Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011 © Gali Tibbon - AFP/File
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011
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Michael Blum, AFP
Last updated: October 7, 2013

Israel's Ovadia Yosef: outspoken rabbi and kingmaker

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas party who made an indelible mark on the Jewish state's political and religious life, died in hospital on Monday. He was 93.

The ailing rabbi died just two weeks after undergoing heart surgery at Hadassa hospital in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem neighbourhood where he eventually passed away, his cardiologist Dan Gilon said.

"Despite all our efforts .. after a great struggle, the rabbi died a few moments ago," Gilon said in remarks carried on Israel's main radio stations.

Founder and spiritual leader of the Shas party, Yosef played the role of kingmaker in numerous governments.

And as a rabbi, his charismatic personality left an indelible imprint on the Sephardic community, giving a renewed sense of pride to Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent who had long been discriminated against at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment of Jews originating from Europe.

A former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Yosef's outspoken opinions on matters sacred and secular earned him both respect and no shortage of outrage.

Born in Baghdad in 1920, he emigrated to Mandate Palestine with his family at the age of four.

After years of intensive study he was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 20. In 1947, he was sent to Cairo where he served as head of the Jewish rabbinical court before returning three years later to the newly-founded state of Israel.

He continued to flourish in rabbinical circles and was appointed the Chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv a year after the 1967 Six-Day War.

At the same time, he devoted himself to writing a book of religious jurisprudence, quickly becoming one of the most important contemporary decision-makers and winning respect from Jewish communities across the world.

A prolific author who wrote dozens of books during his lifetime, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for rabbinical literature in 1970.

Three years later, he was named Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, a post he held for 10 years.

Known for his phenomenal memory, Yosef revolutionised the religious Jewish world by basing his teachings on a medieval Jewish sage, and breaking away from the Ashkenazi traditions that dominated the rabbinic elite of contemporary Israel.

His vast knowledge and rabbinic standing allowed him to rule in a manner that at times appeared lenient: one notable ruling saw him allowing the posthumous cancellation of a marriage, enabling nearly a thousand women whose husbands were presumed dead in the 1973 Yom Kippur war to remarry.

In 1984, after failing to ensure a second term as chief rabbi, he set up Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic political party, which campaigned for a return to religion to counter an establishment dominated by Ashkenazi Jews originally from Europe.

It was a masterstroke.

The party quickly established an educational network that not only provided free schooling but also imbued tens of thousands of Israelis with a sense of pride and belonging, many of them from poor backgrounds, who found identity and meaning through connecting to the rabbinic traditions of their ancestors who lived in Arab countries.

Such was the empowering nature of the party's outlook that even today, most of its constituents are made up of those who are not ultra-Orthodox.

Its biggest showing was in 1999 when it won 17 of the Knesset's 120 parliamentary seats, and since then has been part of nearly every single government, often taking a key role in major policy decisions.

But in 2013, for the first time in decades, the party found itself and its 11 MPs in the opposition.

Politically, Yosef drew the anger of the right during the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords by arguing that Israel should give up land in exchange for peace, but as the years passed, he took an increasingly hardline position towards any agreement with the Palestinians.

Yosef himself often made the headlines by expressing his opinions in blunt and intolerant language.

He sparked outrage in 2000 when he said that the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust did "not die for nothing," but were the "reincarnation of Jews who had sinned" in previous generations.

In 2005, he called on God to strike down then prime minister Ariel Sharon over his planned withdrawal of all troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, and a year later, he came under furious attack after implying that Israeli soldiers killed in battle died because they didn't follow Jewish commandments.

In other controversial remarks, he referred to Arabs and Palestinians as "snakes" and "vipers," said that "all evil stems from the Ashkenazis" and promised heaven to those who vote for his party.

In January 2012, Yosef said he was praying for the acquittal of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who is on trial for the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators during the revolt which ousted him a year earlier.

In recent years, despite his growing ill health, Yosef continued to receive visitors from across the political spectrum, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He was married with 11 children, one of whom is Yitzhak Yosef who was named Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi in July.

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