Lau to <i>Post</i>: I support non-Orthodox prayer platform at Western Wall

Ashkenazi chief rabbi says prayer space at Robinson's Arch "correct idea".

Rabbi David Lau 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi David Lau 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said he supports the notion of providing non-Orthodox denominations with a prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch area south of the Western Wall Plaza.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post which will be published in full next week, Lau said the construction of the prayer platform by the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs was “the correct idea,” but insisted that religious practice in the central prayer area at the Western Wall Plaza remain within the realm of Orthodox tradition.
The issue has been brought to the forefront of the national debate in recent months, largely due to the activities of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group.
“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,” Lau told the Post. “The reality is that when such customs exist, for a group of women to start to come and sing and disturbing the minhag hamakom [“local custom”] I think that, in accordance with derech eretz [“decent behavior”], this isn’t the way to behave. The behavior must be appropriate and respectful to other people.”
Women of the Wall strenuously opposes the Robinson’s Arch prayer platform, arguing that it constitutes an attempt to circumvent a recent ruling by the Jerusalem District Court which provided legal authorization for women to pray with prayer shawls and tefillin in the women’s section of the Western Wall Plaza for the first time.
In response to Lau’s comments, Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sachs insisted that the long-standing activities of the group meant they were part of the customs of the site.
“If a group has been doing something for 25 years then they are part of the minhag hamakom,” she said. “And nothing we are doing is against Jewish law. If the custom of the place is in accordance with halacha then we are in that framework.
“To say that we shouldn’t be there because our voices are disturbing, no one can accept this in Israel in 2013,” Sachs added.
“I don't think women have to pray in silence. We don’t think women in the women’s section have to pray in silence.”
Conservative and Reform groups cautiously welcomed the development, while senior figures in the haredi political leadership expressed anger that non-Orthodox groups were being given greater recognition in Israel.
Aside from the issue of prayer at the Western Wall, Lau spoke of the challenges facing Judaism in Israel and the methods by which he will seek to address them.
Lau said he has initiated a project called The Youth of the Rabbinate, which will create a voluntary association of hundreds of young rabbis across the country to assist people in their dealings with religious bureaucracy.
The chief rabbi noted that many people encounter difficulties in obtaining satisfactory service from their local rabbinates, and said the new association would make young, dedicated rabbis available to help citizens unfamiliar with the workings of the state religious bureaucracy.
Lau took the opportunity to deny reports that he would base his decisions on Jewish conversions on the advice of Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a rabbinical judge who caused huge controversy when he issued a ruling in 2008 which would have retroactively annulled the conversions of thousands of Jewish converts if not for the intervention of the High Court of Justice.
“I have seen Rabbi Sherman once in the past six months, I shook his hand at the bar mitzva of his nephew, a week before the elections for the Chief Rabbinate,” said Lau, smiling. “I didn’t speak with him beforehand, I didn’t speak to him afterward. He’s not correct in all these matters. I don’t think I agree with him on every matter.
He’s wise and respected, but I don’t agree with him.”
The new chief rabbi was slightly more circumspect in addressing the issue of the shmita, or sabbatical year, when it is generally prohibited to work the land and eat its produce. It begins next September.
A leniency known as heter mechira (“sale permit”) permits the land to be symbolically sold to non-Jews in order to allow the continued consumption of agricultural produce grown during the shmita, but it is widely rejected by the haredi community.
Lau said that “it is reasonable to assume that there will be heter mechira,” for the 5775 shmita year, but added, “Why would I comment before a decision has been made,” saying that he has already begin a process of examining arrangements for the sabbatical year and how it will be best to approach the issue.
He said that Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, and Rabbi Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of Holon, are expected to sit on a panel of experts to decide on policy during the shmita.
“My preference is to use vegetables from the sixth year that have been stored, to use produce grown [hydroponically] disconnected from the ground, from the Arava, including heter mechira [produce],” he said.
“The rabbinate is looking for the best way to, on the one hand, help Israeli agriculture and to help the Israeli consumer... and also to fulfill the shmita in accordance with Halacha.”