JERUSALEM – The death of Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, could trigger political infighting within the once powerful Shas Party that could threaten the party’s future.
When Rabbi Yosef’s health took a turn for the worse last month, members of rival rabbinical and political camps within Shas began to leak stories to Israel’s media about who was the rightful rabbinical heir to the preeminent Sephardic halachic authority. Several Israeli media experts who regularly cover Shas say that no one will be able to fill the vacuum. One said that rivalries would “hasten the downfall of the Shas Party as we know it today.”
Sources report that Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri, appointed by Rabbi Yosef to lead the faction and who played a vital role in ensuring that Rabbi Yosef’s son, Yitzchak, was recently elected as Israel’s new Sephardic chief rabbi over a candidate supported by former Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, is ready to appoint Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef as the party’s new spiritual leader. Legal experts have publicly questioned whether he would be allowed to serve as both chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of Shas, a political faction.
Supporters of Rabbi Amar, considered a Torah giant, endorse the idea of his assumption of Rabbi Yosef’s mantle. Rabbi Yosef publicly rebuked Rabbi Amar for betraying him during the highly charged campaign to elect his son. When Rabbi Yosef’s health worsened last month, reports surfaced that Rabbi Yosef forgave Rabbi Amar after the latter rushed to Rabbi Yosef’s bedside and recited Tehillim. According to a recent story in Haaretz, however, Yosef’s influential daughter-in-law, Yehudit Yosef, told Rabbi Amar’s wife, Mazal, that her husband should stop visiting Rabbi Yosef – at home or in the hospital.
Political pundits are also speculating that Knesset member Eli Yishai, deposed as Shas Party head by Rabbi Yosef in favor of Deri, might align himself with Rabbi Amar’s supporters in order to weaken Deri’s political clout. Independent haredi newspapers and websites report that both camps will wait until after the Shloshim period for Rabbi Yosef before engaging in the expected power struggle.
Rabbi Shalom Cohen, dean of Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem and a confidant of Rabbi Yosef, has also been mentioned as a candidate to succeed Rabbi Yosef. But Rabbi Cohen’s recent comments that “as long as there are knitted yarmulkes, the [Heavenly] throne is not complete – this is Amalek” is said to have undermined his credibility. Rabbi Cohen’s denunciation of religious Zionism drew strong criticism from Jewish Home Party head and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor and Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett.