More than 700,000 people attend the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual father
by Joshua Lapide
A former chief rabbi of Israel, he brought religion into politics, influencing the Shas party, who participated in coalition governments for 30 years. Open to the Palestinians, he cursed Sharon and Ahmadinejad, criticising Pope Benedict XVI for "idolatry".

Jerusalem (AsiaNews ) - More than 700,000 people attended last night's funeral of Ovadia Yosef, Israel's former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, described by Prime Minister Netanyahu as "one of the wisest men of this generation."

Surrounded by thousands of Orthodox Jews dressed in black, the van carrying Rabbi Yosef's body took more than four hours to inch its way to the cemetery. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, over one in every ten Jews was at the ceremony.

Ovadia Yosef, 93, was born in Baghdad in 1920. At four, he moved with his family to Jerusalem. In 1947, he moved to Cairo where he stayed until 1950. Eventually, he became one of the highest authorities among Sephardic Jews whose ancestors settled in North Africa and the Middle East after beingexpelled from Spain in 1492.

Yosef served as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (a state function) from 1973 to 1983 and subsequently acted as the spiritual guide for the Shas movement and political party.

Unlike the Ashkenazi branch of Judaism, Sephardic Jews are not critical of the State of Israel, viewed originally built as 'atheist' by the Zionist movement. Indeed, Yosef was among those who justified the existence of the Israeli state on religious grounds.

His greatness lies primarily in his knowledge of the Torah and its rabbinic applications, which have inspired many scholars.

His fame is also connected to his role as the 'spiritual father' of Shas, a party founded in 1984 to represent Israel's Sephardic or Middle Eastern Jews who were often cut off from the country's social and political life.

For some, Yosef was among those who changed Israel from a secularist nationalist state to a religious nationalist state, much like the Islamic countries that surround it.

In 1999, Shas became the third largest party in the Knesset. Since then, it has been an important force in forming any government. Ovadia Yosef became crucial for any Israeli politician who wanted to further his or her career.

In an attempt to bring together religious practice and pragmatism, Rabbi Yosef showed flexibility and toughness. For example, in the 1990s, he ruled that it was acceptable to trade land for peace with the Palestinians, but took tougher positions later on, after the second intifada broke out in 2000.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushed a plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Rabbi Yosef said, "God will strike him with one blow and he will die; he will sleep and not awake." In early 2006, Mr Sharon had a devastating stroke and remains in a coma to this day.

In 2009, he cursed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he hoped he got sick. The same year, during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land, he forbade all Shas members to be present at the meetings with the pontiff in order not to fall into the sin of idolatry.

On the other hand, many of his rabbinical rulings were used against political opponents or to save Shas leaders accused of corruption.

The party now sits in the opposition with 11 seats. Its main agenda has been to ensure state financing for its independent religious school system, neglecting, critics say, secular studies and turning out a new generation that is ill equipped for the modern workplace.

Now the issue is who will be his successor. At the funeral, one of his sons, David, said, "You were the Moses of our generation, father, who shall we ask now," he cried. "With whom shall we speak?"

However, last summer, another of Ovadia Yosef's sons, Yitzhak, became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.