Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel's most influential ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders who presided over the Shas political party, has died. He was 93.
Yosef died Monday at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. He had been treated in recent weeks for a series of medical conditions, including problems with his back, heart, kidneys and lungs.
Strict but pragmatic, the authoritative rabbi held sway over several hundred thousand observant Sephardic Jews, who adhered to his rulings and teachings on marriage, politics and other topics.
Yosef's public impact extended far beyond his immediate constituency, and he had a hand in selecting several prime ministers and shaping many of Israel's coalition governments, though not the current one.
His passing leaves a leadership void that will test the remaining Torah Sage Council, his movement's governing body. It also comes at a challenging time for Shas lawmakers, who for the first time in a decade have been left out of the government and are now locked in a political battle to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition from passing legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army.
Before he died, Yosef helped lead the campaign to block the bill, condemning those behind it as anti-Jewish and calling on his followers to leave Israel if the measure became law. Earlier this year the Knesset gave preliminary approval to the legislation.
In his later years, Yosef was known for his provocative, often embittered statements. In 2010, he said non-Jews were "born only to serve us. Without that, they would have no place in the world — only to serve the people of Israel."
He frequently criticized Palestinians and said in 2010 he hoped God would smite them with "a plague," adding that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should "vanish from our world." The remarks drew strong international condemnation, including from the U.S. State Department.
Born in Baghdad on Sept. 23, 1920, Yosef moved with his family to Jerusalem at age 4. Despite having to work to help support his family, the boy's passion for Torah scholarship quickly stood out. By 17 he'd taught his first religious class. At 20 he was ordained as a rabbi.
Considered a prodigy and an individual thinker, Yosef grew into a renowned scholar and respected religious authority with a reputation for an encyclopedic memory. He served as rabbi to the Jewish community in Cairo in the 1940s and became Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi in 1973. The embroidered robe of that office remained his signature dress for decades later, along with the tinted eyeglasses he wore for medical reasons.
Early on, Yosef showed a tendency for bold, nonconformist rulings. While sticking to the written word, he often favored leniency over rigid conventions. Another trademark was his lifelong dedication to seeking to restore the independence and primacy of Sephardic Halakha, or Jewish law, that had long deferred to Ashkenazi rulings and customs. Ashkenazi Jews originated in Europe; Sephardic Jews come from the Middle East and North Africa.
His religious career merged into national politics in the 1980s with the formation of Shas, a movement that sought to revive Sephardic pride in traditions and ways trampled by Israel's melting pot and to reconnect the country's nonreligious Jews to tradition. His emphasis on welfare rights won the movement support among the growing numbers of the country's disaffected and poor. But critics said his call for adherence to a strict religious way of life often kept his followers poor and dependent on government support.
Headed spiritually and politically by Yosef, Shas became a powerful political force, a member of nearly every ruling coalition in the last three decades, on both ends of the political spectrum. At the peak of its power in 1999, Shas controlled 17 seats in the 120-member parliament. The party long favored key government positions that helped serve its backers, such as the Housing and Interior ministries.
Yosef's Shas was instrumental in key developments in recent decades. Yosef's ruling that it was religiously permissible under certain circumstances to give up some West Bank land — which some Israelis claim as part of "Greater Israel" — provided political cover for the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s.
Sharp of mind and tongue, Yosef gave weekly lessons that were extremely popular, and many pious Jews who shunned television for religious reasons put up satellite dishes just to receive his broadcasts. These sermons drew both crowds and headlines as his verbal barbs lashed out at staunch secular politicians and liberal leaders, wishing them strange deaths and primal punishments.
Foreign leaders did not escape his tongue, either. Hurricane Katrina, he said, was the punishment of George W. Bush for supporting Ariel Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which Yosef opposed.
Yosef's wife, Margalit, died in 1994. He is survived by 10 of his 11 children and several dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun