Benny Friedman
Benny Friedman

By Larry Gordon

To help some of our local shuls mark the State of Israel’s 65th Independence Day, the Five Towns Jewish Times and Congregation Beth Sholom of Lawrence are hosting newly elected Member of Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman of the Yesh Atid party, Israel’s second largest political party, led by former TV journalist Yair Lapid. Rabbi Lipman will be speaking to the community at several venues over next Shabbos and will deliver the derashah from the pulpit at Beth Sholom on Shabbos morning, April 13.

Now at the very beginning of his political career, Dov Lipman, 41, is perhaps the one figure in Israel who most represents a nation on the cusp of possibly dramatic change. Lipman is number 17 on the Yesh Atid party list that today holds 19 seats in the current Knesset and sits alongside Bayit HaYehudi as Bibi Netanyahu’s newest governing coalition partners.

The most challenging and perhaps contentious issue facing Israel today is the changing role of the ultra-Orthodox or chareidi community. As an immigrant from the U.S. and a graduate and recipient of his rabbinical ordination, or semichah, from Yeshiva Ner Yisrael in Baltimore and a resident of Bet Shemesh, Rabbi Lipman would seem to be at the center of the type of changes in today’s Israel.

In a phone conversation we had the day after Pesach, Lipman said that there is way too much of a sectarian divide in Israel and that the issue has gone unaddressed for far too long. He says that neglecting the substance of the Jewishness of the majority of Israelis is unhealthy and has damaged Israeli society to a great degree. Because of the strictures of the fashion in which halachah has been interpreted all these years in Israel, it seems that there has been no choice but to neglect large segments of Israeli society not known for their religious observance and leave them outside the realm of what can perhaps be best referred to as national religious observance.

And this is precisely where the problems begin. Those inside as well as outside of government feel a betrayal by possibly handing over the legislation of religious matters to government rather than keeping it strictly within the domain of the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Lipman will be addressing this and other issues during his speaking engagements here in New York next week and next Shabbos here in the Five Towns.

The objective of the new government is to break the logjam or the downward spiral that religion seems to be experiencing in Israel today. “This is not at all about compromising halachah,” Lipman says. “Judaism in Israel can flourish without compromising or changing halachah.” At the same time, Lipman adds, we cannot make the kind of progress we need to make by having one segment of religious society trying to force everyone to be just like them.

This issue also has attached to it the matter of integrating the chareidi community into national service, joining the IDF, and eventually joining the workforce. It’s part of an effort to move the larger population in the direction of unity, but for now it is mired in significant controversy.

The issues facing the new government, the religious as well as the overall population, are legion. One of the seemingly insurmountable problems facing today’s Israel is the great number of Russian immigrants who reside in Israel but who are not considered Jewish according to halachah.

“We have 300,000 people living in Israel today who were persecuted in Russia for being Jews and now they are ostracized in Israel because they are not Jewish,” Rabbi Lipman says. He describes that status quo as untenable and one of the great issues that requires movement and what he describes as flexibility within the parameters of halachah.

It seems to an outside observer, a product of a solid Torah education, that there is a fundamental contradiction between the idea of living according to Torah law and applying principles of compromise to the lifestyle that such a commitment dictates. Lipman points out, however, that there are many solidly grounded positions in Jewish law that adhere to “a more loosely structured” interpretation of the law so that it may be inclusive and relevant to a greater number of Jews.

As an example, he cites the matter of Russians in Israel whom the Chief Rabbinate determined were not Jews according to Jewish law. This population was allowed to make aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return that allows Jews automatic citizenship in the state of Israel by virtue of two things–their arrival in the country and their being Jewish. The youth amongst this population serves in the IDF and many consider themselves Jews.

At the same time that they live in and identify with life in a country that is predominantly Jewish, they are told if they wish to be considered Jews they will have to go through a traditional halachic conversion process. Many amongst this large group are reluctant to do so because they believe that they are Jews and are disappointed that they are being treated this way in the Jewish homeland.

“There is a p’sak from Rav Ovadya Yosef that says that a person whose father is or was Jewish does not have to go through as rigorous a conversion process as someone who is interested in converting and whose parents are both not Jews,” MK Lipman says. He explains that the area in which the rules are somewhat loosened, according to this rabbinical decision, regards the need to fully accept the gamut of mitzvos; this is a key sticking point in matters of conversion.

He explains that there is an even earlier halachic opinion that says that immersing in a mikveh as part of the process is not necessarily required because, Lipman says, it is widely accepted that all our ancestors immersed in a mikveh as part of the formation and establishment of the Jewish people prior to accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai.

It is precisely over long-neglected, burning issues like these that controversy erupts and Lipman get accused by those on the religious right or within the chareidi establishment of making an attempt to undermine or change Jewish law. But that is the furthest thing from reality, Dov Lipman says.

On the matter of yeshiva students doing national service with an option of joining the IDF, MK Lipman says that it may be a little uncomfortable or even difficult for a short while, but he is certain, as are the rabbinic authorities that he consults, that this is the best thing for the health and vitality of the younger chareidi generation and the overall future of Israeli society.

So as it is today, Dov Lipman, who hails from Silver Spring, Maryland, and who made aliyah with his family just eight years ago, stands as just about the lone chareidi Jew in today’s government.

On the matter of the political jockeying for position that left United Torah Judaism and Shas out of the governing coalition, Lipman says that this is just politics, and that despite the cosmetic differences, the parties are all still working together to effect change.

Dov Lipman arrives in New York on Tuesday. He will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday night and will be in the Five Towns for Shabbos, speaking Shabbos morning at Beth Sholom and Shabbos afternoon at the Irving Place Minyan in Woodmere. On Friday, he will be addressing high-school students at HAFTR, DRS, and Rambam Mesivta.

This is Rabbi Lipman’s first trip to the U.S. as a member of the Israeli government. He says that the type of unity he seeks amongst Jews transcends the borders of the state of Israel and he hopes to forge closer ties between American Jews and Israel. Lipman is a member of the Knesset committee charged with dealing with immigration, absorption, and Diaspora affairs. In that capacity this should be the first of many trips he makes to the U.S. His upcoming visit is much anticipated, promises to be most fascinating, and is indeed historic. v

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