(Ayatollah) Religion, Law, State (Ovadia Yosef)


Yehuda Mirsky and Elli Fisher posted this 2006 article by Shlomo Fischer about the non-relation between halakha and nationalism in the rulings of Ovadia Yosef (z”l). You can read the article at: the Cardoza Law Review website. Yosef represented a third non-utopian way between religious anti-nationalism and religious nationalism, with important ramifications for any discussion of law, religion, and politics. The upshot to the argument is this:

R. Ovadiah Yosef, in contrast to these, does not relate to the underlying nationalist rationale but to the concrete act, event, or institution, which he judges by Jewish legal criteria. Thus he accepts with appreciation the military victory of 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel. However, he does not attribute to these events any ideological or theological significance beyond their immediate, concrete
meaning in Jewish law. Thus the military victory of 1948 is treated solely in terms of the physical salvation of a Jewish community, concerning which there are clear guidelines and rules in Jewish law.
Even the concept of the “beginning of redemption” is treated as a category in Jewish law, and R. Ovadiah Yosef discusses the necessary stages in the redemptive process before it acquires practical implications in Jewish law.

The devil is in the detail, as Fischer continues to note. On one hand, Yosef was willing to recognize the secular state, unlike the Ashkenazi haredi rabbis, without sanctifying it, as did the religious nationalists. On the other hand,  he sought to subordinate the secular State and its value and interest to Jewish religious law, and that’s political. Fischer concludes: “We see thus that R. Ovadiah Yosef’s religious vision creates a constellation which has not been seen before: a modernist institutional and organizational orientation in the service of a pre-modernist religious substantive conception.”

But I still can’t help feel that it’s a misnomer to call this “law.” Ovadia Yosef enjoyed immense political clout, and was a major player on the Israeli scene. But his halakhic rulings don’t seem to exercise the same force and scope of law with which we usually associate the term. It’s only law if it can impose itself on an entire and diverse population through a state or sovereign apparatus. Yosef could muddy the waters and drive people crazy, with his vicious statements about secular Israeli Jews or Arabs or Palestinians. But that’s not the same as actually ruling them. He would have made a great Ayatollah if he had been given or been able to take the full power of the state. I’m not competent to say, but I’m wondering if there’s any relation between Ovadiah Yosef’s middle way and the doctrine and practice of Vali-ye faqih (Guardian Jurist) in Iran.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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