I erred. Big time.
Two years ago, the confrontation between parents and students in the national religious Orot girls school in Ramat Beit Shemesh and a small subgroup of the "Yerushalmi" community living nearby received saturation coverage in the Israeli media. Grabbing the most attention was a wrenching 13-minute video shown by Channel 2 anchor Yair Lapid, which focused on the trauma suffered by a young student in the school, as a result of being spit and screamed at by those protesting the school.
The confrontation at Orot brought Rabbi Dov Lipman, a relatively recent American immigrant, to public attention for the first time, and helped launch Yair Lapid's political career. Lapid announced his entry into politics shortly after the video aired. Though Lapid referred to those menacing the girls as "chareidi extremists," he intoned ominously at the end of his introduction, "Is this what we can expect in the rest of the country?"
As if to bring the point home, the video concluded with an interview with a self-diagnosed "healthy man" (who by his appearance and dress appeared not to be from the "Yerushalmi" community, but a relatively recent ba'al teshuva), who was asked what would be the end of the turmoil. His answer, sure to send shivers down the spine of all secular viewers: "The state will finally be chareidi – a chareidi state, whether you want it or not."
Throughout the dispute, I was highly critical of those I labeled the "crazies." In one column I offered them as an example of ideological dementia: "How could a grown man shout the most vile names at seven-year-old girls or chase them down the street if a demented ideology had not rendered him oblivious to what he was doing?"
But there was another clip from that period that appeared to me to involve an effort to provoke the "Yerushalmi" subgroup – admittedly not hard to do. That clip shows Dov Lipman together with a woman walking a small dog. As they approach a group of "Yerushalmis," Lipman thrusts his hands in the air several times, to the accompaniment of the men shouting "Lipman, Lipman."
I surmised that the men, who were milling around doing nothing, were in front of a shul at which they had just davened, in a "Yerushalmi" neighborhood. I was wrong. Apparently, Rabbi Lipman and Mrs. Wolfson were on their way to accompany the Orot school girls.
I had no business to make any assumptions, and certainly not to publish them, without clarifying the situation. For a Torah Jew, "We regret the error" is insufficient.
I apologize to Rabbi Lipman and Mrs. Wolfson for wrongly characterizing their actions as provocative, and for not having done adequate research.
THAT HALACHIC AND JOURNALISTIC failure was a double patch in panim [smack in the face], resulting not only in a loss of credibility but serving to distract attention from the very real issues that divide me and Rabbi Lipman, who is now an MK in Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. The first rule of debate is to stick to your strongest points, and never allow your opponent to distract attention by focusing on weaker arguments or ones carried beyond the available evidence.
My oped in last week's American Yated Ne'eman had absolutely nothing to do with the events in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and they should have been omitted. In that piece, I questioned the decision of the Rabbinical Council of America to invite MK Lipman to be its keynote speaker at its annual convention.
I argued that it was odd for the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in America – one currently involved in an effort to draw the lines of Orthodoxy – to invite someone who ran for the Knesset on a platform favoring homosexual marriage (even if he does not personally support it), and who has advocated positions on geirus [conversion] widely divergent from the RCA's own standards for geirus, and whose position on the Women of the Wall is outside the Orthodox mainstream.
But most importantly, I argued that the approach of Yesh Atid has dramatically set back internally generated changes in the Israeli chareidi community. That result was fully predictable; indeed I and every other thoughtful observer did predict it. Rabbi Lipman responded to my piece at the Times of Israel, not only rightly taking me to task for my incorrect extrapolation from the film clip, but also attempting to answer my four points. (After I wrote the piece in Yated Ne'eman, but before it was published, the RCA generously extended me an invitation to speak the day after Rabbi Lipman at its convention.)
NOW LET US RETURN to above issues. Rabbi Lipman does not deny he was elected to the Knesset on list of a party committed to legalizing homosexual marriage. According to the Midrash, the Dor Hamabul [Generation of the Flood] was destroyed for instituting formal marriage contracts for such marriages.
Party affiliation means a great deal more in Israel's proportional representation system than in America. In Israel, one is elected to the Knesset as a member of a party list, not as an individual, and is subject to party discipline on Knesset votes. I wonder whether Dov Lipman consulted any Torah authority on whether affiliation with the Yesh Atid list is permitted.
HE ALSO ADMITS that he advocates accepting geirim without kabolos mitzvos on the basis of a few symbolic mitzvos, like lighting Shabbos candles or fasting on Yom Kippur, but only in the case of zera Yisrael – e.g., those with a Jewish father or grandfather. That position, he writes, is based on halachic precedent, including Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. I am not aware of any written psak like that of Rav Ovadiah's (though the Sephardi approach to kabalat ol mitzvoth may be more lenient in certain instances). Certainly Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Rav Ovadiah's chief disciples, has never advocated such a position during his ten years as Chief Rabbi. Zera Yisrael is relevant in halacha with respect to whether the normal strictures against drawing a gentile close to Torah, apply to someone with a Jewish parent or grandparent; Rav Elyashiv held that they do not.
Most relevant for our discussion, however, is that the RCA itself insists on kabolos ol mitzvos, and does not recognize a dual standard system of geiros. That was the position of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the long-time head of the RCA's Halacha Commission, who considered it axiomatic that there can be no geirus without kabolos ol mitzvos (See his "Kol Dodi Dofeik.")
WITH RESPECT TO WOMEN OF THE WALL, Rabbi Lipman opines that the issue is not worth the fuss. For one thing, in the past, men and women stood near one another in private supplication (such private tefillos are still the most common form of prayer at the Kosel today), so the Kosel doesn't have the din of a beis knesses. Therefore women wearing tallis and tefillin is no problem. As I pointed out in my original article, the lack of a mechitzah in old photographs was by order of ruling authorities of the time, not because of the custom of the place.
Anyhow, Lipman writes, "small groups have been going once a month for Rosh Chodesh davening for more than twenty years, and it only became an issue when the chareidi leadership decided to make it illegal and have them arrested." That doesn't happen to be the story that Women of the Wall themselves tell. From the first international feminist conference, which gave rise to Women of the Wall, there has been confrontation and clash, according to the 2002 anthology Women of the Wall, edited by two of the group's founders.
Already in 1997, Hillel Halkin (who is not Orthodox), writing in the Forward, pointed out that nothing in Reform or Conservative "halacha" requires women to pray in tallis and tefillin. (He might have added that the Reform movement specifically denies any special kedushah attached to the Kosel or any desire for a return of the Temple or the sacrifices.) Therefore, asked Halkin, "Were they to come to the Wall without prayer shawls as a simple gesture of respect for the traditions of the place, against what sacred principles of their faith would they be sinning? Are there no other places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel, or even in Jerusalem that they must do it at the one site where it infuriates large numbers of other Jews?" (Halkin reiterates the point in this week's Forward.)
Contrary to Rabbi Lipman, I believe there is something important at stake: the Kosel's power as the most enduring symbol of Jewish continuity. If it becomes a veritable Hyde Park Speaker's Corner of whatever is new in rites performed by Jews – a goal specifically proclaimed by some of the founders – that power is lost.
True, some women may really want to daven at the Kosel in tallis and tefillin, but, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik long ago warned, the emphasis on the subjective religious experience is essentially pagan.
WoW is heavily funded by the New Israel Fund, which has its tentacles all over the Yesh Atid agenda. The NIF's 2011 IRS filing lists the following objectives – foster diverse expressions of Jewish identity and practice, promote legislation that mitigates control of the Rabbinate, advocate for equal allocation of resources to non-orthodox Jewish services and education, and strengthen liberal elements within orthodoxy to achieve those objects." Somehow I doubt that the RCA identifies with too many of those goals.
IN MY MIND, the primary issue raised in my first piece was the way Yesh Atid has reinforced the most retrograde elements in the chareidi community and slowed the process of chareidi economic and military integration. Married chareidi men have already become more reluctant to enter the IDF programs training programs tailored to their special needs.
Yesh Atid has aided and abetted these elements by allowing them to portray the battle as one over preservation of the chareidi life and Torah learning. When Yair Lapid promises, "Israel will end up breaking the chareidi ghetto walls" or gloats, "This is a historic opportunity not to fight with the chareidim, but to bring them into our worldview … to change the culture of the country and redirect the ship," chareidim hear a call to Kulturkampf from an earlier era. When Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron says, "Parasites won't receive any sort of hechsher," chareidim hear a hatred for them qua chareidim, and brace themselves to resist the onslaught.
When funding to chareidi schools, but not national religious schools, is cut 25%, even before consideration of the core curriculum, or stipends for foreign students in chareidi yeshiva gedolos are slashed, but not stipends for foreign students in national religious yeshivos, chareidim feel themselves under siege. Similarly, when crucial social benefits – such as subsidized pre-school and kindergarten education – are contingent on both parents working (and no one learning in kollel), chareidim sense a frontal attack on the viability of kollel learning.
Perhaps nothing did more to convince the chareidi world that Yesh Atid has declared war, than the insistence — over the fierce objections of Defense Minister and former Chief of Staff "Boogie" Ya'alon — on criminalization of non-service. Lipman lamely argues that this step was necessitated by expert legal advice that the legislation prepared by the Yesh Atid-controlled Peri Committee would be infirm on equal protection grounds without it. But the law is subject to a much more glaring equal protection challenge anyway because it does not impose equal burdens on Arab citizens.
One does not threaten to bring down the government, as Lapid did, over a legal advisor's opinion – certainly not at a time of high national danger. Criminalization was a bone thrown to Yesh Atid's anti-chareidi constituents – a way for Lapid to show that he is sticking it to the chareidim. True, as Lipman suggests, it's a bluff, not scheduled to go into effect until 2017, long after the current government is history. But it allows Lapid to run as the slayer of the chareidim. That instinct for chareidi-baiting provides little basis for fostering trust.
SADLY, RABBI LIPMAN has done little himself to provide secular Israelis in his party or beyond with a greater appreciation of the joy, the intellectual stimulation, or the cosmic power of Torah learning.
In his Times of Israel response, he quotes his post on Facebook during the Pesach bein hazemanim: "I want to share a thought I had this morning as I jogged through the streets of Beit Shemesh. I saw three street cleaners working – all over age 70. Why aren't yeshiva students, who are on their month long vacation during Nissan, volunteering to provide these older men with some vacation or to at least make their jobs a bit easier? Just a thought."
To whom was this brilliant insight directed? To all the chareidi yeshiva bochurim who have "friended" him on Facebook? Or was it directed to the secular community to feed their stereotypes of selfish bochurim concerned only with their own learning and contributing nothing to society? Had Lipman really been concerned about the street sweepers he would have started knocking on his neighbors' doors, not posting on Facebook.
Do Israeli chareidim really need such instruction in chesed [kindness]? Almost every major volunteer organization in the country – Yad Sarah, Ezer M'Tzion, Ezra L'Marpeh, and countless organizations providing for cancer victims and their families – were founded by products of chareidi yeshivos and serve the entire population. Yad Sarah alone saves the Israeli government 1.4 billion shekels in hospitalization costs a year.
Is the following description of the learning in chareidi yeshivos meant l'hagdil Torah u'l'ha'adiro: "They'll open up a Talmud and they'll read a line in the Talmud. And then they'll read Rashi and then they will read the Tosfot, and then they will read the Rishonim and then the Aharonim on it, and they'll spend a day analyzing that line of the Talmud and all the commentaries, and that's it."
Nor apparently, does Lipman see Talmud learning as offering much refinement of middos: "Maybe, all of a sudden in the middle of the page, you'll have a statement that relates to what you are learning about being a nice, good person. But that's not the focus of it."
I'm not sure how much time Lipman has spent in the great Israeli yeshivos, but he'd like the secular public to know that there is little to show for the miraculous growth in lomdei Torah: "[I]f we saw tens of thousands of the most brilliant scholars who mastered every possible classic text and were writing great works of new thought and ideas, I'd still make my case, but it'd be harder for me. But we don't see that. You don't see the results."
Lipman told the Times of Israel: "I want to be the one to write the test of the 18-year-old . . . to decide which 18-year-olds can study Torah day and night. I want to write that test. It'll be less than 400 . . . so skilled and so steeped in learning and [who] so love learning."
What is the point of all this pandering to the secular public other than to assure them that there is no dedication, no mesirus nefesh, no intense intellectual effort, no shviros hamiddos in the tents of Torah?
In an important letter, the Chazon Ish famously observed that the division of the Torah into two separate parts – one having to do with issur ve'heter and the other to do with guidance in other areas of life – with the determination of the chachmei hador binding only in the first section, is the ancient system of German Reform that led to the near total assimilation of German Jewry.
Here is Rabbi Lipman in response to a question as to whether he sought rabbinical guidance before agreeing to run on the Yesh Atid list: "Halacha is: Is this pot kosher or not kosher. If you don't know the halacha yourself, you ask the rabbi for that." Anything else, it seems, is beyond the realm of Torah scholars; their decades long immersion in Torah offers them no more insight than the next guy.
But, in the end, Rabbi Lipman is not the issue, apart from his efforts to kasher Yesh Atid for American Orthodoxy, and hopefully we can now proceed to the real discussion.