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Between a rock and a Haredi place: profile of a liberal rabbi

Rabbi Dov Lipman is soft-spoken and not even 41 years old, but has seen his share of action on the battleground of Israeli society. He’s taken verbal beatings and sustained physical injury. He’s won praise and publicity, and drawn fire too, for his tireless struggle against religious extremists literally next door.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, at Beit Shemesh rally against Haredi extremism, December 2011 (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

Lipman is a Haredi-ordained educator (Haredi = ultra-Orthodox), and a religious Zionist with a liberal bent – a rare bird in these parts. His main political arena is his home, the city of Beit Shemesh not far from Jerusalem, with its growing Haredi population. This year, Beit Shemesh became ground zero for inter-Jewish religious tensions after a spate of attention to Haredi incidents and habits (not only in Beit Shemesh) that outraged the general public, including: gender-separated buses, separated sidewalks, and ultra-Orthodox soldiers staging a walkout protest against women singing at IDF ceremonies.

The public kicked back. Tanya Rosenblit refused to sit in the woman’s section of a public bus frequented by Haredim, and was rapidly labeled Israel’s Rosa Parks.

Then came Naama Margolese. A television item interviewed the eight-year old religious girl who related how she was harangued on her way to school in Beit Shemesh for not dressing modestly enough – not an isolated incident, but a regular occurrence. Naama was called a whore; her Haredi aggressors spit on her. The country went up in arms, and suddenly Dov Lipman was everywhere. Even before that, he had been accompanying the girls to school to protect them: “I was called all sorts of horrible names by them,” he says, referring to the “extremists” – “they turned on me – screaming, poking, and I was even spat on.”


Rabbi Dov Lipman, confronted by Haredim while escorting girls to school – Beit Shemesh, Sept 2011 (Photo: Michael Lipkin)

Rabbi Dov Lipman, confronted by Haredim while escorting girls to school – Beit Shemesh, Sept 2011 (Photo: Michael Lipkin)

Following the public outcry, an impassioned protest rally was held in Beit Shemesh near the Orot Girls’ school – Rabbi Lipman spoke at the event. The demonstration was organized in part by a movement for religious pluralism started by Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, who were new and unusual partners for the rabbi.

He attended a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the Margolese home, together with Shas MK Haim Amsalem. Finally in July he jumped onto the national stage one Saturday night, when he was invited to speak at a large rally in Tel Aviv demanding a new draft law for Haredim. He was an odd figure among the throngs of largely secular demonstrators, drawn partly from the previous summer’s scrappy social protest. Lipman gave a speech rich with Biblical and Talmudic references encouraging both work and study, and advocating service to the country as the fulfillment of Torah. When he implored the Prime Minister to show leadership and said that he had voted for him, the crowd booed. But it cheered wildly at his general message.

Kicked into politics

As Rabbi Lipman explained in an interview with +972 this week by phone, the problems in Beit Shemesh began years ago – he encountered them just months after he moved to Israel in 2004, with his wife and four children, and broad American vowels in his Hebrew. He did not intend, he says, to go into politics.

One day, he left his house to find Haredim rioting right outside. The next moment, a rock smashed into his leg, sending him home bleeding. It was a watershed moment. “With all the dreams of a better life, and Zionism, and being here with the Jewish people, I never expected that rock to come from another Jew,” he told me this week in an interview.  Elsewhere, he was quoted as saying he had been prepared to have rocks thrown at him by external enemies; but not Jews.

The incident shook him. Then in 2008, a Shas candidate won the mayoral elections after Shas spiritual leader Ovadiah Yosef promised voters “ha’olam haba,” (the next world).

Lipman, who had been managing the campaign of another religious candidate, became increasingly worried, and increasingly active as the “unofficial opposition.” He read about Shas dissenter Haim Amsalem, who was summarily expelled from the party after critiquing Shas for failing to encourage greater Haredi integration, and began working with Amsalem’s new movement. It was a crash course in media training (they have since parted ways).

Lipman is now positioned to try bridging the deep political and social divide between the religious and secular Jews and advancing moderate religious Judaism. It’s a thankless job; others before him, such as Rabbi Michael Melchior, have not succeeded: Religious politics have grown more hard-line over the decades. Aside from the Jewish-Arab divide, this is the deepest chasm in Israeli life.

Rabbi Lipman is convinced that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Fixing his own house first

In our talk, he focuses heavily on “religious extremism,” and speaks of “extremists,” never referring to Haredim in general. While he referred to them as “prisoners” of their own isolationism in his Tel Aviv speech, he is searching for partners among them too. Lately, he says that more and more Haredim are coming to thank him for “being our voice.”

He is devoted to the challenge, stating repeatedly that “I want to be the unifier” of Jews in Israel.

“There must be things that make us one big nation and we need to emphasize those, not what makes us different…that’s the beauty of the Jewish country – I would get rid of Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and I would make it minhag Israel,” he explains, referring, perhaps metaphorically or perhaps not, to cultural styles of Jewish prayer and ritual.

But the unifier has already broken his first serious political partnership, with Amsalem – which could have been a fine symbol of Ashkenazi-Mizrachi unity. He explained that Amsalem was focused mainly on the Mizrachi community; whereas he is committed to a broader project.

“It’s very possible that I’ll find myself more affiliated [politically -ds] with a secular community. Politics is compromise, but not of your core values. If I’m going to talk about working with seculars, I’m not going to talk about it and not do it. If I talk about women having a central role on the political level, I have to have women involved.” It’s worth noting that the latter sentiment is not heard sufficiently from men on any side of the political map.

Lipman’s work in Beit Shemesh, therefore, seems cut out for him. He is considering his options in local politics and for the meantime, modestly says he does not rule out seeking the position of deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh in the future.

National Stage?

Lipman projects an American yes-we-can kind of optimism and clarity on his core themes – Jewish values, unity, humanism and anti-extremism. He speaks fluidly, as if his days involve one long rolling conversation. Many of his words are straight out of his recent and prolific articles, but he doesn’t sound message-boxed – the articles just seem like an extension of his voice and they address an ever-broadening scope of national issues: the problem with Haredi education, education in Israel in general, Iran, the draft, religion and politics, African migrants.  He is honing his thoughts, building his own movement (website under construction) – and it’s hard not to see him vying in the future for a national position in the Knesset, for example, although he isn’t talking about that option yet.

To that end, how does the mission of uniting the Jewish identity of Israel include the Arabs, one-fifth of the population?

Lipman launches into a well-developed explanation that core Jewish values mean treating all people equally, including non-Jews (especially non-idolaters).

“The Arabs in Israel deserve to be treated as regular citizens of the state, to get all the services they deserve.” He does not address them as partners in forging the character of the state, but instead moves on to extend the same sentiment to African migrants:

“I was very disturbed by terminology coming from Knesset. What happened to our Jewish values? …[To] speak in such racist and divisive terms! We’ve lost our Jewish values. That’s an area where I stand very firm and very strong, and for any non-Jewish population in Israel.”

The rabbi and the elephant

The loss of Jewish values is one of his biggest themes. And for him, the conflict with the Palestinians is one of the causes.

“[The conflict] …has caused us to lose our way as Jews in Israel. Until 1967, the religious Zionist community in Israel was very focused on building a Jewish values-based country. And since 1967 religious Zionism has been defined as fighting for the territories and not focused on what kind of country we are internally.”

This statement hints at something deeper than just his current focus on internal affairs; could Lipman be implying that Judaism should turn its focus on spiritual and moral values rather than material aspects, such as specific pieces of land?

He indicates de facto acceptance of two states as an endgame: “There’s no way around the fact that the international community and Diaspora Jews have accepted the notion of two states,” he says. He wrote in a later email: “It is certainly a problem that we have control over a people who do not have full rights (the Palestinians).”

And yet, he may actually hope to stave off such an outcome through continued settlement growth. In a recent column for the Times of Israel about Ulpana, the settlement neighborhood built on private Palestinian land, he wrote: “I happen to be against evacuating these homes and think we should pay the Palestinian owners for having built on their land.”

He tells me it is “a mistake” not to allow construction in existing settlement blocs, which would presumably remain in Israel under most two-state agreements.

I ask flat out about land grabs, but he says that too is a mistake.

“I don’t think we should be grabbing as much as possible before a deal. It’s very clear what the blocs are… If the land was illegal and is Palestinian ownership[sic]  we have to find a solution for it.”

Rabbi Lipman followed up our talk with an email to make sure it was clear that he does not view Israel as the party to blame. 1967 was self-defense; it was Israel who offered concessions and solutions, which were rebuffed – he blames the Arab leadership at the time.

Still, it goes back to Jewish values: “Having control over a people who don’t have full rights is a conflict for me in terms of our values.”

But do his Jewish values, I ask, really involve a hostile occupation and a divinely-inspired army?

Lipman after all has written: “I, personally, see IDF service as the fulfillment of one of the highest of Jewish ideals.” At the rally in Tel Aviv, he said: “In a few years, my son will serve in the army. And not only will I be proud of him, but God will be proud of him.” It’s getting hard for me to avoid seeing this as the mirror image of accusations that the Palestinians (and Muslims generally, in this argument) use religion to justify violence.

When asked, Lipman concurs that there are specific problematic incidents, a common theme for Israelis who believe the exception proves the rule of a moral army. “Of course there are times when soldiers overstep bounds and they are caught and punished and I’m proud of that.” He doesn’t avoid addressing the overall policy, but blames the leaders, not the IDF:

“As for the general idea that we are in lands where people don’t have their rights, I don’t blame the IDF for that. I think that we as a country have to figure out the solution.”

Cracking the armor

Lipman has a knack, and perhaps a tendency, to ruffle his own community – in the social media age, this exposes some fascinating discussions I don’t often get a chance to see.

He recently wrote an article categorically condemning extreme-right settlement leaders Itamar Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, who had verbally assaulted Noa Rothman, granddaughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Friends immediately denounced his views; the ensuing Facebook conversation had nearly 70 comments and was full of vitriol – against the left, the press, the Oslo accords, Lipman – and when I jumped in, against me. It was a blunt reminder that Rabin still opens a major and jagged-edged crack in religious circles.

It was also striking to read how some religious participants spoke of secular people as a foreign tribe. The hostile images focused largely on how much seculars hate the religious.

I was taken aback to learn that the US-born and raised Lipman shared this impression himself until recently. After the past year, he says “What I’ve learned is that, generally, the secular community in Israel is far less anti-religious than I always thought they were.”

It’s worth asking how it came to this, and what role seculars and left-wingers have played themselves.

Lipman’s views are moderate sounding to my ears, he is fighting a very strong headwind in his circles, and some red-hot anger. How does it feel to take such criticism from his own sector?

“It was hard to receive letters and emails from people who say ‘you’ve lost your way, what’s happened to you?’ I don’t view myself as having lost my way. I think: What do core Jewish values say? If someone tells me that protesting against hurting little girls means losing my way, I’m totally confident.”

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    1. Noam

      Thanks Dahlia once again for some horizon broadening content. You always bring to 972 a fresh angle on things, instead of chewing up the same known, depressing facts in what seems like a competition in hysteria.
      יישר כוחך!!!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Piotr Berman

      Is it the case that Dov Lipman grew up Haredi and then he switched to National Zionist brand of Judaism?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr, not quite. He had a Haredi education (not uncommon for Americans who are religious even if their families are not Haredi – and also he has a degree from Johns Hopkins U). When I asked how he likes to define himself, he said it doesn’t really matter – he’s a Jew. Similarly, I can add that at one point I apologized for not addressing him as “Rabbi,” and he said Rabbi or Dov (first name) – it’s all fine with him. It’s worth noting that in Israel we commonly use terms of religious observance as if they have clear boundaries, but in reality many religious folks people do not fit stereotypes and the edges of each sector are murky – I believe this is true on the secular side as well.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mitchell Cohen

      Good article Dahlia. We need more like this on 972….

      Reply to Comment
    5. Menachem Lipkin

      Nice article Dahlia. You did a good job of “capturing” Dov and the situation reasonable people in this country are dealing with.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Gideon Yavin

      Orthodox Judaism is based on the transmission of the Oral Tradition from Rosh Yeshiva (Principal of an Orthodox Rabbinic college) to Rosh Yeshiva. The most senior Rosh Yeshiva is the community is reffered to as a Godol (The Senior) A Rosh Yeshiva can only be appointed by another Rosh Yeshiva. A Rosh Yeshiva in entitled to disagree with his peers but not with his seniors. Lipman, a junior Rabbi at best, is contradicting the Rosh Yeshiva of his own college. That is the definition of Reform. It is a misrepresenation to call himself Orthodox or Chareidi. He presents himself as the one who will liberate the Orthodox community from its own leadership and save Israel from all its woes. Is he suffering from the Messia Syndrome???

      Reply to Comment
      • Mordy

        A few thing Gideon. First, Dov’s Rosh Yeshiva was a student of Rav Hutner who was a student of the Alter of Slabodka. None of them appointed the next one as the
        next Rosh Yeshiva. The Alter never saw Brooklyn and did not name Rav Hutner to be Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin. Rav Hutner was no longer alive when Rav Weinberg became Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel. So the “system” you described is actually not what happened and is a fabrication. Nice try. Second – Dov is actually following what his rabbi taught which was to think for yourself. Rav Weinberg learned that from Rav Hutner who learned that from the Alter.

        Reply to Comment
    7. XYZ

      R. Lipman makes the following statement:
      “[The conflict] …has caused us to lose our way as Jews in Israel. Until 1967, the religious Zionist community in Israel was very focused on building a Jewish values-based country. And since 1967 religious Zionism has been defined as fighting for the territories and not focused on what kind of country we are internally.”

      This tired claim has been repeated over and over and over for many years now. Yes, it is true that Religious Zionists are in the ideological forefront of the settlement movement, but it seems he wants the RZ’s to do what I used to hear on the BBC from their daily religion corner…every single speaker, no matter what religion he belonged to said exactly the same thing: ‘PEOPLE SHOULD BE NICE TO ONE ANOTHER’.
      Good. If he wants the NRP Knesset members to get up every day repeating trite comments like that, nothing will change. He may feel better about himself as a religious Jew, but this will not have any effect on society.

      If he feels the Chief Rabbinate is not fulfilling the purpose he wants, he and everyone else should be aware that it was the Political Left in Israel….i.e the Labor Party, MERETZ and the Tommy Lapid’s old Shinui party that took control of the Chief Rabbinate from the RZ’s and handed it to the Haredim who have a different agenda than does the RZ’s.

      Secondly, the RZ is continually expanding and is more and more visible through Israeli society geographically, professionally and socially. It is RZ Jews who living their Judaism on a day-to-day basis that will make an impression on the rest of the Jewish population of the country…both secular and Haredi. I have seen this happen during the period since we made aliyah. Pronouncements and exhortations that we as a nation should be more moral made from the Knesset that no one pays attention to, or even articles in a newspaper don’t affect people. It is a living people who give tzedaka, who are careful with their language and who avoid slander and who successfully raise their children to the values they espouse and who show idealism and committment to society at large who will ultimately make the difference.

      Reply to Comment
    8. This is a wonderful piece, one of the reasons why I think +972 offers hope. Gershom Gorenberg also makes the land vs Jewish values distinction; he, like Lipman, is a US citizen by birth. Are there naturally born Israelis holding similar positions, publically? In any case, I believe “Jewish values” is the only way out of this mess, politically.
      The IDF is composed of those who serve, and obeys orders. I suspect there are Diaspora histories relating how enemies boxed themselves [that is, said enemies] into doing wrong let alone monsterous things. Such distinctions will be crucial, trying to create new ground upon which to stand.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I always love it when “progressives” claim that “Jewish values” are the same as Progressive values. Is this implying that “Jewish values” are somehow superior to “non-Jewish values?. Why are Jews supposed to better than non-Jews, according to this view of things?

        Reply to Comment
        • Mitchell Cohen

          XYZ, I would go even further and say the claim that Judaism is reduced to just “being a good person, treating others right, etc. etc.” is actually chauvinistic. What does this mean? That there aren’t Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. who are good people and treat others the way they would want to be treated? IMO, this is more “chauvinistic” than Torah Judaism.

          Reply to Comment
          • Piotr Berman

            I was commenting that those who talk about “Jewish values” are misleading people, because what they advocate are often simply human values.

            However, this should not be that casually dismissed. People hold some collective “self image”, and appeals to that self-image may be more effective than purely philosophical and ethical arguments.

            If refraining from torture and oppression (or engaging in economically productive work) is an un-Jewish value, then I congratulate Rev. Lipman on his heresy. If this is not a heresy, all the better.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            I will repeat the famous joke that was made aboutthe philosophy of Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, which prides itself on being “progressive”:

            The Jews are a divinely chosen people whose heavenly-mandated mission is to bring the message to mankind that there is no diety and the Jews are no different than anyone else.

            Reply to Comment
    9. There is no reason why a given value set cannot be constructed via different starting points and inferential paths. Jainists, Quakers, and some US Constitutionalists may all reach the same end point that public executions are wrong. A Quaker does not somehow destroy the path set of the Jainist in reaching her conclusion. What XYZ is doing here is trying to monopolize the content of Jewish values. Frankly, after her/his position on the gang violence against a young Palestinian in Jerusalem, s/he has reason to be worried. There is a Dispora, and it does not uniformly think as you.
      I second Noam’s, above, comment to Dahlia, in its entirety.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bluegrass Picker of Afula

        Can we have a show of hands, please? Please raise your hand if you doubt that Nitzan Horowitz would take more than a New York Minute to make kissy with and double the subsidies to: Shas – if the Ministry of Finance was in the cards for him.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mitchell Cohen

          My hand is NOT going up….

          Reply to Comment
    10. AYLA

      I’m too late to this party, but you had me at the title, Dahlia. Ditto Mitchell Cohen, Greg Pollock…. Thank you for a piece that offers us some hope and reveals a story between the hard lines. We don’t need them because they make Israel look better; we need them because real life out there, here, is mostly grey, and because we need something worth fighting for, and a glimpse of better possibilities to fuel not only our hope, but also our imagination.

      Reply to Comment