Amsalem’s refreshing presence

Perhaps, soon, we will be seeing more haredi politicians like Amsalem, leading a more open-minded haredi constituency.

Haim Amsalem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haim Amsalem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rebel Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem is a breath of fresh air in a world of haredi politics characterized by monolithic opinion and blind subservience. His uniqueness has come to the forefront of public consciousness as the government coalition prepares for its first major crisis.
Shas – minus Amsalem – and United Torah Judaism have threatened to leave the coalition in protest against the expected passage of the IDF conversion bill in the Knesset.
Meanwhile, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has vowed to move ahead with ratifying the bill despite haredi MKs’ opposition, setting the stage for a major showdown.
The IDF conversion bill was drafted by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) to protect the Jewishness of thousands of IDF soldiers who underwent conversions during their mandatory IDF service. The vast majority of these soldiers are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who received Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, but are not Jewish according to Halacha. If the bill is passed, converts will no longer have to undergo the humiliating experience of having their Jewishness questioned when they register for marriage.
At present, thousands of conversions performed by IDF rabbinical courts are not recognized by haredi chief rabbis of towns such as Rehovot, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba, who are responsible for registering the residents of their cities for Jewish marriage. These haredi city rabbis doubt the sincerity of IDF soldiers who convert, claiming that many have not embraced an Orthodox lifestyle. All the haredi legislators in the Knesset, except for Amsalem, have taken the side of these rabbis against the IDF converts.
In his new book Zera Israel (The Seed of Israel), Amsalem, the only ordained rabbi among Shas’s 11 MKs, takes into consideration the fact that many of the prospective converts in Israel have either a Jewish father or a paternal grandfather who is Jewish. These people might not be considered bona fide Jews according to religious law, but they nevertheless are considered “the seed of Israel,” which means they should be encouraged to convert. Nor is Amsalem’s a lone opinion. Former IDF and chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former chief Sephardi Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel and Rabbi Moshe Hakohen of Jerba, Tunis, who served as a rabbinic judge in Tiberias, have all expressed similar stances. So has Shas’s mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, though Amsalem’s access to Yosef has been blocked, while Yosef has apparently been misled to believe that Amsalem does not wish to meet with him.
THESE RABBIS have been more lenient with potential converts who intend to remain in Israel and tie their destiny to the Jewish people. And they regard conversion as the acceptance in principle of the obligation to lead an Orthodox lifestyle, even if the potential convert openly admits that he or she will not be observant. (Hakohen accepted a convert whose father was Jewish, even after the man, a professional soccer player, admitted that he would continue to travel to games on Shabbat.) These rabbis and others view conversion as an important means of preventing intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Israel. Amsalem in particular has argued that different, more lenient criteria should by applied to non-Jewish IDF soldiers interested in converting to Judaism.
“The very fact that these non-Jews are willing to risk their lives to protect the Jewish people proves their desire to be a part of the Jewish people,” wrote Amsalem.
“Thanks to IDF soldiers, tens of thousands of students can sit and learn Torah... What an amazing merit these soldiers have to sanctify God’s name and to protect the Jewish people in the Land of Israel against our enemies who wish to destroy us. What merit they have, enough to accept them as converts to Judaism.”
Amsalem has reminded us that the Jewish tradition, often perceived as monolithic and ossified, contains diverse views on a wide range of issues, from conversion to army service (Amsalem’s own children served in the IDF) to gainful employment (Amsalem has been ostracized for daring to presume that mass unemployment among haredi men is untenable). Unfortunately our rich culture is often presented by close-minded, subservient haredi politicians in an altogether different light. Thankfully, there are men like Amsalem who have the courage to present Judaism in a different light.
Perhaps Amsalem is not too ahead of his time, and has rightly sensed a change in the tide of haredi public opinion. Perhaps, soon, we will be seeing more haredi politicians like Amsalem, leading a more open-minded haredi constituency. It would be a welcome, overdue change in Israeli politics.