A righteous rebel

Any authoritarian means of leadership that lacks external checks and balances is doomed to atrophy.

By
November 18, 2010 22:45
3 minute read.
Shas MK Haim Amsalem

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 leadership.

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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 L’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 L’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.

In this 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.


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