Latest update: April 11th, 2013
The biggest surprise of Israel’s election results in January was the phenomenal success of Yesh Atid – a new party headed by Yair Lapid that won 19 seats and is now part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Yesh Atid is sometimes perceived as avidly secular, but two rabbis currently serve in the party as MKs. One is Rabbi Shai Piron, Israel’s new education minister. The other is Rabbi Dov Lipman, the first American-born Knesset member since Rabbi Meir Kahane. A graduate of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel and the holder of a Master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University, Rabbi Lipman made aliyah in 2004 and lives with his wife and four children in Beit Shemesh.
Last month, Rabbi Lipman was named a member of the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.
The Jewish Press: What is an Orthodox rabbi doing in a party that’s widely regarded as secular?
Rabbi Lipman: Before Yair Lapid even went into politics, he stood up before a haredi audience and said, “You won.” At the beginning of the state, he said, there was a battle for what Israel was going to be. Was it going to be secular, without Torah – possibly even without God? Or was it going to be religious-based? He said that we on the religious side have shown that there is no basis for us being in Israel without God. And then he said, “Now let’s work together.”
So from my perspective as someone who is haredi, to hear that call from a secular person and not to respond would be the worst thing that I could do. Therefore, I decided to see what Yair was all about, and I got to know him well. He’s not anti-religious, he’s not anti-Torah, he’s not anti-anything. He wants to work together on the things that we all agree about and move the country forward. He wants to break down the walls between the secular and the religious.
And that means what, for example?
We have a plan for national service – a compromise plan that takes into account the sensitivities of the haredi community. We also have an education plan which says, on the one hand, that there should be general studies on the religious side, but also that there should be more Jewish studies on the secular side.
We also want to help haredim get to the workforce. Can you imagine that the haredi parties have never had a task force to help haredim enter the workforce? I started that task force because I’m not interested in trying to keep us secluded and creating more walls.
There has been much hysteria over the proposed draft of haredim into the IDF. What is Yesh Atid’s precise position on this issue?
The starting point of Yesh Atid’s plan is that everybody serves – either in the military or in national service – but there will be exemptions for those who are the real iluyim.
The same way you have yeshivot hesder for the religious Zionist community, we will have similar programs for the haredi community that combine Torah learning and service. It will take five years to build those plans. In the interim, the plan states that any haredi who wants to leave yeshiva or kollel and go to work can do so – legally, as opposed to now where it is illegal [to work during the years of draft eligibility]. It is estimated that as many as 30 percent of haredim might take up that offer and leave tomorrow to learn a trade or go to work because [right now, economically] they’re starving.
Some people argue that the haredim aren’t bothering anyone. They just want to sit and learn and be left alone. Why can’t you respect their wishes?
Three answers. First, it’s destroying us as a people. Having a separate camp that does its own thing and doesn’t view itself as part of society is destructive. We were one people for 2,000 years, and if we were one people while we were persecuted, let’s be one people here in Israel. That’s number one.
Number two: Economically, it can’t work. You can’t have a society where this large of a population lives off the tax base but doesn’t contribute to it.
Number three: From my perspective, [we haredim] have never been people who didn’t join the workforce or didn’t view ourselves as part of the nation. Haredim should be the leaders of the nation. They should be involved in the country instead of building walls. Building walls is destroying us as a people. Let’s get back to the way it’s always been where people were bnei Torah and also part of society.
Is that really the way it’s always been?
Yes. Historically we’ve never had a population that said, “We don’t work.” The Smag says that it’s a mitzvat assei min haTorah to work. The mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that Torah without work leads to sin. The Gemara says that a father must teach his son a trade.
Let’s go further. The Rambam says anybody who chooses to learn Torah and force others to sustain him disgraces Torah, disgraces God’s name, and has no portion in the World to Come. Let’s learn the Shulchan Aruch. Every morning, it says, a person davens, learns Torah, and then goes to work.
That’s who we’ve been throughout our history. It’s a new phenomenon [to not work]. Many people say it’s because after the Holocaust, we had to rebuild Torah because it had been destroyed. I get that. But we’ve rebuilt Torah, we’ve done it. Now let’s get back to the combination of the two.
Would you be happier if all haredim acted like some Satmar groups who don’t serve in the army but who also don’t take funding from the state?
I certainly think it’s more consistent, although you have to ask yourself, “What does not taking from the state mean?” Do they take garbage collection from the state? Do they take streetlights from the state?
More importantly, though, to take that approach is to say we’re going to have polarization and lack of achdus in am Yisrael, and I think that’s wrong. I think the correct approach is to say, “Let’s be part of am Yisrael.” If bnei Torah are part of Israeli society, I think you’ll see an amazing response on the chiloni side. I’m not talking about their individual level of shemiras hamitzvos, but their perspective toward Judaism and Torah and their pride in being Jewish [will change].
Some observers have pointed out that Israeli haredim are more extreme than their American counterparts. Is that true?
There’s no Ner Yisroel in Israel. There’s no Chaim Berlin where guys go to Brooklyn College at night. There’s no Monroe, New York where Satmar provides a few hours of English and mathematics in high school. It doesn’t exist. These are things which I very much want to try to change.
Among Yesh Atid’s goals is converting Israel’s non-Jewish Russian population to Judaism. Even some Orthodox Jews support this, fearing that Israel will have a huge intermarriage problem on its hands if it doesn’t. However, before possibly converting these Jews, shouldn’t haredi MKs like you push to amend Israel’s Law of Return so that only halachic Jews can move to Israel and attain automatic citizenship? Otherwise, we might face this problem all over again somewhere down the line.
We don’t have Russians coming en masse anymore. So let’s first deal with the 300,000 who are here. Let them convert. Rabbi Chaim Amsalem wrote a sefer of a few hundred pages with all the sources allowing this. Let’s begin with that.
You publicly identify as haredi, yet many of the positions you’ve outlined are hardly “black hat.” How do you explain that?
If haredi means that I force other people religiously, that I’m not Zionistic, and that I only wear a white shirt – then I’m not haredi. If haredi, however, means that I’m a chared b’dvar Hashem, that I’m very careful in my life about Torah and mitzvot, that I’m concerned about the influence of the outside world on my children, and that my wife and I bring up our children where genders are more separate – then I am haredi.
[People identify haredi with “extremism”] but I don’t think that’s what haredi has always meant. On a certain level, therefore, I’m fighting for the integrity of [the word]. There’s a political party here in Israel called Tov that has 40,000 haredi members who believe haredim should work and have general studies. They’re growing in terms of their political power and they take great offense when people talk about them as the “new haredim.” They say, “No, we’re the old haredim. The other guys have changed things.”
My dream, by the way, is that one day no one will have to label himself anything. You’ll just be a Jew.
There are 39 Orthodox MKs in this Knesset – more than any before in history. What’s the significance of this?
I think the question isn’t about significance but responsibility. With such numbers, I think we have a responsibility to do something. We can have a tremendous influence on the country.
You wrote an article last year bemoaning the absence of God in Israel’s political culture. You compared Israel to America where almost every politician ends his speech with, “God bless America.” Why is God so absent in Israel?
You know what’s amazing? Yesh Atid has brought more Torah to the Knesset than there’s been in decades. The number of people in our party who said tefillot and quoted from Tanach or the Gemara in their inaugural speeches in the Knesset is way beyond what Israel has seen before. I end every one of my speeches with, “May God bless Israel.”
As far as why God is normally absent in Israel, it’s because religion in Israel has become something people are afraid of. They’re afraid it will be forced. So even secular people who believe in God and want some Judaism in their lives don’t talk about it.
Yesh Atid is trying to bring about an environment where God is not a negative topic – that mentioning God or our classic sources doesn’t mean that the next step is we’re forcing religion on you. We’re trying to create an environment [where people] can embrace Judaism and feel proud to be Jews.
When you became an MK, you were forced to renounce your American citizenship. You apparently cried when you did so. Why?
Because America gave my family every opportunity to live as religious Jews. My father, zichronah livrachah, was a federal judge and my father-in-law was a chaplain in the U.S. army. I was able to pursue every dream I wanted. So when you have to stand up and raise your right hand and say, “I renounce my U.S. citizenship with free will,” it felt like kefiyat tova – that I was being an ingrate a little bit. It was very hard to say those words.
Editor’s note: Elliot Resnick has recently published a collection of 60 of his best interviews. Titled “Movers and Shakers,” the book is available at Brenn-Books.com, Amazon.com, and local Judaica stores.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).
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