Haim Amsalem 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Maverick Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem has been arousing quite a bit of controversy
in recent days. In a press conference that he organized in the Knesset on
Wednesday, Amsalem, the only ordained rabbi among Shas’s 11 MKs, declared that
despite attempts by Shas chairman Eli Yishai to oust him from party ranks, he
would remain loyal to his constituency.
Normally the idiosyncrasies of
Shas’s internal politics would not warrant much scrutiny, especially since
Amsalem’s confrontation with his party’s political leadership does not
immediately endanger the stability of the government coalition. However,
Amsalem’s struggle to retain the right to think independently against the wishes
of his party leaders sheds light on the sorry state of haredi political
Amsalem’s message is straightforward and enlightened: Aside
from an elite group of truly gifted scholars, most haredi men should serve in
the IDF and seek gainful employment; haredi school children should be taught to
respect the State of Israel and its institutions; they should also be taught
math, sciences, languages and general knowledge that will prepare them for a
productive life of self-sufficiency and dignity; conversions to Judaism for new
immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under the Law of
Return and who serve in the IDF should be performed in a friendly, open,
encouraging atmosphere; discrimination against Sephardi schoolchildren enrolled
in Ashkenazi haredi schools must stop.
Yet instead of earning the esteem
of Shas’s leadership, Amsalem’s highly reasonable opinions, probably shared by
many if not most of Shas’s primarily non-haredi, traditional- minded
constituency, have led to him being ostracized in Shas’s weekly mouthpiece Yom
In the paper’s editorial this weekend, Amsalem is charged with the
blasphemous offense of rebelling against “Da’at Torah,” roughly translated as
“the Torah’s viewpoint.”
Voicing opinions that deviate from the stance of
the haredi rabbinical leadership, no matter how rational and practical they may
be, is a cardinal sin, tantamount to the apostasy of the Sadducees, charges Yom
As numerous social historians and researchers of modern Jewish
thought such as Jacob Katz, Lawrence Kaplan and Benjamin Brown have pointed out,
however, the concept of Da’at Torah, in the way it is used today, is relatively
new. It was developed by Ashkenazi haredi politicians in response to
modernization, and particularly secular Zionism.
THE ORIGINAL Talmudic
meaning of Da’at Torah expressed the consensual rabbinic position reached on an
aspect of religious practice after a long process of textual analysis and open
argument. Today it has become a fundamentalist doctrine, espousing the
ostensible complete infallibility of decisions made unilaterally by a small
group of elite halachic authorities with oracle-like status on a wide range of
issues not directly connected to religious practice.
And Da’at Torah is
handed down, without attempts to present convincing, rational arguments based on
the Bible, the Talmud or later rabbinic literature, as if it were the word of
God. Da’at Torah prohibits IDF service, in the process disregarding a central
civic duty shared by all Jewish Israelis; it encourages endless Torah study
regardless of intellectual skills or inclinations; it supports discrimination
against Sephardi schoolchildren for the sake of cultural purity. Nor can this
Da’at Torah be criticized or reevaluated in light of changing circumstances,
such as the skyrocketing haredi demographic growth that has made widespread
unemployment and draft-dodging a major burden on Israeli society.
intellectual atmosphere, a politician like Amsalem who marshals Jewish sources
to challenge this incarnation of Da’at Torah – which he rightly rejects as an
Ashkenazi phenomenon foreign to Sephardi rabbinic leadership and contradictory
to traditional Jewish sources – is blackballed. Any opportunity for open, honest
debate is thus effectively stifled.
Admittedly, this form of leadership
has proved particularly successful in insulating the haredi community from
modernity, including full integration in the world’s only Jewish state. However,
any authoritarian means of leadership that lacks external checks and balances,
and suppresses alternative viewpoints no matter how reasonable they may be, is
doomed to atrophy.
Amsalem’s rebellion provides hope that the haredi
public will eventually wake up to this reality – and the sooner the better.