An Unlikely Hero

He was born in Algeria 51 years ago. He wears a black suit and dons a black hat. He has a beard and wears glasses. He is a rabbi. He was elected to the Knesset as a member of the Shas party. In short, he is far, very far, from the image of a hero.

קובץ:Amsalem haim.jpg

And yet Haim Amsalem is indeed an unlikely hero. He has expounded views which were so shocking to his political masters that he was unceremoniously given the boot yesterday and is no longer a member of Shas. The language used by the party apparatchiks announcing the decision to throw him out sounded (to those familiar with Jewish religious lingo) as one tiny step before an official niduy, or excommunication – no less. The minions of R. Ovadia Yossef, spiritual leader of Shas, told the press – with the appropriate grave expression and tsk-tsking – that their octogenarian leader burst out crying when he heard the blasphemies of Amsalem in recorded interviews that were played back to him. Amsalem, needless to say, was not present and could not defend himself and his views in front of this kangaroo court.

So what were the things Amsalem said that were so shocking to warrant such treatment? Did he renounce his faith? Did he condone homosexuality? Did he propose to separate state and church? Far from it. Amsalem called for those who are not destined to be great Torah scholars and who have families to work and earn a living, instead of relying on charity and on allotments from the government. He voiced an opinion that is so commonsensical to the vast majority of Israelis (and indeed too any human being) that trying to explain why it caused so much uproar is a real challenge for those not intimately familiar with Israeli society and politics.

Israel’s most pressing domestic problem is the fact that the fastest growing segment of its society – the ultra-orthodox Jews – is also the least productive economically. The concession that was given by Israel’s founders to the ultra-orthodox, which allowed a small number of Torah scholars to avoid military service and receive government support for studying and not going to work, has turned into an ugly and frightening monster that is threatening the continued existence of Israel as a modern Western state. Tens of thousands of young Israelis are today automatically exempted from military duty. Hundreds of thousands live in relative poverty because these men go on to have large families (eight or ten children being very common), do not work and rely on handouts to eke out a living. Not much is left from the noble and just idea of funding Torah study to those who truly study and then go on to become great scholars and teachers .It has transformed into a self-perpetuating, parasitic mechanism that feeds a vicious circle: religious political parties channel public money to religious institutions, who dole out the stipends to their members, who become dependent on these handouts and in turn vote for these parties to continue performing the extortion that is vital for their survival.

Amsalem is not only being commonsensical. His views are also based on centuries, indeed millennia, of Jewish tradition and law. The Torah, the Prophets, the Talmudic sages and countless halachic authorities have repeated, again and again, the paramount importance of working for a living. Rambam’s views on this are clear and incisive: even teaching Torah for a living is chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name)! It is only in the warped version of Judaism that has developed in Israel in the past half century that the notion of the state having to support Torah scholars (and their families) could have taken hold. At no time in history, and indeed nowhere else today except in Israel, do Jews expect the state to pay for their food and shelter. Yes, there were examples of special arrangements given to individuals so that they can concentrate on their studies, but nobody (including Amsalem) is disputing the fact that such arrangements should continue to exist, for those who truly deserve them.

Amsalem is a hero for willing to pay a high personal price for standing up to the truth. I can only hope he will help make a change for the better, for all our sakes.


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