Lau asserts his universal credentials in race for Chief Rabbinate

Rabbi David Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Modi’in, is one of the two leading candidates for the position of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

Sea of Haredim 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sea of Haredim 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi David Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Modi’in, is one of the two leading candidates for the position of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
He is the officially endorsed candidate of the haredi rabbinic and political leadership but has been touting his credentials as a candidate for all, based on his record in Modi’in as a rabbi who has embraced nonreligious, modern-Orthodox and haredi sectors of the city alike.
Lau is also the son of the former chief rabbi and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. And like his father, he has a foothold in both haredi and modern Israeli society.
He was born in Tel Aviv in 1966 and was educated at haredi institutions. But he took to life as a pulpit rabbi in the religiously mixed and largely nonreligious town of Shoham as chief rabbi there, coincidentally the place where Lau’s main opponent in the current election, Rabbi David Stav, currently serves as chief rabbi.
Lau has had a weekly television slot on Channel 1 for seven years called Ask the Rabbi, which broadcasts on Friday afternoon, and also has had a radio slot on Radio Kol Hai since 1999. Additionally, he set up an Ask the Rabbi website for questions on Jewish law, the first to do so in Israel according to the claims of associates.
In the struggle for the Chief Rabbinate, Lau is pitted against Stav, the national-religious chief rabbi of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association, who has based his campaign on the mantra of reform and change for the Chief Rabbinate, an agenda that deeply worries the haredi establishment and has antagonized its political leadership.
Lau has therefore asserted what he claims are his universal credentials, since he is acceptable to the haredi leadership but has also served successfully as the chief rabbi of a religiously diverse city such as Modi’in.
But he has nevertheless sought and received the endorsement of the highest haredi rabbinical figures in the land, with Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the acknowledged leader of Ashkenazi haredi Jewry, issuing his public support for Lau.
With this backing comes the political support of the United Torah Judaism party, as well as that of Shas in all likelihood, which amounts to serious strength on the 150-member electoral committee that elects the chief rabbis.
The winning Ashkenazi candidate in the last elections for the Chief Rabbinate was current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who was supported by Shteinman’s predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, testifying to the importance of the haredi vote on the committee.
Metzger was widely considered to be beholden to the senior haredi leadership, for instance allowing chief municipal rabbis to decide for their jurisdictions whether to implement a leniency for kashrut authorization for Sabbaticalyear produce. The leniency is strongly opposed by haredi authorities but a cornerstone of the national-religious approach to the Chief Rabbinate.
Lau’s position on the leniency – referred to as “heter mehira” and a bellwether for the general inclination of a chief rabbi’s tenure – is unknown, and requests for clarification as to his position made by The Jerusalem Post went unanswered.
But despite the source of Lau’s political patronage, he has been keen to avoid the image of being the haredi candidate.
In a recent interview, the rabbi declared that he did not belong to any particular religious grouping and asserted that he had been depicted as a haredi rabbi by others.
“I belong to everyone,” Lau said in an interview with the Olam Katan Shabbat pamphlet.
“A rabbi needs to belong to everyone. Enough with the factionalism. We all are joined through the 13 principles of faith of Maimonides and we are all joined by the desire to spread Judaism.”
Lau also said that he says the Hallel prayer with a blessing on Independence Day – something else that distinguishes him from haredi society.
Unlike Stav, who has presented a clear agenda for a change in the Chief Rabbinate’s approach to the general public, for bureaucratic reform, as well as a campaign for alleviating different problems associated with marriage and divorce, Lau has not spelled out a specific plan of action.
In this, he is not different from most other candidates – apart from Stav – who have generally refused to grant onthe- record interviews in the run-up to the election.
But regarding the issue of marriage registration, Lau has pointed to a successful program he set up in Modi’in for people to be able to register for marriage online and then visit the local rabbinate just once, in order to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.
He is also interested in easing the burdensome bureaucracy involved in the provision of religious services, to create a better “customer” experience, but he has opposed legislation backed by Tzohar and Stav to abolish local marriage registration jurisdictions, a move designed to create greater competition and thus improve the service.
Lau says that the approach adopted in Modi’in could serve as a national model and that the legislation is unnecessary.
As well as having the backing of the haredi parties, Lau has also gained support from the Prime Minister’s Office, and Natan Eshel – a senior adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his former chief of staff – has worked on behalf of the prime minister to muster support for Lau’s candidacy.
This support could be critical when it comes to the vote on Wednesday, with candidates expected to need at least 65 of the 150 votes, if not more, to secure victory.
Meanwhile, on Monday the High Court of Justice will hear Meretz MK Esawi Frej’s emergency petition to disqualify Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu – due to alleged incitement against Arabs – from running for Sephardi chief rabbi.