Shas' Enfant Terrible Is a Voice of Haredi Sanity

Chaim Amsellem is a one-man opposition to Shas leader Eli Yishai and he fearlessly opposes Shas' distorted worldview on all important issues.

A bill for lengthening daylight saving time will be brought up next week in the Knesset. The proposal says the time has come for us to be like the other nations so daylight saving time won't end on the eve of Yom Kippur, but at the beginning of November. Members of Kadima, Labor and Meretz will naturally support the bill, but surprisingly, one other Knesset member will support it - Chaim Amsellem from Shas.

Amsellem is the enfant terrible of Shas. He's a one-man opposition to Shas leader Eli Yishai and he fearlessly opposes Shas' distorted worldview on all important issues - conversions, core studies in the schools, military service and employment. He doesn't even hesitate to accuse the party of "throwing all the wretched into a deep pit, just as Joseph was thrown."

So Yishai is furious and plans to convene the Council of Torah Sages to call on Amsellem to resign. But Amsellem is not upset. He announced this week that he doesn't intend to resign even if Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, instructs him to do so. Amsellem is a wise man who doesn't act in a self-deprecating manner in front of anyone. He's a rabbi and writes books about halakha, Jewish law. No member of the Shas leadership can overshadow him on Torah matters. Amsellem represents something the entire public is yearning for: the Sephardi worldview of yesteryear - an outlook that is moderate and not extreme, that believes in "live and let live."

Recently Amsellem wrote a book on halakha that deals with conversion issues; he brought on himself the wrath of the Lithuanian school of rabbis. Amsellem wrote that we must seek ways in the halakha to make it easier for everyone who wants to join the Jewish people, especially to make it easier for soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces because "the virtue of those who fight to protect the Jewish people is great."

For Amsellem, serving in the army is the duty of every Jew, and of course every ultra-Orthodox Jew. In his opinion, only a prodigy at Torah studies (and this is a very small minority ) should continue studying the Torah and the Gemara, while the rest must enlist in the army. Otherwise, you're avoiding your duty and increasing hatred.

Amsellem in effect accepts the worldview of David Ben-Gurion, who agreed when the state was founded to let 400 highly talented yeshiva students devote their lives to Torah study while the rest would serve in the army and work. After all, Maimonides writes that in an obligatory war (milhemet mitzvah ) everyone must go to battle "even a bridegroom from his room and a bride from her wedding."

Therefore, from Amsellem's point of view, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's sycophantic offer to exempt yeshiva students from military service so they can go out to work is a bad proposal. The way he sees it, the Haredim must be integrated into all walks of life. First they should study core subjects (mathematics, English, civics and history ), then they should serve in the army and later join the labor force.

Amsellem accuses the Haredi leadership of sentencing its public to a life of poverty and want, and of not making it possible for young people to study a general curriculum that would prepare them for a life of employment. In this way, the ultra-Orthodox remain dependent on their leaders who supply them with allowances and donations. In return, the Haredim supply votes at election time.

Misery has become a profession and the wretched have been thrown into a deep pit, Amsellem says. Maimonides wrote that anyone who believes he should study Torah, not work, and live from charity has desecrated the Lord and humiliated the Torah, and that studying Torah without working leads to idleness, crime and eventually theft.

Amsellem also does not hesitate to criticize illusionary halakhic rulings, flag burnings, and contempt for the state and its symbols. He favors tolerance and opposes violence that finds expression on the wall newspapers in Haredi neighborhoods and in the burning of garbage cans. Amsellem understands the anger of the secular community that is no longer willing to be the donkeys who carry the burden that is growing heavier by the year.

Because once upon a time, 30 years ago, 21 percent of Haredi men did not work; now the number is at 65 percent. He is convinced that if the Haredi community does its bit in the army and workforce, the face of the country will change unrecognizably, hatred will disappear and thousands will be drawn closer to the Torah of Israel.

The manhunt for Amsellem is at its peak now. Yishai will do everything in his power to get him out of the Knesset. But Amsellem is the voice of sanity. He is the hope of us all, both secular and Haredi, for a more normal life. The whole nation is with you, Amsellem.