With Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s passing, a long chapter in our nation’s history seems to have been sealed, an era of individual halachic decisors (similar to the eras of the Tannaim or Geonim). Rabbi Yosef was the last man who could single-handedly carry on his shoulders a halachic ruling in the deepest sense: a determined stance on fateful issues and decisively passing judgement.
Releasing thousands of women stuck in unwanted marriages by husbands who could not or would not grant divorces (ruling on the limits of life and death, and of family relationships), giving approval for groups that were historically outside the Halachic mainstream, such as Ethiopian Jews and Karaites, to marry other Jews (distinguishing the borders of peoplehood). These things could only by done by someone for whom Halachah serves life and not the other way around, whose religiously observant shoulders are broad, able to carry the ancient burden of our people as expressed through Halachah, which, as journalist and critic Adam Baruch once defined it, is the “subconscious of Judaism.”
Contrary to the exclusively sectarian appearance lent to the funeral by certain politicians, the event was actually spontaneous and national. The hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life who attended imbued the funeral with that national quality — as well as the millions who watched it on television or took an interest in it. This is how the nation treats its great figures, especially those whose greatness stems from tradition, in other words, rooted in the historical and cultural Jewish tradition of “great.”
The media predictably succumbed to the immediate association of Yosef with his political function. Some commentators even condensed his enormous religious enterprise into a single ruling of a political nature. But from a historical distance, no one will remember Shas, while the figure of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will rise high above the prattle of media personalities or the jabber of ignoramuses (even though they are famous) who felt threatened that he became a national symbol when they saw him as just a religious leader.
Rabbi Yosef’s political associations will not stand the test of time. What will remain is his stature as the central link in the chain of Jewish law in the 20th century, and probably in previous generations, going all the way back to Rabbi Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch (the great codex of Jewish law) in the 16th century.
For all of us — even those of us who are not versed in Halachah — this is a profound and essential part of our complex identity, which comprises traditional culture, our ethos, our philosophy and especially our way of life. It consists of our conduct and our law, which were passed on from generation to generation and which largely shaped our nation.
This tradition bonded us and carried us through the Valley of Death of so many other nations, when we scattered to the four corners of the earth. Even in another 500 years, Rabbi Ovadia …read more