08/20/2010 08:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rabbi Chaim Amsellem: Charedi Rebel

Few issues have generated as much heat in the Jewish world this year as Israel's Rotem bill, which is now on hold pending further review. Presumably, a key goal of the bill was to make it easier for the hundreds of thousands of Russians in Israel, who are not halachically Jewish, to convert to Judaism. There is sharp disagreement among critics of the bill over whether it would, in fact, accomplish that goal.

The bill would formalize control of the conversion process with the Charedi-controlled Chief Rabbinate. This is of great concern to the non-Orthodox streams, who are afraid this might affect the Law of Return, which currently honors non-Orthodox conversions performed outside Israel. In addition, the bill would make it difficult, if not impossible, to challenge the Chief Rabbinate in the Israeli Supreme Court, something that has been done successfully in the past.

The emotions have run high. Machers across the Diaspora have expressed their outrage. In response, Rotem and others in Israel have accused Reform and Conservative leaders of "purposefully misleading their constituents."

As Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of New York's The Jewish Week, who himself has gone back and forth on his views about the bill, wrote this week, "Bottom line, the conversion conflict underscores the fissures and frustrations within and between the Diaspora and Israel. Front and center is the rigidity, if not corruption, of the Chief Rabbinate itself, which is a tragedy."

One Orthodox rabbi who feels this rigidity especially hard is Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox activist whose Jerusalem-based organization, ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, handles between 150 and 200 conversion-related calls each month.

"There needs to be serious reform of the existing conversion authority, which will lead to greater transparency and a more user-friendly system," he told me the other day. "The Rotem bill does not represent a meaningful response to the demographic crisis in Israel, and it is certainly not worth it if it alienates the broader Jewish community."

Farber is now suing the Chief Rabbinate in an attempt to stop the annulment of a conversion of a woman who was told she could not get married because she converted in the IDF. "The couple was Jewish enough to fight in the Lebanon war for Ashdod, but not Jewish enough to be married in Ashdod," Farber said.

If you're not part of the Charedim, it's easy to be outraged by their rigidity. But what if you're a Charedi scholar who is highly respected in the Charedi world? Can you also be outraged?

Yes, if your name is Rabbi Chaim Amsellem.

Amsellem is an MK from the Charedi Shas party, and he has been making waves. One reason is that he has written a serious book of halachah that supports a more lenient view of conversions.

The book is based on the concept of Zera Yisrael, or progeny -- someone who, while not halachically Jewish, is very close to Jews and has even risked his or her life to defend the Jewish nation.

There are hundreds of thousands of such potential Jews in Israel. If Rabbi Amsellem were ever put in charge of the Conversion Authority, there would be a revolution in the Jewish state, if not the Jewish world.

How does a Charedi scholar and politician come to display such extraordinary flexibility in a world that is hardly known for it? I wanted to see for myself, so I managed to corral him last week at a Jerusalem hotel, and I spent three hours listening to a Jewish rebel express outrage at his own community. Sound familiar?

"I'm Charedi," he told me, "but I'm also Sephardic. The Sephardic way is a paradox: to keep tradition but to stay open. The Torah is not there to put handcuffs on you. We try to find solutions. We put unity first."

As he spoke, I was experiencing my own paradox. Amsellem sounded almost exactly like my late father, a Torah-observant Sephardic French teacher who was anything but Charedi and who was incredibly tolerant. How could someone who had the tolerance of my father be part of such a rigid world?

"I studied only in Sephardic yeshivas," Amsellem told me. "I was taught that Torah and tolerance go hand in hand. Most of the Shas voters are also Sephardic and tolerant, but many of them are just being manipulated by the system."

Normally, such a dissenting and rebellious voice would be easily neutralized by a monolithic and all-powerful Charedi establishment. The problem is that Amsellem is not easily neutralized. It's not just because of his halachic reputation. It's also his character -- he's a scholar and a fighter.

There have already been a few attempts to undermine him and cut him out of the Charedi mainstream, but so far they have failed. You can bet that he will continue to face internal opposition in the coming months and years. Let's face it: His halachically based tolerance is a threat to the Charedi way. But Amsellem is undaunted.

"A man who has nothing to lose is most dangerous," he told me. "I don't fear losing, because I know I will get up and keep fighting."

Somewhere, my father must surely be smiling.