Am Shalem party leader MK Haim Amsalem has accused Shas politicians and
strategists of ignoring the rulings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader,
on the issue of conversion which the party has brought front and center in its
In addition, Amsalem claimed that the Shas election
campaign’s emphasis on strict conversion processes was only possible because
Yosef no longer controls party policy.
“It’s no secret that Rabbi Ovadia
Yosef does not control the situation of what happens around him these days,” the
MK and ordained rabbi told The Jerusalem Post in an interview earlier this week.
“Perhaps it’s not nice to say, but it’s no secret. It’s not him
Asked who is in control, Amsalem said that the “Lithuanian”
leadership, meaning that of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi
“The Lithuanians control him, and the Shas MKs who have a
Amsalem, who has written extensively on the issue of
conversion, said that his own more lenient approach, especially for non-Jews of
Jewish heritage was based on Yosef’s writings and rulings on the
“When Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was chief rabbi, conversion in Israel was
the quickest in the world,” Amsalem said. “A candidate for conversion could
within a matter of days get accepted as a convert,” he continued.
has in the past spoken publicly about a more lenient approach to
“Accepting the yoke of the commandments is essential for
conversion, but we must not push off converts too much. It is not right to cause
them pain by rejecting them,” the rabbi told Shas officials back in
The issue of conversion has played a surprisingly large role in the
current election campaign, with both Shas and Bayit Yehudi weighing in on the
Shas brought the topic to prominence with a controversial campaign
ad, which insinuated that Yisrael Beytenu would institute legislation to ease
conversion in contravention of Jewish law.
The issue was raised as part
of Shas’ campaign focus on “maintain the Jewish identity of the state” and its
insistence that the status quo on matters of religion and state be
Naftali Bennett and his national-religious Bayit Yehudi party
have however said that will seek to take control of the conversion system and
the Religious Services Ministry in order to enact “significant reforms” to the
religious institutions of the state.
The conversion issue is seen by many
in the national-religious community and its leadership as the gateway to
preventing intermarriage in Israel, in light of the approximately 330,000
Israelis from the former Soviet Union with Jewish roots but who are not defined
as Jewish according to Jewish law.
Conversion reform advocates argue that
Jewish law, or Halacha, allows for the conversion process to be much easier than
the current system in Israel permits, especially when bearing in mind the
concern that intermarriage will greatly increase without such
Haredi rabbis take a more rigorous stance on conversion and
insist that converts commit to strictly observing Jewish law.
speaking with the Post, Amsalem also addressed several issues of religion and
“The overarching purpose must be to not cause the public to be
disgusted with religion,” he said.
He outlined this approach specifically
with the issue of public transportation on Shabbat.
Although he opposes
state subsidies for such an initiative, Amsalem says that city municipalities
and local authorities should be allowed to provide transportation on Shabbat if
their residents were in favor of it.
“The minority can’t control the
majority. Furthermore, I won’t struggle against something when there is no
benefit in doing so.”
“Someone who would use public transport on Shabbat
will still travel with or without it, so what is the benefit of trying to force
the opinion of the minority on the majority?” he asked.
proposals for civil unions are perhaps even more liberal from the perspective of
Jewish law and especially coming from an Orthodox rabbi.
Am Shalem, he
said, would oppose any solution for two Jewish partners other than marriage
through the rabbinate and was not in favor of “bringing about widespread civil
marriages.” But for a couple where one partner is Jewish and one not, Amsalem
says civil unions should be made available.
“If you don’t allow civil
unions, which is a ‘laundered’ way of saying civil marriage, between a Jew and a
non-Jew are they not still going to live together?” he asked
“Yes, they will, so what have you achieved? They’ll go to
Cyprus and get married there. Is this normal? “It’s not acceptable that in a
democratic state thousands of people have to go abroad to get
The MK, who was expelled from Shas for speaking out against
discrimination targeting Sephardi girls in haredi schools as well as opposing
other Shas policies, repeatedly stressed the importance of adhering to
democratic principles when dealing with the wishes of the majority of Israel’s
population, citing a fear for an eventual backlash against the religious
“You don’t want the majority to rise up in rebellion against
the minority [over matters of religion and state],” he said. If you grasp the
bottle too tightly and too closely then it will explode, you need to ease up the
pressure and be attentive.”
Despite this, Amsalem is not in favor of a
complete separation of religion and state, saying instead that the connection
between religion and politics must be severed, although he did not expand as to
how such a notion could be achieved.