Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said he supports the notion of providing
non-Orthodox denominations with a prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch area south
of the Western Wall Plaza.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with The
Jerusalem Post which will be published in full next week, Lau said the
construction of the prayer platform by the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs was “the
correct idea,” but insisted that religious practice in the central prayer area
at the Western Wall Plaza remain within the realm of Orthodox
The issue has been brought to the forefront of the national
debate in recent months, largely due to the activities of the Women of the Wall
prayer rights group.
“I don’t want to prevent anyone from coming and
praying in the way they want to pray, but I do want to request from everyone to
respect the existence of the established custom,” Lau told the Post. “The
reality is that when such customs exist, for a group of women to start to come
and sing and disturbing the minhag hamakom [“local custom”] I think that, in
accordance with derech eretz [“decent behavior”], this isn’t the way to behave.
The behavior must be appropriate and respectful to other people.”
of the Wall strenuously opposes the Robinson’s Arch prayer platform, arguing
that it constitutes an attempt to circumvent a recent ruling by the Jerusalem
District Court which provided legal authorization for women to pray with prayer
shawls and tefillin in the women’s section of the Western Wall Plaza for the
In response to Lau’s comments, Women of the Wall Executive
Director Lesley Sachs insisted that the long-standing activities of the group
meant they were part of the customs of the site.
“If a group has been
doing something for 25 years then they are part of the minhag hamakom,” she
said. “And nothing we are doing is against Jewish law. If the custom of the
place is in accordance with halacha then we are in that framework.
say that we shouldn’t be there because our voices are disturbing, no one can
accept this in Israel in 2013,” Sachs added.
“I don't think women have to
pray in silence. We don’t think women in the women’s section have to pray in
Conservative and Reform groups cautiously welcomed the
development, while senior figures in the haredi political leadership expressed
anger that non-Orthodox groups were being given greater recognition in
Aside from the issue of prayer at the Western Wall, Lau spoke of
the challenges facing Judaism in Israel and the methods by which he will seek to
Lau said he has initiated a project called The Youth of the
Rabbinate, which will create a voluntary association of hundreds of young rabbis
across the country to assist people in their dealings with religious
The chief rabbi noted that many people encounter
difficulties in obtaining satisfactory service from their local rabbinates, and
said the new association would make young, dedicated rabbis available to help
citizens unfamiliar with the workings of the state religious
Lau took the opportunity to deny reports that he would base
his decisions on Jewish conversions on the advice of Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a
rabbinical judge who caused huge controversy when he issued a ruling in 2008
which would have retroactively annulled the conversions of thousands of Jewish
converts if not for the intervention of the High Court of Justice.
have seen Rabbi Sherman once in the past six months, I shook his hand at the bar
mitzva of his nephew, a week before the elections for the Chief Rabbinate,” said
Lau, smiling. “I didn’t speak with him beforehand, I didn’t speak to him
afterward. He’s not correct in all these matters. I don’t think I agree with him
on every matter.
He’s wise and respected, but I don’t agree with
The new chief rabbi was slightly more circumspect in addressing the
issue of the shmita, or sabbatical year, when it is generally prohibited to work
the land and eat its produce. It begins next September.
A leniency known
as heter mechira (“sale permit”) permits the land to be symbolically sold to
non-Jews in order to allow the continued consumption of agricultural produce
grown during the shmita, but it is widely rejected by the haredi
Lau said that “it is reasonable to assume that there will be
heter mechira,” for the 5775 shmita year, but added, “Why would I comment before
a decision has been made,” saying that he has already begin a process of
examining arrangements for the sabbatical year and how it will be best to
approach the issue.
He said that Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat
Gan, and Rabbi Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of Holon, are expected to sit on a
panel of experts to decide on policy during the shmita.
“My preference is
to use vegetables from the sixth year that have been stored, to use produce
grown [hydroponically] disconnected from the ground, from the Arava, including
heter mechira [produce],” he said.
“The rabbinate is looking for the best
way to, on the one hand, help Israeli agriculture and to help the Israeli
consumer... and also to fulfill the shmita in accordance with Halacha.”
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