The recently concluded election campaign for the positions of Ashkenazi and
Sephardi chief rabbis was undeniably a bitter, fraught and at times ugly contest
that to many seemed more related to politics than religion.
And in many
ways, the intense fight for the Chief Rabbinate has reflected the broader
struggle within the country for the right to define the Jewish character of the
But with tensions having relaxed to a certain extent since the
election and the entry into office of Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef,
concern for the challenges facing Judaism and the Jewish people in Israel, as
well as the religious establishment’s relationship with the Diaspora, are once
again beginning to take precedence in the national debate.
The Jerusalem Post this week at Chief Rabbinate headquarters in Jerusalem, the
issue of relations between the “established synagogue” in Israel and the
Diaspora communities, especially those of the non-Orthodox movements, was one of
the first to be addressed.
One of the most serious points of contention
in this realm is, of course, the furor that has erupted over prayer rights at
the Western Wall.
The issue has been brought to the forefront of the
national debate, as well as Israel-Diaspora relations, largely due to the
ongoing activism of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group.
topic is extremely pertinent to the Reform and Conservative movements, which
have long advocated for greater recognition of their right to pray at the
Western Wall in accordance with their own practices.
Lau says he believes
that the recent construction of an expanded prayer area for non-Orthodox prayer
at Robinson’s Arch south of the main plaza is a move in the right direction, but
he also expresses opposition to any such services in the main Western Wall
The new platform was cautiously welcomed by Conservative and
Reform leaders, though the Women of the Wall leadership immediately opposed the
While voices within the haredi leadership have criticized
even this step as further recognition of the standing of non-Orthodox groups,
Lau said the idea behind the platform was correct. But he emphasized that
religious practice in the main Western Wall plaza must be in accordance with
“I was recently hosted by our brothers the Druse,
and they took me to the grave of Jethro. They stand there without shoes so I
also took my shoes off, and went with them and respected them because that’s how
they act at that place,” Lau explains.
“I haven’t been to the new prayer
platform yet, but the idea is correct. The religious services minister has said,
please come and conduct your services in a different spot that won’t disturb
[others] – which is still at the Western Wall. On the one hand, it’s an
invitation for people who have requested something to be able to do as they have
asked, and on the other hand it respects in the correct manner those who come
“The reality is that for 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,
seven days a week, the Jewish people come to the Western Wall, and there is
minhag hamakom, the established customs of the site.
“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. The reality is that when such customs exist, for a group of women to
start to come and sing and disturbing the minhag hamakom, I think that, in
accordance with derech eretz [the Jewish-mandated proper way to behave], this
isn’t the way to behave. The behavior must be appropriate and respectful to
As to the wider problems of the relationship between
Israel and the non-Orthodox denominations in the Diaspora, Lau is not especially
forthcoming. He argues obliquely that the low level of intermarriage in Israel
is due to the existence of Orthodox control over the religious establishment –
which should therefore be preserved in the face of Conservative and Reform
“If Israel has succeeded in being a barrier... so that the
State of Israel is the only country in the world that the rate of assimilation
is so tiny, that means that we need this.”
He opines further that the
deterioration in relations between Israel and the Diaspora can be solved by
greater unity in the Jewish state itself.
“I think that when Jews abroad
will feel that here in Israel the Jewish people are united, this will be
“Jews around the world, when they see that here,
there is a connection between Jews and the State of Israel, then they will
connect to this. So part of the problem is that Jews in Israel are not acting in
the right manner – and maybe we need to start there.”
But it is not only
in regard to the Diaspora that the established synagogue has been coming in for
Ordinary Israelis are becoming increasingly frustrated with
what is often perceived as a distant, uncaring and bureaucratic approach from
the Chief Rabbinate, which is viewed as increasingly haredi and severe in its
approach to Jewish law.
And Lau says that one of his highest concerns,
having taken office, is that the negative impression delivered through the
provision of religious services will adversely impact the other main challenge
of the chief rabbinate – namely, to satisfy the spiritual needs of the Jewish
“I look at this generation and I see that there is a great
thirst for Judaism,” says Lau. “Unfortunately, there isn’t enough being done to
satisfy this need and this thirst.
“If people experience problems with
the services role of the rabbinate, then they are going to become more distanced
from the spiritual aspect of things as well,” he acknowledges.
insists that “the baby not be thrown out with the bathwater,” and says that even
if people have grievances about their experience with the rabbinate’s services,
this shouldn’t lead them to believe that Judaism is not for them.
the most notable problems that has arisen in regard to the rabbinate’s
administrative services revolves around marriage registration.
been alleged that the current network of regional marriage registration
districts perpetuates an inefficient, hostile and even corrupt system, with
reports of bureaucratic and religious obstructionism proliferating in recent
Groups such as the national-religious rabbinical association
Tzohar have argued that this approach alienates secular Israelis from religion
and the religious establishment, and have therefore lobbied for the abolition of
the marriage districts – to broaden the general public’s choice of rabbinates
and rabbis with whom they may register.
But Lau has, however, opposed
this scheme, which has been written into a bill currently making its way through
the Knesset legislative process, arguing there are draw backs from a halachic
point of view to abolishing the registration zones.
“Correct, a city
rabbi today doesn’t know all the residents of his jurisdiction. As the chief
rabbi of Modi’in, I didn’t know every [one of the] 85,000 residents, but if I
know someone lives on Hashmonaim Street, I know where to check and where to ask
about him. We have to get these details in the correct manner,” he
Lau acknowledges that there are problems with the registration
service and says he intends to establish an oversight and inspection team of
three retired rabbis who served as marriage registrars, to examine the marriage
registration process: how marriage files are opened and how the registrars
relate to those who come to them.
To solve the wider problem of the
frequently poor attitude of rabbinate officials, Lau says he is setting up a
large voluntary association of young rabbis who will offer their time to help
people in their city, town or region with any of the religious bureaucracy they
The chief rabbi says he has already registered 400 such
rabbinical volunteers, who will be available to accompany young couples to the
marriage registration office, perform their wedding ceremony, help them with
brit mila and in times of bereavement, and generally be of assistance whenever
there is a need to interact with the religious establishment.
will be officially launched in the coming months, along with a media campaign to
make the public aware of the new resource.
“The goal is to spread Judaism
out to all the corners of the country and to connect the Jewish people to its
inheritance, heritage, traditions and center of gravity,” Lau
Another critical issue that will occupy the chief rabbis during
their 10-year term is the growing number of people in Israel defined as “without
This refers to the approximately 320,000
Israelis from the former Soviet Union, or children of such immigrants, who are
of Jewish descent but are not Jewish according to Halacha.
figures from the Conversion Authority, just 1,492 of this population converted
in 2012, a 23-percent decrease from the 2011 figures, which themselves were down
10% from 2010.
Projections now predict that by 2030, the population of
Israelis “without religious classification” will increase by a further 100,000
Various organizations have expressed concern about the
implications of this trend for intermarriage and social cohesion in
Lau does not view the phenomenon in these terms,
“Firstly, I’m not frightened by the fact there are non-Jews in
the State of Israel,” he says. “Israel has non- Jews, for example the Druse, who
sacrifice themselves for the State of Israel.... So anyone who wants to remain
non-Jewish, that’s fine.”
Regarding the concern of intermarriage and the
possibility of embarking on a more intensive conversion campaign, as has been
suggested by some experts on the issue to avert the problem, Lau says he is
skeptical about the number of people within the non-classified bracket who want
to convert, even for the purposes of marriage.
“If we’re talking about
someone who wants to convert, then we need to give him all the help we can in
every possible way. But from experience, I don’t know if we’re talking about
people who want to covert.”
Yet, Lau insists the larger problem is the
issues many people from the former Soviet Union encounter in proving their
Many of the more than 1 million immigrants from the old
Eastern Bloc have significant problems providing the relevant documentation to
prove they are Jewish, when required to do so for various religious bureaucratic
purposes – particularly marriage registration.
“Sixteen years ago, I
asked the Jewish Agency to assist Jews in Eastern Europe to help prove their
Jewish status, to send rabbis to help them there where they have the documents,
cemeteries, community records, witnesses, the things which are needed to help in
“This is one of the things which I want the Chief Rabbinate
to succeed in doing.”
Certainly, there is much work to be done and many
concerns requiring redress when it comes to the needs of the Jewish people and
Judaism in Israel.
WHETHER IT IS the lack of satisfaction with the
provision of religious services, the largely negative image of the religious
establishment that much of the public holds, or the increasing demands of the
non-Orthodox movements for equal recognition of their denominations, it is clear
that Lau and his Sephardi counterpart Yosef have their work cut out for them in
trying to rejuvenate the institute they now head.
But Lau seems aware of
Asked what he was most surprised to discover following his
election as chief rabbi, he says it was the extent to which people seem to want
to have a better relationship with the religious establishment.
has been one thing in particular which has surprised me: how much people expect,
how much they hope and want to feel the presence of Chief Rabbinate, because it
is very important to them. To succeed in fulfilling their expectations, I pray
“Judaism belongs to everyone, the rabbinate belongs to
everyone, and the Torah belongs to everyone – and to succeed in connecting
everyone is what I hope to achieve.”