Lau to JPost: We must preserve sanctity of Shabbat in Israel

"State rabbinical judges for conversion are as connected as anyone else to the Jewish people,” Lau says in criticism of new conversion courts.

David Lau
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau spoke out strongly on Thursday in defense of the sanctity of Shabbat in the public realm and the rights of people who do not wish to work on the Sabbath, saying convenience stores and leisure activities open for some comes at a cost to others who are forced to work as a result.
His comments come following a series of incidents and disputes that have grabbed national headlines in recent weeks over the issue of Sabbath observance in the state.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Lau addressed the recent tensions in Jerusalem following the declared intention of Mayor Nir Barkat’s administration to enforce the closure of convenience stores in the city center.
The rabbi said there is no real need for such stores to be open on Shabbat and that people should be able to buy their necessities in advance.
“There are special times when grocery stores are closed – on Independence Day, on Yom Kippur – can we not get by and prepare ahead of time and buy milk and diapers in advance? Do you always need someone to be available for you because you forgot some oil?” he said.
Lau also argued that opening leisure and recreation activities on Shabbat for the non-observant public to enjoy means other people have to work on the Sabbath.
“A Jewish and democratic state cannot ignore the fact that it is indeed a Jewish state,” said the chief rabbi. “Shabbat is a symbol and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
The Jewish people are the ones who taught the whole world that a day of rest is healthy for the soul.
“People call this the Holy Land, they are aware that there is a an extra value in this place, so why do we need always need to find ways to reduce this special value.
Lau also addressed the controversy over the establishment of a new network of rabbinical courts for conversion independent of the state system.
Earlier this month, a group of mainstream national religious rabbis established the new system, specifically designed to convert minors – under the age 12 for girls and under 13 for boys – whose parents came from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return but whose mothers are not Jewish and, therefore, are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
The new courts are designed to prevent future interfaith marriages between this population and Jewish Israelis by converting children, with parental consent, which is a less complex process than conversion for adults.
Lau criticized the rabbis who established the system, saying that what he described as their presumption that the rabbinical judges of the state system were unaware of the issues facing the Jewish people was not fair.
“To say that the rabbinical judges on the conversion courts are not connected to the Jewish people is an injustice. Two-thirds of the rabbinical judges were officers in the IDF. This means they live with the Jewish people and are aware of what is happening among them no less than others.”
Lau’s comments were a reference to the fact that 20 of the rabbinical judges on the state conversion system are considered to be from the national-religious sector.
He also questioned, as he has in the past, the stipulations of the Law of Return which allow someone with one Jewish grandparent to gain Israeli citizenship.
“Whether we should have brought them here is another question. But maybe it’s time to change the definition in the law of return allowing the grandchild of a jew to come, people who have no affinity to Judaism apart from the fact that their grandfather was Jewish. Maybe its time to change that.”
The chief rabbi said that instead of focusing on conversion, the biggest efforts should be put into helping the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union clarify their Jewish status.
For many of these immigrants, and their children, proving that they are Jewish can be extremely difficult because of the absence of religious documentation such as Jewish marriage certificates, due to the Communist suppression of religion in the former USSR.
“The struggle that is upon us is to clarify Jewish status,” said Lau. “We need to go to every archive in eastern Europe, to go to all the cemeteries in eastern Europe, to interview the grandparents before it is too late.”
Following the chief rabbi’s comments, two of the founders of the new Giur K’halacha conversion courts network, Rabbi David Stav, municipal chief rabbi of Shoham, and Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious services advisory group, criticized Lau’s attitude toward the new system.
“The problem is not the rabbinical judges, the problem is the policies that stem from the chief rabbis. The chief rabbis lack the broad shoulders that their predecessors had,” said Stav.
“Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Shlomo Goren knew how to solve problems, not to put their heads in the sand. Unfortunately, the chief rabbinate is not in touch with the realities of the Jewish world. Even if 20 percent of the immigrant families are uninterested in conversion, that still leaves more than 300,000 individuals who see themselves as Jewish but are rejected by the rabbinate. The alternative rabbinical courts are the only hope for these people.”