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Yair Lapid’s Religion

In September, 2011, several months before launching the political career that would vault him into the Knesset as the head of its second largest party, journalist Yair Lapid addressed the students enrolled in the haredi track of Israel’s Ono Academic College.  In his speech, he addressed the history and the future of relations between Israel’s secular and religious—specifically, haredi—populations.  This rhetorically brilliant speech contains, in embryonic form, a vision for redefining the social contract that governs religious-secular relations in Israel. 

Relevant Links
Why Israel’s Gaze Has Turned Inward  Yiftach Ofek, Jewish Ideas Daily. “It takes two to tango,” goes the oft-quoted idiom.  Without a reliable Palestinian partner, the Israeli public seems to have chosen to dance with itself.
Tal Tales  Elli Fischer, Jewish Ideas Daily. As he attempts to resolve whether or not yeshiva students will be conscripted, Netanyahu faces the same dilemma as Ben-Gurion faced in 1947.

Lapid begins by recounting his version of the battle between Israeli secularism and (ultra-) Orthodoxy.  He notes that secularism was born as a revolt against religion, and that Orthodoxy, in turn, consolidated as a reaction against secularization.  The struggle between these two opposing forces was provisionally resolved at the time when the state was established: the secularists would be in charge, and the religious would gain certain concessions and privileges.  But the religious didn't stay put, and the battle went on, with Tommy Lapid, Yair’s father, fighting in it on the side of secularism. 

In his speech, Yair concedes defeat and claims that the haredim won on multiple levels.  They won by surviving and multiplying, becoming a an increasingly formidable demographic, political, and economic force.  They won because the attempt to construct a Jewish national ethos not rooted in Jewish religion failed; it turned out, especially after the Six-Day War, that the God of Israel could not be taken out of the equation.  Today, a full 56 percent of Israeli Jews believe that God gave Moses the Torah at Mount Sinai. 

Victory, Lapid tells his audience, entails responsibility.  Haredim can no longer rely on the “mainstream”—Lapid’s term for centrist, secular Ashkenazim—to fund, defend, and shape policies of the state, but must share in those tasks.  Instead of just demanding that others respect their sensibilities, they must begin to respect the sensibilities of others.  As victors, haredim can stop fearing the corrupting influences of the outside world and begin to participate in it—without coercing others to practice their brand of Judaism. 

Lapid’s Ono speech is flawed on several levels.  It sets up reactionary Orthodoxy and secularism in binary opposition, virtually ignoring the manifold expressions of Judaism that cannot be plotted along that single axis.  It ignores the phenomenon of Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy, which does not fit into Lapid’s narrative of secularism and haredism as historical twins.  It views secularism as a revolt against religion alone and not, as David Biale writes, as a “generational revolt against a world in which Jewish religion, economic plight, political impotence, and cultural backwardness seemed wrapped up together in one unsavory package.”  Lapid uses widespread observance of circumcision and fasting on Yom Kippur to prove that religion is more popular when not legislated, failing to mention the numerous mitzvot—Shabbat, for example—whose observance is neither legislated nor kept by the majority of Israeli Jews.  His attitude toward Orthodoxy is condescending: for all his talk of greater participation, he continues to refer to secular Israel as the “mainstream.” 

Moreover, his central thesis, that the haredim have won, is not really true.  The battle between haredism and secularism for the soul of the nation has ended in a stalemate.  Both phenomena will continue for the foreseeable future, even if the tides continue to shift in favor of one or the other.  Lapid said, “No matter how hard we tried, Israeliness cannot exist without Judaism and Judaism cannot exist without haredism, so you win;” but from the haredi perspective, mere survival is far from victory.  The haredim view secular Zionist ideologies as bankrupt and their decline as inevitable, but take small comfort in much of what has replaced them.  By conflating the secularists’ defeat with haredi victory, Lapid presumes that the haredim view the struggle through the same lens that he does. 

To be sure, the growth of the haredi sector has bred triumphalism, and Lapid played on that sentiment before turning it on its head and using it as the basis for making claims on the haredi sector.  It seems clear, though, that the purpose of this speech was not to win the haredi community over to his political platform.  His political campaign and coalition negotiations indicate that he is doing what he can to keep haredi parties out of the government, so that he can put an end to military exemptions for yeshiva students, exclusive control by the rabbinate over matters of personal status, and funding for haredi schools that do not offer adequate general studies.  He used the occasion of his first Knesset speech to rail against state capitulation to the demands of the small haredi minority.  How, then, are we to understand the speech he gave last year to the haredi students at Ono College? 

On that occasion, it seems, Lapid was speaking less to his actual audience than to his potential voter base, and was signaling the ways in which he would be similar to his father—and in which he would differ from him.  Like his son, Tommy Lapid  parlayed a career in journalism into a political career.  His Shinui Party was the surprise of the 2003 Knesset elections, in which it won 15 seats and become the third largest party.  Like Yair’s Yesh Atid, Tommy’s Shinui was a free-market party that fought against religious coercion and haredi entitlements.  But while Tommy’s campaign assumed an angry, anti-religious stance, repeatedly referring to Jewish tradition as “voodoo”, Yair has gone to great lengths to embrace Judaism (for example, by expressing a desire to include Mishna and Gemara in the state school curriculum) and show that his criticism of the haredim is not motivated by antipathy, but by frustration at having to bear the cost of supporting their lifestyle.  His Ono speech, like his including Dov Lipman, who identifies as a haredi, on the Yesh Atid candidate list, communicates to potential voters that although he shares many of his father’s views, he is not inspired by negativity but by an optimistic vision of a better Israel, in which haredim are civil and educated, and share in the state’s economic and military burdens. 

But Lapid was also proposing an end to the bargain that has shaped the relationship between religion and state since 1948.  In exchange for the religious sector’s giving up the concessions it won in that bargain—primarily military exemptions for yeshiva students and the rabbinate’s control over matters of personal status—it would be upgraded to a full, first-class participant in running the state (whatever that might mean in practice).  Under these new circumstances, secularism would have to be more tolerant of religion. 

In his speech, Lapid advocated a secularism that is not anti-religious but is focused above all on the construction of a public sphere that remains neutral on questions of religion.  Lapid himself belongs to a Reform congregation in Tel Aviv, and in a speech to the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) convention in May, he promised “equality to all denominations of Judaism.”  His Knesset faction of 19 includes three Orthodox members—of whom  two are rabbis and one is a female scholar and popular author—as well as Ruth Calderon, a Talmudist at the forefront of the Israeli Jewish cultural renaissance.  The hand-picked group is a reflection of Lapid's vision of a non-coercive, non-denominational, yet deeply Jewish public space.  This new secularism entails acceptance of the ground rules of a shared public sphere, regardless of one’s beliefs or observances. 

Lapid’s second-in-command, Shai Piron, is an Orthodox rabbi who fits this bill.  Piron recently expressed support for allowing a same-sex civil marriage option in Israel—the second Orthodox rabbi in Israel to do so publicly.  Far from condoning homosexual marriage or behavior, Piron simply believes that the state has no right to deny elementary benefits to its citizens on the basis of religious law and values. 

Nevertheless, it is not clear that Lapid has completely worked out how a non-coercive neutral public sphere would look.  On one hand, he seems to be calling for the establishment of Reform and Conservative rabbinates alongside the existing Orthodox rabbinate.  Elsewhere he seems to advocate the establishment of a civil regime that would completely end any official rabbinate. Most recently, the party he heads has made the appointment of a Religious Zionist Chief Rabbi a condition for entering Netanyahu’s government, even though the party’s rabbi of choice, David Stav, explicitly opposes civil marriages and recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. 

Yair Lapid understands that Judaism’s religious elements cannot be disentangled from national and cultural elements and acknowledges that earlier attempts to marginalize religion failed. Instead of struggling against religion, he has adopted a strategy of embracing Judaism while insisting that no particular manifestation or interpretation of it is privileged over any other.  With Orthodox Jews comprising nearly a third of the incoming Knesset and a growing percentage of Israel's total population, Lapid apparently fears the closing of the window of opportunity to alter the arrangement that forms the basis of Israel’s religious politics.  His father tried with a head-on approach and failed; can the son's more pliant strategy succeed?

Transcript of the speech

Video of the speech

Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at

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Nachum on February 19, 2013 at 6:07 am (Reply)
"the second Orthodox rabbi in Israel to do so publicly."

That's pretty modest- linking to yourself, putting yourself on Piron's level, and arguing that there is thus some sort of trend. In at least one of those cases, I see more of a kowtowing to liberal orthodoxy than any sort of trend, but whatever gets one through the night, I suppose.
    Elli on February 19, 2013 at 9:08 am (Reply)
    Nachum - I am not sure what you are suggesting. Yes, I linked to my own article, which I wrote at a time that I was not running for political office. Arguably anyone who ever publishes and promotes his or her own writing can me accused of hubris. I suppose that's part of the job description. Guilty as charged.
    I am not sure what you mean by level - level of what, exactly? What level am I on? What level is Piron on?
    I think I've been pretty consistent in my personal attitudes toward issues like this one (which I link to recognition of civil marriages in Israel more generally) in my writings here and elsewhere, whether le-kula or le-chumra, but I would welcome it if you would like to point out any discrepancies. And where did I argue that there is a trend? If anything, I am suggesting that there is not a trend, and that Piron is something of an anomaly.
Eliyahu Konn on February 19, 2013 at 6:20 am (Reply)
I don't think it is so complicated. If you can work and don't, you don't get paid. If the country requires a military, which is hardly debatable, then everyone should serve. Serving is not equal to full time Torah study. By the way, Tommy Lapid was not completely in error if he made the voodoo remark about certain parts of Judaism.
Rabbi Dr. Zvi H. Szubin on February 19, 2013 at 8:20 am (Reply)
Sadly, the analysis presented by Elli Fischer concerning the history of the schisms between secular and traditional approaches to Judaism, albeit universally accepted as part and parcel of conventional wisdom, is not only overly simplistic and superficial, but also counterproductive; with perilous ramifications for the ongoing conflicts in Israel, and abroad. Tellingly, in fact, there were several other significant movements and ideologies prevalent in pre-war Europe.
An illustrative and very instructive example would be someone like the acquaintance and correspondent of Franz Kafka, who was profoundly devoted to both, traditional Judaism and its classical texts, as well as, to the humanistic and cultural legacies of the Age of Enlightenment, as per the comments published in the New York Times.

Letters: Kafka’s Last Trial
Published: October 15, 2010

Batuman’s fascinating and insightful reporting perpetuates an erroneous, albeit universally accepted, perception that Max Brod selflessly safeguarded every single scrap of Franz Kafka’s papers, including ephemera like random jottings and doodles on laundry bills, which Brod was proud and eager to show me. Brod, in fact, however, did engage in literary triage, deliberately censoring out those portions of Kafka’s papers that did not accord with Brod’s personal agenda or political ideology. A case in point is the correspondence that Kafka maintained with Regina from Jaslo, Poland, concerning, among other things, their mutual interest in examining the errors of political Zionism in light of traditional Jewish texts.
In 1957, when I accompanied my mother on her visit to Brod’s basement office at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, Brod said that in the process of deciding which of Kafka’s papers to save, he, “like a surgeon on the battlefield, did not have the luxury of being sentimental.” My mother, who up to that day viewed Brod, her beloved teacher and mentor, as “the most ethical person in the world” was astounded and accused him of deliberately destroying Kafka’s continuing correspondence with her best friend, Regina. Accordingly, I am convinced that Brod calculatedly safeguarded Kafka’s reputation and legacy in the image of his own creation.
Teaneck, N.J.
    Elli on February 19, 2013 at 9:11 am (Reply)
    Zvi, if you read carefully, you will see that I am addressing and analyzing Lapid's historical narrative, not presenting my own. I believe that his narrative is important for understanding who he is and what he represents - regardless of its historical veracity.
    I hope this clarifies things for you.
YM on February 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm (Reply)
Elli, you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out the hypocracy of Yair Lapid's calling on the Haredim to take an equal share in the responsibility and burdens of running the country, as proven by the fact that he refuses to go into a coalition with either Haredi party.

It is really chilling and scary to realize that with 61 seats in the Knesseth, a government can impose almost anything on a minority and the minority has almost no recourse besides civil disobedience or possibily emigration.
    Eliyahu Konn on February 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm (Reply)
    It is not hypocritical to not join a government with a faction that has no intention of not remaining gold diggers.
Larry Silverstein on February 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm (Reply)

A Covenant is between 2 parties! Its like a modern day contract, which both sides agree to its contents. In Torah Deuteronomy ch 27, ch 28 and ch 29 the Contract between YHWH and Israel is set out. It is clear that Israel broke the Contract & have No Right to the land.

Check it out!
    Eliyahu Konn on February 19, 2013 at 11:41 pm (Reply)
    It is not clear today that Israel is not moving in the direction of keeping the covenant. It would require a polling of every individual and only One can do that.
Larry Silverstein on February 20, 2013 at 3:10 pm (Reply)

The basic problem with Israel is that they have become Babylonian Jews and their "Holy" Book is no longer the Torah, but the Babylonian Talmud.


The Talmud is Judaism's holiest book (actually a collection of books). Its authority takes precedence over the Old Testament in Judaism. Evidence of this may be found in the Talmud itself, Erubin 21b (Soncino edition):

"My son, be more careful in the observance of the words of the Scribes than in the words of the Torah (Old Testament)."

Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, in "Judaism on Trial," quotes Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph:

"Further, without the Talmud, we would not be able to understand passages in the Bible ... God has handed this authority to the sages and tradition is a necessity as well as scripture. The Sages also made enactments of their own ... anyone who does not study the Talmud cannot understand Scripture."

The Talmud (and not the Scriptures) is the legal/canonical text which obligates those who follow the Jewish religion. It is from the Talmud that laws, regulations, and world views are drawn. In practice, the everyday life of the modern religious person is drawn and influenced by the Talmud.
    Eliyahu Konn on February 20, 2013 at 11:37 pm (Reply)
    If an explanation of Torah sh'bictav is given in Mishnah that follows discrete mathematical logic then it is valid. If not it is commentary. No Jew, "Sage" or other can create Torah out of thin air.
Michael Lerman on February 20, 2013 at 9:14 pm (Reply)
In truth, Mr. Lapid is not a Jew, he's an American Jew.

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