Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The lost Sephardi tradition of moderation

 Rabbi Haim Amsalem is standing as a party of one in the forthcoming Israeli elections (photo: Nati Shohat)

The most important thing North African Jews brought to Israel was not dancing or baclava, but moderation, argues Rabbi Haim Amsalem.  That's why he broke away from the 'Lithuanians' of the ultra-orthodox Shas party to form a party of one. Important article by Matti Friedman in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily)

Amsalem was born in 1959 in the Mediterranean port of Oran, Algeria, and moved to France as a child, part of the great 20th-century exodus of Jews from Islamic countries. From there his parents took him to Israel, where he attended yeshivas in Bnei Brak, a religious town on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and later became a rabbi. That status got him a draft exemption, and he never served in the army.

After rabbinic posts around Israel and two years as the chief Sephardic rabbi in Geneva, Switzerland, Amsalem returned to Israel in 2006 and was given a spot on the Shas slate in that year’s election. The party’s list is decided by a council of religious scholars headed by Ovadia Yosef, who had ordained Amsalem as a rabbi years before, and he had the endorsement of other prominent rabbis.
Amsalem turned to politics because he realized, he said this week, that “today, in the modern world, the influence of rabbis is marginal.”

“I saw that if I wanted to cause revolutions or bring change, I would have to go where such things are done. In Israel, that place is the Knesset.”

Shas would soon have reason to regret the choice. Perhaps the key event in Amsalem’s rebellion began with a 2008 High Court appeal filed by parents at a school for girls in Immanuel, an ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank. The parents, Mizrahi Jews, showed in court that their daughters faced discrimination from Ashkenazi administrators and parents who did not want their children mixing with Mizrahi girls.
Shas had been founded to restore the pride of Mizrahi Jews, who have a long tradition of pragmatism and religious moderation. But Shas leaders had long since come into the orbit of the Ashkenazi rabbis who dominate the yeshiva world — “Lithuanians,” in ultra-Orthodox parlance — and had drifted toward their model of unemployment, draft evasion and harsh interpretations of religious law. Shas leaders tended to send their children to Ashkenazi schools, which are generally considered more prestigious.The parents from Immanuel, looking for support, encountered a cold shoulder from Shas: The party of Mizrahi religious pride, it was clear, did not to want to rock the boat.

Amsalem, infuriated, broke ranks and publicly supported the parents. The case garnered intense media interest, and the Mizrahi parents won the legal battle.

Shas leaders, Amsalem said, had “betrayed their voters.”

“They served and still serve the Lithuanian Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox ideology, and this ideology embraces discrimination,” he said.

His former party “once had a reason to exist, but failed. It was created first of all to fight discrimination. It did a thousand other things, but not that.”

The final break was not long in coming. Amsalem openly embraced the label “Zionist,” for example, claiming there was no contradiction between that and ultra-Orthodoxy.

“What is ultra-Orthodoxy? Just being a little more stringent in observing the law. They say, ‘You’re a Zionist, oy vey, oy vey.’ What’s the big deal?” he said. When he had his picture taken this week, Amsalem made sure his Israeli flag was in the frame.

The sweeping military exemption for yeshiva students — the key political issue for the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have termed it a “matter of life and death” — should be junked, he said. Students who excel at Torah studies should be allowed to learn; there are “very few” such students, he said. The rest must serve.

Behind Amsalem’s desk is a painted portrait of a white-bearded man in the traditional garb of a Middle Eastern rabbi. The man is his father, David Amsalem, a rabbi in Morocco and Algeria. His father, Amsalem says, was never paid for his rabbinic work and made his money in business. In his father’s eyes, Jewish learning and teaching were tasks done “for the sake of heaven.”

“For him, the combination of Torah and work was a way of life,” he said.Increasing employment and military service among the ultra-Orthodox — about 10 percent of the population, by most estimates — it is one of the central planks of Am Shalem’s platform.

The rabbi also calls for easing the conversion process for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He argues that people who come from the “seed of Israel” — with Jewish ancestry but not a Jewish mother, as demanded by religious law — must be greeted with an approach that “eases their way and brings them closer” to Judaism.

His views led to his acrimonious expulsion from Shas at the end of 2010.

Amsalem is very much a product of the Israeli Orthodox world, and is a moderate by its standards. He says he believes “the people of Israel come before the land of Israel,” but defines himself as a “man of the right” and is a member of the pro-settlement lobby in the Knesset.

Neither is he a religious pluralist. Amsalem thinks Judaism needs a more inclusive Orthodoxy, not a rethinking of religious practice. He has little patience for non-Orthodox denominations. He believes women who wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall, for example, are committing a “provocation.”
Israelis have much to learn, he said, from the lost Jewish communities of North Africa. The rabbis there, he said, were smart enough to accept all Jews in their Orthodox communities, no matter their level of religious practice. Thus there were no Reform or Conservative communities, he said: “They weren’t needed.”

“You could be more stringent or less stringent, it didn’t matter. Everyone stayed in the community,” Amsalem said. The most important thing the Jews of North Africa brought with them to Israel, he said, was “not baklava, or dancing, or any of this nonsense — it was moderation.”

But when North African rabbis arrived in Israel, he said, Israeli society “didn’t know enough to appreciate their wisdom.” Instead, Israeli Orthodoxy became so unforgiving it drove people away.


Anonymous said...

It is shocking for me to read about these quarrels.
Do you think that Hitler checked out if that or the other Jew was Mizrahi or other?
Please let's be united. We are already too few in the world to afford this type of division

Anonymous said...

In Judaism values precede unity. We're celebrating Hanukkah... is there a better example of that?

I tend to sympathize with rabbi Amsalem's positions, but, with the information available, seems to me that he was wrong in the case of the Sephardi students.