It seems, after all, a serious matter. Rav Yosef, who just turned 90, is the greatest living Sephardi rabbi, and arguably the most important halachic scholar of our day. One in eight Jewish Israelis vote for the Shas party he founded in the 1980s, and more hold him in highest esteem. Prime ministers and opposition leaders alike visit him to explain matters of state in the hope of gaining his support. He's important. And complex.
Along with his unfortunate penchant for expressing himself in earthy bluntness, Rav Yosef has been a revolutionary force for modernizing halachic thought and integrating it into modernity. Again and again he has courageously formulated rulings that contradicted those of all his peers. He found a way to permit and encourage organ transplants; he permitted artificial inseminations; in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War he swiftly freed almost a thousand women from Aginut, and the list goes on. Most famously, in the late 1980s he was the first important orthodox rabbi to announce that peace with the Palestinians is preferable to continued control of the West Bank.
How then to explain this week's outburst, let alone excuse it? By listening to him in his natural context.
The Rav Yosef doesn't use the Internet, has never encountered a blog, is unlikely ever to have read Haaretz and certainly doesn't follow the New York Times. He doesn't watch television, though his weekly talk is broadcasted live. Lesser men have invested decades in migrating the compendia of all halachic literature into a digital database, Bar Ilan University's Responsa Project; for a long time Rav Yosef didn't even know this was happening, nor did he care. He has read those tens of thousands of books, and knows what's in them. His world is about Jewish learning, Jewish belief, Jewish thought, imagery, and language. It is extraordinarily rich, but overlaps only partially with the secular world, and hardly at all with the world of international diplomacy or media. Had one asked him for the date of his inflammatory speech he'd have answered that it was the 19th of Elul, not the 29th of August.
Elul is a distinctive month. For orthodox Sephardi men, it can't be overlooked, as they rise daily at 3am to chant slichot, the mediaeval supplications for mercy. Since Rav Ovadia's words and their meaning come straight from the slichot, any attempt to evaluate what he was saying and what his audience heard ought to notice them.
Common wisdom tells that the high holidays are about personal reflection, balance taking, resolutions to improve and divine absolution. Indeed they are – partially. They are also about communal behavior, national survival, and God's obligation to protect his people and avenge them. The theme of the seven weeks between the beginning of Elul and the end of the high holidays is that we're unworthy sinners pleading for God's forgiveness, but also that we're miserable and down-trodden and may he raise us for the glory of his name. That second theme has a clear subtext, that we suffer for our adherence to him and therefore are worthy of his protection.
There are numerous examples; here are two. The Ata rav slichot (Thou art benevolent) supplication says
Terrified by their travails
By their revilers and persecutors
Please don't abandon them oh God of their fathers…
Deliver them in sight of everyone
Let the evil ones no longer rule over them
Or the Ase Lema'an (Do it for their sake) verse, repeated every day: Do it for Your Truth, do it for Your greatness, do it for Your name, do it for Your kingdom… do it for Abraham Isaac and Jacob, do it for David and Solomon, do it for Jerusalem… do it for the martyred for Your Oneness, do it for the massacred for Your name, do it for those burned and drowned sanctifying You, do it for infants suckling at the breast who did not sin…
After a month of daily supplication and shofar blowing, Rosh Hashana amplifies the themes in two full days of devotion, followed by another eight of supplication and finally the blast of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur service contains the agonizingly long and detailed description of how the Romans tortured ten great scholars to death, followed by Avinu Malkenu (Our Parent, our Sovereign), recited for ten days and repeatedly on Yom Kippur: Avinu Malkenu, abolish our persecution and the conniving of our enemies, thwart the intentions of our enemies, destroy our persecutors, silence them…
Tellingly, the haunting Barbara Streisand recording of Avinu Malkenu drops this part, as do many of the references one can find in Google. It's as if enlightened or secular modern Jews are uncomfortable with the overt violence in many of the texts of this highest of Jewish annual cycles. They misunderstand the meaning.
In the middle of the second century CE the Jews renounced the use of political power. The catastrophe of two defeats by Roman armies, the first destroying the Temple and the second depopulating Jerusalem and Judea, was too much to bear. The Mishna, followed by the Gemara, were so traumatized they succeeded in hiding the true extent of the destruction and horror; it took the archeologists and historians of the 20th century to decipher the true enormity, especially of Hadrian's genocide. Instead, the Talmud concentrated on the loss of great scholars and the stubborn, sometime suicidal determination to pass on the teaching of Torah. Implicitly, and eventually explicitly, the Jews told themselves they had a pact with God. They would suffer in his name, but he would fight their wars; they might die for his law, but he wouldn't allow their enemies to win. Their personal fate might be terrible, the destinies of their community dire, but the nation would always survive, and the enemies – eventually – would be defeated.
The yearning for divine retribution, at times blood-curdling in its intensity, was a substitute for action and for the need, even the permissibility, of counterforce. No matter how harsh the persecution of the Jews, there was never any cycle of violence. Words of violence effectively replaced the violence itself for 18 long centuries.
Admittedly, this has changed. In the 20th century the Jews returned to the use of national power. Most of them are secular, they no longer believe in a God to fight their battles for them, and not all of the violence they engage in is wise. The ancient traditions, however, are still there. When the Rav Yosef lifted the theme for his talk straight out of the prayer book, he wasn't calling for genocide, nor inciting to violence. On the contrary. He was continuing a quiescent tradition, by calling on God to do what the Jews won't do and shouldn't do.
There is no causal line from his words to deeds, nor did he intend there to be. He was speaking as a Jew does in Elul. Perhaps it's too much to expect anyone to respect him, but at least they might refrain from damning him.
Postscript: Earlier today it was reported that the Rav Eliashiv, arguably the only living rabbi of similar stature to Rav Ovadia, criticized the comment: "There's no sense in aggravating the whole world", he reportedly said. Which shows that the ancient favorite pastime of rabbis, to disagree with one another, is as vital as ever.
Update: Reader David Sigeti draws my attention to the fact that Rav Yosef supports the continuation of the settlement freeze so as to give a chance to the peace negotiations just starting; most rabbis aren't taking that position openly at the moment.