Journalist Toby Klein Greenwald speaks with Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau, one of the foremost experts on Rav Ovadia Yosef.
TG: What was Rav Ovadia’s true opinion about the religious significance of the State of Israel?
BL: He wasn’t different from most of the Jerusalem rabbis who were the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon, such as Rav Eliezer Waldenberg and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rav Ovadia believed as the other rabbis did. They were not anti-Zionists but they were certainly not part of the Zionist movement. They were subscribers to the belief that [the establishment of the State] was yad Hashem—the hand of God—working, but they believed that it was forbidden to support the Zionist movement politically. They didn’t think Israel was the Diaspora.They were far from Satmar but they were not part of the Religious Zionist movement.
TG: What was Rav Ovadia’s opinion about the obligation to serve in the army?
BL: He believed that anyone who was able to learn Torah should do so; anyone who was capable of sitting seriously in the tent of Torah, about whom it could be said “Torato umanuto, Torah is his vocation,” should not serve in the army.
TG: What were Rav Ovadia’s thoughts about secular education?
BL: He thought that studying for a profession is important in order for an individual to earn a livelihood, assuming that he cannot learn. In other words, the ideal is to become a talmid chacham, but he recognized that it was not the derech, the way, for everyone, but rather for a select group of people, and that there are others who would need the ability to make a living.
TG: What will be Rav Ovadia’s main legacy?
BL: That’s a difficult question because everyone takes something different from him. He has the status of one who achieved gadlut, greatness in Torah. He became one of the poskei halachah, halachic decisors, of the generation and [the idea of] a yerushah, inheritance, is that it does not end. Every generation includes those people who work at the yetzirah, the creation of the Torah. When we say the blessings on the Torah, we say, “noten haTorah” [in the present tense] and Rav Ovadia is one of the proofs that in our generation the Torah continues to renew itself.
He dealt with the entire Torah so it is hard to say that one major area would be his legacy.
TG: Whom did Rav Ovadia consider to be his teachers?
BL: That’s an interesting question. He was “raised” by Rav Ezra Attiya, the rosh yeshivah of Porat Yosef Yeshiva. But he was an autodidact. That’s what’s important to know about him.
TG: Whom among his contemporaries did he consider to be “gedolei hador”?
BL: There is no question that Rav Auerbach is one of the gedolim whom Rav Ovadia regarded very highly, but he had a chavurah, a group of rabbanim [who were his colleagues], all Ashkenazim. They were known as rabbanei Yerushalayim. They stayed connected to each other for sixty years; they were a close-knit group. It included Rav Elyashiv and Rav Waldenberg, and their teacher had been Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank.
When Rav Ovadia came back from Egypt in 1950, he became a part of that chavurah and was the only Sephardi member.
For ten years he studied in Porat Yosef, but he always learned alone, aside from one friend to whose house he would travel back and forth. That was Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, who became one of the rashei yeshivah of Porat Yosef. The families are still very much in touch; the connection was very strong.
TG: What were Rav Ovadia’s thoughts regarding prospects of peace with Palestinians and the Arab world in general?
BL: He thought that if there is a chance, one has to give it [a chance], but he absolutely did not believe the Arabs. He thought that there was no one to talk to.
Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau wrote his doctoral dissertation on Rav Ovadia, which subsequently evolved into the book From “Maran” to “Maran”: The Halachic Philosophy of Rav Ovadia Yosef. The book opens with a letter from Rav Ovadia to Rabbi Lau in which he writes that he reviewed the book and he saw that it was written in “haderech hanechonah”; in other words, that Rabbi Lau understood him. Rabbi Lau is the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem and is the director of the Center for Judaism and Society as well as the Institute for Social Justice at Beit Morasha of Jerusalem.