The independent rabbi and the fight for Shas’s future

With Shas’s inability to find a suitable replacement for Rabbi Yosef, Rabbi Mazuz is showing himself willing to step up to the plate.

Eli Yishai
It is not only outsiders who wonder whether Rabbi Eli Yishai’s new party will suffer the same fate as Rabbi Chaim Amsalem’s attempt to spin off voters from Shas and enter the Knesset in the last elections. Indeed, Yishai’s people were recently quoted about what political weapons they have at their disposal if Shas tries to give him the same treatment that they used to torpedo Amsalem.
There are actually many similarities between the two men and their respective situations, and were Amsalem not to have acquired a stigma among Shas voters and had Yishai himself not had a hand in the harsh treatment given to Amsalem, one could easily see the two men joining forces. Both men spoke about bringing their party back to the roots of Shas and to the inclusiveness characteristic of their ultimate mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Both represent the non-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) wing of Shas, in their backgrounds and in their opinions. But most important of all is that they both share a unique mentor not yet known to the Israeli general public, but one poised to take a much larger place in Israel’s political scene.
At age 69, the Tunisian-born rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kisse Rahamim in Bnei Brak has just declared independence in order become the official rabbinic backer of Eli Yishai’s new party. Like Yishai and Amsalem, Rabbi Meir Mazuz is more in line with the rank-and-file Shas voter who doesn’t view himself as typically haredi, and certainly not haredi in the Ashkenazi mold.
In many ways, Rabbi Mazuz has many of the characteristics that were trademarks of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. To begin with, he has the outspokenness and personal charisma that drew so many voters to Shas in the first place. So much so that in an interview last week, Mazuz could easily have been confused with the Rabbi Yosef of yesteryear. When asked how he would respond if the Sepharadi Council of Torah Sages condemned Yishai and his party, Mazuz interrupted and took the bull by the horns, responding that they would be criticizing him as well. He continued to express his lack of concern for the censure the council might lay out against them, going so far as to call them – with Ovadia Yosef-style rhetoric and exaggeration – “rasha’im” (evil ones), presumably if they go through with such a course.
This is, of course, exactly the type of in-your-face speech that would ignite the secular press and would bring R. Yosef much support from the many Sepharadim who still delight in being “politically incorrect.” In a more reflective answer, however, Mazuz continued to point out that greatest rabbis of the past were censured by their colleagues and that it is ultimately the courage of these rabbis to speak the truth that allowed to Judaism to flourish.
Also significant is one of the two reasons Mazuz gives to justify the new party’s inception – the controversial statement by R.
Yosef’s rabbinic successor and Shas leader, Rabbi Shalom Cohen (who he doesn’t mention by name), comparing those that wear knitted kippot to Judaism’s arch-villains, Amalek. Indeed, Mazuz was quick to point out that this was not the way of Rabbi Yosef, who was known to have many connections with the Religious Zionist world. In contrast to this, many have had difficulty seeing much continuity between the leadership of Rabbi Yosef and his appointed successor.
Though more accessible than Cohen, Mazuz will not be universally liked. He has strong hawkish views and a highly traditional world outlook that offer little promise to bring new political vistas to Israeli society as a whole. But then, so did Rabbi Yosef. What both men do bring to the table is an authentic Sepharadi religious voice that is a great deal more tolerant and a great deal more rational than that of the mainstream haredi world. And with such a voice, there is more room for discussion and compromise, at least theoretically.
Of course, Yishai has many other cards that Amsalem did not.
Yishai was the leader of Shas for more years than his rival Aryeh Deri. That means that he brings experience and connections that Amsalem clearly lacked. Moreover, while he was party leader, Yishai was able to do what many thought impossible: to replace the charisma and the corruption of the Deri years with a more responsible and disciplined leadership, without losing any mandates.
Yishai also has important political allies in the Religious Zionist camp. True, the most significant of these allies, Tekuma leader MK Uri Ariel, has, for now, decided not to join forces with Yishai. But with or without Ariel, Yishai has access to many communities that had never even heard of Amsalem, and that will likely translate into votes.
Still, the most significant difference between the two men, and the reason Yishai is likely to garner success whereas Amsalem did not, is Mazuz’s backing. Though it is likely that Mazuz would have liked to support Amsalem, a former student and protégé, the timing was simply not right. Rabbi Mazuz did not have the standing to challenge Rabbi Yosef, who had made his opposition to Amsalem quite clear. But now with Shas’s inability to find a suitable replacement for Rabbi Yosef, Rabbi Mazuz is showing himself willing to step up to the plate.
The writer is a Jerusalem-based educator and writer and the author of three books of contemporary Torah commentary. He is also a frequent contributor to many Jewish publications and websites.