Here was the man I had dreamed of: a charismatic leader of oriental Jews, a man of peace, a bearer of a moderate religious tradition.
"Rabbi Ovadia," as everybody called him, who died this week at the age of 93, was born in Baghdad, came to Palestine as a boy of 4, gained huge respect as a religious scholar. During the 1948 war he was the chief rabbi of Egypt, later he became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. When his appointment was not renewed, as a result of some obscure political intrigue, he founded a new political party, Shas, which quickly became a force in Israeli politics.
He first attracted my attention when, contrary to most other prominent rabbis, he decided that Jewish religious law, the Halakha, allows giving up parts of Eretz Israel for the sake of peace. The "saving of lives" takes precedence.
BEFORE WE proceed, let's define some terms. "Sephardic" and "oriental" are often confused. But they are not quite the same.
Sepharad means Spain. Sephardic Jews are the descendents of the Jews who were expelled from Spain by their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. Almost all of them shunned Christian anti-Semitic Europe and settled in countries under benevolent Muslim rule, from Morocco to Bulgaria.
The Ottoman Empire was based on a system of "millets," religious-ethnic communities which governed themselves under their own leaders, laws and traditions. The Jews throughout the empire were governed by the Hakham Bashi, the chief rabbi, who was, of course, a Sephardi. This was a secular appointment -- in Jewish law there is no chief rabbi, no Jewish pope. All rabbis are equal, every Jew can follow the rabbi of his choice.
When the British took over, they were prevailed upon to appoint an Ashkenazi chief rabbi too. Since then we have two chief rabbis in this country, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, each upholding the traditions of his community.
However, the great majority of Jews from Islamic countries are not Sephardis. Nowadays they prefer to be called "Mizrahim" (eastern, oriental). Still, the terms Sephardi and Oriental overlap and have come to mean more or less the same.
THE NUMBER of people who took part in the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia has been estimated at 800 thousand -- more than the total Jewish population in the country on the day the State of Israel was founded. Even assuming that this number is vastly overblown, the event was extraordinary. Jerusalem was practically blocked, the car bearing the body could hardly reach the cemetery.
All these hundreds of thousands, all male, were wearing the "uniform" of orthodox Jews -- black garments, white shirts, big black hats. Many were weeping and moaning. It bordered on mass hysteria.
The eulogies of religious and secular leaders and commentators were limitless. He was called the greatest Sephardi Jew of the last 500 years, a "Great in the Torah" whose teachings would echo for centuries to come.
I must confess that I have never quite understood his greatness as a thinker, religious or otherwise. He always reminded me of what Yeshayahu Leibowitz once told me: that the Jewish religion had died 200 years ago, leaving nothing behind but an empty shell of rituals.
Rabbi Ovadia wrote 40 books of judgments and interpretations of religious law. While Ashkenazi rabbis generally tend to make it harder to comply with religious injunctions, Yosef tended to make it easier. In this he followed Oriental tradition, which was always much more moderate (as was Islam, until recently).
Yosef allowed widows of fallen soldiers to marry again (a complicated procedure under the Halakha). He decided that the Ethiopian Falashas were Jews, and thereby enabled them to come to Israel under the Law of Return. In innumerable individual cases, he made it easier for people to evade stringent restrictions. Since in Israel large areas of private affairs, such as marriage and divorce, are ruled by religious law administered by rabbis, this was very important for secular people, too.
But a profound thinker? A modern sage? I have my doubts. As one commentator dared to point out, the new pope has, in a few months, done more to change the theological and social outlook of his church than rabbi Ovadia in his lifetime. Reform Judaism has done far more to modernize Judaism than Yosef.
BUT MY initial appreciation of and final disappointment with the rabbi does not concern religious questions.