Rav David Yosef channels his father’s spirit in the battle for Israel’s halachic identity
Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Chazaq, Flash90, Ronen Kedem
One Shabbos, when Rav David Yosef was a young boy, he went for a walk with his father Rav Ovadiah along Jerusalem’s Rechov Bar Ilan. Today’s religious neighborhood was mostly secular back then, and it wasn’t long before a taxi drew up alongside, its driver rolling down the window.
“I don’t know my way around here,” he called out. “If I carry on driving, where will I end up?”
Without missing a beat, Rav Ovadiah’s young son replied: “In Gehinnom.”
The cutting response drew an appreciative laugh from some bystanders, but despite his sense of humor, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi wasn’t amused.
“Why did you say that?” he upbraided his son. “Do you think that he’ll keep Shabbat because of your comment? Hafuch! Now, he’s even less likely to keep anything. He’ll hate Shabbat!”
Decades after the event, Rav David Yosef hasn’t forgotten the tongue-lashing. “Abba grew up among secular Jews, and he believed in reaching out by being pleasant to them, never by confrontation. His method worked, because so many chilonim who lived around us changed because of him.”
Yet Rav Ovadiah, as those who’d follow his weekly satellite-broadcasted speeches remember, was a straight-shooter, resorting to the colorful Arabic-infused language of his youth to chastise those who’d worked to undermine the Torah way of life. Although the secular media practically made a sport out of mining his speeches for inflammatory expressions, they failed to understand that for his people, it was a language of love — for the farmers and the taxi drivers and the pitzuchim sellers, he was their Abba and their champion.
Of all his siblings, 62-year-old Rav David Yosef — the ninth of 11 children — spent the most time with their father. In daily learning sessions that took place over 15 years, they compiled some of Rav Ovadiah’s most important halachic works.
As his father sparked Israel’s Sephardic teshuvah movement by leading mass rallies, it was this son who was the warmup act, speaking at each location before the chief rabbi arrived. It was also Rav David Yosef who did the most to achieve a central aim of his father’s vision to restore Sephardic rabbinic standing, by founding a high-level kollel that has produced many of the country’s Sephardic dayanim.
Having spent decades following the path that his father set out for him, Rav David Yosef is now attempting to follow him into the office that Rav Ovadiah held dear — the post of Rishon Letzion, or Sephardic chief rabbi. If he succeeds in the elections that are to be held later this year, Rav David will take the reins from his older brother Rav Yitzchak Yosef.
As Israeli society is rent by divisions over the contentious justice system reforms, Rav David thinks that his father would have both supported the pushback against the High Court’s overweening power, and done everything to reach out to the other side.
“I always think to myself: What would Abba have done here?” says Rav David Yosef in an exclusive conversation with Mishpacha. “Although he was on good terms with the politicians of the left, he spoke out very strongly against the High Court and its agenda to secularize Israel. Yet even as we fight to restore the country’s religious status quo, we have to reach out in a pleasant way, and avoid passing laws that can be interpreted as coercion.”
Rav David Yosef was at his father’s side from the time he was six, seeing how change could only be effected through outreach, not confrontation. “His method worked, because so many chilonim who lived around us changed thanks to him”
Back in the 90s, thousands of secular Israelis witnessed a sight that became a media byword. Large crowds would assemble in municipal stadiums across the country, for a shiur-slash-teshuvah rally. The highlight of the event was Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s helicopter-borne descent to land on the turf — the Rav seeming to have emerged from on high to deliver a heavenly message.
The idea was Rav David Yosef’s, part of the decades-long partnership in teaching Torah that developed between father and son.
“My father was the central driving force behind the creation of the Sephardi Torah world that is today larger than its Ashkenazi equivalent,” he says. “It was part of his mission ‘Lehachzir atarah leyoshnah’ — to restore the crown of Sephardic Jewry in terms of minhag, Torah learning and respect for rabbanim. He famously created the Shas movement which built schools, but that only came later. For years, my father would travel up and down the country to teach halachah and encourage Jews to keep Torah. He would travel for hours even if it was only to speak to ten Jews. But eventually, as his fame grew, hundreds of people would come to hear him speak.”
That led to the idea to use a helicopter to hop between towns, allowing multiple appearances at different venues in one night.
“He would land in the middle of the stadium, and then lead the massive crowds in saying Shema and ‘Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim.’ It was extremely powerful. Even today, when I hear the recordings, I can’t help crying.”
Rav David played a central part in those rallies, as warmup act to his father. He would leave for the first venue and speak for an hour, by which time Rav Ovadiah arrived to speak, and Rav David left for the next town.
They’d generally manage three stops in adjacent towns, but one time a scheduled fourth stop forced Rav David to think fast to save the event.
“My father was scheduled to speak in Chatzor HaGlilit, a small town in Israel’s north,” he recalls. “When I arrived at 11 p.m., the early-to-bed farmers saw that Abba, whom they’d all come to hear, wasn’t there. Hundreds of them got up to go, and I knew that if I didn’t think of something quickly, by the time my father would arrive from Tzfat, he would have no audience.”
Asking the crowd to return to their seats while he shared with them one short message, he desperately cast around for the right words to keep them from leaving.
Inspiration struck, in the form of a story.
“There were once two shnorrers, one Jewish and one Gentile,” he began. “As Pesach approached, the Jewish one turned to his friend and said, ‘You want a good meal? Dress up as a Jew, go to the synagogue tomorrow night, and wait to be invited to someone’s home. You’ll get a real banquet.’ ”
As the age-old mashal continues, the guest suffered his way through interminable readings and dry matzah, tortured with too much wine on an empty stomach. When he was finally offered something to eat, it was Ashkenazi chrein. Finally, the guest couldn’t take any more and bolted, cursing his friend for misleading him with empty promises of a banquet that never materialized.
“I won’t tell you that listening to me will be all maror,” Rav David Yosef told the crowd, “and it’s certainly not the lavish dinner that you’ve come for. But if you leave now, before Rav Ovadiah comes, won’t you be like the man who didn’t stay when the meal was only a few minutes away?”
A genius with a common touch. “My father,” Rav David says, “had a unique ability to talk to different groups of people —the farmers and simple laborers saw him as their champion”
The oratory skills that kept the farmers in their seats that night were honed from years of listening to Rav Ovadiah’s own unique brand of public speaking.
From the time he was six, Rav David accompanied his father nightly as he gave shiurim around the country.
Rav Ovadiah became a dayan at age 30 and served for several decades on the batei din of several cities, but that didn’t stop him from meeting the amcha wherever they were.
“My father had a unique ability to talk to different groups of people on their own level. He could amaze talmidei chachamim with his immense command of the Gemara, Rishonim and halachic sources, and then talk to laymen in the most simple terms. He was a genius with a common touch.”
Rav Ovadiah’s stock-in-trade was a combination of anecdote, halachah, and wit.
“There were communities of Persian and Bukharian Jews in the Beit Yisrael and Bukharim neighborhoods of Yerushalayim who were only minimally observant,” remembers Rav David Yosef. “My father began to give them a shiur in the evening in halachah, and to make sure they’d return, he would tell stories, often ending with a cliffhanger so that his listeners would come back the following night.”
Ironically, the Sephardic rav’s most interesting stories came from Ashkenazi sources. “Abba liked to tell Rabbi Marcus Lehmann’s stories, which fascinated the listeners,” says Rav David. “He would also repeat stories about Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, whose biography contained many interesting anecdotes.”
Of course, the ultimate purpose of all those stories wasn’t the entertainment but the mussar, brough to life by Rav Ovadiah’s vivid depictions.
“Anyone who does one mitzvah acquires an advocate,” Rav Ovadiah would begin, quoting a well-known saying of the Gemara. “Imagine what that means. A Jew comes to Gan Eden and he’s greeted by a team of lawyers. And not just any lawyers. The best! Powerful angels, standing up to protect him!”
At that point, Rav Ovadiah would spice his words with some humor, a riff on the topic of attorneys.
“A man was accused of murder, and retained a top-notch lawyer to represent him at his trial. The attorney gave a long, pathos-filled speech in his client’s defense, and halfway through, the judge called a break.
“In the recess, the lawyer turned to the defendant and asked: ‘Did I speak well?’
“To which the client responded: ‘It was so good that even I now doubt whether I really committed the murder.’ ”
The impact of those thousands of shiurim is measurable in human terms. “Rav Benzion Abba Shaul ztz”l told me that 80 percent of the bochurim in Porat Yosef — the flagship Sephardi yeshivah — were the children and grandchildren of those original shiur-goers,” says Rav David Yosef.
One teen was drawn into Rav Ovadiah’s orbit by way of an errant soccer ball. One Shabbos Rav Ovadiah was on the way to the Borochov shul in the Bukharim neighborhood to give his regular shiur, passing the road that would be full of people playing soccer. Out of respect, most stopped playing as the Rav made his way past — all except one unlucky boy.
That Shabbos afternoon, as the others stopped the game, this teen didn’t notice the Rav’s approach and carried on playing. He kicked the ball, and to his embarrassment, it hit Rav Ovadiah’s hat, knocking it to the dusty, unpaved ground.
Rav Ovadiah didn’t say anything, but just continued on into the shul to give his shiur. When he’d finished, the young man was waiting for him to ask his forgiveness.
To the chastened young man’s surprise, Rav Ovadiah didn’t scold; instead, he invited the ball player over to join his family for Seudah Shlishis. When the meal was over, the host turned to his still-embarrassed guest and said: “I forgive you on one condition — that you come back next week to my shiur.”
The next Shabbos rolled around, and to his satisfaction, Rav Ovadiah saw that in the audience was indeed the soccer player, out to make amends. That week, the shiur’s content was notably easy, full of stories and midrashim designed to draw in a newcomer.
“That teen left his job on a building site,” says Rav David Yosef, “joined a yeshivah, and eventually a kollel. Today, that ballplayer is a rosh yeshivah, a senior figure in the Sephardi Torah world.”
Nothing like a chopper to facilitate rallies in three different cities in one night. Rav David Yosef initiated his father’s helicopter hop
Rav Ovadiah’s legendary ability to connect to traditional Israelis was a function of the fact that throughout his life, he lived among secular Jews.
“After the family returned from Cairo in the 1950s where my father had been rav, we lived in Petach Tikvah in a building full of secular Jews. I was too young to remember, but my older siblings recall how the neighbors would sit outside the building on Shabbos morning sunbathing and smoking. My father ignored their chillul Shabbos and always greeted them nicely, and eventually they covered up and put away their cigarettes when he’d come home from shul, out of respect.”
Family lore has it that one neighbor was prepared to suffer on the rabbi’s behalf. This particular man hadn’t noticed Rav Ovadiah’s approach, and was still smoking when the Rav appeared close at hand. With no time to dispose of the cigarette, he closed his hand over it and thrust it into his pocket.
Rav Ovadiah couldn’t understand why the normally-friendly man returned his Shabbos greeting with such a pained expression that week. It was only when the dignified rav had vanished into his apartment that the man could release his singed palm without distressing his neighbor.
That friendly, respectful approach paid dividends when the Yosef family lived in Rechavia during Rav Ovadiah’s tenure as chief rabbi in the 1970s.
“We had a neighbor who was a secular man from a Sephardi background. My father would wish him Shabbat Shalom, and eventually, the man started to park his car far away from the building and even began coming to shul on Shabbat morning. He eventually became religious, and started to organize a public shiur in his house that Abba gave. When he moved away to a religious area, he founded a big shul. And all of that, from a simple Shabbat Shalom.”
Rav Ovadiah was unafraid to raise his children in a secular setting, says Rav David Yosef. “In Tel Aviv, we lived on the junction of Rothschild and Shenkin Streets — the most bohemian parts of the city. My parents weren’t afraid to let us spend time outside like normal children because despite the fact that we were on good terms with the neighbors, we lived in our own world. Abba was constantly learning, and I went with him to his shiurim, which protected me.”
That approach, Rav David considers, is a lesson in co-existence for today’s far more ghettoized Israeli society. Familiarity with mainstream Israeli society also convinced Rav Ovadiah that effecting religious change could only be done through outreach, not confrontation.
“My father would have done everything possible to protect the religious status quo, but wherever possible, to avoid what could be seen as religious coercion. He always had an accurate sense of where the common man was coming from.”
The Rishon Letzion found a common language with politicians of every stripe
Rav Ovadiah’s drive to reach out to Israel’s vast numbers of secular Jews left its imprint on his son’s own modus operandi. Rav David Yosef gives three to four shiurim a night, starting with his own kehillah, Yechaveh Daat in Har Nof, moving on to avreichim studying halachah, and then continuing on a more inclusive level with other groups across the country.
A particular focus of his efforts is in Queens, New York, whose Bukharan community he came to know while fundraising for his kollel. Due to the high cost of yeshivah education, many of the community’s children attend public schools — a trend that Rav David has worked to combat in partnership with the Chazaq organization.
“Since 2006, we’ve offered after-school programs for these children from traditional homes, and then in the summer of 2017 we started the ‘No Child Left Behind’ campaign for transferring students from public school to yeshivah,” says Chazaq director Rabbi Ilan Meirov. “We looked for an adam gadol to be the face of this initiative so we went to Rav Dovid Feinstein ztz”l and asked him to speak about the importance of a yeshivah education at a large event. Rav Dovid recommended asking one of Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s sons to be the guest to attract more of the traditional Sephardim who were the target audience.”
It turned out that Rav David Yosef was due shortly in New York, and at the event two weeks later, he spoke in front of an audience of 600 about the importance of a yeshivah education.
“His English is good, and he spoke with such emotion about the dangers of public schools that people felt his pain. Like his father, Rav David has made children’s schooling his personal mission,” says Rabbi Meirov. “It was the beginning of a revolution. From that shiur alone about 150 parents were in contact with Chazaq about transferring their children to yeshivah. To date, we have transferred over 1,400 children from public schools to yeshivah.”
Rav David, Rav Ovadiah’s decades-long partner in teaching Torah, never left his side
While thousands of people witnessed Rav Ovadiah’s dedication to teaching Torah, Rav David had a unique view of his father’s path to greatness, which lay in his never-ending passion for learning, whatever the hour.
In the back of the car that took him between shiurim and public engagements, Rav Ovadiah had a light installed by which he could learn. Once the Yosef family celebrated a special siyum when their father finished Shas based on what he’d learned on the road.
“For a time, Abba had a problem with his eyes which prevented him from reading, so I was tasked with reading aloud for him,” recalls Rav David. “I was amazed — he remembered entire masechtot by heart and could complete Rashi for me while I was reading.”
“When we’d get back from the shiurim at one or two a.m., my father would immediately begin learning, and despite the fact that I was married, he expected me to stay and learn with him.”
Defying exhaustion, the pair would delve into the major halachic topics that were on Rav Ovadiah’s plate, in learning sessions that frequently went on until daybreak.
Father and son had first begun learning together when Rav Ovadiah moved to Jerusalem after serving as Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi from 1968 until 1973, when he was elected Rishon Letzion. At the time, Rav David, then a teenager learning in Ponevezh, followed his family to the capital and enrolled in Yeshivas Chevron.
That was the beginning of a 15-year period that was crucial to Rav David Yosef’s development.
“As a young avreich, I learned with my father at nights. We worked together on the six volumes of his responsa, Yechaveh Daat. My role was to come ready having learned the Rishonim well, and then be prepared to be Abba’s foil in learning. Abba didn’t want a yes-man, but someone who thought independently. Once we’d learned the sugya together, Abba would arbitrate the halachah, and my role was then to help polish the language of the teshuvah.”
Eventually Rav Ovadiah decided that his son was ready to shoulder responsibility for a major undertaking: developing Sephardic dayanim.
“He had a small kollel where rabbanim were learning halachah according to his approach, and he asked me to travel to America to fundraise for its expansion,” says Rav David. Today, Yechaveh Daat, notable for its rigor, has 200 avreichim studying on a nine-year cycle.
“It’s a very long cycle, because we want to produce rabbanim and dayanim who are very well-rounded, capable of providing genuine Torah leadership. In terms of pure numbers, it’s been very successful: Today a third of the Sephardic dayanim in the country — and some of the Ashkenazi ones as well — are graduates of the kollel.”
ASRav David grew in stature, his father began to rely on him for sensitive public engagements. One such mission to Morocco was an early echo of the changing attitudes to Israel that blossomed into full-fledged peace agreements over the last two years.
Rav Ovadiah’s relationship with the Muslim world was a natural outgrowth of his fluent Arabic — courtesy of a childhood in Iraq and his years spent as a rabbi and av beis din in Egypt.
When the Egyptian president visited Israel in 1978 to sign a peace deal with Menachem Begin, the Sephardic chief rabbi was among the dignitaries to greet him. Sadat was surprised to find that the rabbi spoke Arabic with an Egyptian accent.
Rav Ovadiah went on to develop a decades-long friendship with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, a relationship that led to the preservation of Egypt’s shuls and Jewish cemeteries.
Then, in 1999, Rav Ovadiah received an invitation from King Hassan of Morocco to visit the North African country. The king was terminally ill and wanted a blessing from the famous rabbi. Then-foreign minister Ariel Sharon urged Rav Ovadiah to go in order to develop relations with Morocco, but Rav Ovadiah himself was recovering from heart surgery and couldn’t manage the trip.
In his place, he sent his son in the king’s private jet, armed with a letter in Hebrew and French.
At the palace in Marrakech, the king spoke French to his guest via an interpreter, his eyes glistening with tears as he read Rav Ovadiah’s letter.
After a few minutes, the Crown Prince — now King Mohammed V — took over and took the visitor for a long walk through the palace.
It soon became clear why the invitation had been extended: The Moroccans were interested in getting into the Israel-Palestinian peace business, and had heard that the chief rabbi had ruled in favor of the land-for-peace formula that underlay the Oslo Accords.
“I told him that it was important to clarify one thing about my father’s position, one that had been misunderstood,” says Rav David Yosef. “Contrary to what they thought, that Rav Ovadiah had admitted the validity of the Palestinian claims, I explained that it’s 100 percent clear that the land belongs to the Jewish people, but that my father had advocated making painful concessions for peace.”
The prince responded that the Palestinians also claimed that the land was theirs, to which his Jewish visitor replied with reference to Biblical sources.
“The Bible is clear that Yishmael was told that his descendants would become a great nation, but the land was promised to Yitzchak,” Rav David told his host. “And the archaeological evidence is also overwhelmingly clear that the land belonged to Jews.”
The discussion led Mohammed to declare his intention to begin brokering a peace effort between the sides. But that effort fell victim to the Second Intifada that broke out a few months later.
“It was important to me that a relationship between the two countries should be based on the truth,” says Rav David Yosef. “No whitewashing the fact that this is our land.”
It’s an irony of history that when Rav Ovadiah’s opponents passed a law limiting his service as chief rabbi in order to curtail his influence, that act led to the founding of the Shas party as a vehicle for change, which further down the line succeeded in electing a second — and possibly a third — Yosef as chief rabbi.
If Rav David succeeds his brother, current Rishon Letzion Rav Yitzchak Yosef, as Sephardic chief rabbi, he will take office at a time of deep divides in Israeli society.
Protest and counter-protest pit left against right, secular against traditional Israeli over the government’s efforts to reform the justice system. The move by the government to reinstate the decades-long ban on chametz in public institutions over Pesach that was taken down as last year’s government fell, and the secularist reaction championing a right to individual freedom, point to a deeper split over the direction of the country, and the role that religion and tradition play in public life. Where would Rav Ovadiah have stood on the raging controversy?
For all that Rav Ovadiah Yosef preached harmony with secular Israelis, says his son, he was a famously fierce critic of any attempts to water down halachic standards.
“There’s a crisis among liberal-religious rabbis,” he says bluntly. “The religious status quo that emerged after the state was set up was an acknowledgment that as much as religion can’t be coerced, this is a Jewish country which should have public observance. Moreover, we have no permission to ‘trade’ Shabbos in secular cities for increased observance elsewhere — it’s not our tradeoff to make.”
And in his last years Rav Ovadiah spoke out strongly against the High Court’s moves to erode the country’s religious status quo.
“It was the High Court that secularized the country,” say Rav David. “For years there was a consensus against public transport or media operating on Shabbat. Reform conversion wasn’t recognized. It was the courts that broke this status quo, and Abba spoke about that role with great pain.”
That’s why he thinks that his father would have supported the push to rein in the courts and in tandem tried dialogue with other parts of Israeli society.
“You can’t compromise on halachah,” says the next link in the rabbinic chain forged by Rav Ovadiah Yosef, “but at the same time only outreach can get through to the other side.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 957)
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