‘Someone who looks at the idea of a democratic and Jewish state can’t ignore the fact that it is indeed a Jewish state,” says Chief Rabbi David Lau in a special interview with The Jerusalem Post for Yom Kippur. Sitting in his office on Yirmiyahu Street, Lau speaks about the specialness of the Jewish people, the challenges the Chief Rabbinate faces and the need we all have to learn how to to listen.
How do you view your purpose and objectives as chief rabbi?
First of all, there are obligations according to the law.
I am responsible for kashrut, eruvin (Shabbat boundaries), marriages, mikvaot (ritual baths) and giving smicha (ordination) to rabbis. Then there are things above the law, the perceptions of others about the chief rabbi position.
As a Jewish nation, we need to give Jewish expression to the nation. I asked the prime minister and the head of the Knesset to present all laws to the rabbinate to get the Jewish outlook on them. I am not saying they have to accept my opinion. This is a democratic nation.
But they should know what Jewish law says whenever relevant, what the Jewish perspective is on key issues.
My request made it to the committee but remains there and has not moved forward. Why should it be stuck? What is there to be afraid of? Maybe they will discover a Judaism that gives clarity to the world, a Judaism that forbids overly hard labor and calls to release a slave after six years. Judaism clarifies and enlightens a lot of things, for instance regarding the environment, as in the case of the gas fields. Sadly this knowledge and wisdom remains largely untapped.
I think it is the position of the rabbi to give his opinion about current events. For example, when there was a week of horrible violence, including on Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem [where an ultra-Orthodox man murdered a teenage girl at the Gay Pride Parade
], Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and I came out immediately with a statement that violence is not the way of the Torah under any circumstances. No one should do anything like that in the name of the Torah.
The chief rabbi has things to say in the public sphere as well as the educational sphere. Today I visited an ulpana [high school for girls], then a special-needs school, then another yeshiva. Tonight I will go to comfort mourners, from there to a wedding, and then, at 11 p.m., I will teach a class. That is the life of a rabbi.
In the capital and in the state as a whole, there have been recent initiatives that don’t preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath. For example, the recent opening of the Yes Planet cinema complex in Jerusalem on Shabbat and the Yerushalmim Party’s plan to implement a bicycle- sharing system that would be available on Shabbat.
Whether or not riding a bicycle on Shabbat is prohibited by Jewish law has been the subject of debate, although most rabbinic authorities have ruled that it is not permissible, but the proposed Jerusalem bike scheme would likely be a “smart” system, operated electronically – possibly through the existing Rav-Kav smart ride card. Such use of electricity on Shabbat is prohibited by all Orthodox interpretations.What do you feel is the appropriate response for you and the state to these issues and all that goes with along with these phenomena?
I’ll speak about Jerusalem shortly. But before that, it is impossible to ignore what is happening outside the city. In Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market they fined a business owner for closing his store on Shabbat. He just wanted to stay home and they fined him. There’s Ashdod, Hadera. This issue is prevalent in many places. For me this is very painful, because someone who looks at the idea of a democratic and Jewish state can’t ignore the fact that it is indeed a Jewish state. That means that its day of rest isn’t Friday or Sunday, but Shabbat. Shabbat is a symbol. We should not be ashamed of this. When you go to London or other places in the world, you know that businesses are closed on Sunday. You can feel the sanctity, the relaxation, the atmosphere, you feel that it is a special day for them.
Why can’t the people of Israel accept this – the very people who taught the world that a weekly day of rest is beneficial and healthy for soul? If you look back at history, people used to work seven days a week. The Jewish people taught that if you give one day for the soul, a day of rest and sanctity, one day at home, one will work better and it will be beneficial for the following six days. This is clear, and you can’t ignore the obvious fact that once you open up places for recreation and amusement, it comes at the expense of someone else who has to work. You take away from the atmosphere of sanctity, the quiet calm of the city.
This is especially the case when it comes to Jerusalem, which is a symbol throughout the world. When people come to Jerusalem, they also come to see the special atmosphere, the peacefulness on the streets on Shabbat, and they are impressed. See how many tourists go to the Old City and other similar attractions? Let’s preserve this and be proud of it. We were the first to do it. There is no reason to be ashamed. On the contrary, we did the right thing.
This idea is expressed nationally and for the private person who will have to work on Shabbat. This causes competition that is not fair for those who run businesses as well as those who seek employment. I don’t even want to contemplate that in the Jewish state a person might lose his job because he wants to preserve his Jewish identity.Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, with the approval of the municipality, has taken upon himself to enforce Shabbat closure orders for mini-markets in the city center. What is your response to those who oppose Shabbat closures?
I regret to have to say this, but there are days in the year when convenience stores are closed, such as Independence Day and Yom Kippur. Are we to say that we really can’t wait, or prepare ahead, to buy milk and eggs or diapers? Is it really necessary to have it available any time you feel the need to go get it? Someone is obligated to work and wait around all day just because maybe you forgot to buy oil? Accustom yourself to the situation.
You know in advance that this is a special day, which is a day of rest for you and for others. When you travel to another place, don’t you prepare yourself beforehand? Regarding Jerusalem, when I got married and came to the capital nearly 30 years ago, Jerusalem was much more closed [for business] on Shabbat than it is today. The whole Russian Compound was entirely closed. You could go there and see real peace and quiet on Shabbat.
So many places have already opened.
Why don’t we protect the character of the city? The world calls the country the “Holy Land,” people know there is additional value to it. So why not? Why do we need to find ways to do away with this specialness? The Israel Democracy Institute says that public trust in the Chief Rabbinate is the lowest of all government institutions. From bugs found in unsifted flour in a Jerusalem restaurant to dissatisfaction and frustration in dealings with conversion courts and getting married, there are now groups trying to make alternative bodies to bypass the rabbinate altogether.
The rabbinate is a government office, yet it has much less bureaucracy than the Interior Ministry, National Insurance or the municipalities. Even so, people find it easy to find fault with the rabbinate.
When the Health Ministry has regulations on a restaurant, everyone understands and accepts this. However, when the rabbinate gives requirements for a valid kosher certificate, where someone can come in and do the supervisory work, people have reservations and justifications, so the mashgiah (kashrut supervisor) only comes for an hour and a half.
When you find that a worker doesn’t do his or her job satisfactorily, you deal with that person individually. If you had a problem with a clerk in the Health Ministry, would you close down the entire ministry? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There are a few core issues that need to be addressed. When someone doesn’t officiate at a wedding according to regulations, the rabbinate has the right to take away his authority to perform marriages.
Just last month, a rabbi was found after investigation to have behaved inappropriately toward women, and we took away his authorization.
Conversely, once the law gives kashrut authority to a rabbi, when he is chosen to be a municipal or neighborhood rabbi his authority cannot be taken away. A person might have been a fine teacher at a yeshiva, but it doesn’t mean he understands or knows what to do in all food situations. He may have never known the components of a falafel ball or what the issues are in a hotel kitchen or what an emulsifier is used for in industrial food production in factories. But the law doesn’t give us the ability to interfere with this. I don’t have the power to oversee all the non-rabbinate kashrut certifiers, like I do with marriages.
There are three inspectors who case the entire country to uncover areas with problematic kashrut. Recently we found a certain problem in a city, and now we have to figure out how to deal with someone who basically has immunity.
This is a legal issue. Lawmakers don’t allow us to remove the authority from rabbis in the areas of kashrut. Does it make sense that the Health Ministry would give a doctor a medical license for life, without the ability to rescind it? That is the case in the rabbinate.
This division shows up in all arenas, and not just kashrut. There is a big difference between the rabbis and the rabbinic establishment. I have worked for the last two years without an office manager. There is no budget, no manager to tell people what to do. There are many people who are doing holy work, but all it takes is a single mashgiah to not show up and that is what is written about in the media – ‘the rabbinate is unacceptable.’ If you see a clerk from the Jerusalem municipality who is not doing his or her job, you don’t write that the entire municipality is atrocious.
Let’s look at it from a different angle.
The rabbinate is for the benefit of the people. If you find someone who’s not doing his or her job correctly, let us know so we can deal with the individual, via discussion, training, punishment or just removal from the position if need be.When the rabbinate speaks out against violence and other prominent issues on the world stage, it is vocal and known. It seems, however, that the secular community is more active in the smaller issues, such as road safety, seat belts, leaving children in cars...
The rabbinate talks about this but you don’t always hear about it. We speak of these issues with very strong words.What about smoking cigarettes?
There is no leniency to permit smoking cigarettes. I have said this explicitly many times. It is a matter of life and death.
What accomplishments in your time as chief rabbi have had the greatest effect for the good of the Jewish people?
Two years ago we worked really hard on creating criteria in three areas that affect all Israeli citizens.
Last year, 5775, was a shmita (sabbatical) year. Have you ever experienced a shmita in the State of Israel that went so smoothly? In which there was so much abundance with produce and so little price gouging? This didn’t happen on its own. We worked hard on this. Heter mechira (sale of agricultural lands to enable shmita cultivation) was done on a higher level. We went to every farmer or landowner, so each one knew what he was signing and what it meant. The Otzar Beit Din (fair distribution of produce during shmita) was also done more seriously.
We did work with imports. Until now, there were only a few rabbis who were recognized for their kashrut authority to allow imports into the country. In all of China there was only one rabbi, in Hong Kong. We have tested rabbis all over the world on kashrut. Now an importer has a list of not just five rabbis, but 50, this reduces the prices of things. This was all done logically with equality and transparency, so everyone knows how it works, preventing scams. Regarding ritual slaughtering in the Diaspora, the rabbinate now randomly assigns mashgihim to ensure a proper relationship between the mashgiah and the one who wants supervision.
You spoke of a lack of funds. What would you do to create unity among the Jewish people and get the rabbinate the respect of the people if you had all the money you could ask for?
First I would change the website of the rabbinate. The website now is at the lowest level possible. I would improve it and give it some life. Meaning if you look in Google for example for Tu Bishvat, the first choice would be a link to the rabbinate’s explanation of what it is, with links to further material. The rabbinate should be the place that gives people the answer and perhaps additional things.
When things pop up in the news about violence, smoking and so on, the opinion of the rabbinate on the subject would be there. A website where people can comment. A more active and interactive site. The rabbinate listens and hears what people say. The rabbinate is approachable, and a website like this would help the rabbinate to improve the connection.
Secondly, there is an organization of rabbis called BeNoam. BeNoam is an amazing organization of rabbis that was started by an avrech, a married yeshiva student, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Reani. This rabbi tries to do wonderful things. For example, in Acre, if someone dies, two young rabbis come to the family and ask how they can help with the funeral, with the shiva mourning period and any additional help that may be needed.
They come to someone who is having a bar mitzva, pidyon haben (redemption of a firstborn), conversion, brit mila (circumcision), and so forth, so people will not be alone. You want information about Torah, we come to give it – all over Israel, and thank God there is already a great response. Hundreds of rabbis and BeNoam, we are here for you.With all the recent news of violence and anti-Semitism around the world, is it time to call the Jews in the Diaspora to come “home” to Israel?
I will start differently. When I went to Los Angeles, I visited the Jewish community and the Israeli community.
There are 150,000 Israelis there. I asked them, “What are you doing here? Where do your kids learn?” They answered, “In the public school, because at $30,000 a year the Jewish school is too expensive.”
So I asked “How do you preserve their Jewishness and their Israeli identity?” They replied, “I tell them stories about how I was in the Golani Brigade or the Givati Brigade, etc.”
I told them, “Don’t delude yourselves.
Stories of battles can’t beat the competition of a non-Jewish girlfriend. You will lose them. You need to return here quickly. I thank you for your contribution to the Jewish people from there, but remember and don’t forget. If you don’t protect your Jewishness, you will also lose your Israeliness.” They agreed with me. They are trying to maybe come up with an alternative school for Israelis.
I don’t judge those who are there. I do want to see everyone here, very much.
They should know if they stay there, they are in great danger of losing everything.What is your message for the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora for Yom Kippur?
I’ll start with Rosh Hashana. Do you know what the mitzva is for Rosh Hashana? The mitzva isn’t to blow the shofar, it’s to hear the shofar. It’s not so Israeli to hear – to be quiet, to pay attention, to listen, to hear and not to do anything at all.
So let’s start by hearing. We don’t really hear each other. We don’t really listen to each other. We are good at stamping a stigma on a person. Right away we know that a person is such-and-such and that another person is so-and-so. We don’t listen to people. We are too quick to hate and taint and accuse. That one is religious, that one’s ultra-Orthodox, that one’s religious-Zionist, and so on. The shades are so big. The people of Israel are so far apart that even in the wilderness there were 12 tribes and the tribes were split up into 70 families.
So let’s start to listen to one another, to speak with one another and observe that maybe the other guy also has something okay about him. I have a feeling that it exists and can be found. If you look it can be found. My request starts with Rosh Hashana. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s respect one another. It’s something we often forget. We judge according to the outside and not what’s inside – “He’s connected to that group, therefore he’s ...” We’ve been doing that for a long time.
In Ethics of the Fathers, it says we should accept everyone with a cheerful countenance. We live in the world of stigmatization and this is a mistake. My message is: People of Israel let’s listen to each other and want to listen to each other. It’s important to want to listen, to share. Everyone has something to say. If we start to listen to one another, I believe many of issues that separate people can be solved.
We are not just black and white, we are many colors. A lot of the differences that we perceive are not really what we think.Jeremy Sharon contributed to this article.