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Judaism: The True Greatness of Rav Ovadia Yosef zts"l

Broad halakhic shoulders, tremendous knowledge and solid authority. This less sensational and 'newsworthy' aspect of his work was not given the attention it deserved by the mainstream media, but it is the essence of Rav Ovadia.
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013 11:27 AM



At the end of the Yom Kippur War, a great number of I.D.F. soldiers were unaccounted for. By Oct. 25, 1973, no less than 417 I.D.F. personnel were officially declared missing-in-action, and their numbers continued to grow. MIA status signifies a devastating reality: widows unable to remarry; bereaved parents who have no grave over which to weep; children who are uncertain whether and when to recite Kaddish. It is a tragic situation.

Many halakhic responsa have been composed over the course of the generations, discussing the particular circumstances of some incident or another. Here, the questions loomed on a different scale: a plane that had crashed, leaving no trace; a tank that had gone up in flames; a military outpost that had been captured, its soldiers nowhere to be found.

The Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F. at the time, Rav Peron, who was the natural address for the many difficult questions that were accumulating, knew that only a Torah figure with supreme authority could provide answers that would be accepted by the entire religious world. Rav Peron established a Beit Din and chose Rav Ovadia Yosef zts"l, to sit at its head. Many years later, Rav Ovadia wrote that he remembered the months that he spent reviewing these cases day and night as one of the most difficult periods of his life. Each story was heartbreaking; every incident brought tears to the eyes – but he had been entrusted with a holy task, and he undertook it faithfully until, ultimately, every last file was brought to its conclusion with a final halakhic ruling.

This story has been retold many times, usually with an emphasis on Rav Ovadia's compassion. Indeed, Rav Ovadia was full of genuine compassion – for widows and orphans, for the oppressed and the downtrodden – but this is only part of the story. The other part concerns his broad halakhic shoulders; his tremendous knowledge and solid authority. This less sensational and 'newsworthy' aspect of his work was not given the attention it deserved, but it is precisely this that represents the essence of Rav Ovadia.

The evidence is clear: there is almost no significant halakhic work published over the past thirty years that does not relate, in one way or another, to Rav Ovadia's halakhic rulings. There is almost no significant halakhic realm that Rav Ovadia did not address. This represents a most unusual phenomenon in modern times, and there are very few authorities who can boast similar breadth.

I often said that Rav Ovadia was far greater and more sophisticated than the scholars who wrote research papers and books about him. His researchers (and certainly the publicists who wrote about him) tried to categorize and define him, but he never fit into their neat boxes.

They claimed that he was lenient in his rulings – but his works reveal dozens  of rulings that take a strict view.

They argued that he had an ethnic orientation, while in many instances his perspective is in fact a broad one that addresses the needs and concerns of the Jewish People as a whole.

They emphasized the phenomenal lateral scope of his knowledge, while in fact it is his penetrating scholarship that is most clearly evident in many of his works.

This sort of discrepancy was even more blatant in the articles by publicists who stubbornly sought to emphasize the political, folklorist, sectorial and social aspects of his personality and activities – which unquestionably existed, but which were entirely secondary in importance.

As is the case among many "gedolei Torah", Rav Ovadia's greatness was diminished by various attendants and spokespeople. However, if we wish to know who the man really was, then it is his dozens of works that are "Rav Ovadia", both during his life and for all generations.

A layman can never know whether the Nobel Prize for Physics is being awarded to the individual most worthy of the honor, or whether extraneous interests were involved. The same applies in other areas of specialization – chemistry, architecture, art, etc. Only those with a sound grasp of a certain field can offer a meaningful evaluation of the
A layman can never know whether the Nobel Prize for Physics is being awarded to the individual most worthy of the honor, or whether extraneous interests were involved.
ability and contribution of an expert in that field. And anyone who is not well-versed in Torah literature in general, and the halakhic realm in particular, cannot truly appreciate Rav Ovadia. There was no one who denied his greatness in Torah..

A well-known parable describes a group of blind people standing around an elephant, each offering his characterization of the creature as a whole based only on the body part that he can feel – the trunk, the leg, the ear. So it is in this case: the heart and essence of Rav Ovadia's legacy lies in his Torah.

Most of Rav Ovadia's admirers are not experts in the sphere which he regarded as most important and meaningful: אסוקי שמעתתא אליבא דהלכתא – codifying the teachings of Chazal into normative halakhah. If "all that the Holy One, blessed be He, has in this world is the four 'amot' of halakha" (Berakhot 8a), then Rav Ovadia set up his dwelling-place squarely within those four amot. Everything else was secondary.

Decades from now, if anyone should seek to explore the spiritual quality of our generation, there is no doubt that Rav Ovadia will occupy a primary position in that inquiry.

When I published my first book, I merited to have Rav Ovadia grant his "haskama" (endorsement). The importance of the haskama lay not in his personal assistant's report that Rav Ovadia had read the book from cover to cover, but rather in the fact that this Torah giant had expressed a positive opinion of it.

Upon my return from Rav Ovadia's funeral, I was informed by the commander of the Traffic Volunteers Department of the Israel Police that reports reaching him were estimating some 600,000 participants (the final estimate stood at more than 800,000!). I gasped, my mind jumping to the words of Rav Sheshet in the Gemara (Megilla 29a, and Ketubot 17a): "As it was given, so it was taken: Just as it was given to six hundred thousand, so it was taken by six hundred thousand" (see Rambam, Laws of Mourning 14:11).

Just as the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai fired the hearts of all six hundred thousand people who had gathered to receive it, so, God willing, if each person takes just one "spark" from the impressive legacy of Rav Ovadia ztz"l, then his passing will arouse the hearts of all of Israel towards their Father in heaven. This thought consoles me amidst the sorrow over an irreplaceable loss.

Educational points to ponder from Rabbi Yona Goodman:

Despite the greatness of Rav Ovadia ztz"l, there are some of us who disagreed with some of his positions in the realm of government policy and did not identify with some of his statements. Nevertheless, almost every sector joined, in genuine sorrow, to mourn his passing and eulogize him. What can we learn from this about the proper attitude towards another person – especially a Torah giant – even if we disagree with part of his teachings, or find some of his statements inexplicable?

Rav Guttel focused on one of Rav Ovadia's extensive areas of activity. Along with other spheres, Rav Ovadia demonstrated endless devotion to religious outreach, including efforts aimed at adults and youth who others had despaired of. What can we learn from this life project? Once the eulogies and the period of mourning for Rav Ovadia are over, what can we take for ourselves from the countless stories about him?