Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shas's subversive Knesset member

Why was MK Haim Amsalem kicked out of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas?

Three weeks ago, Amsellem made incendiary comments to the newspaper Maariv about the Shas leadership. Inter alia, he condemned strictures against conversion [a longstanding issue for him and subject of a controversial book earlier this year - MS], growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children.

In the Haaretz interview, Amsellem says he opposes the subordination of politics to the party's spiritual leadership.

"It's an MK's right to say he accepts the ruling of a rabbi or rabbis. I'm in favor of that, but I don't think it needs to be put above politics - an upper echelon of spiritual leadership, a rabbinical council alone is vested with making decisions," he said. "I really believe the place of rabbis is the world of Torah, and they shouldn't deal in politics.

"We can and must follow rabbis, but this whole style, which is a copy of the Ashkenazi style, a confederation of rabbinical courts, just doesn't appeal to me," he said.

So what - of all these things - really made R Amsalem intolerable to Shas?

According to Rav Benny Lau, by expelling R Amsalem, Shas made a "final decision to surrender to the Lithuanian model" - that is, follow the Ashkenazi-ultra Orthodox approaches to halachah, work and the state, and to surrender their own authority to that of the Ashkenazi "gedolim", or great rabbis. In this version of events, what we have here is essentially a disagreement that got out of hand over the future direction of Charedi Sephardim.

According to 'Mostly Kosher', the real issue was something deeper: R Amsalem's comments about the impropriety of rabbis interfering in politics. His tendency towards free thought was simply too "dangerous" to tolerate because it threatened rabbinic authority.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and both are certainly true. But the real problem with R Amsalem, as far as Shas was concerned, was clearly even more fundamental. His comments on a variety of topics threatened to expose the lie on which, increasingly in the last few years, Charedi society has been built: that many of the issues by which Charedim have come to define themselves are mandated by halachah, and not, simply, lifestyle choices.

Take all the issues Ha'aretz mentions above.

"Shas leadership" - ie the rabbis' authority: Charedim have convinced themselves, if not others, that there is a religious duty to "obey" "the rabbis" as "the rabbis" have a direct line to G-d and embody "da'at Torah" - the Torah view. Of course, this idea of blind obedience, and that the rabbis can give an "authoritative" ruling on personal issues which have nothing to do with Jewish law, is a very modern phenomenon. It is meant to shore up rabbinic authority and establish the hierarchy of Charedi society, and as such is an entirely social construct - nothing to do with halachah.

"Strictures against conversion" - Charedim have convinced themselves, and many others, that their positions on giyur, obligating converts to conform to very high standards of observance, are pure halachah. Of course, historically converts have been held to varying standards, rarely as strict as Charedim are now advocating, and many non-charedi Orthodox rabbis take much more lenient positions. Charedi positions on giyur have more to do with Israeli politics - cementing their own authority in the Chief rabbinate and in Israeli society - than with any halachic issues.

"Growing joblessness and army evasion" amongst Charedim - Charedim have convinced themselves, and others, that it is a religious duty for men to learn all day and that going out to work is essentially sinful, a waste of time that should be devoted to Torah. Serving in the army is not the best way to serve G-d. Of course, historically only a handful of men -- the brightest -- ever spent their days learning full-time and everyone else went to work. So do Charedim in America. There is no religious reason not to serve in the army - thousands of serious religious young men do - but the Charedi leadership prefers not to expose its youngsters to "temptation". It's a social (and political) choice.

"Non-religious education for children" - Charedim have fought hard, particularly over the last months, to limit the amount of English, maths and other basic subjects their children are "exposed" to. They are told, again, that these subjects are a waste of time for good religious people, who should instead be learning Torah. In other words, there is a religious reason for the aversion. Of course, the leadership simply does not want to equip its youngsters with skills that will allow them to work (see above), go out into the big wide world, be exposed to other ways of thinking and of life, and ultimately, think for themselves.

Amsalem, in other words, is not just bearing "different" ideas; he is completely subsersive. Should he be "allowed" to stay under the Shas umbrella while preaching his ideas (which, to my mind, promote a dignified and healthy way of life, working for one's living, taking part in greater society and showing consideration and care for its weakest parts), it will become clear to the Charedi masses that their leadership agrees there is actually more than one path a religious person can follow on all these issues - and still be a Charedi Jew. Their leadership's positions on all these subjects are not halachic - they are a choice - ergo the Charedi masses have been duped.

If Shas can live with Amsalem, the entire foundation of Charedi society, as it has developed over the past few years, crumbles. So he had to go.

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