The JIIS’ new Center for the Study of the Haredi [Ultra-Orthodox] Society announced its arrival with a seminar on The Shas Movement and the Haredi-Sephardi Community at the End of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's Era. Rabbi Yosef, the founder and dominant leader of Shas, the Sephardi ultra-orthodox political and movement, died last October.
JIIS Director-General Meir Kraus opened the seminar by outlining the need for such a center, the aim of which is to contribute to the understanding of the process pertaining to the haredi society in Israel, which today numbers about 700,000, or 9% of the population. “These numbers make the issues of education, employment, welfare and poverty the challenges of all of Israel’s society,” he said.
The speakers at the event come from a range of field, and all are veteran observers and scholars of the haredi sector in Israel, in which Shas has played a pivotal role since it arrived on the scene in 1984. Shas’ followers came from among Sephardi Jewish communities whose roots lie in Middle Eastern and North African countries and included ultra-orthodox as well as others, often referred to as "traditional" in terms of following the religious code of life.
Prof. Menachem Friedman, the chairman of the seminar, recalled witnessing the emergence of Shas on the political stage, first in Jerusalem and then nationally. He said it was essentially “an Israeli story, not an extension of Jewish Morocco… Rabbi Yosef wanted to create a new society, and that necessitated unity. This could only be achieved by mobilizing youngsters [in the yeshivas and religious schools] and molding their minds anew.” He said that the Sephardi communities differed from their Ashkenazi counterparts in that they were “living communities,” not groups that were trying to retain remnants of communities and family traditions that were lost in the Holocaust. This helped to nurture the boys in the religious institutions and indeed they grew up to become the “Sephardi elite.” But Friedman said that with the loss of Rabbi Yosef, Shas, like all the haredi institutions, would be facing a problem. “After all periods of greatness come periods of ‘smallness’.”
Journalist Yair Ettinger, of Haaretz newspaper, who has long reported on religious affairs in Israel, predicted Shas’ political loss with its leader’s death. He raised a number of points of tension within the party regarding its “Israeliness” versus its “ultra-orthodoxness.” Rabbi Yosef served as the bridge between the two, he claims. He foresees the party losing electoral support among its traditional constituents in the future, thus turning it merely into a Sephardi ultra-orthodox party rather than the political force it has been for the last 20 years or so.
Dr. Nissim Leon (Bar-Ilan University) then addressed the “Shas movement as a political federation.” He characterized Shas not as an authoritative organization but rather as a “haredi-Sephardi political federation of communities having various styles, initiatives and focal points of interests and power.”
Dr. Yaakov Lupo, another longtime researcher of haredi society, spoke on the “Ongoing Lithuanian Influence on Haredi-Sephardi Judaism and Its Ramifications “ He suggested looking at the ongoing Lithuanian influence on haredi-Sephardi Judaism in its historical context. “A dialogue between the ‘savior’ Lithuanians and the ‘saved’ Sephardis continues until today,” he claims. “The Sephardis have not managed to detach themselves from the ‘Lithuanian protectorate.’” In other words, as the Sephardis were struggling for independence as a legitimate religious stream they were having to fight it in the ultra-orthodox “Lithuanian court,” which believed it had the authority to declare what is holy. This is the exact opposite of the coexistence of the "holy" and the "secular," between Torah studies and earning a living, that characterizes the Sephardi stream of Judaism in its many forms in Israel and abroad today. The ramifications of this policy, carried out by Yosef and the Shas ultra-religious leadership, are likely to lead to increased haredi poverty, widening gaps between the different social groups, social tensions will rise, and the hostility will continue to cause Israeli society as a whole to fray.
Dr. Anat Feldman (Achva Academic College) discussed the very interesting topic of “Rabbi Yosef’s Attitude to Women: Liberalism in Transformation. She looked at some of his religious rulings regarding women which expressed a measure of relative leniency, such as “freeing” married women whose husbands vanished and therefore, according to halacha [Jewish religious law], could not remarry (these women fall under the term agunot). Rabbi Yosef chose leniency whenever possible under halachic law as his basic life approach.
Rabbi Eliyahu Iluz (the Chief Rabbi of the town of Or Akiva) also noted the lenient approach pursued by Rabbi Yosef but added the rabbi's demand that all the Sephardi communities in Israel, which originate in different countries with different religious traditions, follow a uniform religious code, in the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch, the unified religious code generated by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the 16th century. Iluz said that the “great influence of Rabbi Yosef on the public stems from his sharp, brave and clear rulings and his influence continues and will accompany Sephardi Jewry for many years to come.”
Dr. Ariel Picard (Shalom Hartman Institute), in discussing “Social Responsibility and Halacha: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Way,” suggested looking at the rabbi’s childhood in order to understand how he was molded into a leader with a reputation for his unique religious rulings. “Two symbols accompanied Ovadia all his life – one was his greatness in the study and understanding of Torah and the other is the struggle of the religiously and socially short-statured Sephardi society in which he grew up.” He added that the rabbi himself came from a poor and not very well-connected family, “which explains the ‘down-to-earth’ and compassionate approach attributed to him.” He added that, whereas in Israel’s early days traditionally the large public of Sephardi Jews lived under a secular Ashkenazi Israeli hegemony, and some felt they were losing their honor and commitment to religious tradition and to halacha, “Rabbi Yosef tried to extend the religious borders to incorporate the biggest group in Israeli society, the traditional Sephardi Jews. This was his way of coping with the social reality in which he functioned as a ruler of religious decisions. He proposed to his public a cultural alternative to secular Israeli culture, and to do that he sometimes opted to deride and belittle that culture. This was one of the main characteristics of the huge project that is the Shas movement.”
Youtube videos of the speeches are available here