On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia

“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)

In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life.  I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia.  As one friend put it:  “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”

I’m not going to rehash the biographical points that have circulated in many articles and posts.  I will just share a personal perspective, from my idiosyncratic position of having studied for nine years in yeshiva and more teaching halakhah, in which I have made extensive use of his legal writings, and espousing progressive politics and values that entire time.  Rav Ovadia — it’s complicated.  I think that the following two things are both true:

1) Rav Ovadia  was a jurisprudential giant, both “Sinai” (encyclopedic mastery) and “Oker Harim” (mountain-moving creativity) of the highest order.  As a jurist, he was bold, creative, and confident, and often remarkably in touch with the sensibilities of a broad constituency, especially the oft-ignored working-class.  He brought honor to Torah, to God, and to human beings, including many types of people whose voices were systematically silenced in Rabbinic discourse (e.g., Sefaradim, laborers, Ethiopian Jews, agunot).  He showed commitment to the supremacy of human life over that of land fetishes in a climate in which this was not the prevalent culture in the Rabbinic world, despite the strong, bullying pressure against his view.

2) Rav Ovadia spent decades contributing immeasurably to the culture of violent and hateful speech in Israel and the Jewish world.  He brought disgrace to Torah, to God, and to human beings and placed many vulnerable people in greater danger through his aggressive and toxic speech, (e.g., LGBT people, Palestinians, certain Ashkenazi rabbinic leaders, secular Jews, Gentiles, political rivals, etc.)

Those are just both true and there’s no reconciliation.  The second statement does not negate the first and the first does not apologize for and certainly doesn’t excuse the second.

This is perhaps one of the most important messages of the Postmodern age — that there are no heroes, that everyone who has done good has also sinned and that Superman and Lex Luthor have never and can never exist as such.  And yet it is the message that even our generation most doggedly resists.  We want people who do terrible things to be terrible.  That way we’re not implicated; we don’t need to fear becoming like them.  The last 50 years have been a vigorous struggle to resist Hannah Arendt’s claim about the banality of evil — that many Nazi guards and executioners were great family men and nice neighbors, that the upstanding people in the Milgram experiments made terrible moral judgment calls that could have brought disastrous consequences to others, and so on.  And the reverse.  One of the many reasons I recommend reading Toni Morrison’s magnificent works is to grapple with empathetic protagonists who do some awful things.

Dave Chappelle captures this poignantly in this short piece, with NSFW language.  (He’s confusing George Washington with Thomas Jefferson, but it doesn’t matter; the point is clear and besides, Pres. Washington also owned many slaves.)

They are contradictory and they are both true and it is at our peril if we pay attention to only one or the other.  And yes, that is the case even though in theory, in principle, our Torah learning is all about refining our character.  We have to sit with that conflict and we’re doomed if we don’t.  I suspect that the rejection from some circles of taking seriously his contributions, or other religious teachers who have also said or done horrible things, and the shrill dismissals of their Torah as hypocrisy reflects two things:  1) the general problem discussed above of wishing that heroes were heroes and villains were villains; 2) holding Torah/religion to an inhuman standard and in so doing, reflecting a worldview that is hopelessly fundamentalist and mystical.  I ask those who are unable to take seriously someone like Rav Ovadia’s positive impact on many people the following questions:

*Do you ever quote the Declaration of Independence in your support of social justice, even though it was written by slave-owners?

*Do you ever applaud President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of the great American presidents with reference to the New Deal even though in order to pass it, he repeatedly agreed to exclude African-Americans from its protections and even though he declined to use the weight of his office to save a significant number of Jewish would-be victims from the Shoah?

*Do you ever appreciate President Lyndon Johnson for pushing through the Great Society as the model of American governmental responsibility for its citizens even though the U.S. military under his command killed thousands and thousands of Vietnamese civilians, and led American soldiers to their deaths, even after he had concluded that the war wasn’t winnable?

*Have you ever celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., even though he cheated on his wife repeatedly?

*Philosophers out there:  have you ever appreciated Martin Heidegger’s thought, even though he was a member of the Nazi party who was unrepentant to his death?  In 1976.

Rav Ovadia’s public language was often despicable and as a ben Torah, I am committed to the idea that our words matter and translate to action (eg Pirkei Avot 1:11).  But let’s keep some perspective.  None of his words approached the destructiveness of Presidents Jefferson, Roosevelt, or Johnson, and I don’t tend to hear the same dismissal of acknowledgement of their contributions as I’ve been hearing in some quarters for Rav Ovadiah.  Let’s lose our illusions that Torah, somehow, inoculates its bearers from being human.

Torah itself doesn’t see itself in that way:  The Tanakh stylizes many of our most inspiring psalms to be written by David.  The Tanakh also explicitly excoriates David for sending innocent Uriah to his death in order to steal his wife, Batsheva and punishes him brutally for encroaching on a divine prerogative by taking an unwarranted census just to flex his political muscles.  The world is broken.  Humans are broken.  Torah is given in the world to humans.  That doesn’t mean write off the brokenness, God forbid.  Natan excoriates David; we must excoriate Rav Ovadia for the many things that merit excoriation.  Not to do so is to violate his victims.  And we should study his prodigious jurisprudential corpus and appreciate its staggering insight and creativity even as we treat it with the skepticism that a real student of Torah brings to any text in respect for what its importance actually means.

Rav Ovadia’s toxic public discourse may be sufficient to prevent us from summarizing the man simply as all-around great; each of us will make that assessment.  But woe to us if it prevents us from appreciating his staggering contributions to Torah and the Jewish world.

16 Responses to “On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia”

  1. It’s probably also worth noting that a lot of the really terrible things Rav Yosef said came after his forays into politics. I suspect he would have been nearly universally recognized as one of the greats, not only of our own time, but of the generations, had he been able to resist getting mired in political hucksterism.


    KRG · October 9th, 2013 at 10:45 pm
  2. It should also be noted that Rav Ovadiah changed his position on land for peace in 2003, not in principle, but on the basis that he no longer believed that the Palestinian leadership were sincere partners for peace.


    Avraham · October 10th, 2013 at 3:05 am
  3. There is no excuse for the awful things that Rav Ovadiah said, but note that he said most of those things during the later years of his life.

    Is it not reasonable to suspect that some of this vitriol was a result of diminished mental capacity, coupled with increased isolation from the world beyond his handlers, who probably filtered the news that the Rav received?

    @Avraham

    Isn’t the principle what is important, regarding the Land? Do you see the difference between Rav Ovadiah’s position and the position of those rabbis who assured (misled) their publics into thinking that HaShem would undoubtedly prevent the Disengagement?


    Jonathan1 · October 10th, 2013 at 4:47 am
  4. This is also worth a look, along the same lines:

    makomisrael.org/blog/ovadia-yosef-zl/


    Drew · October 10th, 2013 at 10:00 am
  5. Dear Friends,
    Most of you fail to realise that the so called toxic comments attributed to the Rav were usually deliberately misreprsented quotes by the secular media.
    How many of you have been guilty of accepting them as fact without researching them at source, all of you it seems.
    The Rav is already recognised as an all time great, his Halachic knowledge and greatness has no comparasin since that of Rav Yosef Karo 500 years ago and his influence on religious and cultural life in Israel is without parallel.
    Virtually every significant halachic desision as effects the Jewish people have been made by him over the last 50 years.


    Judah · October 10th, 2013 at 10:57 am
  6. With mad props to Aryeh for name dropping Chappelle and Nas in a Jewish blog post, this argument faltered in its comparison of celebrating Ovadia Yosef and celebrating the Declaration of Independence, Heidegger’s thought, the Great Society, etc. Revering the principles of the Declaration of Independence is not necessarily to revere its racist authors; revering a cogent legal argument justifying land for peace is not necessarily to revere its viciously racist, homophobic proponent. This same line of thinking marks the shallow, common criticism of BDS: ‘no way should we support BDS or allow its advocates from speaking at our Jewish forums cuz like….it’s terrorists who support BDS!!’ Views should be judged based on their content, not based on their proponent – and that works both ways.


    Jacob · October 10th, 2013 at 11:38 am
  7. revering a cogent legal argument justifying land for peace is not necessarily to revere its viciously racist, homophobic proponent.

    Was Rav Ovadiah viciously racist? There are probably a few Ethiopian Jews who might challenge this contention.

    This same line of thinking marks the shallow, common criticism of BDS: ‘no way should we support BDS or allow its advocates from speaking at our Jewish forums cuz like….it’s terrorists who support BDS!!’ Views should be judged based on their content, not based on their proponent – and that works both ways.

    But, in a not very subtle manner, you are not making the analogy with criticism of BDS, because you are debasing the validity of the criticism(“cuz like . . . it’s terrorists who support BDS!”).

    In other words, what you are saying is that Rav Ovadiah is a terrible person even though he made Halachic rulings that are just; and, on the other hand, the BDS movement is just, even though it’s critics incorrectly accuse BDS’s proponents of being terrorists.

    I would agree with you that BDS’s proponents are not terrorists. But then again I am um like just another ignorantacated Jew (because I haven’t participated in an Encounter trip?), so what the hell do I know?


    Jonathan1 · October 10th, 2013 at 2:00 pm
  8. its


    Jonathan1 · October 10th, 2013 at 2:01 pm
  9. Unmentioned is the fact that the inflammatory rhetoric brought to bear on the world (and particularly on novel trends in society) by a great Rav like Ovafia Yosef, ztzl, and others of his level of devotion to the tradition, are not extraneous uncouth streams from their social conditions but davka the language of Tanakh itself and particularly of the prophets. The prophets all but beg us to bring the strongest affirmations and condemnations, the highest spiritual mobilization, into the world– not only personally but socially and politically. Progressives have disavowed this inheritance for another from the same source-namely the desire to transform social conditions and uplift the world.

    In the same way that a psak enters the world of practice to the very lowest level, e.g. making soup or getting dressed, so too there is a strong emphasis in the tradition (despite exile) on bringing Torah messages to bear on political realities. In this sense R. Ovadia can inspire us even here.

    Israel as a nation and a tradition benefits and suffers from high walls, that allowing huge scholars and learned communities of faith to develop at the price of insulation. Those of us who are “rich” in the inverse qualities have a role to play in the redemption, but less and less of one if we cannot see the necessity and unity of our collective different parts.


    yonah · October 11th, 2013 at 2:54 am
  10. [...] As noted in various tributes, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was a bold, creative, and confident jurist, and often remarkably in touch with the sensibilities of a broad constituency, especially the oft-ignored working-class. He brought honor to Torah, to God, and to human beings, including many types of people whose voices were systematically silenced in Rabbinic discourse. For much of his career he was a voice of reason and compassion when much of the Orthodox world, particularly Ashkenazi Rabbinic leaders in Israel representing traditions from Eastern and Central Europe were promoting far more stringent paths of observance. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s ruling that the Beta Yisrael community of Ethiopia were part of the Jewish people and did not require formal conversion to Judaism paved the way for Israel to bring tens of thousands of them to Israel. His voluminous responsa also show sensitivity to the economic plight of many of his constituents. While more prosperous Ashkenazic households were more prone to spend lots of money to keep a kosher kitchen, going so far as to purchase two dishwashers, he was more lenient. [...]


    Heroes and Their Tragic Flaws: Remembering Rav Ovadiah Yosef | Rabbi Ed Bernstein · October 11th, 2013 at 5:39 pm
  11. Here is an excellent piece that fleshes out Rav Ovadia’s jurisprudential greatness with greater specificity and detail, by my rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshivat Hadar, in New York. skydrive.live.com/view.aspx?resid=9FBB3B48FDBADC97!4004&app=WordPdf&authkey=!AISugrq_OfnzQKE


    aryehbernstein · October 12th, 2013 at 12:40 pm
  12. @Jonathan1, with thanks for introducing me to the word “ignorantacated,” thought I would clarify what you seem to have misunderstood (and I mean this sincerely – I don’t think you got it wrong, just misunderstood).

    “In other words, what you are saying is that Rav Ovadiah is a terrible person even though he made Halachic rulings that are just; and, on the other hand, the BDS movement is just, even though it’s critics incorrectly accuse BDS’s proponents of being terrorists…I would agree with you that BDS’s proponents are not terrorists.”

    1. I have neither the expertise nor the interest in determining if a Halachic ruling is “just,” nor did I declare that Yosef was a “terrible person.” What I stated is that celebrating certain views does not mean we have to celebrate the individuals who advocated for them. And you did not address that claim at all.

    2. If you’ll go back and read what I said, you’ll note that I never made any sort of statement on whether or not BDS’s proponents are terrorists. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t…but that’s not the point here. The point here is to evaluate a view and all its implications without impugning such evaluations with biases for or against the proponents of these views.

    Yosef undoubtedly advanced many wonderful, progressive views that contributed greatly to justice and equality. And I will celebrate those views, without divinizing the man who advocated them, for reasons that are apparent.

    Oh, and regarding the Ethiopian Jews who might dispute my contention that Yosef was racist, this seems like kind of a silly rebuttal. Let’s say I’m a vocal American politician who admirably advocates on behalf of disadvantaged Americans of color, but also publicly states that all non-Americans were born to serve us? Has my advocacy for Americans of color precluded the possibility that I am a racist?


    Jacob · October 13th, 2013 at 2:40 am
  13. @Jacob

    What I stated is that celebrating certain views does not mean we have to celebrate the individuals who advocated for them. And you did not address that claim at all.

    I’ll address your claim: I agree.

    Although, I personally do celebrate Rav Ovadiah, because IMHO the great things he did in his life far outweigh the awful things he said in his later years.

    If you’ll go back and read what I said, you’ll note that I never made any sort of statement on whether or not BDS’s proponents are terrorists.

    You did not; I stated that they are not terrorists, although I am guessing that you agree with me on this.

    What you wrote is: This same line of thinking marks the shallow, common criticism of BDS: ‘no way should we support BDS or allow its advocates from speaking at our Jewish forums cuz like….it’s terrorists who support BDS!!’

    I’ll leave it to others here to cuz like read between the lines of your statement, in a hopefully non shallow manner.

    Has my advocacy for Americans of color precluded the possibility that I am a racist?

    Your example raises the possibility that you (in your example) are xenophobic, but, no, not a racist.


    Jonathan1 · October 13th, 2013 at 10:44 am
  14. @Jon1

    There aren’t many lines to read between: that shallow criticism of BDS represents a shifty, unintelligent (hence the “cuz like,” as it seems I am forced to justify), ad hominem attack rather than a critique of principles.

    And if you’re left splitting hairs on xenophobia and racism in commenting on my extremely hypothetical example, it seems you’ve proved my point.

    Hopefully through discussions like these we will come to advocate for honorable, respectful beliefs rather than wasting our time evaluating the half-bigoted half-righteous “fence-sitters” who can’t make up their minds on which side of history they will fall.


    Jacob · October 17th, 2013 at 4:13 pm
  15. [...] of my teachers and friends, Aryeh Bernstein, one of my real heroes of Torah, said that what is really going on here, is that we want our heroes to be heroes and our villains to be villains. We are, Aryeh says, [...]


    On Being a Messy Exception | beitwoodward · October 18th, 2013 at 8:42 am
  16. I think my basic point is buttressed here from a different angle in a new article by my favorite active journalist (sorry Dahlia Lithwick), the always-on-point Ta-Nehisi Coates: www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2013/10/historys-greatest-monsters/280702/


    aryehbernstein · October 20th, 2013 at 3:43 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik