Amsalem: Rabbi Yosef no longer runs Shas policy

Am Shalem leader tells 'Post' he advocates conversion, marriage reform; claims Shas ignoring rulings of spiritual leader.

Amsalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Amsalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 election campaign.
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 anymore.”
Asked who is in control, Amsalem said that the “Lithuanian” leadership, meaning that of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi world.
“The Lithuanians control him, and the Shas MKs who have a Lithuanian outlook.”
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 topic.
“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.
Yosef has in the past spoken publicly about a more lenient approach to conversion.
“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 2008.
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 issue.
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 preserved.
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.
Click for full JPost coverageClick for full JPost coverage
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 action.
Haredi rabbis take a more rigorous stance on conversion and insist that converts commit to strictly observing Jewish law.
While speaking with the Post, Amsalem also addressed several issues of religion and state.
“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.
Amsalem’s 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 rhetorically.
“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 married.”
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 minority.
“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.