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You don't get much more establishment than Rabbi Benjamin Lau. Scion of a proud rabbinical family, son of a veteran civil servant and diplomat, and nephew of a former chief rabbi. Soft-spoken and quietly charismatic, he's the kind of young rabbi and scholar who every community would like to put in its window display. His weekly Torah lectures at his Jerusalem synagogue are such an essential part of his community's Sabbath that last year one young man who wasn't willing to pass up on the experience used the opportunity to ascend to the pulpit and propose marriage to his girlfriend.

Now, Lau is one of the leading voices in a growing movement of Orthodox rabbis who are challenging the religious establishment in Israel - and when such a consensus figure speaks, it is probably worthwhile listening.

Lau and his colleagues, who include the members of the Tzohar group, accuse the Chief Rabbinate of falling under the control of the most reactionary ultra-Orthodox rabbis and failing to serve the Israeli nation as a whole. They realize that if they proceed with their protest, they may well be responsible for creating a schism in the country's rabbinical establishment. (Ultimately, the implications of such a schism could include an alternative Orthodox establishment, rendering the Chief Rabbinate irrelevant.)

Lau has preferred to operate separately from the liberal-minded Tzohar organization, though he says he agrees with many of their aims. He agrees there is a need to project a new kind of rabbinical image, but the process of finding a voice of his own, while trying to work within the system, has been a long, arduous one.

His first break with the establishment took place 14 years ago, when three promient rabbis from the national-religious community, in response to the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO, published a ruling calling upon soldiers to disobey orders, if at some point in the future they were instructed to take part in the dismantling of settlements.

At the time, Lau was the young rabbi of Sa'ad, a religious kibbutz in the northern Negev, not far from the Gaza Strip. "I felt personally humiliated by their call to disobey orders − as the son of my father, as someone who himself served in the IDF and not as part of a hesder yeshiva unit, and for the first time in my life I went to the general press. I wrote a piece about the damage these rabbis were doing. I offered it first to Hatzofeh [the national-religious daily newspaper], but they turned it down, so I sent it to [the mass-circulation daily] Maarivand they immediately published it. I was very naive about that kind of thing in those days."

'Back to your cave'

Indeed. Maariv took a Talmudic verse he had used in the piece, and, using it out of context, made it the headline - "Go Back to Your Cave." The next day Arutz Sheva, the popular pirate radio station associated with the most right-wing settlers, called him up indignantly to ask whether he was calling the senior rabbis cave-dwellers.

His next crisis of confidence arose from his involvement in conversions. "We had a conversion course at Sa'ad that some 20 families went through, and I was also a member of the special beit din le'giyur[rabbinical conversion court] at Merkaz Shapira [a nearby community]. And suddenly I saw the attitude of those rabbis who wouldn't recognize our conversions, and how the rabbinate just evaded responsibility for all these new immigrants who needed to be able to convert. One rabbi said to me, I've never done a conversion, as if this was something to be proud about, and I wanted to ask him, what about the tens of thousands of people who need it in your town? What are you so proud about? And the Chief Rabbinate now shares this attitude, which sees conversions as a bad thing."

The incident that, according to Lau, was "the straw that broke the camel's back" came a few months ago, at the onset of the shmita year, when Jewish-owned land in Israel must be left to lie fallow unless a loophole in Jewish law is employed, by which the land is "sold" for the year to a non-Jew. This year, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger has given local rabbinical councils the option of not issuing kashrut certificates to stores and restaurants that buyheter mekhira (permit of sale) produce, a move that is widely seen as pandering to ultra-Orthodox interests.

"I know that when you look at this issue next to the time bomb of conversion, it may not seem like such a big deal, but this was something that all the chief rabbis endorsed in the past and it just proved what we had already known − that Rabbi Elyashiv [Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodoxy] put Metzger there simply so that he could shoot down heter mekhira.

He is a puppet, a cartoon dressed in robes of majesty."What all three incidents have in common in Lau's eyes is that each demonstrates an abdication of national responsibility by the rabbinical establishment, in the face of its preference for narrow sectorial interests. "We allowed the rabbinate to become the preserve of political interests and rabbis who are taking orders from the Lithuanian leadership, which has no stake in the national interest.

"There is no logic in allowing ultra Orthodox-run rabbinical courts," continues Lau. "This is one of those places where Israeli society comes into contact with the world of halakha. When a couple comes in for a divorce, I expect the rabbi to understand their social background. But, if he hasn't gone to the army, which in certain ways is the most profound Israeli experience, and he's lived a life closed off from the Israeli street, you're going to have a cultural collision."

That's why Lau is now part of a group of rabbis who are setting up an alternative kashrut-certification system that will support suppliers of heter mekhira produce. He has also announced his willingness to form an alternative beit din that will be much more user-friendly toward those seeking conversion to Judaism.

There have been maverick rabbis in the past who proposed such a course but they were a few isolated individuals, while Lau and most of his colleagues continued believing in working from within the system. His reluctance may well be connected to the fact that his uncle Yisrael Meir Lau is a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, a highly popular figure in Israel.

Benny Lau has qualified criticism for his uncle, whom he describes as "one of the people closest to me in the world." Benny's father, Naftali Lau-Lavie, His father, former journalist, senior civil servant and diplomat, Naftali Lau-Lavie, saved 8-year-old Yisrael's life when they were both inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

His uncle's orientation is "toward the ultra-Orthodox establishment," says Lau, "but he has never said anything to me about the work I am doing. I admit though that he excelled in inaction in the conversion field. As chief rabbi he spread genuine warmth to all corners of the Jewish world but he did nothing to improve the system."

Lau prefers to explain his decision to act now by the fact that "when one gets older, one finds oneself pushed to the front of the stage and there is no leader standing in front of you." Seven years ago, he left Sa'ad for Jerusalem with his family and he is now the rabbi of Ramban Synagogue in Katamon neighborhood, teaches at the Beit Morasha academy in the capital (a degree-granting institution of religious studies) and is the rabbi of two high schools. He has written three scholarly books on rabbinical figures (and also writes a column on the weekly Torah portion that runs in both the Hebrew and English), one of them based on the doctorate he earned at Bar-Ilan University, on the rulings of Sephardi sage and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Now Lau may find that he has to put his research and book-writing aside for a while, to concentrate, along with others, on creation of an alternate rabbinate. Not that this is his preferred outcome.

"We haven't come to replace them, but to do the job they should have been doing themselves. If they suddenly show that they have responsibility, we'll be off."

But Lau fears that it is too late for this to happen.

"I realize that we are in a period of dismantling, but this has to be done carefully so that we can become religious leaders of a Zionist public and serve the majority of Israeli society."