Toward the end of this interview in his Knesset office, Haim Amsalem pulls a
pile of five bound volumes of e-mails and letters from a shelf, and plunks it
onto his desk with a satisfying thud. “These,” he says proudly, “are from
the last month and a half alone. It’s an awakening community.”
more letters of support stream in – “from the US, France, Peru, Hong Kong...”
But mainly, of course, from Israel. “I spoke to Army Radio this morning,” he
says. “Immediately, more people phoned. The Israeli public hears what I’m
saying – and it’s not just the haredi and Orthodox publics. It’s the public
across the spectrum.”
There’s no doubt about it.
Amsalem – an MK
who was first elected in 2006 with Shas, to that party’s current profound regret
– has struck a nerve. Or rather, two.
For the first time in its history,
a credible and hitherto dutiful insider has shown the guts to stand up and shout
that Shas and its emperor have no clothes – that far from restoring Sephardi
glory, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s various smart-suited political operators are failing
their trusting public by misrepresenting the requirements of authentic Judaism,
and misrepresenting Yosef in the process.
Amsalem’s first chosen
battlefield is incendiary enough. In advocating a halachically lenient approach
to conversion, the rabbi-politician has provoked furious opprobrium from the
rabbinical establishment, while garnering delighted support from those who
recognize that the current stringent approach has alienated hundreds of
thousands of nonhalachically Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet
His second focus is arguably more revolutionary still. From within
the ranks of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox political establishment, Amsalem has
emerged to challenge the untenable norm which has seen the Ashkenazi Lithuanian
haredi leadership encourage its followers to eschew military service and
employment in favor of Torah study as the most elevated use of their
It is an untenable norm that his own Sephardi Shas hierarchy
faithfully endorsed – thereby, as Amsalem puts it, condemning the very community
Shas purports to help to “a vicious cycle of poverty.”
relentlessly stresses his respect and fealty to the party’s spiritual leader –
“HaRav Ovadia gave the inspiration [for Shas],” he says. “He led the Sephardi
spiritual revival.” Nonetheless, Amsalem has branded Yosef’s Shas, his
own Shas, not merely misguided, but veritably disastrous to its constituents.
Its ideology, or rather the Lithuanian ultra- Orthodox ideology which it
slavishly adopted, he argues still more shatteringly, is nothing less than a
betrayal of Judaism.
After all, he declares, citing a string of
quotations, it is a central, indisputable Jewish precept that a father is
obliged to educate his children so that they can earn an honorable
Hence, says Amsalem, youngsters should be given a rounded
education, in the core math, English and science curriculum as well as religious
study, the better to find work as adults.
And yet Shas – the party that
aspired to champion Sephardi tradition but has nonetheless remained deferential
to the Lithuanian establishment – has in its nearly three decades of
Yosef-directed political activism told its followers to do nothing of the sort.
“For a glass of milk, you don’t buy a cow,” Amsalem fumes, then noticing my
baffled expression, elaborates: “You don’t send hundreds of thousands into a
framework with no means to earn a living in the hope that one great Torah
scholar will emerge. It’s not fair and the Torah does not require it.”
a ferocious critique, Amsalem recalls that Shas was really founded by the late
Lithuanian sage Rabbi Eliezer Schach and asserts that it has always been
“directed, by remote control, by the Lithuanian spiritual leadership.
Sephardi yeshiva world is not really Sephardi. In fact, all of the [leading
figures] learned at the Ashkenazi Lithuanian yeshivot, and they implement those
teachings among the Sephardim.”
Yosef, he says, though certainly a
remarkable scholar, was “the persona” selected as a figurehead for this
Lithuanian-engineered phenomenon. And today, Amsalem indicates, access to Yosef
is so carefully controlled by senior Shas figures that the sage is starved of
the information necessary to give the movement the appropriate halachic-Zionist
leadership it cries out for.
Unsurprisingly, the Shas hierarchy has
reacted to Amsalem’s one-man revolt in blunt, sometimes vicious terms. In
November, its four-man, Yosef-led, Council of Torah Sages essentially
excommunicated him. It charged that he was ingratiating himself “with the haters
of Torah.” It called some of his views heretical. It ordered him to return his
Shas mandate and quit the Knesset. He refused.
The MK was then denounced
as a desecrater of the Lord’s name in posters pasted up in ultra-Orthodox
neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak.
One of Yosef’s sons blamed
him for the winter’s drought.
The Shas newspaper Yom Leyom devoted pages
to condemnations of his errant ways. And a writer there went so far as to liken
him to Amalek, the descendant of Esau and biblical enemy of the Jews, whose
progeny are ordered destroyed.
Amsalem’s office responded at the time
that “the comparison to Amalek has but one meaning that is clear and dangerous,”
and he was promptly assigned bodyguards.
Eli Yishai, the interior
minister and Shas party leader – branded “a dictator” by Amsalem in another
interview and the subject of much implied criticism in this one – condemned the
newspaper’s “unacceptable” comparison.
The two men are agreed on that, it
seems, but on very little else.
HAIM AMSALEM, 51, was born in Algeria,
moved to France as a young child, and came to Israel with his family at age
He says his relationship with Yosef goes back decades – “I have
always been very close to him... As a young man I was tested by him” – and that
it was Yosef who gave him his rabbinical ordination. “My books met with his
approval. I have been quoted in his books on more than one
Before entering parliament, Amsalem had worked as a community
rabbi both in southern Israel and in Geneva. He went into politics, he
says, because he realized that “it is possible to change things today in the
State of Israel, even in the rabbinic realm, only via the political
The rabbinical world, unfortunately, has lost its ability to
influence the public.”
Surely, though, he must have known the kind of
party he was joining? He of all people, with that longstanding tie to
So why the sudden outraged assault on its policies?
It’s not that
simple, says Amsalem.
He had assumed that as an MK, as had been the case
when he was a rabbi, he would always have “the option of going to the Rav, to
discuss with him, to let him hear my opinion and to listen to his
In practice, however, he claims, “the process of deterioration”
began “from the moment that I entered politics. There were those” – the unnamed
Yishai presumably prominent among them – “who did not appreciate this personal
connection between myself and HaRav Ovadia – which stemmed from a rabbinical
basis, not a political basis, and which could influence him
Indeed, Amsalem is one of only two ordained rabbis (the other is
Nissim Ze’ev) among the 11 Shas MKs.
And his capacity to interact with
Yosef on that level, as “a man of Halacha who has written books on Halacha...
apparently that was a problem for some people.”
The gulf – ideological
and then personal – between the Knesset member and his party, he says, opened
very gradually. Ticking off the issues that have widened it, he begins with
conversion. “You can’t be indifferent when it comes to IDF soldiers, some of
whom are risking their lives for us, and some of whom have given their lives for
us, and who are from ‘the seed of Israel’ – zera yisrael – that is, of Jewish
While the increasingly haredidominated state Chief Rabbinate has
held to a stringent standard for the conversions of all FSU immigrants of Jewish
patrilineal descent, and there is an ongoing struggle over the validity of
conversions performed within the IDF framework, Amsalem says he follows “the
line of great rabbinical authorities before me” that “they need to be treated
differently.” A more lenient halachic approach is mandated, he
Jewish blood flows in these people’s veins, he says, and to
ignore this “is neither halachic, nor humane.”
“In the State of Israel,
we have almost half a million people like this. People with a father or a
grandfather who is Jewish. They have Jewish names, but they are gentiles,
because their mothers are gentiles.
Throughout the Jewish world, there
are millions of people in this category.
I am not exaggerating.
What am I to do with them? Should I push them away, against the
injunctions of the Prophet Yehezkel? No, I need to offer
Next, Amsalem turns to education, and his insistence that
students in the Shas Talmud Torah school system be taught the general school
curriculum as well as Torah studies.
“These studies are not only
important in terms of the students’ capacity to find a future in the general
professions,” he reasons, “but also for the sake of Torah study itself: You need
to understand those core subjects in order to better understand the Gemara.”
There are, he says, vast tracts of Gemara disputation – in Masechet Shabbat, in
Masechet Kil’ayim, in Masechet Eruvin, in Masechet Succa – that cannot be
properly fathomed “if you do not have a wider understanding.”
him to the supremely vexed issue of full-time work over full-time
“For me, the capacity to earn a living with honor is a paramount
principle,” he stresses. “The Torah does not require us to create a
povertystricken society. The Torah requires that we create a society of quality,
one that observes commandments, studies Torah at a high level.” But that does
not obviate the imperative to work.
Amsalem has just returned, he says,
from a trip to the United States, in the course of which he delivered a lesson
in Halacha to a group of industrialists. “I was amazed at the standard of
discourse, a standard that I don’t see in Israel,” he says.
he observes with calculated provocation, “a wise student [talmid hacham] who
studies in a good kollel, he’s at a good standard.
But a student who does
not study in a kollel is at a very low level. That model I encountered in
America, the model that prevailed for generations – of people working for a
living, with an education in Torah – why does it not apply here?”
exactly why not: because the ultra-Orthodox leaderships insistently deviated
from it in the modern State of Israel, securing widespread exemptions from IDF
service for their youths, and sending them en masse to study. “You define it as
‘a deviation?’” he remarks. “So do I. If it had remained in the Lithuanian
[haredi] world alone, well, that’s their position, and I don’t intervene in the
There, it’s not a deviation. That’s their worldview.
But for the Sephardi public, which does not subscribe to this view, and where it
creates a society living in poverty, with no component of working for an honest
living, well, it has to be put to an end.
The alarm has to be
Amsalem notes that almost all of the great Jewish scholars,
throughout the generations, combined Torah study with honest labor. He supports
nurturing the best and the brightest in full-time study – “otherwise we
jeopardize our ability to create the future scholars, the righteous, the
rabbis.” But employing an appropriate military metaphor, he adds that, “Just as
in the army, not everyone can be in the elite commandos or the paratrooper, the
same holds for Torah study: A portion will only study, a portion will study and
work, and a portion will only work. There is nothing illegitimate in
AT THE root of Amsalem’s maverick halachic thinking, it would
appear, is the simple fact that he’s a Zionist.
He regards the
reestablishment of the sovereign Jewish state as a divine gift. The
beneficiaries, in his view, have a consequent obligation to participate in the
Not to do so, indeed, is to rebuff divine
“I define myself as a Jew, a God-fearing man,” says Amsalem. “I am
also someone who regards the revival of the state of Israel as one of the
greatest and most clear miracles that the Holy One Blessed Be He has performed
for us. This is our state.
We have to contribute to it. And that
contribution has to be expressed in all kinds of areas. It can be a contribution
via military service, via civilian service, via national
Somewhat ironically, Amsalem did not serve in the army
Rather apologetically, he says, he was a communal rabbi who
“asked several times” to be conscripted but was told “we don’t need you
Some of his eight children, yeshiva graduates, have served,
“Most of the Shas MKs served and their children don’t,” he
“For me it was the other way round.”
“This is our
state,” he says again, with gentle simplicity. “This is the state of the Jewish
people. This was promised to us after 2,000 years in exile. And we have to do
our bit for the state. That does not contradict my assertion that a yeshiva
student who studies Torah, who really studies, can absolutely be regarded in the
same way as were members of the Levite tribe, who sat and studied Torah
He pauses, then drives the point home. “But not all the people of
Israel are Levites.”
OSTENSIBLY CAREFUL not to deepen the bitter
frictions still further, Amsalem is adamant that his opinions do not generally
contradict those of Yosef – though that’s an assertion that doubtless only
further infuriates his Shas detractors.
His books on conversion, he says,
are actually based in good part on Yosef’s own thinking. “How do I know?” he
asks rhetorically. “From what he has written and from the protocols of his work.
He was the chief rabbi [for a decade from 1973].
He wasn’t cut off. HaRav
Ovadia wasn’t a yeshiva head who gave a weekly lesson which you could understand
or not understand.
There’s a protocol: Who he converted, how he
converted. He came to the Knesset. He explained his overview.”
As for the
obligation to work, he asks in anguish, “Do I need to consult with someone about
that?!” He quotes from Psalms, invokes Maimonides, offers a stream of mishnaic
references, and concludes, “You don’t need particular wisdom to know this! These
are simple matters.
Every rabbi knows this.”
And he goes back to
Moses in support of his demand that the faithful contribute to the well-being of
Israel. “Moses our rabbi criticized those tribes that didn’t want to enter the
Land and take part in the conquest,” berating them for a readiness to “just sit
there” when their brethren were going out to war, Amsalem recalls.
any of this resonating in Shas, I wonder? Doesn’t the party recognize that the
devoted members of its constituency are having a seriously hard time getting by
because they are doing what their political and spiritual leaders are telling
them is right?
“I can only say that this community, because of its respect for
HaRav Ovadia, gives its support to Shas,” he answers. “And in return, its
children and grandchildren enter an impossible framework.
“There was a
Channel 10 survey last month that showed 40 percent of Shas voters identify
fully with my views,” he goes on. “I don’t need anything more than that. What am
I supposed to do? Shut up? I can’t be silent. I hear the cry from ground level.
People are wailing: ‘We can’t manage. We want to be able to earn a living.’
“Don’t forget that among the haredi public today you have 40,000 young men who
are known to have dropped out – they are not in yeshiva, they are not in the
army, they are not in the education system. I don’t know how many more are
supposedly in yeshiva that have dropped out.
What else has to happen?
There is a hole in the boat. The captain has to fix it. Otherwise the boat will
He can’t ignore it. He has to go down to the belly of the
And who exactly is the captain? “I don’t know. But I see the
hole and I’m trying to plug it.”
ALL OF which begs this question: Why
would so peerless a scholar as Yosef allow the movement he oversees to so skew
authentic Jewish tradition.
“You have alighted on one of the most painful
issues,” Amsalem allows.
Rather than answering directly, however, he
notes first that “the general public regards HaRav Ovadia as a Zionist. HaRav
Ovadia served the Zionist State of Israel as chief rabbi.
Yes, he celebrated Independence Day! And anyone who
says otherwise is rewriting history. He took pleasure in the State of Israel’s
And he wrote halachic rulings that, perhaps, even reflect a
So why, again, would this patently Zionist former
chief rabbi and political inspiration allow his world view to be skewed by his
The answer, Amsalem would appear to want to contend, is
that the Sephardi sage, who turned 90 in September, is being manipulated by
unscrupulous people around him.
Amsalem sighs. “HaRav Ovadia is a man of
the Torah, whose whole world is immersion in the Torah.
Torah. [As regards current affairs], he is sustained by narrow channels of
information. He doesn’t read the Internet. He doesn’t see daily papers. He
doesn’t have time to listen to the radio. Maybe he listens to a
two-minute news broadcast at 12 or at 2. Naturally, when someone comes in to
tell him something, they tell him something.”
The point being that
certain people – like, say, Amsalem himself – aren’t allowed to “come in to tell
him something,” and that the rabbi, therefore, doesn’t get the full picture?
sighs again. “On conversions, Shas is being told what to do in effect by the
Lithuanians. It’s a tragedy. It would be simpler if HaRav Ovadia also received
information from others... I have written many letters to the Rav on this issue.
I don’t know that he ever received them. I assume he did not... I’ve tried
several times to come and see him and tell him things.”
doesn’t work out. But let’s leave that matter there. I don’t want to
I persist that this is important.
“Okay, let me give
you an example,” he offers, with only mild reluctance. “On a few occasions, I
was summoned [to Yosef] apparently to be told off. One of those occasions
related to the legislation protecting someone from prosecution if he shoots a
burglar in self-defense.
That legislation has its origins in a sentence
from the Torah.
Some in Shas wanted to oppose this law. It doesn’t matter
why. I came and said, ‘Sorry, gentlemen, as a man of the Torah, a man of
Halacha, I tell you that this law is correct.’ And I wrote a halachic
explanation. And then I was summoned to HaRav Ovadia. I don’t know what they had
told him [about my views]. But when I came and explained to him, he said [to his
aides], ‘He’s right. You need to listen to him. He understands matters of
This kind of denouement recurred more than once, says Amsalem. “And
after that, I no longer had the opportunity [to come to the rabbi and explain].
It was understood that, on that playing field, it wouldn’t be me who would have
FORMALLY, AMSALEM says he is still in Shas. More
surprisingly, he says he still considers himself “a man of Shas” – even though,
he grants with a rare, narrow smile, the party “is behaving rather indelicately
on the matter” of his mandate.
He has no intention whatsoever of quitting
the Knesset, as requested by the party sages. “I’ve said all along, please, let
me have the necessary time with HaRav Ovadia. A fair trial requires that you
give a man a hearing. I am absolutely loyal to his path. I am faithful to the
Halacha. And everything they are trying to use to besmirch me, is just cheap
So it is the other Shas politicians who have abandoned Yosef’s
“I would go further,” Amsalem declares. “They haven’t abandoned his path.
They don’t know it. I know it because I have walked after him for the past 60
years. The books that he published at age 24.
His writings all through
the years. It is all fascinating to me.”
And yet those around
Yosef insist that it is Amsalem who has strayed, and the revered sage himself
gives every sign of believing them.
“It’s like a computer,” he fires
back. “The result is a function of the information you input.”
acknowledges, with a broader smile, that Shas is unlikely to select him on its
Knesset list next time around. “I imagine not,” he says, but seems supremely
He could reasonably expect to find a home in the National
Union/Habayit Hayehudi environment, and says more than one party has made
“There’s time to think,” he says calmly. “I’m not closing any
If I am able to find a platform to advance my ideas, I’ll use it.
I believe and so do others that you’ll see me back in the next
Knesset. Perhaps even more active than today.”
Might he join
forces with the irrepressible former Shas political leader Arye Deri, now
preparing a comeback after serving his jail term for bribery? They might seem
like a good match – these two independent Sephardi thinkers, these two bitter
critics of Yishai.
At first, Amsalem seems to be saying yes: “Arye Deri
proved that he is a talented man who can get things done. And everyone who
shares my ideological line, who wants to put an end to this Lithuanian-Sephardi
view, can be my partner. Anyone who says clearly that we have to make our
contribution to society; who says, ‘We love the Land of Israel,’ call it
Zionism; who comes along with halachic solutions and accepts halachic solutions,
anyone like that is my partner.”
But then he adds in his unassuming
tones, with their cadences that sound deceptively uncontroversial even when the
content is biting: “I would remind you that the achievements that we have to
date are thanks to Arye Deri. That’s why Shas looks the way it does
This is a creation that I don’t agree with.”
Amsalem-Deri alliance isn’t so likely after all.
I remark that the
goings-on in the court of HaRav Yosef, by his telling, sound worryingly similar
to those in the palaces of various detached dictators – where malicious advisers
regulate the inflow of information so that the boss only hears what they want
him to hear. “I’ve said enough on this,” responds Amsalem.
But isn’t this
the heart of the problem, I ask again, remembering that various Kadima sources
have sometimes claimed that would-be prime minister Tzipi Livni was prevented
from forming a coalition with Shas before the 2009 elections because aides to
Yosef misrepresented to the rabbi some of her positions on peacemaking with the
Palestinians? Isn’t Amsalem asserting that the leader of a party that directly
represents hundreds of thousands of Israelis, and holds the balance of power in
a parliament that represents us all, is being given skewed and partial
information by his purported loyalists? Isn’t he claiming that, were Yosef given
a fuller picture, he’d want things to unfold differently? And if that is the
case, doesn’t that contain dismal implications for the entire country?
pauses, considers an answer, then appears to think better of it. “That’s for you
to say,” he eventually manages.
I ASK Amsalem, finally, about reports of
threats directed at him for his ostensible heresy. He purports to be unfazed by
any physical danger, but he certainly fumes at the Amalek
“The Sephardi rabbis, through the generations, were tolerant,
moderate, they reached out to people,” he says. “To besmirch a rabbi? To call
him Amalek?” He tails off, shaking his head.
Is it that a certain extreme
Ashkenazi approach has influenced the Sephardim? “I grew up with Ashkenazim,” he
responds. “Most members of the hassidic community work for a
Almost all of that community abroad works. [The emphasis on mass
full-time study and the generally rigid Halachic approach] is a Lithuanian
worldview. I don’t know how it was created, but it’s militant and it’s
Bad for Israel? “It’s bad for the Jewish people, yes,” says
And then the rabbi-politician who wants to save the Jewish state
from religious fundamentalism delivers a parting mini-sermon: “The Jewish people
has to set an example, to itself, of tolerance, of accepting the other, not to
persecute people for their beliefs,” he says. “We don’t want to live under dark
regimes. We came here to forge a different, better society. We are ingathering
the exiles – Anglo- Saxons and French and Turks and Romanians and Moroccans and
Iraqis – and we want a good mixture.
“Every group has its own
Some beautiful, some I like less, but I have to learn to
understand them. I want you to respect me and I want to respect you. I want to
know you and I want you to know me. I don’t want to impose my view on you, and I
don’t want you to impose your view on me.
“And if on conversion,” he
says, slowly and deliberately, confronting his invisible Lithuanian nemeses, “I
want to do like my rabbis did in Morocco, don’t come to me with your rabbis from
I-don’tknow- where and tell me that ‘only they know what’s right.’
have a monopoly,” he declares, seething now. “Are you trying to monopolize the
Torah? Well, there is no monopoly on the Torah. Torah is given to the wise for
halachic interpretation. It’s my job to do just that.”