What is a rabbi? A rabbi is a Jewish priest, kind of. A better comparison would maybe be that a rabbi is a lawyer of Jewish law. His education is to know how to interpret Halacha, the codex of religious laws. Orthodox Jews only recognize males as rabbis, while Conservative and Reform Jews also ordain women.
The five books of Moses, which we call the Torah, tell the story of the beginning of our religion. This is a theological statement, not a scientific one. For a religious person, it doesn’t matter if the text doesn’t rhyme with science. The significance of the text is in it’s relevance to one’s life. Just like there is no point trying to understand how to live your life from reading the Periodic Table, the merit of a holy text lies not in its scientific provability.
The Jewish way of reading the Old Testament is to look what the author (whom we call god) wants us to learn from the text, not in general but in very specific terms. The Torah is a book of stories, but also a manual or spec if you speak tech, of how to live your life. From beginning till end, it is filled with instructions. Do this, don’t do that. Rather than understanding this to be general guidelines, in Judaism this is understood to be binding laws. An Orthodox Jew will try to follow all the laws while other denominations will follow part of the law or at least the one’s that taste good. And we’re all quite sure that our way is the very best.
But what does the text actually mean? The commandments and prohibitions of the text are vague. The first commandment, given to Adam and Eve, is to be fruitful and multiply. Now, we all like to be fruitful and multiply, but what is it that we are actually expected to do? Be fruitful once? Twice? All the time? The instructions for implementation of each particular law becomes the codex we call Halacha – the path. And walking on the path is the way not to get lost. Ask Little Red Riding Hood. And that is what a rabbi does, translating the text into practicalities. Following religious laws in Israel is an individual choice, except when it comes to marriages and divorce, where religious courts are the legal authority.
Last week, Rav Ovadia Joseph, Israel’s most prominent rabbi, died at the age of 93. There are certainly many people who will question the issue of Rav Ovadia’s prominence. Nevertheless, conservative estimates say that 600,000 people attended the rabbi’s funeral. Some say over 800,000. This is a country of almost 8,000,000 people, 20% of whom are Arabs and not likely to go to a rabbinical funeral. So between 10-15% of Israels Jewish population went to pay their last respect to Ovadia Joseph.
Two aspects of Rav Ovadia’s life contributed to his unequalled stature. The first was his phenomenal Jewish learning, his photographic memory, his interpretative vision and daring. The other was his political action as a beacon for Sephardi Jews. In addition to having an endless amount of religious denominations, Jews in Israel also divide according to geographical origin. I am an Ashkenasi Jew, a descendant of the European Jewish tradition. This is reflected in the food I eat, my liturgy, the Yiddish my ancestors spoke and many of my religious traditions. The majority of Jews in Israel (but not in the world) are Sephardi Jews who for the past number of centuries lived mostly in the various Arabic- speaking countries. The traditions and customs of Sephardi and Ashkanasi Jews are somewhat different, each having been influenced by their surroundings. Some Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino which is closely related to medieval Spanish. Other spoke Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Persian. Many came to Israel in the early years of the State, fleeing anti-semitism, pogroms and discrimination in the neo-nationalistic Pan-Arabic countries. And when they got to Israel, they were given a hard time. One can argue wheather the 800,000 Sefardi refugees that came to Israel were discriminated against by the Ashkenasi establishment because the y were “racist” or because the needs were so great at the time that they got the short end of the stick because there was not that much stick to be had. Probably, it was a bit of both. And certainly, many struggled greatly, more than their Ashkenasi counterparts, during the early years and it left them with a feeling of humiliation. Although the argument still starts up again sometimes, Israel is certainly more of a meritocracy today. Part of this was the work of Rav Ovadia, who founded a Sephardi political party who’s agenda it was to fight inequalities between Ashkenasi and Sephardi Jews, to teach and rever the Sephardi traditions and restore Sephardi customs and traditions to their former prominence and glory. To many people in Israel, Rav Ovadia brought them back their pride in their heritage and gave them political pwer and clout. He founded schools, opened Yeshivot, institutions of higher Jewish learning and became a central political force. Personally, I’m not at peace with Rav Ovadia’s message to his constituency and I don’t think that what he created will give his followers the tools to success in modern society. But, that probably is a patronising attitude, and it’s not my call. Ovadia Joseph was the man who restored pride to millions of Israelis, whether they voted for his party or not. And really, an individual lives in his head, in his feeling of being respected or downtrodden. Ovadia Joseph did what the Bible says, he lifted the downtrodden.
In addition to his public activities, he was also a highly respected and virtuoso interpreter of Jewish law. In addition to his learning and legendary memory, he had guts and knowledge to challenge anyone in the religious establishment. In a country where the understanding of Jewish law is still of major significance, not to all, but to many, his rabbinical rulings and teachings were ground-breaking. A case in point, before the Oslo accords Rav Ovadia ruled that peace between Israelis and Palestinians takes precedence over holding on to the land and thereby he enabled his politicians to be part of the government that signed the agreement.
In a private conversation a prominent Swedish journalist called Rav Ovadia an ayatolla. Superficially, that looks correct. In the tradition of the Levant, Rav Ovadia wore the uniform of his office as former Chief Rabbi of Israel, which in fact is an embroidered dress and turban-like hat. Beyond the fashion statement, there is NO reason to compare, unless one also wants to call the Pope an Ayatolla. He wears a dress, too.
In his later years, Ovadia Joseph was often quoted expressing platitudes of bigotry. It seems to be less a case of sic transit gloria mundi and more a case of politicians close to the rabbi egging him on to make these statements to serve political purposes. Rav Ovadia did make embarrassing statements about all kinds of deviants such as females, homosexuals and secular people. If those snappy one-liners had been his legacy, nobody would be talking about him today. Ovadia Joseph’s funeral would not have been the biggest in Israel’s history.