Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. “I believe that every Jew has the full right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel.” Photo by Alon Ron
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Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi, do you still believe a Third Temple will be built?

Certainly. We believe in that. We pray for that three times a day. It says in a Mishnah in the fifth chapter of "Pirkei Avot": "May the temple be rebuilt soon and in our days." That's one thing. The second thing is that all the Prophets spoke about the fact that [the Temple] had been destroyed by fire and would be rebuilt in fire in the future. Of all the prophecies of calamity that took place and everything [the Prophets] said, none of their words fell to the ground. That's also the way to understand their prophesies about consolation.

Why has it not happened to this day, 1,940 years since the destruction of the Second Temple?

That takes us back to the Talmudic tract Yoma 9 that tells us that the First Temple was destroyed because of idol worship, sexual immorality and bloodshed. These are the three most serious sins about which it is said that no matter what happens, these sins must not be committed. Then after 70 years we were forgiven and we had the privilege of getting the Second Temple just as Jeremiah had prophesied. But from the Second Temple that was destroyed - according to the same Yoma tract, because of unwarranted hatred - to this day the Third Temple has not risen, which teaches us that this sin has not yet been forgiven. We have not yet weaned ourselves off this sin. Apparently this sin is still haunting us to this day.

What do you do on Tisha B'Av, the holiday today that marks the destruction of both temples?

We recite the Scroll of Lamentations. We add to this kinot [dirges] ... by the greatest of our poets like Yehuda Halevi. They do not merely relate to the destruction of the Temple but also to the troubles we suffered such as the death of the Ten Martyrs [in Roman times]. Twenty-one years ago, I wrote a booklet with Rabbi Haim David Halevy of blessed memory, and we distributed it in thousands of copies. It contained seven kinot that were written in the past generation in memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust.

Do you feel that the secular public's interest in Tisha B'Av has grown in recent years?

There has been greater interest in recent years. The issue of hatred that we discuss so much has grown so much. From a low point like this we can only improve. Everyone feels that there is too much hatred - the cup of hatred has run over and so there is a feeling that we must do something to fix the situation.

When Menachem Begin became prime minister, he wanted to unite all the memorial days and days of mourning on Tisha B'Av so it would also be Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers. He saw in it the beginning of destruction and the source of all troubles. Even though I was simply a neighborhood rabbi in Tel Aviv then, I dared to disagree with him for one reason: Tisha B'Av falls during the summer, so the schools are closed and children would not study it. The Holocaust would therefore also be in danger of being forgotten. I feel that in recent years there is an understanding that without a past there is no future.

Why has Tisha B'Av not caught on like Yom Kippur?

Because Yom Kippur appears in the Bible and no one wants to "start up" with Yom Kippur. For example, on Yom Kippur, a prayer is recited for the dead. A great number of people who are far from keeping the Torah and commandments would not dare to miss the prayer for the memory of the dead on Yom Kippur. On Tisha B'Av, the Yizkor prayer [for the dead] is not recited. At all events there is less of a rush to go synagogue. Second, in July and August many people are on vacation and they do not feel Tisha B'Av the way they would if they were home. This also has an impact on the people who are here.

There is a trend, mainly among religious Zionist rabbis, to go the Temple Mount on Tisha B'Av. What do you think of that?

There are explicit instructions in halakha [Jewish religious law] that have not changed. They say it is forbidden to tread on most of the area [of the mount], and we have been made impure by the dead and the dust of a red heifer is not available to purify us. And it is impossible to have an inspector to tell everyone who goes there where they can tread and where not. Rabbi [Shlomo] Goren, who knew the boundaries, used to recite the afternoon prayer on Tisha B'Av on the Temple Mount. The vast majority of us do not know the boundaries, so it is forbidden to go there.

There is an unfortunate phenomenon in Tel Aviv of opening places of entertainment on Tisha B'Av eve. Why is that happening? What can be done about it?

Unfortunately, the by-laws are simply insufficient on this matter. I published a letter in which I requested that people respect this day. The fines are too small and a lot of time goes by until they are paid. And there are people who love money and for whom the desire to make an easy profit is greater than our heritage.

Some religious Zionists mark the destruction of the Gaza settlements on this day. There is even a kina for this purpose. Is it correct to mix one calamity with another?

I was at the settlement of Neveh Dekalim on the eve of Tisha B'Av during the evacuation [from Gaza]. From there I went to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for an evening of study. And I saw it was impossible to divorce the evacuation from Tisha B'Av. To my regret, the timing was poor and tragic. It is impossible to separate in the public's awareness the destruction of Gush Katif and the synagogues from Tisha B'Av. But of course the exile inside Israel bears no similarity [to the expulsion of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple].

A number of rabbis from South Tel Aviv have signed a letter calling on the public not to rent apartments to the Sudanese. What is your position?

Those who signed the petition did not ask my opinion. None of them belong to Tel Aviv's rabbinical establishment .... It is written "You shall not judge your neighbor until you are in his place." If people feel distressed, I shall not judge them. I am against boycotts in principle. I favor dialogue and persuasion. One thing must be understood: You can't make the south of the city suffer for the punishment of thousands of foreign workers. If they were spread over the center and north of the city too, it would be easier to sympathize with those who signed.

What are you doing about the Hasidim from Chabad in Ramat Aviv and their conflict with the secular residents?

I believe that every Jew has the full right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel. The Chabadniks have the right to live there, no less than the other residents. There have already been two rabbis in the little neighborhood of Ramat Aviv A. There have been religious Jews there all the time. It is possible to complain about specific things and to deal with them, but certainly not by expulsions and boycotts.