One of the most important Jewish stories in years is unfolding as we speak, and yet, judging from the response of the Jewish establishment in America, you’d hardly know it.
This is the story of one David — Rabbi Haim Amsalem of Shas — against the Goliath of the ultra-Orthodox Charedi establishment in Israel. Amsalem, an halachic scholar, has created a mini-earthquake in Israel by daring to advance opinions that are anathema to his own Charedi community, like the notion that men should work for a living and not just study in yeshivas all day.
“Study in a kollel is not a goal, but merely a means of training the next generation of rabbis and scholars,” he told the newspaper Maariv earlier this month. “Whoever isn’t built for this, it’s a waste of time. Earning a living for himself and his family is more important than anything else.”
He has also called on Charedi schools to teach the core curriculum to make it easier for graduates to enter the labor force. And, as I reported in a column last summer from Israel, he has challenged the Charedi-controlled Chief Rabbinate by proposing easing the requirements for conversion under certain circumstances, like for soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces who have a Jewish father.
For expressing these opinions and others, he has been vilified and demonized by his own party. An article last week in the Shas Party’s Yom Leyom compared him to the biblical enemy Amalek, “who the Torah orders us to wipe out his memory.” The Knesset has provided him a bodyguard. Placards in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak accuse him of “desecrating heaven’s name.”
Amsalem, not surprisingly, takes the opposite view. He says it is the insularity and intolerance of the Charedi establishment that has “desecrated heaven’s name.” As he told his own community in Maariv: “They [the secular community] say we have become a burden on them. The truth is we have become a burden on ourselves. We’ve abandoned the field and let them disparage us and call our students ignoramuses.
“We’ve made them hate the Torah.”
Amsalem is telling his fellow Charedim that when the behavior of “ultra-Jews” is seen as intolerant and unreasonable, it reflects negatively on Judaism and the Torah itself. (Conversely, when black-hatted “ultra-Jews” act lovingly, like with the Chabad movement, or “the Disco-Rabbi” Dovid Grossman of Mighdal Ohr, or the Karlin-Stolin Chasidim who promote job training and placement, it has the exact opposite effect.)
What is remarkable about Amsalem is not his message — the vast majority of the Jewish community has been saying similar things for years. What is remarkable is his courage in speaking out within his own party and community, thereby shaking to the core some of their most deeply entrenched beliefs.
It’s not as if he didn’t expect retaliation.
When I met him at Rabbi Moises Benzaquen’s home a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I could see on his face that he was preparing for a showdown. He knew all hell would break loose as soon as he returned to Israel and called a press conference to formally announce his views. And as we’ve seen, his community did not disappoint.
To fight back, Amsalem is trying to enlist worldwide support. So far, his biggest support in the Diaspora has come from right here in Los Angeles. Last summer, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who has been revitalizing the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), featured Rabbi Amsalem during his weeklong study retreat at the SEC’s center in Jerusalem. Rabbi Benzaquen, head of West Coast Torah Center, has also been a big supporter. Both were part of a small group of local sympathizers who invited Amsalem to Los Angeles last month to drum up support for his cause.
What animates Sephardic rabbis like Bouskila and Benzaquen — as well as Sephardic Jews like yours truly — is a sense that Amsalem can become a global force in the Jewish world by advocating for old-school Sephardic values like “no-label Judaism,” tolerance and engagement with the world.
Yes, many of us want to take back Sephardic Judaism from the intolerant “faux Sephardic” black-hat bullies at Shas who have the nerve to accuse Amsalem of being Amalek.
Will Rabbi Amsalem prevail? Will he be forced out of Shas? If he is forced out, will he succeed in starting a new Sephardic party that represents Torah, tolerance and modernity? And more importantly, will worldwide Jewry rally to his side? The next few months will tell.
I have a theory for why American Jewry has been oddly quiet during this latest firestorm: We’re so used to fighting villains that we don’t know how to handle heroes. We scream when people screw up, not when they stand up.
Remember, Who is a Jew? The Women of the Wall? The conversion crisis? When the Charedim do things we don’t like, the outrage flies fast and furious. The Jewish establishment screams at the top of its lungs. But here is a bona fide Charedi hero who is fighting for what many of us believe in, and how does the Jewish establishment respond? Hmmm, they’re not so sure.
Maybe Jews are simply not so good at handling good news.