I was not in Israel when Rav Ovadyah Yosef passed on to his eternal reward. However, even in Brazil where I was at the time it was front-page news and pictures of the enormous funeral procession accompanied the obituary article.
Rarely has one person had such an imposing effect upon the lives of millions of others as did Rav Yosef. His greatness in Torah knowledge was unquestioned, even by those who may have disagreed with some of his policies and halachic rulings. Possessed of a photographic memory coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of rabbinic works and writings that have spanned the ages, his own volumes of halachic rulings and Torah insights became a staple in every yeshiva and rabbinic library the world over.
But as impressive and noble as this scholarly achievement was, it pales, in my humble opinion, in comparison to his achievement in raising an entire section of the Jewish people from intellectual poverty and a despised social status. His motto regarding Sephardic Jewry was “To restore the crown of glory to its original luster” and to a great extent he accomplished this seemingly impossible task in his life’s work.
One of the more sordid chapters in Israel’s history was the treatment of Sephardic Jews by the leaders – both religious and secular – of Israel’s government and society. The Sephardim were discriminated against in all walks of Israeli life and education, and were treated with contempt and derision by the Ashkenazic intellectual, religious and educational elite.
The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel – the Rishon L’Tziyon - always seemed to be subservient to his Ashkenazic counterpart. All of this began to change when Rav Ovadyah Yosef became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi. His agenda was to revitalize Sephardic Jewry and give it its due. And he succeeded in so doing.
He was the driving force and spiritual leader behind the Sephardic political party, Shas. He, in effect, controlled the levers of its leadership and policies. Because of this he was seen as a kingmaker in Israeli political life and profoundly influenced the policies and directions of Israeli governments. He was a very outspoken person and oftentimes his comments and words caused controversy and brought criticism upon him. But he never shied away from the struggle and always had his public say on the issues of the day.
The public power and influence of the Chief Rabbis of the past few decades dimmed in comparison to his influence, political power and halachic rulings. Though he no longer bore any official public title aside from being the head of the high council of Sephardic rabbis, he dominated the religious world of Israel and achieved the respect, begrudging as it may have sometimes been, of vast sectors of Israeli society.
Rav Ovadyah created a vast Torah school system that has raised a generation of observant, traditional and vitally successful Sephardic citizens of an increasingly traditional Jewish state. There are many more Sephardic yeshivot present today in Israel than ever before and the continuing push towards Torah greatness and community leadership in the Sephardic community is Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef’s lasting legacy to the Jewish people in Israel and the world over.
His influence was felt not only in Israel but wherever communities of Sephardic Jews resided in the world. Even though it would be an error to view Sephardic Jewry as a monolithic whole, Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef served as a magnetic core that bridged communities, differing customs and varied historical and social experiences and events.
It is very hard to categorize his views except regarding Torah learning and observance and the restoration of Sephardic pride and relevance in the broader Jewish world. He was neither tolerant nor intolerant, temperate or intemperate, forceful or gentle. He was all of the above and yet none of the above. I think that this was part of his talent of influence over so many people and events.
He was truly a special person who single-mindedly and almost singlehandedly shaped a new Sephardic and Jewish world. The hundreds of thousands who attended his funeral testified to his uniqueness and to his contributions towards the strengthening of Torah, the State of Israel and the Jewish people. He was not an orator of note but everyone paid attention to what he had to say.
Great people are almost always complicated people as well. I do not know what his inner persona was like but his message and goal in life was simple: “To restore the glory of Torah and of Sephardic Jewry to its original luster.” He was eminently successful in achieving that lofty goal.