Am Shalem: Israel's only hope for religious reform?

Putting Am Shalem in the Knesset is Israel’s best chance for forging paths to peace.

Amsalem at Baba Sali's hilula (photo credit: Deborah Danan: Amsalem with Shas hecklers in pursu)
Amsalem at Baba Sali's hilula
(photo credit: Deborah Danan: Amsalem with Shas hecklers in pursu)
Wherever he goes, his opponents follow him, spitting and shouting, “Traitor!” On national television, he was deemed a heretic by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual leader. His books have been subject to public burning ceremonies in Israeli Yeshivot. He is accused of being “the seed of Amalek” – the traditional arch-nemeses of Jewish People.
Yet his campaign slogan proclaims that Maimonides would vote for him. Not sure how verifiable that is, but speaking as a descendant of Maimonides, I can tell you that Rabbi Haim Amsalem, leader of the Am Shalem party, can count on my vote this Tuesday. Here’s why:
Haredi rabbi and former Shas MK, the renegade Amsalem represents the kind of Judaism that I grew up with. The kind of Judaism that was passed onto me by my ancestors; generations of renowned rabbis and dayanim (Torah judges) in Morocco. It is the kind of Judaism that is open, warm, tolerant, embracing, free from prejudice and above all, a Judaism that espouses “Torah im derech eretz” (the balance of Torah study with work); a Judaism that understands that the world keeps on moving forward, that there is room for science and Torah to coexist.
Two days ago was the hilula [anniversary] of the death of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, otherwise known as the Baba Sali. Shas frontrunner Arye Deri was in attendance, as was both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis. Amsalem was also there, but he only made an appearance at the grave after the others had left the scene, presumably to avoid a lynching.
Amsalem battled his way through the throngs, shaking hands and stopping to chat to well-wishers who praised him for his bravery in taking a stand.  All the while, Shas supporters were on his heels, hurling abusive terms in between wrestling with anyone that came in their way. Yet with each word and raised fist, the wry smile playing on Amsalem’s lips just grew larger.
So how does Amsalem feel about the negative – nay, downright violent – reactions he causes? “I don’t mind getting into intellectual debates with people. In fact, I encourage it – it’s ok to have differences of opinion. But these people are just ignorant, they claimed to learn Torah but they didn’t learn that derech eretz kadma laTorah. I feel sorry for them. So I can only laugh.”
According to Amsalem, traditional Judaism does not repel any Jew, religious or secular. But sadly these days secular Israelis have been so turned off by the kind of Torah that Shas –the party that Amsalem refers to as a “dictatorship that has lost its way” – promotes, that they want nothing to do with any of it. And he doesn’t blame them either. “The [haredi] community is a good community. But their [attitudes] are bad for the people as a whole. I want to show all people in Israel the kind, smiling face of Judaism. Everyone sat at Baba Sali’s table – even Shabbat transgressors. He didn’t discriminate.”
Amsalem laments the loss of Sephardic tradition as practicing a moderate Judaism, where people were able to ask all manner of questions and where rabbis were equals who spoke to people at eye level. He claims that it was hijacked in favor of something closer to what he calls the “elitist” and extreme Litai [Lithuanian] branch of Ashkenazi haredim. He also laments the fact that so many rabbis who agree with him are keeping quiet for fear of losing their positions or jobs. “They are under coercion from the religious [bloc.] They are too scared to come out and say what they think.” Amsalem also claims that he was approached a number of times with all manner of bribes from high-ranking rabbis and politicians. “They told me that if I left the political arena, it would be worth my while, they would arrange a good job for me.”
As for Amsalem’s political policies? On the two big issues on the haredi front – army and livelihood – Amsalem again draws from Maimonides who wrote the following: “Anyone who decides to be engaged in Torah [study] and not to work, and will be supported by charity - this person desecrates God's name, degrades the Torah, extinguishes the light of our faith, brings evil upon himself and forfeits life in the world to come.” He also goes on to write, “Any Torah which is not accompanied by work will eventually be nullified.” With regards to war, the Mishnah in Sotah states: In a Milchemet Mitzvah [a war that Jews are commanded to fight], all go out [to war], even a groom from his room and a bride from her wedding canopy.” Maimonides explains that a milchemet mitzvah includes any enemy that rises up against Israel. However, he also stipulated the following exemptions: The tribe of Levi and “anyone whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him and to know Him.”
That is where the haredi ruling powers find justification for fulltime Torah study. But Maimonides was talking about a small, select elite – an exception, not the rule. Likewise, Amsalem believes that certain Torah scholars who have really proven their worth should continue to study Torah, and further, that the state should enable them to do so. But for the rest? “Take them and put them to work. Put them in national service, into the army. Enough of this hilul Hashem [desecration of God].”
So Am Shalem can count on at least one of Maimonides’ relatives to cast the letter “tzadi” into the ballot box. And now that I’m done touting my yichus [Jewish genealogy], here is a quick summary of why it’s important for Am Shalem get those last minute votes from other Israelis from all ends the political spectrum:
1.    According to a poll on Globes, Am Shalem has secured three mandates. One more harkens a radical change to the current political landscape: As Am Shalem’s latest propaganda post states,   “4 mandates and Shas will be out the government and that haredim will go to work.”
2.    As Evelyn Gordon points out in these pages, if Am Shalem doesn’t get in, the chances are that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will most likely opt for the safe option and make a coalition with the UTJ and Shas once again. Needless to say, such a government will do nothing to change the current status quo on the domestic front. “Centrist or left-of-center voters have nothing to lose by voting Amsalem,” writes Gordon. “The next government isn’t going to lean left diplomatically anyway, so they may as well vote to encourage domestic reform.”
3.    Amsalem presents a tremendous threat to the haredi bloc. But because he is a haredi rabbi in his own right, he might be the only viable option to bridge between the religious and secular worlds and galvanize a massive overhaul of religious institutions in Israel.
4.    With regards the thorny issue of civil marriage, Amsalem said the following: “For those that cannot find a solution through the Rabbinate, we must allow them to exercise their rights and marry in another way…There are many solutions that the rabbis agree upon and I support those [including] civil marriage.” He is quick to point out that as a haredi he can’t permit things which are wrong according to halacha and that his intention is not to dismantle the Rabbinate. “I am loyal to halacha but I also have a listening ear. I promise to try and find solutions open up the table for dialogue.” However, once again, you don’t have to agree with Amsalem’s policies in order to vote for him. The point is just to ensure that the current haredi ruling class no longer dominates the way in which religion plays out in this country.
5.    Haaretz writer, Nehemia Shtrasler, asserts the following: “Anyone who wants new hope, haredim of a different sort who will give to the state and not just extort from it, must ensure that Am Shalem enters the Knesset. That would be a real social revolution: Shas and its ignoramuses would then have to confront Amsalem and Am Shalem.”
I’ve always had the firm belief that making peace with our neighbors will only happen after we make peace amongst ourselves. Giving Am Shalem the chance to enter the Knesset is Israel’s best chance for forging that path.