Commentary

“Answer Us in the Merit of Our Master, Answer Us:” An Election-Day Reflection on Mizrahi Haredi Political Culture

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Shaul Seidler-Feller

Introduction

Early last week, a friend forwarded me a recently-published video produced in Israel. When it began to play, I was quickly taken in by the powerful and evocative traditional Mizrahi tunes used in the recitation of Elul selihot (penitential prayers) that I recognized from my time at Maimonides Academy, a Sephardic yeshivah day school in Los Angeles. As I continued to listen and watch, my sense of nostalgia and enjoyment of the spiritual-aesthetic experience gave way to fascination with, and curiosity about, what I was witnessing onscreen.

In what follows, I wish to share some of my thoughts about this video, even though doing so takes me far from my usual fields of research into the realms of anthropology, sociology, and perhaps even political science. Attempts to solicit essays about this remarkable visual document from experts with the knowledge necessary to write intelligently about it met with failure, which is certainly understandable given the tight timeframe in which I had proposed they work. But because I have yet to encounter any thoughtful discussion of the clip, and because I do not think it should be passed over completely without comment, I decided that, as we say in Yiddish, bemokem sheeyn ish, iz a hering oykh a fish. And with the awareness that my status as an outsider coming from a different culture renders me potentially vulnerable to accusations of orientalism, I declare at the outset my intention to remain objective in my analysis and hope any deviations from this plan will be judged, in the spirit of the season, be-middat ha-rahamim (with the attribute of mercy).

The Medium

Shortly after having originally received the clip, I was walking to shul (actually, beit keneset; it was the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation) with a Sephardic friend of mine and decided to show it to him to see his reaction. A few seconds in, he wondered aloud whether it could have been an advertisement, given its length (3:48); I urged him to continue watching. In point of fact, nothing in the first part of the video suggests a political connection. Even the clip’s official title speaks only of “the best of the vocalists and poets com[ing] together to sing the selihot.” Unless one happens to notice that it was published by “Koah Shas,” the name of the 2019 campaign of the Shas political party primarily representing Mizrahi interests in Israel, one might think that it is little more than a music video showcasing the quintessentially Sephardic experience of waking up early every weekday morning for a month to recite selihot.

The first indication that something more complex is afoot comes about forty-five seconds in, at which point the camera captures, if only briefly, a backgrounded Shas campaign poster with a photograph of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013), the late, much lamented spiritual leader of the party. As the footage progresses, more and more of these “hints” are dropped when the protagonists, walking the city streets (with lanterns, strangely), take notice of (and thereby direct the viewer’s attention to) additional political pashkeviln of a similar nature – until finally, about halfway through, the message is made explicit. In a video (within the video) projected onto two city buildings, Rav Ovadia charges, “…take the Shas slip and place it in the ballot box. Shas builds ritual baths, builds study halls – [and by voting for it,] you made this happen! ‘A person’s agent is like himself’ [Kiddushin 41b and elsewhere].”

As my friend quickly discovered, this video is indeed an advertisement, but that, in itself, is not a hiddush (novelty). In articles published in Hebrew and English, and in his Hebrew book Harediyyut rakkah (pp. 156-160), Nissim Leon, one of the most careful students of Mizrahi Haredi culture, has shown that Shas has long harnessed technology as an effective means of reaching potential voters. The clip’s brilliance lies in its strategic ability to draw the viewer in slowly until its true purpose becomes clear in a sudden epiphany that this is no innocent selihot music video; it is, rather, an important part of a serious political campaign.

The Audience

The video is also fascinating for the way in which it constructs its audience. The protagonists arriving in the synagogue to recite selihot include both old and young, religious and traditional (witness the young man who covers his head with a kippah before entering), and, fascinatingly, men and women. I do not know how common it is for women to come to selihot in the Sephardic community, but in the Ashkenazic congregations with which I am familiar, female attendance is negligible (excepting the first night). The director(s) clearly wished to portray Shas as the party of the people, a message conveyed also by Shas’ 2015 campaign video wherein it promises “to care for the 2 million shekufim [invisible people] in Israel.” (Anyone doubting the significance of women’s inclusion here need only note the existence of an alternative version of the video uploaded by a group calling itself Tenu‘at Shas ha-Ma‘atirah that censors women out entirely.)

The prominence of Shas’ semi-“egalitarian” ethos, if we want to call it that, becomes more pronounced when contrasted with another Haredi party’s wildly popular campaign music video from 2015. Therein, the political agenda of United Torah Judaism is advanced by men whose appearances suggest they come from a mix of Hasidic and Lithuanian backgrounds, as is only appropriate for a party that seeks to represent both streams within the Ashkenazic Haredi community. However, no non-Haredi men and no women feature in it (or in the more recent, if far less dynamic, 2019 campaign videos here and here). While Shas, like UTJ, does not currently allow women to run for office, and has therefore been targeted by the Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot movement, its visual messaging suggests a greater willingness and desire to include women in the political process. (Sociologists and historians might compare this with the efforts of Chabad Hasidism, beginning in the generation of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn [1860-1920], to reach out to and organize the women of the movement, as explored by Ada Rapoport-Albert here. See also Chabad Hasidic singer Benny Friedman’s viral music video Ivri Anochi with its unapologetic inclusion of women. For an insightful read of a Purim-time knockoff of this song, see the essay by The Lehrhaus’ own Shlomo Zuckier here.)

The Symbol

One final aspect of the clip that I wish to explore is its conscious deployment of the figure of Rav Ovadia. With the advent in the modern period of cheaper printing and mass distribution technology, and especially following the invention of photography, the demand in Western society at large for visual representations of cultural heroes rose dramatically. As explored by Richard I. Cohen in Hebrew and English studies, artists and publishers met this demand in the specifically traditional Jewish context by capturing or, in some cases, imagining the likenesses of prominent rabbinic figures whose halakhic authority and/or saintly reputation earned them the status of gedolim (religious titans). In a similar vein, Maya Balakirsky Katz has treated (in an article and a book) the important iconic functions of rabbinic portraits in the context of the Chabad movement, especially after the passing of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. (The Lehrhaus’ own Zev Eleff analyzed the not-unrelated phenomenon of the proliferation of Gedolim Cards here.)

Building upon his predecessors, Nissim Leon transferred the discussion to the Sephardic milieu when he published Hebrew and English essays on the subject of what he called “visions of identity.” Beyond serving simply to fulfill one understanding of the verse “Let your eyes see your teachers” (Isaiah 30:20), photographs of rabbis displayed openly in Haredi (and other religious) homes serve as models for emulation as well as markers of affiliation. For Mizrahi Haredim, there is perhaps no figure who bears as much cultural cachet and weight as Rav Ovadia. His larger-than-life religious stature and learning, his Mizrahi ethnic pride, and, crucially, the identifiably Mizrahi garb in which he chose to clothe himself even after finishing his ten-year term as Sephardic Chief Rabbi made him into a potent symbol already long before his passing, and certainly in its aftermath. 

It therefore should not surprise us that Rav Ovadia figures so prominently in the political video under discussion. His visage graces not only the campaign posters, but also the selihot booklets used and the candles lit during the service. In its various poses, it performs the same function as the video clip of the Hafetz Hayyim (Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen; 1839-1933) does in the aforementioned UTJ video from 2015: it bestows a patina of authority, sanction, and mandate on the political party seeking to cast itself as the spiritual heir of a revered rabbinic leader. Mizrahim should vote for Shas in today’s election because it was the party of Rav Ovadia, just like Ashkenazic Haredim should vote for UTJ because Agudath Israel (one of the two partners in UTJ) was the party of the Hafetz Hayyim.

But the portrayal of Rav Ovadia in the video also goes a step further. Fewer than six years following his passing, Shas as a political party is struggling to find its footing. It and Mizrahim more generally are, in the words of the title of Leon’s 2018 book (coauthored with Yair Ettinger), like “a flock with no shepherd.” Giving Rav Ovadia such pride of place, including speaking roles, in the campaign video serves to establish him as spiritually present even in his physical absence. I would go so far as to argue that it attempts, in a certain way, to blur the distinction between life and death. Yes, Rav Ovadia is no longer with us, but the protagonists of the video can still see, touch, and draw inspiration from his image. He even becomes part of the liturgy when Lior Elmaliach cries out with fervor, “Answer us in the merit of our Master, answer us.”

In these and other ways, Rav Ovadia is still very much alive. Indeed, in 2015, a large crowd of Shas supporters sang, “Rav Ovadia is alive and well” (see also the second Shas campaign video from 2015 available here). And back in February of this year, it was reported that Rabbi Daniel Zer claimed that Rav Ovadia came to him in a dream and told him that he would personally advocate on High for anyone voting for Shas in the April election. In my view, shared to some extent by David Lehmann and Batia Siebzehner in their Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas (pp. 43-51), the cult of charisma and personality at work here is a milder, but related, form of that associated with the last Lubavitcher Rebbe by the Chabad movement.

Conclusion

Like any good campaign video, this one ends with a powerful slogan: “Our Master promised: Shas, your slip for the Day of Judgment.” While I have not yet succeeded in locating documentation of this assurance prior to the present campaign cycle (although see here and here for related promises of his back in 2006 and 2009), the more interesting piece of this line, for me, is the way in which religion and politics comingle almost seamlessly. The message is clear: if you choose the Shas slip at the ballot box, you will receive a favorable judgment slip on Yom Kippur, the culmination of the selihot season. (The word petek is also used as a metaphor for the “last chance” one has to change one’s judgment for the year on Hoshana Rabbah, as in the greeting pitka tava.) In a certain way, this slogan turns the narrative of the video on its head for, if all I need to be successful on Yom Kippur is to select the slip with the right party’s letters, then why go to selihot in the first place? Holding this question aside, the video is effective not only because it is musically catchy, but more importantly because it does tremendous work to advance the Shas agenda by telegraphing messages of inclusivity, authenticity, rabbinic sanction, and personal redemption. 

At the end, when Uziya Tzadok, looking straight into the camera, concludes the singing with the word anenu (answer us), one wonders whether he is not actually appealing to you, the viewer, to answer the call of Rav Ovadia and vote for Shas.