The passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef speaks volumes about Jewish respect for sages and the solidarity of Sephardi Jewry
Who is more easy to identify — Leon Blum or Rabbi Akiva? Walter Rathenau or Maimonides? Max Fisher or the Rashi? Eddie Jacobson or the Baal Shem Tov?
No disrespect meant to political leaders of or advocates for the Jewish people, but the message is clear: The names that endure in Jewish history are the names of the sages of the Jewish people. One need not have read a single statement of Rabbi Akiva, studied a single ruling of Maimonides or Rashi, or heard a single tale about the Baal Shem Tov to know that they were among the major figures in Jewish history. Jews honor their sages; and not less so but more so in debating their teachings and scrutinizing their legacy.
It boggles the mind that close to 1,000,000 people (with crowds that large, who can count accurately, anyway?) flooded the streets of the Holy City and the highways leading to it on a mere four hours notice — all to attend the passing of a Jewish sage.
This was hardly the first enormously attended funeral in Israel — one need only look back to the some quarter of a million people who flocked to the funerals of Rabbis Y. Y. Kanievsky, S. Z. Auerbach and Y. S. Eliashiv — each one of them a towering sage — but the difference for the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose funeral last Monday was attended by some 800,000 people, was in the community he led.
Allowing for exceptions and the fallibility of gross generalizations, the Sephardi Jewish community in Israel has no secular members. “Religious” vs. “secular” is mostly an Ashkenazi phenomenon. Sephardi Jews may or may not be observant (though even the least observant among them still tend to keep the laws of family purity), but virtually all of them are deep believers — and deep respecters of their sages.
And there has been no Sephardi sage like the late Rabbi Yosef in hundreds of years.
His personal charisma was an expression of his staggering knowledge of Torah, of the writings of its learned savants, of the Talmud and its voluminous commentaries — all at his fingertips, all expressed in a language understandable to anyone, all conveyed with utter love of G-d. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef brought countless people closer to their Creator not only with his unique mind and talents, but with his matchless work ethic.
It is astounding how many individuals knew Rabbi Yosef, how many people heard his lectures (usually delivered with little notice and no fanfare), how many people listened to his radio broadcasts (or read the resultant volumes that encapsulated decisions in Jewish law in digestible nuggets), how many rabbinical students he ordained, how many homes he visited to persuade parents to send their children to religious schools, how many people voted according to his preferences, how many broken souls he counseled, how many court cases he presided over, how many responsa he wrote — and how many sources he cited in each one.
If someone were to land on the planet from outer space and view the activities categorized under “Ovadia Yosef,” our interstellar visitor would think this was the name of an entire government, subdivided into major branches, each with its own bureaucracy — branches such as “Judiciary,” “Think Tank,” “Publisher,” “Speakers Bureau,” “Counseling Center,” “Executive,” “Quality Control.”
It might take a while before any petitioner, journalist, student, scholar or politician could secure an appointment with Rabbi Yosef, but sooner or later he would have his appointment. One had better be prepared, because Rabbi Yosef was quick to grasp and quick to decide, He was busy, not rushed, and seemingly had time for everyone.
800,000 people at a funeral on four hours notice? The statement this makes about Jewish respect for Jewish sages speaks for itself.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News