There was another aspect to this. Politics requires the sound-bite, the crowd-pleasing demagoguery, and Rav Yosef allowed himself, as he grew older and feebler, to be used. As indeed have too many venerable religious leaders. He came out with insulting, banal generalizations about non-Jews and about Jews he disagreed with, comments he would never have made in his early days. It is a feature, again, of Israeli life to argue via humiliation and disrespect instead of ideas. Was it senility, or being surrounded by fixers and middlemen in his old age? Whatever, it remains a shadow on his legacy.
He strongly believed in the ideal of Jewish-Arab coexistence and argued halachically in favor of “Land of Peace”. Being a child of the Muslim world he, more than any other contemporary Israeli rabbi, met and got on with Arab clerics and politicians. He also understood the Arab mentality and antagonisms of the Arab Street and was skeptical about the Arab will to come to terms.
What is his legacy? There are those who say he capitulated to Charedi Ashkenazi orthodoxy in the end. It is true his sons and the Shas leadership now ape the Ashkenazi rabbis. Still he was a polymath like no other in the field of Jewish jurisprudence, an absolute giant. There is no one now in the field to compare with him. As far as his impact on the Jewish State is concerned, he helped raise Sephardi pride. But the struggle goes on. To this day, unbelievably, there is discrimination in Charedi Israel against Sephardim. There is still an excessive preoccupation with minute strictness in Jewish law and sadly political life in Israel is as disappointing today as when he entered the field hoping to change it.
There is no one who comes near to wearing his mantle. No Elisha to his Elijah. The Chariot of Israel has departed.
I have written a short book setting out my attitude to religion in general and Judaism in particular. It is an argument for a thinking, analytical religion as opposed to fundamentalism and for the combination of rationalism with a spiritual existential approach to Judaism. It is called Right or Right: How to reconcile rationality with religion and you can find it on Amazon and Kindle.
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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