Here’s an Israel story everyone should keep tabs on. For the first time that I can recall, an ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset has openly defied the authority of his party’s spiritual leaders. This comes after Rabbi Haim Amsalem of Shas spoke out against the lifestyle of married yeshiva students who prefer to study Torah and live off handouts rather than get a job — in other words, against the central ideal that defines ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel today. Over the weekend, his party’s official newspaper ran a series of articles slamming him, and now the party leadership, its four-man Council of Torah Sages headed by Shas’s spiritual leader, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has called on him to quit, adding that if he does not, he’ll be little more than a “thief in the night.” One Shas commentator likened him to Amalek, the Ur-enemy of the Jews, whose memory is, according to the Bible, to be “wiped out.”
Amsalem, however, is sticking to his guns. Calling the handouts “shameful,” he has refused to give up his Knesset post, arguing (probably correctly) that his views reflect those of the great majority of Shas voters.
Why is this story so important? First, because Amsalem is giving voice to an increasingly discontented voter base for Shas — an electorate that walks a thin line between embracing Rabbi Yosef and his defense of Sephardic Judaism while living a lifestyle that, for the most part, is traditional rather than ultra-Orthodox, which means that they work for a living and don’t necessarily buy into the Ashkenazic-invented ideal of Torah study as a full-time job. For the first time, they have a rabbi that speaks his mind for the things they actually believe in.
Second, because here we have the most vivid example of the clash between democracy and religious authority. As a duly elected member of parliament, Amsalem has every legal right to keep his post. Yet the Orthodox parties in Israel have always been run according to a model in which their representatives in parliament accept party discipline not just as a political duty but as a religious one as well. Amsalem’s fate will tell us a lot about whether democracy or religion has supremacy in the Jewish state.
Third, because Amsalem has raised a powerful challenge to the very idea of rabbinic authority. Over the centuries, rabbis have claimed a moral right to tell their flocks what to do, on the grounds that their extensive study gives them the requisite expertise in the religious law. The dirty little secret, however, is that there is no formal hierarchical establishment in Judaism akin to what exists in the Catholic Church. In practice, rabbis have authority only over whoever chooses to follow them. The result is that rabbis who don’t take seriously the underlying values of their followers end up having no one to lead. Beneath the veneer of top-down authority, rabbinic politics has always been far more democratic than most rabbis would admit.
If Shas’s rabbis are reacting wildly to Amsalem’s challenge, it’s because they perceive a real threat to their hold on power. But as the Jerusalem Post‘s Jeff Barak points out, Amsalem is giving a rare, clear voice to what a great many of Shas’s own voters already believe. How this plays out could well determine the future of the Shas party, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate as a whole, and a certain slice of democratic life in Israel as well.