Jerusalem & Babylon / Is Shas' Rebel Rabbi a Haredi Harbinger of Change?

With another party unlikely to grant him room on their list, Shas' Chaim Amsellem will soon be forgotten by the same media that momentarily made him a champion of free speech.

Chaim Amsellem must be the most popular rabbi right now in Israel. That is, among Israelis who don't normally like rabbis.

This is only natural. After all, his views seem almost tailor-made to appeal to those who believe the ultra-Orthodox community is a group of parasitic good-for-nothings. He thinks that most Haredi men should work and serve in the army, and only a minority of them should study Torah for decades in yeshivas; that Haredi children should be taught the national core curriculum; and that the stringent requirements of the rabbinical conversion courts be relaxed for those already of Jewish ancestry, certainly for young men and women who have risked their lives in the defense of the Jewish state.

Amsellem- Emil Salman
Emil Salman

And Amsellem has not been ashamed to say any of this to secular interviewers. Add to this the fact that he's just been hounded out of his party, Shas, by its reactionary ministers and rabbis, and it's clear how the unlikely hero became the latest darling of the mainstream media.

This week, the Shas Council of Sages issued what amounts to an excommunication of Rabbi Amsellem.

The dreaded word - herem - may not have been used in the proclamation, handwritten by the council's president, 90-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but everything else is there. "We call upon anyone to whom the Torah is dear, to keep a bow-shot distance away from this man and from his weird and heretical opinions," it reads. (It sounds every bit as biblical-medieval in the original Hebrew version. )

Up to this point, it would be hard to fault Amsellem's conduct. From within the Haredi community, this father of eight living in Har Nof has bravely articulated extremely unorthodox positions and stood by them through fire and brimstone. Now, the leaders of his party are demanding he "return the mandate" and resign from the Knesset.

In this respect, Amsellem is acting dishonorably, just like any another politician. Following the Shas council's meeting, he said he would "continue to serve the Sephardi community who put their faith in me." Legally, doing so is his right. No one can force a Knesset member to relinquish his or her seat - even if, as in Amsellem's case, the MK signed a specific agreement before the elections to do so if his party's leaders so demanded.

Those who voted Shas solely to put Chaim Amsellem - the rabbi of a tiny moshav in the Negev, and after that a neighborhood in Netivot and a small community in Geneva - as number 10 on the party's Knesset list, probably would not fill a taxi, let alone a school bus. Democratic or not, Shas, its 11 Knesset members and the two major government ministries under its control, are the personal fiefdom of Rabbi Yosef. Without him, the party would be a colorless collection of hacks who would never have crossed the electoral threshold.

Amsellem was duty-bound to resign and having failed to do so, he is destined for backbench ignominy.

Without the unlikely outcome of another party granting him a valuable spot on their list in the next elections, he will soon be forgotten by the same media that momentarily made him a champion of free speech.

But Amsellem, the rabbi-politician-rebel, is a minor figure; what is significant are the views he espoused, which while not original, were certainly singular in the ultra-Orthodox environment. (Though a growing number there are certainly thinking and even quietly expressing similar positions, no other rabbi has yet spoken out. )

The cowardly rejection of Amsellem and his ideas by Shas' rabbis and politicians - the party's weekly publication issued an entire supplement Thursday dedicated to repudiating him - may be viewed by some as a watershed moment.

The movement that was once seen as a more liberal and tolerant alternative to the Ashkenazi-Haredi stream turned sharply right at the crossroads.

But the panicked reaction, initially prompted by vicious criticism of Amsellem and Shas in the daily mouthpiece of rigid Ashkenazi-Haredi ideology, Yated Ne'eman, is proof of the losing battle they are fighting.

The Haredi leadership, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, is sticking to the tired tropes on the necessity of allowing every boy and man to study only Torah forever and their steadfast opposition to any meddling in their antiquated "pure" education.

The facts on the ground, however, suggest that reality is changing. Three thousand Haredi men are already serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in both combat and technical roles, and more are asking to enroll, many with the quiet encouragement of their rabbis who understand that the army is the only gateway to social inclusion and gainful employment. Similar numbers of Haredi students attend a wide variety of vocational and academic colleges, conforming to secular professional standards.

Some ultra-Orthodox ideologues maintain that the fact that these young men and women are capable of learning a trade at a similar level to their non-religious counterparts, without a previous grounding in mathematics, science and English, demonstrates the success of their education.

While there is some merit to this argument, it overlooks the fact that today's Haredi students are for the most part high achievers with above-average intelligence.

Over the next two decades, as they become - by force of demography - a much larger proportion of the workforce, tens of thousands of graduates of the ultra-Orthodox educational system will find it impossible to secure jobs, commensurate to their talents, without sufficient schooling.

Haredi communities outside of Israel have long understood this and it is only a matter of time before the local leadership will have to face facts: The "studying society" is no longer economically sustainable and if the rabbis do not lead their followers out of deepening penury, they will have a full-fledged rebellion on their hands.

A generation from now, Rabbi Amsellem's "heretical opinions" will be accepted wisdom, long after Chaim Amsellem the politician is forgotten.