Rabbi Chaim Amsellem has become an unlikely hero to many in the American Jewish establishment who closely follow Israeli life, including a new worldwide group being formed to support his positions.
A Sephardic scholar of Talmud with a thick gray beard and black hat, the rabbi, 51, is a Knesset member from the fervently Orthodox Shas party, known for its socially conservative agenda and interest in obtaining government funds to support a network of yeshivas.
Hardly a candidate for praise from secular, mainstream Jewish organizations here, it would seem.
But Rabbi Amsellem, who maintained a low profile in the Knesset until the last several months, was singled out in November by the American Jewish Committee for his “innovative, courageous and farsighted positions on matters that affect the entire Jewish people.” And when he visited UJA-Federation in New York for the first time last Thursday, he was warmly greeted at a luncheon in his honor.
That’s because Rabbi Amsellem has spoken out forcefully in favor of easing the conversion process for Israelis from the former Soviet Union; come out against the high number of kollel (full-time rabbinical) students in Israel who are supported by government funds; asserted that yeshiva students should serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and join the work force; and that fervently Orthodox schools offer math and secular studies in their curriculum to prepare them for non-rabbinic careers.
That behavior, and particularly the rabbi’s insistence that his lenient views on conversion are based on halacha (religious law), resulted in his expulsion from Shas in November. A party newsletter went so far as to describe him as Amalek, the biblical personification of evil who Jews are commanded to destroy.
Such attacks prompted an outpouring of support for Rabbi Amsellem from groups like the AJC, and, he says, from many Orthodox as well as secular Jews in Israel and across the diaspora.
Here in New York, businessman Salomon Bendayan helped sponsor the rabbi’s visit, and says he and other supporters are planning to gather in Israel next month to launch Am Shalem (A People United), a non-political, educational organization that will promote Rabbi Amsellem’s social platform, with the goal of fostering Jewish unity.
Those involved in forming the group are primarily successful businessmen from the Sephardic community. But Bendayan stressed that the organization is for every type of Jew. It is still in formation, he said, but seeks to create an educational center in Israel that, among other projects, will provide high-quality secular educational opportunities for yeshiva students to promote their transition into the work field.
Satellite offices are planned for New York, Hong Kong, South Africa and Europe.
Bendayan said he only met Rabbi Amsellem three months ago but had followed his work before then. “I was motivated by what he has been saying, and I was sickened by the level of separation among Jews.
“Our agenda is simple,” he said. “Unification.”
‘Applying The Torah’
In an exclusive interview, Rabbi Amsellem explained how he came to speak out against his party, why he thinks his positions have an impact on Jewish life in the diaspora as well as Israel, and what his future plans are, given that he remains a member of Knesset.
Speaking in Hebrew (UJA-Federation provided a translator), Rabbi Amsellem said that those who have lauded him for his “progressive ideas” have it wrong.
“I try to explain that my ideas are not progressive, they are halachic positions based on a long tradition of applying the Torah” to real situations, he said. “When academics tell me they try to view Jewish problems through a social lens, I tell them I have a Torah lens, and that provides the answers.”
The rabbi emphasized that throughout Jewish history, rabbis and scholars combined Torah study with making a livelihood, and that it is only a recent aberration to have so many full-time rabbinical students on the dole.
(When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, offered an army dispensation to full-time rabbinical students in Israel there were 400. Today there are an estimated 60,000.)
Rabbi Amsellem said both observant and secular Israelis support his views, and he cited a Channel 10 survey in Israel that found 38 percent of Shas members in agreement with his positions.
The Sephardic tradition, he noted, is one of “tolerance” and efforts to bridge the gap among Jews. He calls for a change in Israeli life to end “the dangerous polarization that we have now, with the State of Tel Aviv and the State of B’nai Brak,” with their extremes of secular and religious viewpoints.
His views on conversion are especially significant because of the impending societal crisis Israel faces, with more than 300,000 citizens of Russian lineage who are not halachically Jewish. The Chief Rabbinate’s criteria for conversion call for a commitment to observe all the mitzvot, and as a result, few apply for the process.
Rabbi Amsellem insists the current conversion policy leads to “a dead-end street.” In his scholarly writings, he cites extensive traditional sources suggesting that those who have Jewish ancestors and who are prepared to give their lives to defend the Jewish people (through the IDF) qualify for a more lenient approach.
With those beliefs, how did he get on the Shas ticket in 2006? (He was re-elected in 2009.) He said he decided to run for office because social change in Israel happens through politics, and his primary role in the Knesset was to apply halacha to potential legislation. While his views were well known to the party, he was not particularly vocal about them, he said.
That changed last June when he spoke out against the policy of a Bais Yaakov girls yeshiva in Immanuel that separated Ashkenazi and Sephardi students, allegedly because the Sephardi girls were less observant.
The incident “let the genie out of the bottle,” the rabbi said with a smile. Since then he has been vocal in his criticism of how, he maintains, Shas has been taken over by the Lithuanian yeshiva world. Specifically, he maintains that two of the five Knesset members from the Agudath Israel party, whose outlook is more parochial than the typical Sephardic approach, effectively control Shas, which has 11 seats in the Knesset.
“I didn’t realize their influence,” Rabbi Amsellem said of the two haredi Agudah Knesset members. “Today,” he added, ‘Shas has a Sephardic body and a Lithuanian heart.”
He said he is trying to reclaim the Sephardic heart within Shas, “so the world is watching me.” He began to speak out, he noted, because “Israel is in big trouble and it is time to go back to the tradition” of tolerance and balancing Torah study with a livelihood.
From Rav Ovadia
“The great tragedy” for Rabbi Amsellem on a personal level in his campaign of late has been his being “cut off,” he says, from his spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi and unrivaled spiritual leader of Sephardim throughout the world.
Now 90 and frail, Rav Ovadia, as he is known, has been in the news of late for a number of controversial statements about Arabs and non-Jews. But his long career is marked by his favoring lenient rather than strict approaches to halacha, compared to Lithuanian yeshiva heads.
Rabbi Amsellem said he has known Rav Ovadia since he was 17, that he was ordained by him, his scholarly books have been endorsed by him, he was brought into the Shas party by him, and he always had open access to his mentor until he began speaking out against Shas positions.
“The moment I offended them, a wall was created between us,” he said with sadness, blaming a small coterie of followers close to Rav Ovadia who influence his thinking and keep him isolated.
Rabbi Amsellem did not name them, but Shas party leader Eli Yishai, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, is considered to be a key figure in this group. Yishai is a defender of strict standards on conversion, and was criticized strongly for negligence in the recent deadly Carmel Forest fire.
Rabbi Amsellem says that Rav Ovadia’s entourage brought him to an informal tribunal in the former chief rabbi’s presence, some months ago and accused him of “terrible things,” namely his statements about the conversion process.
When asked by Rav Ovadia if the criticism was accurate, Rabbi Amsellem said he cited the halachic references he had made in a book he had sent to Rav Ovadia, but which it was evident his mentor had not seen.
“I said, ‘you’ve gone further than me’ in taking lenient positions [on these matters], and after he looked through the book I had brought with me, he said, ‘you’re right.’
“Since that day they have cut me off completely.”
Weighing His Options
Rabbi Amsellem said he has no regrets about speaking out.
“I know you sometimes pay a price for speaking the truth, and I am paying that price,” he said. “I didn’t do this for political gain,” he added, “but because I could not keep silent.”
He said “it is no secret that other parties have offered me to join them and promised me” a ministerial position, but he said he is weighing his political options. That includes starting a party of his own, aimed particularly at Sephardim who feel Shas has been hijacked by the Lithuanian yeshiva world.
“If I feel there is an attitude toward change, for combining Torah and work, for getting out of poverty, for bridging the gap between the religious and the secular, for [yeshiva students] performing national service, then I will decide.”
Some observers believe that Shas will fracture and lose its cohesiveness after Rav Ovadia is no longer on the scene.
For now, Rabbi Amsellem is focused on creating a process that will wean kollel students from dependency on the government for funding.
He mentioned encouraging conversations he has had with Stef Wertheimer, the billionaire Israeli industrialist and entrepreneur, about creating secular educational opportunities leading to high-tech careers for some top yeshiva students.
“It’s important to have and to support yeshivas,” Rabbi Amsellem said, “but kollel is not for everyone. The Sephardic community was never like this. We need an ideological movement for this, not a political one,” he said, referring to his plans to create the Am Shalem organization.
As for the status of the controversial conversion bill, with a deadline on its six-month freeze just extended, Rabbi Amsellem said he will appear before the panel seeking a compromise this week, but he sees no break in the stalemate at this point.
“Everyone quotes the Ashkenazic rabbis” and their strict opinions, “but I say what about the Sephardic rabbis whose perspective is broader? I will remind the panel,” he said, “that our survival is our togetherness.”