New Chief Rabbis sworn in on a big day for Tzipi Livni

Livni had the privilege of sitting on the dais together with President Peres, Deputy Min. for Religious Affairs Eli Ben Dahan and the rabbis.

Swearing in of David Lau, Yitzhak Yosef 370 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Swearing in of David Lau, Yitzhak Yosef 370
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
The country’s new chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, were sworn in at the President’s Residence on Wednesday.
The gala ceremony was held in the presence of dignitaries including President Shimon Peres, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben- Dahan.
Over the next 10 years the two chief rabbis will likely have a profound influence on Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, particularly in matters of conversion, marriage, divorce and personal status.
Yosef, who is also the president of the High Rabbinical Court, is the seventh Sephardi chief rabbi since the establishment of the state, and Lau, who is president of the Chief Rabbinate Council, is the seventh Ashkenazi chief rabbi The father of each was a chief rabbi before him.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the third Sephardi chief rabbi holding office from 1973 to 1983 and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was the fifth Ashkenazi chief rabbi and held office from 1993 to 2003.
In his address, Peres, who donned a large black kippa for the occasion, said that the people of Israel had a long history, but little territory. Yet even during the long years of exile following the destruction of the Temple, they did not lose their identity, because they continued to maintain the value of Torah study in all the lands of their dispersion.
Even with the destruction of so many Jewish communities during the Holocaust, the Jewish spirit was unbroken and was a vital factor in the rebuilding of the ancient homeland into the modern and vibrant State of Israel, he said.
In this context Peres noted the presence of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi’s father and uncle Naftali Lavi, the sole survivors of their family in Poland, and said that it was always a moving experience to be in their presence.
Peres urged the rabbis to take advantage of their privileged position and to reach out to the public, “religious and nonreligious,” and to tear down walls of divisiveness, suspicion and alienation.
Peres said that he saw no contradiction between Judaism and democratic values, that democracy had been born in the cradle of Judaism, and that every human being is created in the image of God.
“That is the foundation and the essence of democracy,” he asserted.
Yitzhak Yosef recalled that the first time that he was in the Presidential Residence was 40 years ago as a young man when he came to his father’s inauguration ceremony. At that time, his father urged his fellow rabbis not to put obstacles in the path of the public and to speed up the processing of cases and not leave them gathering dust for months and years without the problems of people concerned being resolved, Yosef said. It was untenable, his father said, for a convert to Judaism whose status had been rabbinically approved, to be caught up in a bureaucratic tangle that went on indefinitely, because ministerial authorities were reluctant to recognize the change in status.
Similarly, divorce cases, he had said, should be dealt with and concluded swiftly.
The new chief rabbi intends to follow his father’s example.
In his role as president of the High Rabbinical Court, he said he sees himself as the representative of all the people of Israel, of all streams of Judaism and of all ethnic backgrounds.
Yosef concluded his address with an appeal to the media to “give us a chance.” If the media tries to delegitimize the Chief Rabbinate, he said, it will not be able to function properly.
Lau said, “We have to think of each individual and work toward their well-being, he said. Soon after his election, he continued, he was approached by a journalist who told him about a woman named Hofit whose husband has been in a vegetative state for seven years with no hope of recovery or improvement.
The journalist wanted to know what he could do to help Hofit out of her predicament, because there is no way that her husband can give her a divorce so that she can free to lead a normal life.
Lau’s reply had been that he wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the details of her case, but he promised to leave no stone unturned in the library of Jewish law until he found a solution for her, “because from now on, her problem is my problem.”
Livni said she was gratified by the attitudes of the two chief rabbis, particularly because they will have an impact on the lives of people who had nothing to do with voting them into office.
She referred to people whose Judaism is in question and may therefore not be able to get married in Israel, Russian immigrants who are not halachically Jewish hut are trying to convert and Jews in the Diaspora who feel increasingly estranged from the extreme elements of Judaism in Israel.
“These are voices that are not heard,” she said.
She entreated the rabbis to find a sensitive balance between the Jewish and the democratic State of Israel, and asked them to promote a brand of Judaism that is moderate, reaching out and embracing. “That’s what I want my sons to pass on to their children,” she said.
Noting that there had been a connection between Lau’s family and her late parents, Livni said that she had been pleased to learn that Chief Rabbi Lau is a 39th-generation rabbi.
Ben-Dahan, who for 21 years served as the directorgeneral of the Rabbinical Courts system, and who for years has actively engaged in helping agunot and women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, to regain their freedom, told the chief rabbis that the High Rabbinical Court was the last stop for such women – their last hope and ray of light. He said that the rabbis must find a way to introduce a clear system that will obligate the granting of a divorce as close as possible to the date on which the court decrees the appellant to be entitled to a divorce. “The eyes of all other rabbis in Israel are upon you, and you must be the paradigm,” he said.
Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, in a written statement castigated the chief rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate, saying that the chief rabbis had declared their allegiance to the State of Israel but not to the Laws of Israel.
He regarded the whole procedure as a disgrace, and charged that even the wording of the declaration was indicative of the extent to which the Chief Rabbinate and its courts are not representative of the State of Israel.