By Michael Freund
As hundreds of thousands of mourners filled the streets of Jerusalem last Monday evening for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, viewers tuning in at home were confronted with an equally painful sight.
For several hours, Israel’s three main television channels found themselves out of their comfort zone, struggling to explain why so many people from all walks of life felt the need to accompany a rabbi to his final resting place.
They spoke of Rabbi Yosef’s profound influence on Israeli politics, his empowerment of the country’s Sephardim and restoration of their pride, and even compared him with the leaders of the social protest movement.
In other words, they missed the point entirely.
For as much as these descriptions may have been accurate, it was not the number of seats Shas garnered in the Knesset that brought the masses out, nor even the battles the party waged on behalf of the monthly child allowance.
Put simply, the funeral turnout was all about Ovadia Yosef, the prominent rabbi and Torah sage, not the founder of a political party. Or, to paraphrase political strategist Jim Carville’s memorable slogan from the 1992 US presidential campaign, “It’s the Torah, stupid!” Regardless of what one may have thought about the late chief rabbi, his position on various policy matters or his statements, no one can question his erudition and scholarship or his fearless and innovative approach to weighty questions of Jewish law.
As the foremost Sephardi rabbi of his day, and one of the most important sages of this generation, his passing evoked an outpouring of sentiment that cut across ethnic and socio-economic boundaries.
Anyone who appreciates halacha and cherishes its role in Jewish life understood the monumental contribution that Rabbi Yosef made. It is not that the media failed to grasp this obvious and palpable truth. They just were incapable of articulating it in any meaningful way.
Indeed, it was excruciating to watch as some of Israel’s best-known journalists toiled to make sense of it all, clearly swathed in a mix of bewilderment and disbelief.
During an interview with President Shimon Peres on Channel 2, anchorwoman Yonit Levi put it best when she said, “There is a feeling today that there are two States of Israel. Part of the nation is in deep mourning while the other part is looking at this with, at best, curiosity.”
This dichotomy between those who feel the loss of a towering spiritual leader and those who view it as merely an interesting sociological phenomenon is deeply disturbing.
Not only do Israel’s secular media elites fail to appreciate rabbinical scholars and their intellectual and theological achievements. They do not even begin to understand them.
Certainly, I don’t expect television personalities such as Yonit Levi or Raviv Drucker to be able to expound on the meaning of Rabbi Yosef’s critique of the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad) for occasionally issuing rulings that differed from those contained in the Shulhan Aruch.
But I would certainly hope that they would not be so removed from Jewish tradition that they would look upon the death of a great rabbi the way an American might relate to a cricket match.
When a prime minister or president departs this world, or some other major development occurs, anchormen do their best to project a certain command of the events on the screen, even when they have hours of airtime to fill.
But in the case of Rabbi Yosef’s funeral, there was an undeniable undertone of discomfort in the coverage, an awkwardness born of ignorance and Jewish illiteracy.
Steeped in cynicism, some journalists looked on with incredulity as people wept over the passing of a nonagenarian sage.
What they did not grasp is that this event provided a glimpse of what makes the Jewish people truly unique.
For throngs of citizens filled the streets of Jerusalem not to mourn a popular sports figure or rock star, but to pay tribute to a scholar and the Torah that he taught.
And that perhaps is Rabbi Yosef’s greatest legacy, and ours as well.