Followers of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef mourn outside his home in Jerusalem on Monday. The rabbi, who transformed his downtrodden community into a powerful force in Israeli politics, died at age 93.
Followers of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef mourn outside his home in Jerusalem on Monday. The rabbi, who transformed his downtrodden community into a powerful force in Israeli politics, died at age 93. Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israel is mourning a legendary political and spiritual figure, after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef died in Jerusalem on Monday. He was 93.
The longtime spiritual leader of Sephardic Jews, Yosef also was a founder of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox political party that has played crucial roles in governing coalitions. The daily Haaretz called him a "kingmaker of Israeli politics and Jewish law."
In a statement expressing "deep sorrow" over Yosef's death, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "the Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation."
"I very much appreciated his convivial personality and his directness. In my meetings with him, I always learned very much," Netanyahu added.
Widely acknowledged as a religious scholar, Yosef gave a sense of unity and political purpose to Israel's large community of Jews who come from Arab or North African backgrounds. The rabbi was born in Baghdad in 1920, and his family moved to Jerusalem when he was a little boy.
The New York Times gives us a sense of the man:
"Clad in his distinctive uniform of turban, gold-embroidered robe and dark glasses, Rabbi Yosef embodied a particular blend of religion, tradition, populism and ethnicity. As the leader of a Sephardic council of Torah sages that founded Shas in the early 1980s, he harnessed the underdog sentiment of many non-European Israeli Jews, restored their pride and turned them into a potent political force."
Yosef made a striking impression on his country's political scene in the early 1990s, when he declared that under Jewish law, Israeli officials could cede land in a peace agreement if the move would protect lives — an issue that has been the subject of heated debate. When the Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinians came up for a vote in 1993, Yosef's Shas party abstained, aiding its passage.
In later years, he was widely seen as becoming more conservative in his views. And the outspoken rabbi also famously called several other leaders "evil" — including Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas.