Why Rabbi Yisrael Lau should not be Israel's president

Where was he when his voice was needed?

rabbi yisraelmeir lau 88 (photo credit: )
rabbi yisraelmeir lau 88
(photo credit: )
The Reform movement, both in Israel and abroad, has expressed strong reservations about former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, serving as Israel's next president. Because Lau does not acknowledge non-Orthodox rabbis as legitimate and is disparaging of all non-Orthodox streams in Judaism, Reform Jews believe that he is not worthy of election to such a lofty office; for such an attitude prevents him from being the symbolic leader of the world Jewish community, especially since the vast majority of the Jewish world is not Orthodox. Similar reasoning prompted the Reform movement's president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to boycott President Moshe Katsav's reception for delegates of the recent World Zionist Congress. Katsav refuses to call Yoffie "rabbi." Though perhaps he's wavering in his attitude toward the non-Orthodox - he recently called a Conservative leader "rabbi." ONE COULD ask what's in a title? The two great mishnaic rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, are referred to simply by their names. Based on this model, I would like to meet "Lau" and "Katsav." They could call me "Dovedele," and I would call them "Izzie" and "Moish!" But, this "not name-calling" seems rather trivial. By singling out Lau, or Katsav, for refusing to use the appellation rabbi for our clergy, we in the Reform movement do ourselves a disservice, parochializing our understandable opposition to Lau becoming Israel's president. It reduces our objection to one of form and not substance. Lau's intolerance of other branches of Judaism besides Orthodoxy should not be the singular reason for dismissing his candidacy. From our perspective, Lau is unfit to be the "Jewish people's president" not solely because his ideological worldview is detrimental to our's but primarily because it is antithetical to the essence of a democratic Jewish state. MY INITIAL encounter with the Orthodox rabbinate in this country was during my army service. The rabbis of the units I served in performed one function only - to guarantee that the ritual dictates of Judaism were met, not that its moral mandates were fulfilled. Their concern was whether there was enough wine for kiddush, not whether soldiers were violating Jewish ethical conduct in war when they marched through the tomato field of a Palestinian farmer, destroying the entire crop. This is the social and ethical rabbinic paradigm that Lau followed when he was chief rabbi and since then - with rare exception. One would have expected otherwise from a person who occupied what should be a position of moral and spiritual leadership. Why has Lau never spoken out against those in his own Orthodox community who physically attack archeologists or stone cars on Shabbat or storm a police station to release a yeshiva student held for allegedly beating his child to death? He did speak out during the disengagement, but only to condemn those settlers who blatantly exploited the Holocaust by pinning an orange Star of David to their clothes to protest the evacuation. Regarding other forms of settler violence during that time, his response was timid at best. As a Holocaust survivor, Lau never fails to call upon his experience to defend Israel against real or perceived assaults from the outside. However, the most pertinent lesson of the Holocaust, sensitizing us to the suffering of others, seems to play no role in his Jewish moral consciousness. Never once have we heard him protest any of the grievous violations of human rights perpetrated against Palestinians that have nothing to do with matters of security, especially abuses committed by his own constituency. Where is his voice when Orthodox settlers chop down Palestinian olive trees? He knows that it is written: "When in a war against a city that you besiege for a long time, you must not destroy its trees..." (Deut. 20:19). More so, has he nothing to say about maltreatment of foreign workers, trafficking in women, discrimination against Ethiopian Jews? Why did he not visit the single-parent protest, which basically highlighted the growing poverty in the country? Why was he not standing with those cancer patients demonstrating against lack of funding for life-saving medicines? And, where is his voice deploring the unspeakable economic isolation and desolation of so many Holocaust survivors in Israel? WHAT ABOUT tragedies in other parts of the world? Having lived through the horrors of Buchenwald, has he nothing to say about the genocide in Darfur (or about Sudanese refugees incarcerated in Israel)? During his term of office as chief rabbi, his silence on the massacres in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was deafening. As for our insular President Katsav, such catastrophes strike him dumb as well. In moral contrast, we invisible Reform rabbis were and are actively involved in all these deeply Jewish concerns. LASTLY, THE major reason to object to Lau becoming Israel's president is precisely that he is a rabbi - not that he is not my kind of rabbi or that he doesn't recognize my kind of rabbi. A secular state should not be represented by a rabbinic presence that will only further fuse the unkosher alliance between religion and state. Simply, Israel's Jewish and democratic character would be compromised by Lau's nationalistic and ultimately chauvinistic theology, as would be the Jewish people's ethical legacy.