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Friday, August 30, 2013

Can the outgoing Sephardi chief rabbi regain his place at Ovadia Yosef's side?

At a ceremony in Jerusalem's Old City, scheduled for right after Rosh Hashana, the new Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef will be officially proclaimed “Rishon Letzion,” the title by which the Sephardi community refers to its chief rabbi.

The event, to take place at the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue, is a ritual that dates back to Ottoman times, at which the rabbi dons the traditional cloak and cap for the first time.

According to the protocol, the person that “anoints” the new chief rabbi and help him into the cloak is the outgoing chief rabbi, but this time, as has occurred periodically in the past, the two rabbis' controversial history is impeding on tradtion. 

Former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who also happens to be an in-law of the newly chosen rabbi, was not invited to the ceremony, and barring any last-minute reversals, his absence will be rather conspicuous.

Though only a month has passed since the intense battles for the chief rabbi positions, the chosen two have been shoved out of the public eye, relegated to Channel 1’s Saturday night Judaism corner. 

The big stories are about the informal players in this saga, in particular, the rift between Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Amar, who for years was one of Yosef’s closest associates.

Amar had been marked by Yosef for greatness. Yosef proclaimed him “light of the world,” and honored him by reciting in Amar's presence the special blessing said when seeing the sages of the generation, “who has shared His wisdom with those who fear Him.”

Amar, one of the unofficial symbols of Shas, risked almost all he had in the last rabbinate elections and blew it: His candidate for chief rabbi, Rabbi Tzion Bo’aron, lost. 

Now Shas leaders are doing everything they can to isolate Amar and destroy his authority. 

The door to Rabbi Ovadia’s home has been slammed in his face, and Shas-affiliated media outlets have stopped using the honorific titles of “hagaon” (“the genius”) and “maran,” (“our rabbi and teacher”) when referring to him. Now he is merely called “rabbi,” like any of the national-religious rabbis.

Rabbi Amar would like to be forgiven for what Rabbi Ovadia’s court, and probably Rabbi Ovadia himself, see as rebellion, betrayal and ingratitude. Amar has his own version of events, but it’s doubtful that he would ever again bet the ranch the way he did during the last election. 

On the other hand, despite his efforts at achieving forgiveness, he still hasn’t explicitly apologized for backing Bo’aron against Yitzhak Yosef.

There are those in Shas who say that the door to forgiveness has not been shut completely, but on the assumption he does not win “clemency,” it isn’t clear to what degree this might impeded his ambitious plans to be the next leading Sephardi Torah sage.

Amar, who has recently refused to be interviewed, has been spending his time attending pre-High Holy Day inspirational rallies and, as Haaretz has learned, is even seeking to assemble a council of sages to be an alternative to that of Shas.

While Ovadia Yosef never groomed an heir, Amar, a veteran rabbinical court judge and adjudicator, stood out among the Sephardic rabbis in Yosef’s inner circle, particularly with regard to issues of halakha, Jewish law. Over the years, Yosef has referred numerous complex halakhic cases to Amar, including conversions, and cases of agunot (women unable to obtain a divorce) and mamzerut (suspicions of halakhic bastardy).

Given their intimate relationship, Amar’s decision back his own candidate for chief rabbi surprised many people, including many within Shas. But the move demonstrated that Amar is trying to chart an independent course, on the assumption, yet to be proven, that he can manage without Shas and the House of Ovadia.

This rebellion is accompanied by very serious allegations being made by Amar’s associates against Yosef’s household – the Shas party leaders and Rabbi Ovadia’s sons. “Rav Ovadia is a hostage, they’ve turned him into a haggler in the market,” they argue, echoing allegations that have been made by various Shas rebels in recent years, including former MK Rabbi Chaim Amsallem and Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak.

Amar has tried to keep himself above the fray. On Monday, he met with the 93-year-old Yosef for the first time since the chief rabbis’ selection, surprising him at Hadassah-University Hospital at Ein Kerem, where Yosef had been hospitalized with heart problems (he was released Thursday afternoon after a five-day hospitalization).

The surprise visit at a neutral location spared Amar a possible confrontation with members of Yosef’s court. In the rabbi’s room in the hospital’s cardiology department were two other people: Moshe Yosef, the rabbi’s youngest son, and Tzvi Hakak, the rabbi’s personal assistant, who apparently took minutes of the encounter. 

Amar’s associates described the meeting as positive, which aroused ridicule in the home of Rabbi Ovadia, where they said that the elderly rabbi refused to shake Amar’s hand and made serious accusations against him. Among other things, he quoted to Amar the verse from Genesis, “What is my transgression, what is my sin that you have hotly pursued me?” which is what Jacob asked Laban, who had tricked him and chased him.

Not counting the quiet efforts being made, it was the second time Amar failed to appease Yosef. Two weeks ago he sent a letter to the rabbi, in which he used the most elaborate rhetoric possible to try to absolve himself.

“I, the small and despised, announce submissively that everything I did, I did for the honor of God,” Amar wrote, which apparently made Yosef even angrier. “I’m happy for Maran, may he live a long life, that there is continuity to his teaching by his son who now occupies his place,” a reference to the fact that Ovadia is also a former chief rabbi. 

Though he did not express regret for having run a candidate against the elder rabbi’s son, Amar added, “If indeed I erred, do not hold it against me … for I will seek [Yosef’s] love and compassion forever.”

Yosef did not respond to the letter, but a member of his household said he heard Yosef describe the missive as “an arrogant letter.”

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