Dispute in Shas over Amsallem Interview

A dispute has played out in the Shas party in recent days, sparked by MK Rabbi Chaim Amsallem’s call last week for increased hareidi-religious employment. Amsallem said that historically, Jewish men have always worked as well as learning Torah, and called for those who are not successful in their Torah studies to enter the workforce.

His comments caused a storm in Shas, and the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, appeared to condemn his remarks during a weekly Torah lecture on the Sabbath. “There are those who talk about yeshiva and say that if it isn’t working out, you should go work instead. That is not the voice of Torah… A person who says such things lacks faith in Torah,” Voice of Israel government-run radio quoted Rabbi Yosef as saying.

Sources close to Amsallem said that Rabbi Yosef’s comments made it clear that he had been misinformed regarding what Amsallem had said. Rabbi Amsallem has not been able to speak directly to Rabbi Yosef and clarify the situation, they said.

Others have faced the same problem, they said. “Nationalist rabbis and religious-Zionist MKs, including MK [Michael] Ben-Ari, were prevented this week from meeting with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and speaking to him regarding the construction freeze, and [Rabbi Yosef] is not aware of that,” they said.

Amsallem said that there had been calls for him to leave the Knesset following his criticism of hareidi-religious leadership, but that he does not plan to step down. Those who voted Shas cast their votes when his name was on the ballot, and “I do not have the authority to pass my mandate to someone else,” he said.

Beyond calling on more hareidi men to work, Amsallem had also criticized the way that hareidi-religious leadership has treated immigrants from the former Soviet Union who wish to convert to Judaism. “The Rabbinate is asking potential converts to become hareidi Jews who observe every stringency of Jewish law – it’s a fantasy,” he said. The attitude “leads to tragedy,” he added.

Rabbi Amsallem went further, saying that not only should the Rabbinate not demand too much from prospective converts, it should actively seek to convert non-Jews descended from Jews. They are considered “the seed of Israel,” and there is a positive command to bring them back to the Jewish people, he stated.

He later clarified that his comments regarding the need to work for a living as well as study Torah were directed to his own community, that of Jews of Middle Eastern descent. “I do not intend to tell the entire hareidi community how to live its life… I am talking about the communities where [full-time Torah study] was never the norm,” he said.


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