New Ashkenazi chief rabbi wants to connect all Jews

Lau, tells the ‘Post’ why the Orthodox should continue to dominate religious affairs, but recognizes the dangers of alienating secular Jews; Judaism, the rabbinate and the Torah belong to everyone Lau says.

Rabbi David Lau 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi David Lau 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 state.
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.
SPEAKING WITH 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.
But the 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 prayer area.
The new platform was cautiously welcomed by Conservative and Reform leaders, though the Women of the Wall leadership immediately opposed the development.
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 Orthodox traditions.
“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 every day.
“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 other people.”
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 pressure.
“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 projected outwards.
“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 criticism.
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 population.
“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.
But he 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.
One of the most notable problems that has arisen in regard to the rabbinate’s administrative services revolves around marriage registration.
It has 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 years.
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 says.
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 might encounter.
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.
The project 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 enthuses.
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 religious classification.”
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.
According to 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 persons.
Various organizations have expressed concern about the implications of this trend for intermarriage and social cohesion in Israel.
Lau does not view the phenomenon in these terms, however.
“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 Jewish status.
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 regard.
“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 this reality.
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.
“There 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 to succeed.
“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.”