The state of religion in Israel

Israel like many countries, although unlike the USA, is a State with an established religion, namely Judaism, the only one of its kind in the world.   There is no doubt that the founding fathers of Israel intended for the state to protect the status of Judaism, to ensure its continuation.  But, over time, this has become a controlling and some would say stifling influence as the state religion has become the fiefdom of the ultra-Orthodox and has become seriously corrupt and self-serving.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, formerly of Silver Spring, Maryland, who made aliyah to Israel only 11 years ago, spoke at AACI Netanya on his experiences in trying to make reforms in the current state of religion in  Israel.  His title was “Religion and State in Israel: where are we heading?”  He explained that when he made aliyah he had no intention of having any kind of political career.  But, he chose to live in Beth Shemesh, a small town just south-west of Jerusalem, which he chose because it was very cosmopolitan, containing ultra-Orthodox haredi Jews, Orthodox Jews, and many secular Jews who has immigrated form the US and elsewhere.  But, what he had hoped and expected would be a kind of Israeli Jewish melting-pot, became to his chagrin a center of religious conflict.

What Lipman discovered in Beth Shemesh was a polarization between the haredim and the rest of the population, including hilonim and national-religious groups.  This manifested itself in many ways, one of which was the intense opposition by the haredim to hiloni girls going to a school that was on the border between the two groups.  At first their tactics were merely shouting and threatening, but then they started spitting and harassing the girls and their parents.  Finally they became violent, and that was when Lipman and many others decided to take action.  He helped organize a night-time demonstration against violence that received national attention in the media and since he was an Orthodox Rabbi he was prominently featured as a spokesman in the condemnation of the violent haredi tactics.  Soon he was acting as an intermediary between the haredi establishment and the hiloni opposition and helped to calm the situation in Beth Shemesh.

It was at this time that Yair Lapid formed the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a future) political party, that Lipman joined.  He became a leader of the party, even though as a religious Jew he was a minority in a mainly hiloni party. He was elected to the last Knesset and played a role as a contact for the English-speaking community in Israel. However, Yesh Atid did not fare so well in the last election and went from 18 to 8 seats and Lipman lost his place in the Knesset.  He is now biding time in the hope and expectation that Yesh Atid will regain its lost position in the next election and he will be back as an MK.

He spoke about three aspects of religion in Israel, 1. The Rabbinate; 2. Conversion; 3. Aguna or women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorce.  In all cases he has tried to bring about a compromise solution that is in the interests of the citizens and the State.  But, unfortunately little was accomplished and some changes that were made  have been reversed by the current Government, in which the haredim have too large an influence.  Meanwhile he has written a book on his views for Israel’s future.  He was an entertaining, popular and informative speaker.

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