Much of Israel went into deep mourning on Monday as prominent former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, succumbed to old age and died at a Jerusalem hospital.
Yosef had been in the hospital for weeks, with his condition swinging wildly from stable to critical. At midday Monday, doctors said he suffered complete systemic shutdown.
Hundreds of mourners flooded the hospital, and tens of thousands were expected to participate in his funeral procession later that evening.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement calling Yosef “one of the greatest religious legislators of our generation” and “a giant in Torah…a guide for multitudes.” According to Netanyahu, “the people of Israel have lost one of the wisest people of the generation.”
However, Ovadia Yosef was also one of Israel’s most controversial and polarizing figures.
As a Sephardic chief rabbi in the mid–1970s, Yosef was largely respected. But in his later years, as spiritual leader of the Shas Party in Israel’s Knesset and of a large portion of Israel’s Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community, Yosef made himself a target for unending criticism.
In a 2010 interview, Yosef also took aim at non-Jews, claiming that Gentiles’ only purpose on earth was to serve Jews. The remarks brought about harsh condemnation from Israeli and American Jews, alike.
Yosef was also extremely hawkish on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, praying for the death of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and constantly referring to the Palestinian Arabs as the “bitter enemies” of Israel.
At home, Yosef was intent on imposing an Orthodox Sephardic interpretation of Judaism, making him a poster boy for non-Orthodox Israelis protesting all that is wrong with Israel’s religious establishment.
For most Christians and many Messianic Jews, Yosef will be most remembered as the spiritual head of Shas, a party that for years controlled Israel’s powerful Ministry of Interior, and through it made life extremely difficult for believers seeking to enter the land.