R. Ovadia Yosef
Last week I received two new books relating to R. Ovadia Yosef. The first is Benny Lau’s book ממרן עד מרן (“From ‘Our Teacher’ to ‘Our Teacher’”-The first “Our Teacher” being Yosef Karo, and the second R. Ovadia) which was mentionned here by Manuscriptboy. While I haven’t read much of the book, adapted from Lau’s Ph.D. dissertation, it seems like a thorough examination of R. Ovadia’s “halakhic philosophy.” While most of the public in Israel and abroad knows R. Ovadia from either his occasional outrageous statements that he makes in his weekly lectures (see here at Wikipedia for some examples) or his political affiliation with the political party Shas, I have no hesitation in saying that he is one of the most important figures in halakhah since Yosef Karo, hence I agree with Lau’s title.
The second book which I received also relates to R. Ovadia but discusses a far more controversial side of his activities which Lau touches upon in his book, yet is unknown to most of the Jewish world including most people in Israel (Towards the end of his review of Lau’s book, Shlomo Deshen mentions it). One of the pillars of R. Ovadia’s halakhic philosophy is that all Jews whose origins are in North Africa or the Middle East, commonly known as Sephardic or Oriental Jews, must hold by the teachings of Maran, Yosef Karo. One of the results of this is what I call Pax Ovadia, meaning that R. Ovadia is attempting to have all Sephardic Jews only observe Jewish laws and customs that in his eyes are loyal to the teachings of Yosef Karo. As the influence of R. Ovadia increased and later also that of his sons, the displeasure with this attempt at uniformity among Sephardic Jews caused great unease among many rabbis, some from the Iraqi community and others from Morocco or other North African countries. A number of years ago R. Shelomo Toledano published a book called ספר דברי שלום ואמת whose stated purpose was to “Strengthen some laws in the spirit of the decision-making of North African sages, from Morocco to Libya, against the undermining of them in the Holy Land.” The Rashi: he is trying to defend Sephardic customs, primarily those from Morocco, which R. Ovadia has come out against. He analyzes numerous customs and usually tries to show that the Moroccan tradition is either the authentic tradition of Yosef Karo or that it is a very old tradition which Yosef Karo did not necessarily intend to supersede (see the intro. to his Beit Yosef). Toledano is very learned and clearly has a historical perspective of the development of customs and of traditions, often referring to scientific (for lack of a better word) literature on the subject to illustrate his point. He also includes a number of programatic essays regarding the authority of Yosef Karo, the place of pluralism in Jewish law, etc. Well I just got the second volume and it is even more interesting than the first.
For those in America who are interested in the books of R. Ovadia the best place to get them is iSefer or you can probably find at least his responsa at the YU Seforim Sale. iSefer has almost all of his books, including many of his lesser known ones.