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Heir to the Crown

Rav Yitzhak Yosef inherited Rav Ovadiah’s sweeping vision — while fighting a rearguard action to protect Israel’s religious status quo


Photos Eli Cobin

The door to the large office swings open, the Kazakhstani ambassador steps out, and then comes a shock. For a moment it seems as if Rav Ovadiah Yosef is sitting behind the large polished wooden desk.

It’s not just the traditional dark blue turban and gold-embroidered glimah of the Rishon L’Tzion, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi. The features, the serious gaze, the eyes that speak of a large inner world — six years after Rav Ovadiah’s passing, they’re here once again.

It’s a comparison that’s been made so often that it’s become a cliché. But a spirited conversation makes clear that Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s similarity to his legendary father is more than just skin-deep.

Responding to thousands of halachic questions from around the globe, he’s emerged as a major posek on complex issues. Against mounting pressure to compromise on conversion and marriage, he’s fighting a rearguard action to protect Israel’s religious status quo. And as his father’s partner in both Torah teaching and public life, he continues the Sephardic renaissance that was Maran’s dream.

Then there’s his presence. A compelling mixture of forceful Torah scholarship and a diminutive appearance; a leader with a down-to-earth smile — Rav Yitzhak Yosef possesses an elusive quality best described as chein. Here is that rare thing: The son of a remarkable father who’s something special himself.

“When my father would call at two in the morning and I didn’t answer immediately, he would say ‘Why didn’t you answer — were you asleep, at a time like this?’ ”

That sentence, delivered in his rapid-fire, Sephardic-accented Ivrit, sums up what set Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s childhood home apart.

Born in 1952, the sixth child of someone steadily emerging as one of the generation’s leading halachic authorities, young Yitzhak Yosef saw a father totally consumed by the love of Torah. By day Rav Ovadiah was an av beis din, busy traveling from one city to the next to give shiurim — but his nights were dedicated to learning and writing Yabiah Omer, his halachic masterpiece. “In all my life I never once saw him go to sleep before 2 or 3 a.m.,” says Rav Yitzhak Yosef. “At night the seforim were piled up in front of him, Rav Akiva Eiger, Rav Pealim, Shoel Umeshiv — he was learning and writing all night. Growing up with an example of hatmadah like this, how can you not be affected?”

As the walls of these offices — which are decorated everywhere with pictures of Rav Ovadiah — testify, the memory of Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s father is all-pervasive. But the walls of his heart can testify as well to the influence of his mother, Rabbanit Margalit, who passed away in 1994.

“My mother gave up her life for Torah,” he says with obvious emotion. “She went to family events — bar mitzvahs, engagements, weddings — on her own, so that my father could sit and learn. The zechut of raising us was hers alone. Abba was extremely busy, so it was she who imbued us with the hashkafah to aspire to be talmidei chachamim. Where can you find a woman like this?”

Going down memory lane, Rav Yosef relates how Rabbanit Margalit would update her husband about the children’s progress — “this child did well in his test, this one is misbehaving” — but they would talk in Arabic. “They didn’t want us to understand what they were saying,” he says, “so that’s why I understand Arabic today.”

Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s earlier years were shaped by immersion in the world of Sephardic learning — first his parents’ blend of Iraqi and Syrian traditions, and then at age 12, as a student in Porat Yosef, the flagship Sephardic yeshivah at the time.

But it was his encounter with the Ashkenazic yeshivah world, counterintuitively, that led him to follow his father’s footsteps as a posek. The teenaged Yitzhak Yosef headed first for Rav Yissachar Meyer’s Yeshivat HaNegev in Netivot, and then the elite Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Even as he gained a knowledge of the Lithuanian approach to Gemara — and, apparently, an enduring taste for gefilte fish, which is still served in his home every week along with its Sephardic counterparts — he also took his first steps in the world of halachah.

“As a son of Rav Ovadiah, people assumed that I knew halachah, so they used to ask me questions,” he recalls. “Late one Shabbat night in Chevron, the electricity went off, and someone called a non-Jew to switch it on. Then they realized that there was a question what to do with the food, because the fire had been relit on Shabbat. People started to hunt for the answer in different seforim, and then someone asked me if I knew what my father said about it. I was able to bring the teshuvah from my room and answer the question.”

Thus was born a posek. Combing through his father’s monumental halachic works, Yitzhak Yosef — still only 18 years old — published his first work. As a collection of his father’s psakim, it was fittingly named Yalkut Yosef. But that was only the beginning: As he matured, Rav Yitzhak’s works — which now run to 40 volumes on every area of halachah — followed his father’s approach, but the halachic expertise became his own.

“The name Yalkut Yosef is misleading — the seforim are not just a compendium. But like Coca-Cola, it’s become a brand, and I would never change it,” he says.

That halachic expertise was all in the future when he got married in 1973 to his wife Rabbanit Rut, herself a product of Sephardic aristocracy, from a well-known family originally from Aleppo. Her father, Rabbi Rahamim Attiyah, is a mekubal and chavrusa of the legendary Rav Mordechai Sharabi — but nothing in her upbringing prepared her for being married to a chief rabbi. The Rabbanit is quietly involved in many chesed projects. But those take second place to hosting the large numbers of people now constantly in her home, still the same three-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Murchevet where the couple raised their five children.

Yitzhak Yosef was a newlywed when he joined his father’s first institution, Kollel Hazon Ovadiah. Bothered by the dearth of Sephardic dayanim at the time, Rav Ovadiah founded the kollel in 1973, the year he was appointed Rishon L’Tzion. In the first cycle it succeeded in producing noted rabbanim like Rav Yisrael Yifrach and Rav Yehudah Deri, av beit din in Jerusalem and Beersheva respectively.

It was a sign of his father’s confidence in him that led to Rav Yitzhak, still a young man, being appointed to head the kollel in 1980. His closeness to his father emerges between the lines — “I was meshamesh him a lot” is all he’ll say about it — but clearly theirs was a special relationship. And more was yet to come.

“In 1993, my father invited me to spend Shabbat with him. I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew that something was coming,” recalls Rav Yitzhak Yosef. “After the Shabbat meal he took me for a walk near the President’s Residence in Talbiyeh, and he said to me, ‘We need to establish a yeshivah gedolah to teach teenage boys the correct way of learning halachah. I’ve chosen you to do it.’ ”

But the younger Yosef had clearly inherited his father’s independent spirit. “I said to him, ‘Abba, I have the kollel and writing my seforim — I can’t do this too.’ He insisted I could do both, but I wasn’t convinced. We argued some more, and when we came home, my mother asked, ‘Rav Ovadiah — what did he say?’ ”

Here the smile comes again, as Rav Yitzhak Yosef mimics his father’s famously sharp manner of speaking. “He’s an Iraqi akshan,” he replied, “he won’t do it!”

But what a father’s will couldn’t achieve, a mother’s dedication could. “She took me aside,” Rav Yitzhak Yosef says quietly, “and she told me how important it was to my father to teach his way of deciding halachah, how to follow the Rishonim and Acharonim. When she saw that I was still unconvinced, she said: ‘I’ve saved up 600,000 shekel — I want you to take my savings and open up the yeshivah.’ ”

“When I saw what she was willing to do for this,” Rav Yitzhak Yosef says, “I gave in.”

To understand Israel’s current Sephardic Chief Rabbi, you need to visit two buildings. One is the recently-completed Chief Rabbinate headquarters on Oholiav Street in Jerusalem. A modern stone and glass tower, it features security scanners, professional staff and imposing offices, and plays host to VIPs and important goings-on. It’s here that Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s official activities take place.

But just around the corner, in an industrial building on the verge of decrepitude, is what Rav Yitzhak Yosef sees as his legacy. Next to a car garage, glass repair store, and digital printshop is Hazon Ovadiah, the yeshivah his mother gave up her life savings to build. Humble as it is, it’s this place that makes Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s story stand out because it symbolizes the renaissance that has taken place in the Sephardic world, thanks in large part to his father’s vision and passion.

“I often tell of when the Ponevezher Rav died, and I went with Maran Abba to his levayah,” Rav Yitzhak Yosef says. “The whole of the Torah world came to pay their respects to the person who had recreated the yeshivot here in Israel. The hespedim, which went on for hours, were all in Yiddish. We didn’t understand a word, so my father mentally went through one masechet of Mishnah after another. At the end, I said to my father in annoyance, ‘How come they don’t make any accommodation for us Sephardim, who don’t understand Yiddish?’

“He looked at me, and then pointed at the crowds, and said, ‘You see all these people here? The day will come when we’ll have ten times as many people sitting and learning!’

“That,” says Rav Yitzhak Yosef, “was my father’s great vision, and he saw that vision fulfilled. Today there are more Sephardic bochurim and avreichim than in the entire Ashkenazic yeshivah world — chassidim and Litvaks together.”

That Sephardic boom — what Rav Ovadiah called “lehachzir atarah leyoshnah,” restoring the crown of Torah to its former glory — is of course not just a product of one man. Major Sephardic yeshivos, such as Porat Yosef in Jerusalem’s Old City, existed long before. So too did those that had been founded by Sephardic alumnae of Litvish yeshivos, such as Kol Yaakov in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood by Rav Yehuda Ades, and Shearit Yosef, founded by Rav Nissim Toledano in Be’er Ya’akov.

But “Maran,” as Rav Ovadiah Yosef is reverently known, touched off an explosion in the size, as well as the pride, of the Sephardic Torah world. Heading out to the traditional amcha all over Israel’s periphery, he hammered home the centrality of Torah learning and the study of halachah. In batei knesset across neighborhoods, small towns, and moshavs across Israel, you still get a sense of his reach. Copies of his Yechaveh Daat or his son’s Yalkut Yosef are ubiquitous, alongside shelves of Tehillim.

And Rav Ovadiah didn’t just give shiurim; he convinced many Sephardim to send their children to serious institutions of Torah learning. At first, this translated into many more students for the existing Ashkenazic yeshivos — but then Sephardic yeshivos themselves took off. There are now tens all over Israel, many with hundreds of talmidim.

One of the earliest yeshivos in that wave was Hazon Ovadiah, which now has 500 students in two campuses, one in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood and a smaller branch in Romema. It has been a strong force in shaping a generation of rabbanim in communities around the world. “We have rabbanim in France, Panama, and all over Israel who are students of Hazon Ovadiah,” says Rav Yitzhak Yosef.

Decades after Rav Ovadiah shared his dream, many Sephardic students continue to apply in large numbers to the elite Ashkenazic institutions like Rav Yosef’s own alma mater, Chevron, among others. But there is no denying that Rav Ovadiah’s vision has come to pass. Whether they’re learning lomdus in the Litvish style or focusing on halachah as Rav Ovadiah urged, there’s been a quantum leap in the numbers of Sephardim dedicated to serious Torah learning.

 

Rav Ovadiah’s dream still animates his son, and even though the bulk of his time is overtaken by his responsibilities as Rishon L’Tzion, Rav Yitzhak Yosef has maintained his connection with Hazon Ovadiah. Although his heavy duties don’t allow him to head the institution in practice — two sons have taken over at the helm, with the eldest, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, now leading the yeshivah’s main branch — once a week, he returns.

Leaving behind the world of the Rabbanut and heading around the corner for the humble environs of the yeshivah, he continues to give a weekly shiur there, and returns to spend a whole Shabbos with the bochurim a few times a year.

So as a senior rosh yeshivah within the Sephardic Torah revolution, what is the secret for encouraging distracted bochurim of 2019?

“You have to give the boys sheifot — ambitions to grow in Torah,” he says emphatically. “They have to know that they can become great dayanim, rabbanim, and builders of Torah.” And Rav Yitzhak Yosef believes that incentives have a part to play. “We don’t provide incentives to learn the mandatory sedarim, but we provide small stipends for learning at other times.”

It’s this focus on striving and an intense commitment to Torah learning that has powered the Torah revolution. Asked about his students going out to work, Rav Yitzhak Yosef makes it clear what he aims for.

“If a student moves to the workplace yet remains a yerei Shamayim and spends time learning, we are behind him. But we push our students to become great rabbanim and involved in zikui harabbim, working for the good of the community. That’s why I think it’s good to wear a frock, a rabbinical frock coat when they get married — I want them to think of themselves as rabbanim.”

Besides creating an atmosphere of striving for Torah greatness, there’s a second ingredient that plays a role in the yeshivah’s success — something that emerges indirectly from the conversation. It’s a certain close relationship with the students, and an understanding of what makes them tick. “After the seudat Shabbat on Friday night, all the bochurim come to learn halachah,” says Rav Yitzhak Yosef. “They can learn anything they like as long as it’s practical halachah. We all sit and learn together until two o’clock in the morning, and anyone who makes it until then gets to join in a special chamin.”

The idea of an exclusive midnight cholent with the Rosh Yeshivah is only appealing when there’s a close relationship in place that the bochurim want to savor. As Yaakov Yonatanov, a former student of Hazon Ovadiah, puts it: “He was like a friend — you could talk to him about anything. And he understood the younger generation, he realized that not all of them could learn all the time.”

But he also remembers how as rosh yeshivah, Rav Yitzhak Yosef managed to blend closeness but still engender respect: “We would go to sleep at 3 a.m. on Friday night, but we would all wake up before seven o’clock in the morning for Shacharit,” Yonatanov remembers. “That’s because the Rosh Yeshivah himself would come around the dormitory in the morning, and no one wanted to be in bed when he came.”

 

His essence may be a rosh yeshivah and posek, but since 2014, Rav Yitzhak Yosef has become one of the most high-profile defenders of Israel’s fragile Jewish identity.

That’s because as joint head of the Chief Rabbinate, he’s not only the face of Israel’s Judaism, the distinguished rabbinic figure meeting President Trump or President Putin; he’s also the head of an institution in the crosshairs.

The Chief Rabbinate has always been something of a poisoned chalice. It’s the only institution attacked simultaneously as being too Zionist and too chareidi. To its detractors in the religious world, it is often seen as a compromised institution, in hock to the secular government. Yet according to Israel’s left and the Reform movement worldwide, it represents all that is wrong with the religious right. At confabs such as the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly held last year in Tel Aviv, it’s lambasted as a theocratic entity that prevents secular people from living as they wish. The only solution to the “chareidization” of the Rabbanut, they say, is to reform the organization from within or promote more liberal alternatives.

Those attacks, long-standing in nature, have intensified since Rav Yitzhak Yosef took his post. For most of his term, he’s had to deal with sustained pressure on the standing of the Chief Rabbinate. There’s an attempt to break what detractors call the Rabbinate’s “monopoly” on kashrus; to license lower-grade (and often liberal) rabbis to perform giyur, as is the case in America; and a campaign to recognize civil marriage. The most recent addition to the list is the move of municipalities in the greater Tel Aviv area to take advantage of the national political crisis by breaking the country’s 70-year-old religious status quo and start running bus services on Shabbos.

But it’s the political anti-religious agitation that is particularly fraught for Rav Yosef. Over the last year, a coalition stretching from Avigdor Lieberman to opposition leader Benny Gantz have made political capital by vowing to introduce wholesale religious reforms. Barred as he is from direct political involvement on these core issues, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi is still very direct.

“Sadly, Judaism is being attacked, but the consolation is that the attackers are only those opportunistic public leaders who incite for cynical political ends,” he says. “I’ve been traveling around the country for decades giving shiurim and meeting people, and contrary to the media propaganda, most people in Israel continue to love the Torah and Judaism.”

Earlier in the conversation, I’ve shared with Rav Yosef my own encounters with secular Israel through years of kiruv in Tel Aviv. And while it seems to me that there has been a process of liberalization — of a new “live and let live” approach to religious issues even among traditional Jews — Rav Yosef disagrees.

As evidence that there has been no tidal wave of secularization in Israel, he points to the unprofitability of the public Shabbos buses wherever they are introduced. “The attempts by several cities around the country to establish a public transportation system on Shabbat has failed miserably — it shows that this is not in demand. The traditional community also respects Shabbat and Judaism.”

Overall, the reason that Jewish identity issues are such flashpoints is because of Israel’s twin — and often clashing — identities as “Jewish” and “democratic.” Are these two facets inherently at odds, or can they be resolved? Rav Yitzhak Yosef is clear on where the blame belongs for any tensions.

“The clash in question comes to light only when courts trespass beyond their authority, and take a position on religious and state law,” he says, giving as an example a recent case over public Pesach observance. “Members of the Reform movement filed a petition to force hospitals to allow chametz over Pesach. The Justice Ministry said that the hospitals are obliged to protect minority rights by setting aside a special area to eat chametz on Pesach for those who want. We took a private lawyer to represent us in court and argue that in the Jewish State of Israel, the rights of all religious and nonobservant Israeli citizens may not be infringed and if there is a minority that thinks otherwise it should be considerate, for one week, of the will of the majority of the public.”

Some of the ire directed at the Rabbanut — both in Israel and abroad — stems from the perception that it’s a government bureaucracy masquerading as a religious institution. Ordinary Israelis who face long lines and unhelpful functionaries when they want to get married come to associate these negative encounters with Judaism. Rav Yosef is aware that the Rabbanut is not perfect and says that his door is always open to those who feel that they’ve been shortchanged in their dealings with it. But he also takes pains to explain why many of these attacks are wrong.

“There is indeed a problem when Jews from abroad arrive and are required to prove their Judaism for marriage, for example. But that’s due to the fact that Israeli immigration law does not require a halachic standard of Jewishness. So anyone who cares for the Jewish People and has made all the effort to make aliyah to Eretz Israel should demonstrate an understanding of the Chief Rabbinate’s work.”

 

While many of the visitors who frequent this building are dressed in black rabbinic frock coats, the silver-and-gold-embroidered robes of the Rishon L’Tzion couldn’t be more different. Instead of 19th-century Victorian England, they speak of the 18th-century Orient.

That’s because the post of Rishon L’Tzion dates back hundreds of years to the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Jerusalem’s leading rabbi was called “Harav Hakollel.” When the position was recognized officially by the Ottoman authorities in the 1830s, the Rishon L’Tzion was called “Chacham Bashi” and was a government-sanctioned appointment. Ever since then, the position of chief rabbi has entailed an outward-looking, diplomatic role.

That’s how Rav Yitzhak Yosef often finds himself in very different company from that of years gone by. For the media, the novelty of seeing Rav Yosef next to President Trump in the US, to Putin in Russia or surrounded by a crowd of imams and priests at an interfaith conference in Kazakhstan has worn off. But to judge by his body language — head lowered, eyes looking slightly down — the public diplomacy is not an aspect of the position that he relishes.

In an era of a 24-hour news cycle, the politically sensitive aspect of the chief rabbi’s role has also grown harder. Whereas his father, Rav Ovadiah, often made international waves with comments about the Palestinian leadership or Israeli politics, that’s largely not the case for his son. Rav Yosef’s public statements are carefully weighed — rules that guide this interview as well. The only target that he openly attacks is the Reform movement and their attempts to make inroads in Israel, after having “destroyed Judaism overseas.”

On any given day, this public aspect of being Rishon L’Tzion is a fact of life. Our conversation takes place after the Kazakhstani ambassador to Israel steps out beaming, flanked by two bodyguards. He’s come here to discuss an interfaith initiative that the Rishon L’Tzion is involved in. There’s a stream of dignitaries and politicians throughout the day. As our interview ends, Zaka founder Yehudah Meshi-Zahav comes in with one group, followed by a group of sportswear-clad teens coming for a brachah and a Shas MK with a chassan in tow.

The workload is exhausting. A recent day found Rav Yosef discussing kashrus standards with Rav Yitzchak Eizik Landau, Bnei Brak’s new chief rabbi; hosting a mayor from a major secular city near Tel Aviv to encourage him not to join the Shabbos transport network; discussing the program at the mass upcoming daf yomi siyum; fitting in three Chumash parties for young boys and 17 chalakahs, in between testing avreichim in one kollel and giving a shiur in another yeshivah before heading out on a round of nightly shiurim. Like his father, he speaks frequently in different places around the country, visiting each town at least once a year.

And all of that is in addition to his chief function as Rishon L’Tzion. With the post held simultaneously by both a Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbi, the responsibilities of this position have been split between two roles — chief of the central beit din and chief of the Rabbinate Council — with each rabbi assuming one of the roles for five years. For the first half of the position’s ten-year term, Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s role was acting as the head of the Beit Din Hagadol, the Chief Rabbinate’s senior halachic body. But almost a year ago, the rotation system in place between the two chief rabbis came into play, and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau took over the court position. Now, during the second half of his term, Rav Yosef heads the Chief Rabbinate Council, which is responsible for setting standards on everything from kashrus to the approval of new dayanim.

But even though he no longer heads the Chief Rabbinate’s beis din, Rav Yitzhak Yosef increasingly acts as a court of last resort for major halachic problems from around the world.

In the last year, his aide says, he’s answered 3,000 questions — personally composing each teshuvah. It’s here, more than anywhere else, that Rav Yitzhak Yosef emerges as a successor to his father — as a major posek, capable of tackling the most serious questions.

“Just on the way here,” he says, “I received a phone call from Chile, about a woman who was on her deathbed. She had a Jewish-sounding name, but she only had a document from the Reform community saying that she was Jewish. The question was whether to bury her in a Jewish cemetery, given that her own daughter was faced by possibly needing to convert. So on the spot, we had to decide about her status and how that would affect her daughter.”

Some questions require finding a creative solution to protect halachic standards in a complex world. “I was recently asked about a community in Mexico where people drive to the beit knesset on Shabbat, whether to open up the shul’s parking lot for them,” he says. “On the one hand, if they don’t come, that can lead them to disconnect and assimilate. But on the other hand, the Sefer Akeidah from the time of the Rishonim writes very strongly about permitting even the smallest prohibition to save people from transgressing a more stringent one.

“It was a wealthy community,” he explains, “so I told them that they should build a new beit knesset close to where they lived.”

The questions pour out one after another as Rav Yosef’s aide hands him the relevant pages on the Chief Rabbinate letterhead, stamped with the Rishon L’Tzion’s personal seal. A complex agunah case that American rabbanim have tried to solve for 15 years; a case of kilayim in the Golan Heights; a question whether Pesach products that look like their year-round equivalents must be a special shape.

Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s lodestar in determining the halachah in all of these disparate cases is his father. “I continue my father, Maran’s, tradition as chief rabbi, which is a rabbinate for all types of Jews. For example, if there are leniencies that the Ashkenazim or Sephardim have, we take that into account. If there is a factory that will need to spend huge amounts of money to accommodate a chumrah that strong sources allow us not to keep, then we take that into account.”

The sheer number of demands on Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s time is striking. So when does he get the time, and how does he have the head, to immerse himself in learning?

“This morning I got up at a quarter to four,” he answers, “and I had time to write a teshuvah about birkat hamazon. Everything is so quiet during those hours — there are no disturbances. I have to go to America soon, and I like traveling. When you’re in the air at night, everyone’s asleep, there’s overhead light — I just get time to learn.”

And that, in short, may be the best definition of Rav Yitzhak Yosef. Over the last few years he’s emerged from his quiet life in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood to a dominant role in the rabbinic world. As a major posek, rosh yeshivah, and implementer of his father’s Sephardic renaissance, he’s a worthy successor of the man whose portrait graces the wall above him. Forced to step up and defend Israel’s religious identity, he’s proven to have Rav Ovadiah’s sweeping, inclusive vision of the Jewish People as a whole.

But it’s with a chein all his own that he explains his passion for Torah: “Someone who’s been learning for so long,” he concludes, “always comes back to it.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 791)

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