Editor's Notes: Rabbi. MK. Heretic?

Shas claims its nonconformist MK Haim Amsalem is aligned with the ‘haters of Torah.’ But is it really Amsalem who has betrayed authentic Judaism?

Amsalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Amsalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.”
Every day, 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 Union.
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 time. 
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.”
Amsalem 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 living.
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.”
In 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.
The 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 11.
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 occasion.”
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 world.
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 Yosef.
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 opinion.”
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 deeply.”
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 origin.”
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 argues.
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. Millions.
What am I to do with them? Should I push them away, against the injunctions of the Prophet Yehezkel? No, I need to offer solutions.”
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.”
This brings him to the supremely vexed issue of full-time work over full-time study.
“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.
"Back here,” 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?”
Amsalem knows 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 Lithuanian world.
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 sounded.”
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 that.”
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 state’s development.
Not to do so, indeed, is to rebuff divine will.
“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 service.”
Somewhat ironically, Amsalem did not serve in the army himself.
Rather apologetically, he says, he was a communal rabbi who “asked several times” to be conscripted but was told “we don’t need you now.”
Some of his eight children, yeshiva graduates, have served, however.
“Most of the Shas MKs served and their children don’t,” he observes.
“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 only.”
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.
Isn’t 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 sink.
He can’t ignore it. He has to go down to the belly of the boat...”
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.
He celebrated Independence Day.
Yes, he celebrated Independence Day! And anyone who says otherwise is rewriting history. He took pleasure in the State of Israel’s celebrations.
And he wrote halachic rulings that, perhaps, even reflect a Zionist worldview.”
So why, again, would this patently Zionist former chief rabbi and political inspiration allow his world view to be skewed by his ostensible loyalists?
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.
Nothing but 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?
He 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.”
“And it doesn’t work out. But let’s leave that matter there. I don’t want to elaborate.”
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 Halacha.’”
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 the problem.”
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 politics.”
So it is the other Shas politicians who have abandoned Yosef’s path?
“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.”
He 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 untroubled.
He could reasonably expect to find a home in the National Union/Habayit Hayehudi environment, and says more than one party has made overtures.
“There’s time to think,” he says calmly. “I’m not closing any doors.
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 today.
This is a creation that I don’t agree with.”
Perhaps an 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?
Amsalem 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 comparison.
“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 living.
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 cruel.”
Bad for Israel? “It’s bad for the Jewish people, yes,” says Amsalem.
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 customs.
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.’
“You don’t 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.”