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Against the Current

Only recently, in his very last days, did Rabbi Ya’akov and his father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef become closer.

Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef

Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef
Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

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Just an hour ahead of time, it was announced via text message and radio that the funeral procession would begin at five o’clock in the afternoon, slightly more than an hour before the beginning of Shabbat.

Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef, who lived to age 67, developed pancreatic cancer a year-and-a-half ago.  The doctors gave him three months to live, but he held on much longer.  His followers understood how severe his condition was only when he cancelled a  class at Borochov Synagogue in the Bucharan Quarter of Jerusalem, where he delivered a class daily, without fail, over the course of 45 years.  It was there that the funeral procession began.

By five o’clock, tends of thousands of mourners had arrived at the synagogue.  “If the funeral had been held two hours earlier, five times as many would have come,” said participants.  “People wanted to come from the communities of Judea and Samaria, from Beit Shemesh, from the Judean Foothills, but they were afraid they wouldn’t arrive home before Shabbat, and of course “Hacham Yosef” would not have wanted anyone to violate Shabbat on his account.”

The days following his diagnosis were a never-ending race to spread Torah to the masses.  Someone did the math and found that he managed 1,600 public Torah classes in that time.  Sometimes he raced from treatment at the hospital to a Jerusalem synagogue, and sometimes he raced from his four o’clock AM class at the Cave of the Patriarchs straight to the hospital for treatment.  “I’ve got swords in my stomach,” he once said to Baruch Marzel in Hevron prior to a class—then immediately began lecturing in his unique way as if feeling no pain.

The man was a Torah phenomenon.  He was not only the spitting image of his father, not only the eldest and most knowledgeable of his sons, but also blessed with his father’s giftedness, with an encyclopedic memory of all Talmudic and Halachic sources, which he quoted with precision.

His voice also was the most smiliar to his father’s, and sometimes you didn’t know whether you were hearing his father, Rabbi Ovadya or Rabbi Ya’akov.  He also learned from his father how to speak to his audience in a simple, colloquial manner, not only in his addresses at Borochov Synagogue, but also in his classes for scholars, including even complicated topics.  He had a special talent for explaining deep, intricate matters with very simple words.

Paradoxically, it was the intellectual honesty and methodological stubbornness that he learned in his father’s home that brought about his opposition to certain of his father’s Halachic decisions.

Rabbi Ya’akov was the eldest child of Rabbi Ovadya after his elder sister, Adina.  At first he was considered his father’s natural successor, but then he became the rebellious son of the generation’s greatest rabbi, went his own way, disobeyed his father, and even was dubbed “the rebel.”

The rebellion began at the beginning of 1984.  Rabbi Ovadya put his son at the top of Shas’ list of Knesset candidates.  But then his son decided that being present at the Knesset would constitute a waste of time that he otherwise could spend studying Torah.  Those in Shas know well the story of the day of the first meeting of that Knesset session, when Rabbi Ovadya decided to go to Borochov Synagogue to teach a class in his son’s stead.  He arrived to find Rabbi Ya’akov in the middle of a class.  As the Knesset comptroller wrote with some humor, “Over the course of four years, Knesset Member Ya’akov Yosef drank one cup of tea in the cafeteria before refusing to serve another term.”

“The Army Brass Said So.  So What?”

Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef did not agree with his father’s political stances.  He opposed the Halachic ruling that it is permissible to exchange land for peace.  He also did not refrain from issuing harsh criticism of his father within their party.  After he left, or was made to leave, the Knesset, he created not a little consternation with a strident attack on the leaders of Shas for “misusing public funds, failing to report and forging checks.”

Rabbi Ovadya, the party’s founder, was quickly called in: “Everything that was said is an absolute lie.”  The son, meanwhile, did not change his opinion of Shas to the day he died, and his followers still interpret the party’s name as an acronym for “Quiet, we’re counting …”

Nevertheless, Hacham Ya’akov respected his father, both as a son and as one personally familiar with his greatness, and stated in a famous address that “little foxes” had misled his father about key information.  They brought his father generals and security brass such as ISA head Ya’akov Peri, and these figures convinced him that Oslo Accords were vital and would contribute to security—and a judge knows only what is evidence is brought before him.  Security personnel who disagreed were barred from meeting with Rabbi Ovadya by his attendants.

Unlike his father, Rabbi Ya’akov avoided serving in official state capacities.  He regarded the government with suspicion, if not with a total lack of trust.

“The army brass said so.  So what?” he said to his listeners.  “They couldn’t possibly have ulterior motives?  Political motives?”

Although he was Haredi, he developed a spiritual connection with the knitted-kipa-wearing settlers who burst into Judea and Samaria, suddenly establishing new points of settlement.  Possibly he felt such a connection with them specifically because they did not belong to the establishment.  “Orange” rebels, from members of Tekuma all the way to members of Kach and the hilltop youth, found in him an enthusiastic supporter.

He loved them because of the daring with which they settled the land, even when they stood to suffer personally from arrest or insult.  For him, daring and willingness to be pushed to the margins and swim against the current were an expression of truth and sacrifice.

Baruch Marzel says of him: “If he had gone along with the Shas line, he would have been his father’s successor; he would have been chief rabbi before Rabbi Amar; and he would have had unlimited wealth, honor and status in Jerusalem.  But he gave it all up for the sake of his own truth, he didn’t give in, and so he was persecuted his whole life.”

As tribute to him, Shmuel Eliyahu, the municipal rabbi of Tsefat, quotes the verse “Give truth to Ya’akov” (Micah 7:20), and bears witness that his way was always to insist on the truth, without personal considerations and without any political calculations.  As we were leaving the cemetery that Friday after the burial, Hacham Ya’akov’s dear friend Rabbi Yarchi of Jerusalem told of the last words in Rabbi Ya’akov’s will: “Beware of people who are not straight.”

The most visible difference of opinion between father and son was about something very basic.  Rabbi Ya’akov explained that “Abba accepted the ruling of Vayoel Moshe (by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum) with regard to the commandment to settle the Land of Israel, and if at this time there is no such requirement, as was ruled by the Satmar rebbe, who was a great Torah scholar although he took a minority position, then the entire structure on which the Torah of settlement and security was constructed has no foundation.  There is a very short distance between that and saying that it is permissible and required to give back territory in order to save lives.”

Did Rabbi Ya’akov believe, then, that it is Halahically required in the current reality to wage war even at the risk of life and limb?  This is not clear.  What is clear is that he did read the political situation differently.  To his way of thinking, it is retreat and giving away land to the Arabs that endanger lives.  In this respect his thinking was close to that of the rebbe of Lubavitch.

The gap between the father and the son widened as the years went on.  The father even began declaring his son’s Halachic rulings invalid, and vice versa.  The father permitted eating certain foods on Passover; the son forbade them as “definitively leaven.”  The feud came to a head with the Immanuel affair of 2009.  Rabbi Ya’akov stood behind his student Yoav Lalum’s famous legal petition regarding discrimination against Sephardic girls at the Beit Ya’akov elementary school in that city.  Rabbi Ovadya ruled that one who goes to the secular courts is doing violence to the Torah and has no part in the World to Come.  Rabbi Ya’akov, though, said that such a distinction between Halachic and other courts “is relevant to the rest of the world, but not to the Land of Israel, which turns the People of Israel into a unified nation.

Relationship with Rabbi Eliyahu

Interestingly, as far as the State of Israel is concerned, it is Rabbi Ovadya the father who exhibits greater closeness to Zionism and to the official organs of the state.  He ruled that one should say the celebratory Hallel prayer (albeit without a formal blessing) and leave out the downcast Tachanun prayer on Independence Day, and just a year ago taught an impressive class on what a great miracle it commemorates.

Rabbi Ya’akov, on the other hand, was agnostic with regard to the significance of the official state and the sanctity of its organs, and his doubts only grew much greater after the expulsion from Gush Katif.

The two simply went in opposite directions and managed to cross paths in the middle: different ways of thinking and contradictory conclusions by two Torah giants hailing from the same study hall and the same family.

On second thought, they did not come from quite the same study hall.  Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef was sent by his father to Rabbi Auerbach’s Yeshivat Kol Hatorah, where he absorbed Lithuanian traditions as well as Rabbi Auerbach’s Jerusalemite fervor for settling the land.

In addition to Rabbi Auerbach’s influence, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef became close with Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, his father’s great opponent in all things Judaic.  His son Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu said of Rabbi Yosef’s main pursuit:

The holy Zohar says that the redemption is postponed by the study of the Torah for the wrong reasons.  Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef was one of those who constantly study the Torah for the right reasons: to fulfill the commandments and to know God’s will.  He announced the conclusions of his Torah study without any fear of flesh and blood, despite the pressures that were brought to bear on him.  He forewent the perquisites of power that were offered to him as a Knesset member just so as not to forego the truth of the Torah.

Rabbi Eliyahu continued:

With my own eyes I saw this genius, who had the entire Torah, all its subjects, all its parts, organized amazingly in his head, organizing books in the library of the hall where circumcisions are held in the Cave of the Patriarchs.  I saw him cleaning benches before Kiddush on Shabbat morning at the grave of Shimon the Righteous.  He would pray routinely at sunrise at the Western Wall, because [as the tradition states] God’s presence never left there.  He also used to pray at the grave of Shimon the Righteous, not far from his home.

And here his what Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef said last Elul in one of his classes:

I don’t know what sort of repentance can be done by religious people who voted for Shas and caused the death of over a thousand people who were killed because of their support for the Oslo Accords.  Someone who caused the death of one person—I don’t know what sort of repentance he can do.  What can those who caused so many killings possibly do?  What sort of repentance can be done by those who gave weapons to the enemies of Israel who rise up against God and his chosen ones and say, ‘Come, let us annihilate them as a nation so that the name of Israel will be remembered no longer’ (Psalm 83:5)?

The family estrangement worsened as the years went by.  When the mother, Margalit, passed away in 1994, Rabbi Ya’akov observed the shiva period in his own home, far away from all the others.  At a massive prayer rally for his health held two days before he passed away, none of his brothers was to be seen.

His son, Yehonatan, said:

What didn’t they do to him?  They humiliated him, they degraded him, but he wouldn’t give in.  He would always quote to us Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who said that you ought to pay people to humiliate you: ‘If you knew what the reward is for being humiliated, you would run to be humiliated,’ he would tell us.  He had a great talent for explaining a complicated topic with simple, clear language that was appropriate both for high-level scholars and for simple people.  He would teach about forty classes every week, and he would call his students friends—for instance, ‘We learned with our friends,’ ‘My friends certainly remember’ …  He would share family celebrations with his students, and he distributed invitations to his children’s weddings at his classes.

Only recently, in his very last days, did Rabbi Ya’akov and his father become closer.  A few days before he was hospitalized for the last time, Rabbi Ya’akov went to his father’s house in Har Nof to ask for a blessing, generating much excitement on the Haredi street.

“You are a source of merit to the masses.  The merit of the Torah will protect you,” the elder rabbi said, then affectionately gave his son one of his trademark slaps.

Originally published in Makor Rishon, April 19, 2013. Translated from Hebrew by David Greenberg.

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About the Author: Lt.-Col. (ret.) Meir Indor is CEO of Almagor Terror Victims Association. In his extended career of public service, he has worked as a journalist, founded the Libi Fund, Sar-El, Habaita, among many other initiatives, and continues to lend his support to other pressing causes of the day.


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