Friday, February 04, 2011

The future of Shas ... hopefully

My latest article in Kaminando y Avlando, the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication:


In the national crisis that followed the discrimination against Sephardi students in an Emmanuel (‘the Bnei Brak of the Shomron’) school in June, two opinions came out of Shas, the Sephardi Haredi (Haredi = Ultra Orthodox) party. The majority stance was that of R’ Ovadia Yosef, who opposed the discrimination but criticized the intervention of the Supreme Court. The minority voice came from one MK (Member of Parliament), R’ Chaim Amsalem, who declared, “We need to get out of our inferiority complex and be proud of being Sephardim.” Since the Emmanuel crisis, R’ Amsalem has continued in his vocal attempts to rehabilitate Shas’s warped Sephardi worldview and pull the party, its Haredi followers and Ashkenazi brothers away from the Israeli-Ashkenazi Haredi ‘way of life.’

In order to understand why R’ Amsalem’s stance is so critical to Israel, one must better understand Shas and its influences. Shas was founded by R’ Ovadia in 1984 prior to the elections of that year. As the party was being formed, R’ Ovadia received much guidance from R’ Elazar Shach, the leader of Israel's non-Hasidic Haredi Ashkenazi Jews. This undoubtedly played its part in Shas supporting, and at times mimicking, the Israeli-Asheknazi Haredi worldview in relation to yeshiva study, army, conversions, core studies in schools and employment. This stance negates the Sephardi worldview of yesteryear, which is why R’ Amsalem can play such a critical role in Israel’s future. As the anger and disenchantment directed at the Haredi – both Sephardi and Ashkenazi - world grows, R’ Amsalem’s moderate outlook can bridge the gaps within our society.


In the early 1950s, David Ben Gurion exempted 400 yeshiva students from the army, so they could devote their time to Torah study, with the hope they’d replace the many sages we lost during the Holocaust. In 1977, Menachem Begin removed the 400-student cap and since then, Haredi students entering the yeshiva world have been able to get exemptions from the army if they so choose. While Shas has no issues with the IDF, they do not promote it for their Haredi followers (many of Shas’s voters are traditional or secular Sephardim – a dominant majority of this constituency serves in the IDF).

Unlike far too many in Shas, R’ Amsalem believes it’s the duty of every Jew to serve in the army – unless the person in question is a Torah prodigy (a student who is extremely advanced and learned relative to his age). These prodigies, a small minority, must continue to study Torah and Gemara all day, but the others must serve and protect the country. This would eliminate one of the most contentious issues in our country – why is one sector of our society exempt from this service?


Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, few Jews who lived in the Arab world had the ability to study all day, mainly due to the need to pay taxes and take care of their families. Only the Torah prodigies were given that privilege. Unfortunately, far too many Haredim have decided they too are deserving of this privilege. Sadly, this trend has led to higher levels of poverty and greater reliance on tzedaka (charity). R’ Amsalem highlights this problem by quoting Rambam, who wrote that one who studies Torah, doesn’t work and lives from charity has desecrated Hashem and humiliated the Torah. Rambam was opposed to this lifestyle, and even went further by saying that studying Torah without pursuing a parnassa (livelihood) leads to idleness, crime and eventually theft. The continuing Haredi support for full-time yeshiva students needs to change – if not because of Rambam’s warnings, then because it is sentencing its followers to a life of poverty.


With all the recent headlines about conversions in Israel (Rotem Law), R’ Amsalem’s recent book about the halachot (Jewish law) dealing with conversion issues has unfortunately received much criticism. R’ Amsalem believes that we need to seek ways still within the guidelines of halacha to make it easier for potential converts to join Am Yisrael. R’ Amsalem also thinks it is essential to help IDF soldiers who want to convert, as “the virtue of those who fight to protect the Jewish people is great.” Unlike the Shas leadership, R’ Amsalem criticizes the Rabbinate’s fantasy that all converts must maintain a Haredi lifestyle after their conversion. He blames this fantasy on the Ashkenazi Lithuanian Haredi branch, which has control in the Rabbinate and doesn’t practice “pragmatism in halacha.”

Core Studies in School

Within the Israeli Haredi curriculum, core studies like English, mathematics and science are very often not taught. R’ Amsalem believes teaching these subjects is essential to allow Haredim to integrate into all walks of life. By refusing to do so, Haredi youngsters cannot enter the job market (bar avodot kodesh - like a shochet, a scribe, a Rabbi etc) and are left dependent on their leaders for allowances and donations (no wonder they vote for parties like Shas and UTJ come election time!). As R’ Amsalem says, “Studies in English and math, what’s bad about it? What is this idiocy? How does it take away from Torah?”


In 1980, 21% of Haredi men didn’t work. Today, the number has risen to a staggering 65%. Some of the reasons for this increase have already been discussed above. R’ Amsalem believes that the Haredi community must use Yaakov Avinu or Rambam as examples of Torah sages who integrated Torah study with work (another great example from the many Rabbis who worked and studied is Chafetz Chaim, who kept his modest shop open until he had earned enough for his daily needs; he then closed his shop, and studied the rest of the day). R’ Amsalem is stating the sad but obvious truth: Poverty levels will continue to rise within the Haredi world if this move towards mass voluntary unemployment doesn’t change, and that will only lead to more unnecessary confrontations with the Jews who shoulder the burden of this poverty within Israel and abroad.

R’ Chaim Amsalem has taken a brave step within the Haredi world. The backlash has been fierce - his Shas career is essentially over (especially since he referred to it as a ‘Lithuanian-Sephardic party’), and he’s been labeled a ‘Hebrew Amalekite.’ Despite the expected hostility from parts of the Haredi world, R’ Amsalem has received an outpouring of support from all over Israel. His words have hit a chord with a majority of Israelis. This popularity has not changed R’ Amsalem reasons for stating why it’s imperative he speak up now. He feels that by not working and not serving in the army, Haredim are avoiding their duty and increasing the anger and hatred felt towards them. “There is a large Sephardi public,” Amsalem laments, “that needs to be rescued, that needs to be pushed to a course of parnassa and work, it’s urgent.”

Why the urgency? R’ Amsalem strongly believes that if the Haredi, be it Sephardi or Ashkenazi, community does its bit in the army and workforce, the face of the country will change dramatically for the better, the sinat chinam (baseless hatred) will drop and thousands will be drawn to the Torah of Israel.

May this man succeed in his mission, Amen.


No comments: