Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Rav Ovadia as he meant to be

The Rav Ovadia is likely to prove the single person world-wide who dies in 2013, and whose works will still be read in 2113, 2213, and 2513. That's what happens with important Jewish scholars.

On September 3rd 2010 I posted on the Rav Ovadia. I'm putting it up again, in his honor, and also as food for thought for the multitudes of people who disliked him without ever taking the time to understand his world:

Rav Ovadia Yosef has done it again. During his televised Saturday night talk he called for the death of Mahmoud Abbas and "these Palestinians". Saeb Erekat denounced him for preaching genocide, the State Department chided, media outlets pontificated, and in Israel, where at least some people might have been expected to know better, public figures piled onto each other in their haste to condemn.
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.


Rebecca said...

Thank you for this evaluation of Rav Yosef. It's very helpful in understanding his not so pleasant words on a number of occasions.

Anonymous said...

This would be more convincing if Yaacov or any of the numerous commenters here demonstrated the same approach to understanding offensive or controversial remarks when discussing the statements of Muslim scholars.

Yaacov said...

I don't remember ever having commented on the remarks of Muslim scholars one way or the other. That's not my subject.

Anonymous said...

You've posted several times on Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Tariq Ramadan. Now, I don't particularly like either of them, so I have no interest in actually defending their positions. But I have a feeling that if I attempted to defend one of Qaradawi's sermons here with references to how we have to understand that he's in dialogue with a 1,400 year-old tradition, and that much of his rhetoric can only be understood in the context of a rich discursive jurisprudential universe, and that the attempt to turn his statements into soundbites that give the impression that Muslims are bloodthirsty fanatics just reveals ignorance of the Islamic legal tradition...well, I suspect I would be laughed out of the comments section and told to go read Paul Berman's "The Flight of the Intellectuals."

Yaacov said...

No, annon, you've got it backwards. Ramadan is an antisemite and a front for a movement which is profoundly antisemitic and anti-Enlightenment, and also violent. Yet he's feted in the Western media and academia, and Berman's book made no dent in that fact.

The Rav Ovadia was one of the greatest Jews in the 20th century (not the 21, when his final years embarassed his legacy). He didn't do anything single-handedly, but he played an important role in making the Sephardi half of Israeli society equal to the Ashkenzi half and thus made Jewish society better; and he participated in leading Halacha towards accommodation with the modern world; and along the way, it just so happens, contributed to the waning of the settler movement, which was eclipsed just as his own movement was rising. And, yes, in his old age, which may or may not have been dotage, he began making ugly pronouncements - tho some of them were never as ugly as the media said they were, see above.

And for all that, the Jeffrey Goldbergs of this world couldn't wait a singly hour after his death and before his funeral to remind us that none of his historic acomplishments were really important because he was essentially an Ayatollah.

Which is especially ironic when you notice how much effort much of the world is investing these days in telling us that the ayatollahs are actually not all that bad after all. (Jeffrey, to his credit, isn't part of that weird chorus).

In the end, however, none of today's punditry matters. The longevity of the Jews and the way Halachic literature works ensure that centuries from now scholars will still be citing the Rav Ovadia, while the rest of us will be forgotten dust.