Yair Lapid’s Religion

By Elli Fischer
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

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. 

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 adderabbi.blogspot.com.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/yairlapidsreligion

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