Rabbi Amsellem’s Indictment: The Story of a Shas Breakaway, in His Own Words

The book of conversations with Rabbi Chaim Amsellem could just as easily have been called ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Problems of Haredi Society But No Haredim Would Tell You.’ Now there’s someone who will.

Beshem Hatevunah (“In the Name of Reason: Conversations with Rabbi Chaim Amsellem”), by Ari Eitan. Yedioth Books (Hebrew),
288 pages, NIS 98

I never imagined that I would find myself writing about a book that has been subjected to burning. One must admit that the very idea that an educator, a yeshiva head, according to reports, ordered a book to be put to the flame, is intolerable. On the other hand, that yeshiva head probably gave a nice boost to the distribution of this book of interviews with Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, even if when he ran in the election last month, his party didn’t win the minimum number of votes required to get into the Knesset. Perhaps if the students of the book-burning rabbi had bothered to film the event and post it on YouTube, he would have passed the electoral threshold.

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Chaim Amsellem, 53, served as an MK from Shas from 2006. During the last Knesset, he and the party came into conflict, which reached its peak over the issue of ethnic discrimination in Immanuel, and he was effectively expelled from Shas.

This book, Amsellem’s initiative, was clearly intended to help his campaign as the head of his breakaway party, Am Shalem. But that’s not why I advise you to read it. “In the Name of Reason” is required reading because it’s the best and most credible book about the crisis in ultra-Orthodox society that has been published for years. It could just as easily have been called “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Problems of Haredi Society But No Haredim Would Tell You.” Now there’s someone who will.

This book is a harsh indictment of the fact that a large percentage of ultra-Orthodox society evades army service, work, a secular education and participation in the Zionist enterprise. It is an indictment of Shas, which instead of “restoring the crown” of moderation to the Sephardi public, became an imitation of Ashkenazi Haredi extremism.

The book is presented as a series of conversations between Amsellem and writer Ari Eitan; clearly, it was a joint effort. The product is not only a book that was likely easy to write, but one that is easy to read. Amsellem describes the problems and gives examples in simple and picturesque language. Eitan added some background and explained certain concepts for clarity.

Easy to believe

Usually, it’s hard to believe ultra-Orthodox politicians when they tell us that anyone in their society who is no longer learning in yeshiva should serve in the army; in fact, they are usually covering for tens of thousands of men who neither study nor serve. When they tell us that they condemn all violence at demonstrations, we know that they will do everything possible to release the few hoodlums who have been arrested. When they tell us that nowhere are women as highly respected as they are in Haredi society, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Amsellem is easy to believe, not just because he doesn’t hesitate to level internal criticism and because we like to hear what he says, but also because of the high price he paid in order to say these things. He was ousted from Shas for his comments to the secular press; he was ostracized, his children are blacklisted from ultra-Orthodox schools (in light of what he says in the book about Haredi education, that may actually be to their benefit) and heavy pressure is being applied to the worshipers in the synagogue he leads to abandon him.

Amsellem admits in the book that in the past he, like every other ultra-Orthodox politico, defended the community’s “learning society.” He even led a kollel (married students’ yeshiva) himself. “I too was brainwashed. ... It’s permitted and even desirable for a person to be able to say ‘I was wrong!’”

In the book he doesn’t discuss his opinions on political issues, although he is known to be right-wing. That's probably because the book is addressed primarily to voters from the center and left. Amsellem the candidate apparently intended to convey the message that he was focusing on issues of religion and state, and that therefore his opinions on other subjects were less important.

He uses harsh words and provides a large number of sound bites. “There are more people pretending to be Torah scholars than there are actual Torah scholars,” he says. “Since many Torah students crowd into the kollels, mainly because they have no other choice, we shouldn’t be surprised that during their stay there, they tend to go on frequent coffee breaks, and engage in long phone conversations, stormy political discussions and errands at the bank.”

One of the myths that Haredi society cultivates is the success of its educational system even though the dropout rate from Haredi schools is higher than that in any other education system. Because there are limited alternatives to yeshivot, many young men end up on the street. Amsellem gives no quarter: “We hear of Haredi children whose souls were killed by the system in one way or another, including in a manner related to issues that are better kept quiet [translation into secular language: sexual abuse of minors], and we should not be surprised that many of these students drop out sooner or later.”

The main reason young people leave school, according to Amsellem, is “the defective system on which Haredi education is based ... which believes that all [male] Haredi students, especially teenagers, must study Torah from morning to night.”

The political heart of the book, though not necessarily its most interesting part, is the chapter devoted to the 10 “sins” of Shas. Among them: “Shas is the leader in criminal convictions” among its officials, “Shas sees the State of Israel as a cow to be milked,” and “Shas is firmly opposed to the core curriculum and in this is a cause of ignorance and poverty.” But apparently the worst sin in Amsellem’s opinion is sin No. 1: “Shas is turning the Sephardim into Lithuanians,” or, as Amsellem calls Shas members, “Sephardo-Lithuanians.” By this, he is referring to their tendency to imitate the dress, customs and the religious extremism of the so-called Lithuanian Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox. This sin is combined with No. 8: “Shas is subject to its Lithuanian masters.” He says that “Over the years it has become an increasingly despised maidservant.”

Particularly fascinating is what Amsellem has to say about the way great Torah scholars arise, and who really makes the decisions in the Haredi parties (hint: It’s not the rabbis). “I was a young man and I have also become somewhat older, and the following is what I learned about the way the system works,” he says. “There is a person who in everyone’s opinion is a genuine tzadik [a righteous man], someone who during his entire life studied only Torah ... without taking an interest in or learning about the matters of this world. Until a certain point, when an energetic Haredi politico realized that that rabbi had the potential to be presented as one of the great scholars of the generation, whose instructions in every sphere must be obeyed by everyone, [on everything] from medical to political issues. And when that rabbi turned 80, that politico pulled him out of his hiding place, presented him as the great scholar of the generation, and began to manage him and to speak in his name.”

“The real leaders of the Haredi public,” sums up Amsellem, “are the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers, not those righteous rabbis and Torah scholars, who unfortunately only serve as a tool in the hands of those around them, some more and some less.”

And how does that work in Shas, in which Amsellem grew up? “Over the years it has become very clear that the body called the Council of Torah Sages is in effect a group that serves as a rubber stamp for the decisions of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who himself often serves as a rubber stamp for the decisions of Shas politicians.”

In the final analysis, the book also reflects the intense disappointment Amsellem feels in Shas. “I won’t exaggerate if I say that I felt that redemption was approaching when I heard about the establishment of Shas,” recalls Amsellem. “I saw it as the body that had the ability to significantly improve the situation and image of the Sephardim.” As it stands now, though, he says, “The present Shas movement is a story of a dream and its shattering, a betrayal of voters, and of cynicism and deception.”

Amsellem says he used to be close to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. “I frequently visited him to converse, he considered me a highly regarded interlocutor on halakhic issues [and] I was the regular prayer leader in the synagogue in his home,” says Amsellem. “He quoted me in his books several times.” Today, he says, “Rabbi Yosef is a hostage in the hands of a gang that exploits him for political and business purposes.”

He says it’s hard for him to forgive Yosef for the unbridled attack against him. Shas’ Council of Torah Sages instructed the public to avoid Amsellem and his “heretical opinions,” which was equivalent to imposing a ban on him. “I would have expected more mercy from him, for him to act with greater moderation, not to be influenced by lies and incitement and not to sentence me to such a serious and disproportionate fate, which means destruction and ostracism. ... He himself took the guillotine and placed it on my neck.”

It’s also hard for Amsellem to forgive Yosef for “shattering my youthful dream, a dream that saw him as the greatest Sephardi scholar of the generation, who would really and truly elevate the reputation of the Sephardim.”

Shahar Ilan is the author of the book “The Haredim Inc.: Public Expenditures, Draft-dodging and Trampling the Law” (in Hebrew). He is a former Haaretz commentator on ultra-Orthodox issues.

Tomer Appelbaum