Observers around the world were stunned last week to learn that the largest funeral in the history of the State of Israel — and quite possibly in the history of the Jewish People — was held for a scholar of Talmud and Jewish law who was born in Baghdad in 1913 to a poor grocer and emigrated to Jerusalem at four years of age. Approximately 800,000 people were in attendance, shutting down the capital city to all motor traffic. An additional 200,000 came on buses from around the country but never succeeded in gaining entry to the blockaded city.
Who was this man and how did he come to command such love and respect?
I had my first glimpse of his appeal back in 1991. I knew of his scholarship well before that time. His published legal opinions on every aspect of Jewish law, from contracts to divorce to ritual matters. I remember picking up one of his books, flipping it open at random, my admittedly unscientific method of assaying scholarly works. The piece I opened to discussed whether the Sabbath could be violated to treat a sick person with some remedy not recognized by the medical community. Seemed like a novel topic, given the devotion some patients have to chiropractors, acupuncturists and the like, despite the snickers of mainstream doctors. I was astonished to find an encyclopedic dissertation, quoting an endless stream of sources and walking a logical path through the various views. When it was all over, he had amassed about 23 lenient opinions and 21 strict ones, and he gave the win to the majority.
So I knew him as a man of massive erudition and clear thinking. I knew him by reputation as a former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. [Israel has two chief rabbis who serve in parallel capacities, one ministering to (Ashkenazic, lit. Germanic) Jews of European descent and the other to (Sephardic, lit. Hispanic) Jews of Arabic descent.] Still, I had little inkling of the cultural revolution he was about to lead.
In 1991, a middleman was trying to arrange a job for me to write public relations pieces for then-Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri. Deri had leapt to prominence as the head of the Shas party, newly formed to represent Sephardic Jews. He was a genius at his job, helping all the smaller municipalities and development towns to balance their budgets for the first time in forty years. But unlike every politician I knew, he did not want to talk about himself. He said it was impossible to understand what he and his party were accomplishing without seeing Rabbi Yosef in action.
We made up I would travel to Hadera, about three hours from Jerusalem, to attend an event the next night where he and the rabbi would be speaking. They had taken over a movie theater for the evening. I came early and sat observing the crowd. The people who showed up were first-generation Sephardic in Israel, mostly undereducated people working at manual and menial labor. They chatted volubly and loudly chewed sunflower seeds.
Suddenly the sound of a helicopter could be heard hovering and the assemblage all ran outside. It was quite a spectacle, seeing the helicopter land in the street, disgorging an ornately attired rabbi (in the Sephardic custom of wearing majestic garments) and a government minister in a suit. Minister Deri began the proceedings with his own life story as the son of poor Moroccan immigrants. He assured the crowd that if he could make it to the pinnacle so could they.
Then it was the rabbi’s turn. Here was this great legal mind, with a huge library inside his head, and I braced myself for genius. Genius it was, but not what I expected. It was a simple populist message: the Sephardic Jews were once prestigious thinkers and leaders, producing Maimonides and other greats. It was time to return to their former stature. It was time to think more of themselves and their potential. It was time to aim higher. And most importantly — of desperate importance — the children must receive a strong Jewish education. They were living in a free country, a land of opportunity. Merit could be achieved and it would be rewarded.
The crowd was inspired, animated, vitalized. They rushed forward afterwards to kiss his hand (another Sephardic custom) but he did not linger long to soak up the adulation. The religious minister and the political minister had done their ministry in this community tonight, and now they were off again in their helicopter.
That position never did work out for me, but I thank God for arranging that opportunity to witness a great man who could touch the simplest person and inflame the appetite for a more exalted life. I kept watching over the subsequent two decades as those ordinary folks heeded his call and produced a generation of high-quality young people, excelling in all walks of life. Rabbi Yosef was truly a transformative figure, a light unto our time.
The Talmud says that a great scholar should have as many as 600,000 people at his funeral, equal to the number of Jewish men who stood at Sinai. But if he not only studied, he also shared his knowledge with the world, then there is no limit….