Interview: Chaim Amsalem
Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, 51, is an independent member of the Knesset. Elected in 2006 and originally a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, Amsalem was ousted by the party last November over his views about the nature of Israeli society and the role of its religious citizens. Born in Oran, Algeria, Amsalem made aliya with his family in 1970. An author, lecturer and former municipal rabbi in Jerusalem, he is head of a new Sefardic-based movement.
Q. You shook up the Shas Party when you called on those who are not destined to be great Torah scholars, and who have families to support, to work and not live on ‘shameful’ government allotments. Why has your message inspired an outpouring of grass-roots support?
A. It hurts me to see 10,000 people who embrace…a lifestyle based on the good intention to learn Torah [but who] at the end of the day will not reach such a high place in Torah learning and they will live in poverty. They think they do a great thing…but…the reality is that perhaps they are not doing a great thing.
Q. Doesn’t that fly in the face of ultra-Orthodox institutions that encourage full-time study for all men?
A. I see a man who sits and studies Torah, and as an afterthought integrates his livelihood into his Torah studies. That is backward. You should make a living, with honor and in the most respectful way—in academia, in the professions, in commerce, in the legal world. Along with this, you should find time to learn Torah, and to set times for serious, intellectually challenging study. In the United States, there are many [who do this]. This is the superior value. The Torah aspires that there not be a chasm between the worlds of learning and working.
Q. Can you give a specific example?
A. [The Talmud teaches that] a father needs to teach his son a profession. A man needs Torah and education together, with labor. It’s impossible to simply erase entire sections of the Talmud because they don’t fit in with your philosophy. The cold truth is that very few should dedicate their entire lives just to the study of Torah. And even these must have a very specific purpose: to be spiritual leaders or learned rabbinical judges or rabbis or opinion makers. Full-time, permanent Torah study is for the special ones. Like in the army, where the commandos are a small percentage. Not everyone is a commando.
Q. What is Shas’s credo?
A. Le’hahzir atara l’yoshna [to return the crown to its place]. This means, let’s return to what was in the past. And what was that? Our history is rich with professors, doctors who were also Torah educated. This model has tragically almost disappeared. The biblical commentators—the Rambam, the Ari, the Rivash—were brilliant astronomers, doctors and engineers. In the last 50 years or so, we wrote a new history.
Q. How do your approach and personal history connect?
A. I am a native of North Africa. Where I grew up, 99 percent of all the great Torah learners were professionals. The tragedy is that we took a huge, generally successful community and we turned them into poor people. We turned them into—excuse me—anti-Zionists. The Sefardic community has never been anti-Zionist. It’s a deviation that must be stopped. I said this consistently within Shas, but it was during a period that there were, let us say, many competing hues and colors, of which my perspective was but one. Suddenly, as huge numbers of Shas supporters began agreeing with me, they had a revelation from Ashkenazic circles saying ‘What’s going on? Rav Amsalem’s causing upheaval, quiet him down or get him out.’
All the [earlier Sefardic] rabbis…supported the establishment of the state, came to Eretz Yisrael driven by pure and simple Zionism, love of the land. We did not grow up with artificial distinctions. Our heritage said dress as you may, live as you want, but one thing: We must unify…the entire Jewish people. Something good was abandoned along the way and this needs to be fixed. For me, this is Zionism, love of the land, competition in society, building up the society and, yes, sharing in the burdens.
Q. Does that mean serving in the Israel Defense Forces?
A. Yes. It’s not right that some take the entire burden on themselves and others do not. Army, national or civilian service—it doesn’t matter. We don’t want a community of parasites. We’re a small country, surrounded by not very friendly countries. We have to defend ourselves. We need to have a successful, sophisticated army.
Q. Is there justified anger at the religious parties that focus more on their own narrow interests and less on the spiritual and social needs of the people as a whole?
A. The notion of self-interest is a big mistake. Take the issue of conversion, for example. Conversion in Israel is a national necessity. We have an aliya—a blessed one—from the former Soviet Union. Out of one million newcomers, up to 400,000 find themselves in a problematic situation because, in some cases, their mother is not a Jew. I wrote two books to prove that this category of people— who, indeed, are not halakhically Jewish and do need to convert—nonetheless bear a special classification, zera Yisrael [seed of Israel].
Q. What does tradition say about this group?
A. The prophet Ezekiel [Chapter 31] commands us to bring them closer, to treat them…respectfully, to make the path easier for them. So the challenge is clear: If you demand a convert be 100 percent Orthodox the day after his conversion…this is not realistic. [Also] someone with no interest in being Jewish who undergoes a revolving-door conversion is making a joke of the process. But there’s a middle ground. There are people who really do want to be Jews, really want to perform mitzvot, but basically, they say, give us the time to get closer little by little. And correctly so! When you see a soldier in the Israeli Army who is prepared to defend his people while finding his soul for the Jewish people, he deserves special treatment and an encouraging attitude.
Q. Why doesn’t the religious establishment follow this?
A. Deals were made and Lithuanian haredim have a monopoly. The State of Israel did not understand that these things are too important to be offloaded to a small group. So the question is: Do [rabbis] understand that [they] need to solve problems? Traditionally, great leaders have thought outside the box to find ways of solving real-life problems. In the past 30 years, this kind of thinking was put into a corner.
Q. Does your position on Army service extend to women?
A. The Army is a profession that is designated primarily for men. For a woman, a Jewish woman—it’s the Jewish home, in my opinion, that’s her contribution.
Q. And in the workplace?
A. We live in a modern world. If a woman wants to work, it’s her complete right to work and to be employed and to attain the highest levels of any profession. But is she required or obligated to do this? No. In the Torah’s concept of the world she is not obliged to hold down a job. That’s the role of the husband. In the ketuba, [it says the husband] will financially support you….
Q. What do you think of gender-separated bus lines?
A. It’s unnecessary and, in fact, does not even suit the concepts of Torah. [It] insults an entire population. People simply see that we are becoming a fundamentalist society. It’s not acceptable in any way, shape or form.
Q. Do you have new political goals?
A. I recently created an ideological movement called the Ram Shalem Movement. It’s not a party but an organization with a distinct perspective. It’s not connected to Shas, and it does not deal with politics. It deals with disseminating my opinions on all levels, at conferences, in lectures, in books, in meetings, through the Internet. The moment the public will come and say ‘We love this, we identify with this, we support this,’ then I will know what to do [politically].