Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Dov Lipman – Bad Choice To Keynote RCA Convention

Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman has been invited to be a keynote speaker at the upcoming RCA convention. Given Lipman's status as one of the most divisive figures in Israeli religious politics, that choice might at first glance seem an odd one for the RCA. His remark upon seeing an elderly street cleaner - “Why couldn't a yeshiva student be doing that?” - has become widely quoted in the Israeli yeshiva world as an example of Yesh Atid's contempt for Torah learning. (Apparently, it did not occur to him that the street cleaner earned his living that way.)

In a widely circulated video last year, Lipman is seen leading a woman whose attire was guaranteed to provoke an angry response past a shul in the “Yerushalmi” neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh. Just in case she failed in her task, he thrust his arms triumphantly in the air numerous times to provoke the desired response for this bit of filmed street theater.


Yet, Lipman told JTA that he took on the role of “peacemaker” in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Some peacemaker.


By the time he placed his film clip on Yair Lapid’s TV show of a woman walking her whimpering daughter to school to protect her against the same “Yerushalmis,” the events described in Ramat Beit Shemesh were three months old and the crisis had largely been resolved. The video, however, well-served the plans of Lipman’s future boss, Yair Lapid, to launch his political career at the head of an anti-chareidi party by tarring the entire chareidi community with the reprehensible behavior of some members of the “Yerushalmi” community.


TRUE, THE RCA MAKES NO CLAIM to being a chareidi organization, even if its membership includes some who self-define as such, and it is under no obligation to clear its speakers list with Agudath Israel of America in the interest of intra-Orthodox comity. But there are plenty of other reasons why the choice of Lipman as a “keynoter” is an odd one for the RCA.


For one thing, the Yesh Atid platform explicitly endorses non-traditional marriage. To invite an Orthodox musmach who ran for the Knesset on that platform sends a confusing message about the RCA’s own stance on one of the crucial social issues of the time.


Second, the RCA has been very active in recent years in trying to standardize and upgrade procedures for geirus in the United States. Lipman, on the other hand, has personally come out in favor of the most minimal standards for “kabbolas mitzvos” for conversion. It is enough, he argues, that the would-be convert take on a few basic mitzvos of identification, such as fasting on Yom Kippur and lighting candles on leil Shabbos. That position runs contrary to every major contemporary posek, including those of the RCA.


Third, Lipman has been an outspoken supporter of the Women of the Wall, disingenuously brandishing in the Knesset an old photo of men and women silently praying at the Kosel, without a mechitzah between them, to prove that the Kosel lacks the status of a bais haknesses. He failed to mention that the photo was from the period of the British Mandate, when the authorities banned a mechitzah and shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah as well. The self-proclaimed goal of WoW is to “liberate” the Kosel from the shackles of the religious establishment and to liberate Orthodox women as well by providing models of women taking charge of their own religious experiences by imitating men.


Though there may be women in WoW for whom the sanctity of the Kosel is paramount, the long-time leader of the group, Anat Hoffman, belongs to a movement (Reform) that explicitly denies any special sanctity to the Kosel or any desire for the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh. The Kosel is just the best place to raise a ruckus, not to mention fundraising dollars abroad.


On the WoW Facebook page last week, one supporter wondered out loud whether Korach’s egalitarian challenge to the religious leadership of his time – i.e., Moshe Rabbeinu – wasn’t just a bit in advance of his time. The Korach metaphor is telling.


THE RCA INVITATION to Lipman to be a featured speaker at its convention will be read as an endorsement of his political positions, especially as no other view is scheduled to be offered in a speaking slot of comparable stature. It is natural and proper that the members of the RCA should want to be informed about events in Eretz Yisroel. But American rabbis of all stripes should exercise caution in taking positions about communities of which they may have only limited understanding.


Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch developed a fully articulated philosophy of Torah Im Derech Eretz for Germany. But when asked to lend his support for a school based on those principles in Yerushalayim, he refused on the grounds that the matter was one for the rabbonim of Yerushalayim, who were far more conversant with the situation in the city than he. Similarly, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, despite being the universally recognized gadol hador, consistently refused to respond to queries directed to him from faraway places that he considered within the jurisdiction of the local rov. In part, he did so not to undermine the authority of the local rov. But he also knew how much the correct answer depends on knowing local nuances.


THE SUGGESTION THAT IS WISE to make sure you have a sense of local realities applies with even greater force to MK Lipman himself. He frequently says that his “ultimate goal is for Israeli chareidim to adopt the lifestyle of their American counterparts.” He has thereby set himself up as a social engineer, a role that always requires a fair amount of hubris.


But even would-be social engineers must know something about the human material they would mold – their culture, their history. Lipman has lived in Israel for less than ten years, yet he glibly assumes that whatever he grew up with in Silver Spring is equally applicable in Israel. If he learned math and English, then what possible valid objection can Israeli chareidim have?


He cannot understand that the issue is less about math and English than it is over ceding curricular control of chareidi schools to secular authorities. The “citizenship” requirement scares chareidim a good deal more than math or English. To understand the Israeli chareidi mindset, one must first know something about the history of kulturkampf in the Holy Land, and the efforts by the government and the Jewish Agency in pre-State days and in the ‘50s to uproot religious observance among the younger generation. To understand opposition to army service, one must know something about the IDF’s traditional role as an agent of socialization to a culture that chareidim consider anathema to their values.


The previous Minister of Education, Gidon Sar, despite being secular, understood these matters better than Lipman and was able to develop accordingly ways to bring English and math instruction to chareidim that avoided these concerns. And similarly, former Chief of Staff and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon grasps far better than Lipman why 5,000 chareidi 18-year-olds are not going into the IDF annually any time in the near future, and why the IDF has no interest in their doing so.


Nor does he show any appreciation for the miraculous achievements of the Israel Torah community in rebuilding a vibrant world from the ashes. This former basketball coach boasts that he will write the exams for illuim seeking army exemptions and no more than 400 will pass. That boast reflects how little time he has spent inside Israeli yeshivos.


FINALLY, LIPMAN SHOWS NO recognition of the very great changes that are taking place in the chareidi community. Those changes have been driven far less by government policy than the internal dynamics of the community, including economic necessity. As the late economist Herbert Stein once said, “Trends that can’t continue forever – won’t.” And that rule has resulted in an explosion of academic degree programs and high-level vocational training for chareidim over the last decade.


One important initiative in chareidi training is the Shachar Kachol program, primarily for married men within the IDF. Under that program, the IDF provides training in computer programming and quality control, as well as other technical fields, and those trained fill some of the crucial manpower needs of the IDF. Besides the training, the army offers the assurance of job security, after the initial period of service, and work in a more suitable environment than generally found in high-tech. Re-enlistment rates have been among the highest in the IDF.


Ironically, it was left to the social engineers of Yesh Lapid to hand the forces of the backlash their strongest weapon: the claim that the government has embarked on a campaign to uproot the world of Torah learning. The economic cuts to the chareidi world proposed by Finance Minister Yair Lapid are so draconian, so overwhelming, and hit from so many sides at once that families could well starve before they would have time to acquire the necessary training and secure employment. They appear driven by a desire to punish the chareidi community, not just by the concern with labor force participation or the manpower needs of the army.


The decision to criminalize refusal to serve in the IDF – something not called for in the coalition guidelines – achieves nothing in practical terms. Defense Minister Ya’alon has made clear that the IDF cannot afford to absorb large numbers of chareidim overnight. But it does turn Torah learning into outlaw activity.


The one strategy that any knowledgeable observer of the chareidi community could have predicted would be most likely to reverse trends towards greater economic integration of the chareidi population is the very one employed by Lipman’s Yesh Atid party. It has succeeded only in turning the pursuit of academic training or the entry into the IDF by married men into capitulation to government decrees to uproot Torah in the eyes of many chareidim.


Former avreichim in IDF uniforms, with their tzitzis out, were becoming a commonplace sight in chareidi neighborhoods before the recent elections. Those same avreichim today find themselves barred from certain shuls and some have even been physically attacked and vilified in wall posters. Those attacks are wrong, but they were fully predictable consequences of the hubris-driven agenda of Dov Lipman and friends.


And that is the narrative the RCA convention will not be hearing.



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