapers a tool to be used to convey important messages to the public. He was interviewed by Rafael Bashan, who was known as “the national interviewer,” as well by a young journalist named Nachum Barnea. He spoke to correspondents for Davar, Al Hamishmar, Poalei Agudas Yisroel’s Shearim, and Bamaarachah, a Sefardic magazine in Yerushalayim. He also granted an interview during the Yom Kippur War, presumably with the intent of offering encouragement to the dejected public.
Throughout his life, wherever he went, Rav Ovadiah was never afraid to say the things that were the most difficult to say, even – perhaps especially – to the secular reader. The same messages that he has conveyed in his drashos in recent years – in Yazdim, in Yechaveh Daas, and in the shul near his home – were spoken to Tel Aviv and to all of Israel during his years as the chief rabbi.
“Am I a government rabbi?” Rav Ovadiah asked Rafael Bashan in an interview in 1973, immediately after his election to the post of chief rabbi. “I was elected in opposition to the government’s position!”
The establishment, in fact, had supported a different candidate; Rav Ovadiah had been elected despite the opposition of the political establishment.
In his discussions, Rav Ovadiah dealt with every issue: the Reform movement, the rabbinate and politics, yeshiva students, Torah education, kiruv rechokim, governmental pressures, relations between the secular and religious communities, and the unchanging nature of daas Torah.
Reading the interviews is an astonishing experience. Rav Ovadiah’s crystal clear, firmly held positions are a constant thread running through the decades and do not fade, despite the passage of years and the many events that occur.
The interviewers generally begin their stories by describing the room where their interviews took place. Almost all of them describe at length the overflowing bookshelves that stretch from the floor of the room to its ceiling and the towering piles of seforim on Rav Ovadiah’s table. This is something else that never changed throughout Rav Ovadiah’s life: his world and his life were always defined by his seforim.
“Rav Tzadkah Will Substitute”
Five years earlier, in 1968, after he was appointed to the post of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rav Ovadiah was interviewed by Maariv. In a special section titled “The People Behind the Headlines,” Rav Ovadiah answered the newspaper’s questions. The name of the interviewer is not recorded.
Question: “Doesn’t the rov believe that the time has come to make some changes in religion to accommodate the needs of the twentieth century, such as electricity or traveling by car?”
Answer: “The Oral Torah was always just an explanation of the Written Torah. There is no place for reforms, and those who support such changes are in violation of both the Oral Torah and the Written Torah. Once, there were sects known as the Tzedukim and the Karaites, who were severed from Judaism because they opposed our traditions. The Reform Jews in America, in my view, are desecrating the Torah. With regard to using electricity on Shabbos, I have already stated that one may use an electric refrigerator, provided that one has removed the light bulb that turns on when the refrigerator door opens, but it is forbidden to turn an electric light on or off. Driving on Shabbos is also categorically forbidden according to every halachic authority. The Torah is not like a toy in our hands for us to play with as we see fit.”
These words were printed in Maariv, the secular Israeli newspaper, 45 years ago!
One year ago, in an interview with Bamaarachah, Rav Ovadiah described the background to his candidacy for the rabbinate of Tel Aviv: “The candidacy was not my idea, nor was it my initiative. Many great rabbonim, including the rosh yeshiva, Rav Ezra Attia, instructed me to run for the position… I also saw how problematic the current situation was, and I decided to do my share in Tel Aviv to restore the honor of the Torah.” He then spoke about Yeshivat Chazon Ovadiah, which he headed. “This year, the first group of fifteen dayanim have completed their three-year program of study, and they will be moving on to serve as rabbonim and dayanim in Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora.” Even more, he answered a difficult question from Mr. Reuven Kashani, a distinguished member of the Sefardic community and a veteran admirer of his, regarding the many shiurim that he had previous delivered in Yerushalayim, whose attendees were now left feeling orphaned.
Question: “The rov is about to leave the place where he has taught Torah publicly for the past ten years, whether on Friday nights, on Shabbos day, or on other days of the week. All the people who have become the rov’s students through his drashos are both happy and pained about his election to his new post. They are happy that their rov has been appointed to a rabbonus in the largest city in Israel, but they are also pained by the fact that their spiritual leader is leaving them like a flock without a shepherd. They are asking, ‘Who will be here for us now? Who will step in to fill the void left by the rov’s departure?’”
Answer: “I know and feel the pain of the community, especially during these past few days. I have already spoken with Rav Yehuda Tzadkah, the rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef, and asked him to deliver the main drashah every Friday night. I spoke with other rabbonim and asked them to deliver shiurim in the various shuls at all the times when they were held until now. I hope, with Hashem’s help, to come to Yerushalayim from time to time and deliver some of the public shiurim, for this is a matter that is very precious to me.”
Teaching the Torah’s Values
In Tammuz of 1969, Rav Ovadiah was interviewed by Poalei Agudas Yisroel’s daily publication, Shearim. Once again, despite his hosts and his “official” position as the rov of Tel Aviv, and perhaps even despite the fact that he knew he would soon become a candidate for the office of chief rabbi, he spoke strongly about the problems of the generation.
Question: “It is no secret that the status of the rabbinate these days has been severely weakened. The rov does not hold the same authority as in years past. Should we acclimate ourselves to the current situation and give up any hope of seeing it improve, or are there ways to restore the rabbinate to the power and prominence that it once had? This is one of the questions that troubles many people, and I would therefore like to hear the opinion of the new chief rabbi, who is known as one of the foremost Torah personalities today.”
Answer: “No one will deny that the prestige of the rabbinate today is not what it once was. This is a situation that is a source of pain and sorrow to many people. We are trying with all our might and all the means at our disposal to teach people about the value of the Torah and those who study it, and to cultivate their respect for the rabbonim who are their leaders. I don’t think that we need to grow accustomed to the current situation and give up on improving it. On the contrary, we have an obligation not to despair and not to become indifferent. We must constantly build up the strength of the religion and the rabbinate. Only with a proper, realistic approach will we be able to create a dramatic change for the better. We can do this by organizing public shiurim, by having our messages heard at every opportunity, and not only by the religious public, and by having times for Torah study and teaching Torah in shuls in order ‘to show the officers and the nations its beauty.’ In this way, with Hashem’s help, we will be successful in the very important tasks that have been placed upon us.”
Question: “What is the way, practically speaking, to bring back our lost brethren, especially the youths who have become estranged from the Torah and mitzvos? How can we explain the value of Shabbos, for instance, to people who have never learned Torah in their lives?”
Answer: “I believe that the community known as the ‘secular’ public is not truly secular. Chazal have taught us that even the ‘empty ones’ among us are filled with mitzvos like the seeds of a pomegranate. We saw this during the Six Day War, when boys who were far removed from Yiddishkeit gave their lives for the sake of kiddush Hashem and the sanctity of the Jewish people. Those sacrifices showed that the sacred spark of Judaism was still alive within them, and those sparks can be fanned by the power of emunah into flames that will bring light and warmth to many Jewish hearts. We must take advantage of every opportunity and every public event in order to work to bring about a turnaround.
“With regard to your example of Shabbos, I will tell you the truth: I believe that the only way to approach this is to use the language of the Torah, to explain in a pleasant way the value of the Torah and mitzvos as an essential part of our lives, as a way to protect the nation in the perilous circumstances under which we live. The power of constant explanation is immeasurable. As for the youths, we must find opportunities to reach them through speeches and lectures that will explain everything that they need to understand in a clear and deep manner. The most important thing is for us to set a personal example in our own service of Hashem and our interactions with other people. We must reach such a high spiritual and moral level that people will not be able to dismiss us on the basis of our own shortcomings. And as I said in the beginning, we must help the people understand the light of the Torah and the tremendous ideals that are contained within it.”
Question: “In recent years, we have seen that the Reform rabbinate in America has been trying to achieve an official status in Israel. How should we relate to these events and what can we do to stave off such a tragedy?”
Answer: “I believe that the Reform movement will not attain any official status in Israel, now or in the future. I believe that even the chilonim are not prepared to cooperate with them at all right now. The nation recoils from the idea of blurring its fundamental concepts. We have seen that all of the Reform movement’s attempts to strike roots in Israel have failed. We must thwart their plans with all the means at our disposal. First and foremost, we must use our public relations and persuasive abilities against them.”
On Surrendering Land for Peace
As the interview progressed, Rav Ovadiah expressed vehement opposition to the government’s attempts to influence halachic decisions. He also spoke out strongly against autopsies, a topic that, apparently, was in the headlines at the time. Then the interviewer raised a question that went on to fill the newspaper headlines decades later. Apparently, Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s words at Mosad HaRav Kook, after the founding of Shas, had also been spoken 25 years earlier.
Question: “What is the rov’s halachic opinion on the question of annexing the newly conquered territories, a subject that has recently been discussed in many forums?”
Answer: “There are many sides to this question. If there is a reasonable chance, through international guarantees, that the Arabs will establish a genuine peace deal with us and put an end to the horrific bloodshed that has claimed the lives of many Jewish youths in Israel’s battles, then there is room to give up some of the territories, with the understanding that the blood of our youths must not be shed like water. But if there are no appropriate, reliable guarantees, then we must certainly not give back even one inch of the land that was promised to our forefathers in the holy Torah.”
The binders contained many fascinating interviews. A young journalist named Yossi Beilin interviewed Rav Ovadiah before the Yomim Noraim of 5733, perhaps as part of Rav Ovadiah’s effort to reach out to the people during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Even if a public referendum had been carried out, Beilin insists, Rav Ovadiah certainly would have been elected to the post of chief rabbi of Israel.
In that very same issue, in a large two-page spread, another journalist shares his impressions after a conversation with the rov. Under the title “Kevod Harav,” Nachum Barnea (in Davar) relays Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s account of his experiences in Egypt: “When I was caught, they asked me why I spoke Hebrew. I told them that it was the language of the Torah. They threatened me, but I refused to give in. They searched my house on several occasions. Once, they even made a surprise inspection in the middle of the night. They were looking for weapons and I showed them my library. The seforim were my ‘weapons.’”
In the interview, which took place exactly 40 years ago, Barnea asked about politics and the rabbinate, and Rav Ovadiah, who was then 53, answered pleasantly, “A rov must not be partisan. I, for example, do not belong to any party. Everyone is beloved to me.” The rov cited a halachah in hilchos shofar as evidence of his assertion: A shofar that is covered in silver or gold is posul. Barnea quotes this, although it is not clear if he fully understood the response.
Question: “Would the rov give his opinion on the subject of the territories, for instance?”
Answer: “That is a very political issue and I will not share my opinion. But a single Jewish soul is just as precious as all of the territories combined.”
Question: “What are the rov’s feelings on the subject of army conscription for girls and for yeshiva students?”
Answer: “I am completely opposed to drafting girls in any fashion, even irreligious girls. I feel that it ruins them. Yeshiva boys, since they are involved in Torah learning, give us the power and strength to fight our enemies. The soldiers should know that it is not their own power that enables them to be victorious.”
In Haaretz, at the same time, Matti Golan published a lengthy article under the title, “A New Face in the Heichal,” a reference to Heichal Shlomo. He describes Rav Ovadiah’s modest apartment in Tel Aviv and asks how the move to Yerushalayim affected him. Golan writes that the family members laughed at the question. “We are Yerushalmim,” they told him. “In Tel Aviv, we were in exile.”
Question: “Whatdo you view as the function of the chief rabbi?”
Answer: “To deal with every problem and to bring the Jewish people close to their Father in Heaven. I travel around the country a lot, and wherever I go, people tell me that the nation is thirsting for the words I speak. The chief rabbi should not be sitting in his office. He should be constantly on the road. I deliver weekly shiurim in Bat Yam, in Bnei Brak, and in Yerushalayim.”
Golan goes on to relate that he asked Rav Ovadiah if he would continue delivering those shuiurim, and one of Rav Ovadiah’s daughters interjected, “What’s the question? He can’t live without it.”
Those Who Learn Torah Aid the Soldiers on the Battlefield
Rafael Bashan was apparently the most respected interviewer in the history of Israeli journalism. He had his own unique, picturesque style. He loved using his pen to depict what his eyes saw. He introduced the concept of parenthetical descriptions. The following is an excerpt of his interview with Rav Ovadiah when the latter was serving as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv:
“Rav Ovadiah Yosef sits in his apartment at the heart of Rothschild Boulevard, in a workroom overflowing with sifrei kodesh that extend from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling. He is a man of average height, with kind eyes and a gentle demeanor, a humble man who is loved by many. Knowledgeable individuals in the rabbinic world call him a gadol baTorah, an authoritative posek, an expert in halachic matters and contemporary issues. The rov is blessed with 11 sons and daughters.”
Bashan asks about the rabbinate and quotes Rav Ovadiah’s response, which he describes as “enthusiastic”:
“I have to deliver lectures and speeches and try to influence people in a pleasant way. I have seen people who have never tasted the taste of Torah thirstily drinking in the words of the Torah and Chazal, as our novi states, ‘Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, and I will send a famine into the land, not a famine for bread or thirst for water, but rather to hear the Word of Hashem.’” Rav Ovadiah then says “passionately,” “I, for instance, habitually visit the inmates in Ramle, Tel Mond, and Massiyahu prisons to inspire them to pray.” Then, “in a storm [of emotion],” the rov says, “they davened Maariv with me with the type of deveikus that we bring to our tefillos on Yom Kippur! And when I explained to them Chazal’s teaching that ‘in the place where baalei teshuvah stand, the fully righteous cannot stand,’ many of them wept with emotion. In this country, I see a tremendous amount of yearning and thirst for the Word of Hashem. I travel to Kerem HaTeimanim, to Shechunat Hatikvah, to Cholon, and to Bat Yam, and I deliver daily shiurim in Gemara.” Raising his voice – according to Bashan – he continues, “I believe that there are people who seem to be far away, but deep in their hearts, their faith has not yet died, and there is still hope that they can be brought back to our tradition.”
Question: Does the rov support freeing yeshiva students from army service?
Answer (unhesitating): Yes. We believe that the Torah that they learn day and night helps the soldiers of the army in all of their battles, as the posuk states, “Not by the legion or by might, but rather by My spirit, says Hashem, G-d of Legions.”
In the Rov’s Home
When I read the interviews then, I grew emotional. As I read them now, after the rov’s petirah, I am much more emotional. Rav Ovadiah was a person who was so far above the people, but at the same time he lived so much for the people. It is no wonder that so many people came to Yerushalayim from all over Eretz Yisroel for his levaya, people from every segment of society. Truth, it seems, is stronger than any propaganda. The media slandered him throughout his life, but the people were his, as we saw during his final illness, and as his levaya proved.
The “representatives” of the National Religious community can speak ill of Shas, Rav Ovadiah’s creation and handiwork, but I saw many members of that community at the levaya, shedding bitter tears. They were young and old, yeshiva students and farmers. “He was our posek,” some of them told me.
To think that I had the privilege of being close to, or at least loved by, such a gaon, the leader of a Torah revolution. Many people now have said that Rav Ovadiah was much more than a father, and that is the general feeling. He loved his children, and they loved him no less.
He was an ohev Yisroel.
Despite the media, and perhaps because of their persecution.
I turn to Al Hamishmar, the official magazine of the Mapam party, the very symbol of secularism and the bastion of religious persecution. Yaakov Rabi authored an article about his conversation with Rav Ovadiah. It is hard to believe that such a thing was written in Al Hamishmar at the time, but here is an excerpt:
“After getting to know him secondhand, through newspaper reports, and even after watching him and listening to his speeches, I found that being in his presence in his home in Tel Aviv was an extraordinary experience. He is remarkable man, with a noble countenance, his eyes filled with compassion and radiating a certain sadness, his speech gentle yet fast-paced. Pesukim and adages of Chazal are woven throughout his words in a way that makes them an organic part of his speech, like precious gems inside their settings.”
Rabi asked Rav Ovadiah why, in his view, the leadership of the Torah world was dominated by Ashkenazic gedolim, while the Sefardic Torah sages seemed to enjoy less prominence. He quotes Rav Ovadiah’s answer:
“Rav Ovadiah answers me with a history lesson from the recent past, and his response is a wondrous feat of tact. ‘About thirty or forty years ago, I had the privilege of meeting great talmidei chachomim who served as heads of a bais din in Yerushalayim in the bais din of the Sefardic community. They served on a rotation, alternating every three months. All the judges were distinguished men who brought great honor to the Sefardic communities. And today, you can find outstanding avreichim in our yeshivos, between the ages of 25 and 30, whose knowledge of Shas and poskim exceeds that of those rabbonim and dayanim of that generation. True, there was a period of a certain decline in the level of scholarship in the Sefardic community, but now the Torah is returning to its home. There is a visible recovery, and the decline of the recent past may have been a preparation for an upsurge. I am filled with hope and faith that the best of our talmidei chachomim will soon take their place as spiritual leaders of the Jewish people.
“May Hashem Enlighten the Leaders”
That was Rav Ovadiah’s goal in life, and that was what he succeeded in accomplishing. The Sefardic world today is a result of his efforts and encouragement. To him, the Shas party was merely a tool to restore the glory of the Sefardic Torah world.
In 1980, Gavriel Stern of Al Hamishmar interviewed Rav Ovadiah. One year earlier, he had been interviewed again in Shearim. In 1973 and 1974, he was interviewed by Levi Yitzchak of Yerushalayim in Maariv, by Menachem Barash in Yediot Acharonot, and by a writer for Hatzofeh. Throughout all these interviews, Rav Ovadiah repeated his views, never fearful to voice opinions that might not please the readers, but he earned the respect and admiration of his interviewer precisely because of his sentiments. Rav Ovadiah refused to cut any corners or make any concessions to curry favor. He spoke against the government officials who opposed daas Torah, he cried out against religious “reforms,” he cautioned them not to accept halachically invalid conversions, and he supported dealing delicately with the Americans. He expressed his distress over the lack of Torah education in state-run schools and he lauded the teshuvah movement.
His interview with Yediot Acharonot concluded with the words, “It is my prayer that Hashem will enlighten the leaders of the Jewish people and give them proper counsel that will be for the good of the entire Jewish nation.”