Monday, November 22, 2010

A Righteous Rebel

There is a Frum MK (member of the Israeli Kenesset) that must read my blog. His name is Haim Amsalem (pictured). He is a member of the Shas party that is run under the direction of Sephardi Gadol, Rav Ovadia Yosef. According to an editorial in the Jerusalem Post he is the only Shas party member serving in the Knesset who actually has Semicha. Apparently Rav Yosef is very upset with him for what he said at a press conference. Something I could have easily said. From the Jerusalem Post:

Amsalem’s message is straightforward and enlightened: Aside from an elite group of truly gifted scholars, most haredi men should serve in the IDF and seek gainful employment; haredi school children should be taught to respect the State of Israel and its institutions; they should also be taught math, sciences, languages and general knowledge that will prepare them for a productive life of self-sufficiency and dignity; conversions to Judaism for new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under the Law of Return and who serve in the IDF should be performed in a friendly, open, encouraging atmosphere; discrimination against Sephardi schoolchildren enrolled in Ashkenazi haredi schools must stop.

Rav Yosef responded. Again – from the Jerusalem Post:

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef slammed MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem (Shas) in his weekly Saturday night sermon, in his first public reference to the maverick lawmaker…“There are those who speak about yeshivot, as though they were created solely for great Torah scholars who will become rabbis and rabbinical judges, and if that doesn’t suit the person, he should go to work,” Yosef said of Amsalem’s doctrine, without naming him…

“These are not the voices of Torah, but against it; Torah learners sustain the world,” Yosef said.“Whoever tells yeshiva boys to go to work is lacking faith in our Torah,” he said later in the talk.

I believe this attitude epitomizes what is wrong with Charedi education. R’ Yosef is of course not alone in this approach. This is the same view as that of Ashkenazi Gadol R’ Elyashiv and other Israeli rabbinic leaders. And it is the philosophy that underlies all attempts to install even a modicum of Limudei Chol into their educational system. Rabbinic leaders in Israel fight tooth and nail to keep the system ‘pure’. But the purity they seek is quickly becoming eroded.

It is ironic that this made news at the same time as did news of Kollel fraud against the Israeli government. This attitude - which is expressed by R’ Yosef, R’ Elyashiv, and others - is exactly why such problems exist.

It has been reported that R’ Elyashiv has condemned those who perpetrated this fraud and called them Ganovim – thieves. He even called them Rodfim – plural of Rodef - a term that means someone who chases after another person with the intent to kill them! That’s because by perpetrating this fraud they harm the reputation of the Charedi Kollel system and thus endanger its financing. That is a fact.

But what R’ Elyashiv and R’ Yosef refuse to do is make any connection to the economic conditions that cause it. Good people wanted to help Avreichim by increasing their stipends. But by R’ Yosef’s comments it seems as though he is oblivious to that. He and other rabbinic leaders - both Ashkenazi or Sephard - of course see the poverty and see the crime. But they refuse to see that the crime is connected to the desperation that poverty breeds.

R’ Amsalem on the other hand does see the connection. His eyes are wide open. And as a card carrying Charedi, he nonetheless had the courage to say so - and recommend a remedy. And for that he will probably be written out of Charedism.

To say that R’ Amsalem’s views are anti Torah - as does R’ Yosef - is to say that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s TIDE (Torah Im Derech Eretz) is anti Torah. By saying that one who has such views lacks faith is an insult to tens of thousands of sincere Jews who believe in TIDE – not to mention Torah U’Madda.

I salute this Charedi hero. That is what R’ Amsalem is – a hero. He can see the handwriting on the wall. He knows what will result if the current system is perpetuated. You do not have to be a Navi to see it. You only have to read the newspaper and realize that it is already happening.

Unfortunately R’ Amsalem will probably in some way be disciplined by Shas. He may even be forced to give up his Kenesset seat. And that is very unfortunate. But it demonstrates just how difficult a task it is to change the paradigm of Torah study in Israel – and to a lesser extent even in America since the trend is away from secular studies here too in Charedi circles.

I can’t make any predictions. I am not a Navi. But I believe that at some point the paradigm will change. Not by dint of rabbinic fiat but by dint of economic necessity. Change will at first be slow but will probably accelerate as economic conditions worsen. Poverty breeds crime. And as is obvious from the Kollel fraud, Charedim are not immune to it.

The only question is how long will it take to change the paradigm and how many more Chilul HaShems there will be until it does.