MK Amsellem's Daring

The Amsellem affair has a number of aspects that have hardly been talked about.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

The public discussion on Rabbi Chaim Amsellem focuses, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, on the narrow political aspect: the conflict between MK Amsellem and his party, its head Eli Yishai and Shas' revered spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. A conflict between renegade MKs and their parties, especially when the party is supposed to function as an obedient chorus, inevitably attracts attention. But the Amsellem affair has a number of aspects, many of which have hardly been talked about.

First and foremost, the issue is socio-religious. Amsellem is not only defying Yishai and Rabbi Yosef, he is challenging the entire framework by which the Sephardi Torah world is subordinate to the Ashkenazi rabbinate - subordination that Shas' formation was supposed to end. This is a fascinating social drama that can also have a huge political impact if a new Sephardi party, fashioned in Amsellem's spirit, arises to compete with Shas.

Amsellem also puts into focus the question of the essential difference between the worlds of Sephardi and Ashkenazi religious sages. Bar-Ilan University's Prof. Zvi Zohar, an authority on Sephardi religious rulings, has for years argued that a new outlook calling for a mix of Jewish law and modernity will come from this Sephardi sphere. But in recent decades, little proof has arisen to substantiate this. Could Amsellem be a harbinger of a new renaissance in Jewish law, or is he an exception that does not point to a trend? This is also an important socio-religious issue.

Amsellem's unusual daring also casts a humiliating light on many religious Zionist rabbis who should have made their voices heard on issues he has put on the agenda - policies on conversion, shirking the draft, participation in the job market and attitudes about higher education. These rabbis have chosen to camouflage their views on such topics, solely to avoid accusations that they are "catering to the secular." No less significantly, Amsellem's daring casts an unflattering light on the secular community's silence, particularly in view of the travails of new immigrants who want to live as Jews, especially those who have already converted but whose status is defined as in dispute.

Even the affair's political aspect has been discussed rather narrowly. The Shas journal's references to Amsellem as being of "the seed of Amalek" and other such insults have been received as further examples of exotic eccentricity stemming from disturbed religious terminology. Such descriptions have not been interpreted as incitement to murder, as they should be when their religious connotations are taken into account.

The public discussion misses the larger picture: Why is the religious community's discourse so violent? After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, it should have been clear that this question cannot remain contained in internal religious discourse. On the contrary, in light of the renewal and strengthening of religion in our world - a phenomenon that has endearing spiritual dimensions as well as worrisome ones - this question should take precedence in the public debate.

All told, one should say - paradoxically as a show of support for Amsellem - that he should return his Knesset seat to Shas. Talk about how he represents Shas' real spirit sounds like expedient prattle because Shas' policies are determined by well-defined institutions, not by the interpretation of one politician-rabbi. In a spirit of respect for what Amsellem is doing, it can be said that his hanging onto the altar does not suit his daring stand. He should nobly quit a club that does not want him and vie in the next Knesset elections for a place he deserves.



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