Chief Rabbi Lau to Haaretz: Law of Return a Problem

New Ashkenazi head reflects on first eight months in office, agenda for future.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, March 8, 2014.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, March 8, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

This is a time when the Chief Rabbinate is besmirched from every quarter. MKs are initiating and legislating laws to weaken it, and many Jews in Israel and around the world, including Orthodox Jews, believe it has lost its relevance. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has two rare advantages at a time like this. Expectations from the system he heads could not be lower, and expectations from him, supported as he is by those who would maintain the Chief Rabbinate in its present form, are likewise not sky-high.

Eight months into Lau’s term, on Passover eve, is a good time to assess the measure of the man who heads a system that almost every Jewish person in Israel needs at some time or other, but that many are uncomfortable with. (According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute last year, only 43 percent of the public trusts the Chief Rabbinate.)

No one can fault Lau for not implementing the agenda of his liberal opponents. And yet, even among the camp of his supposed opponents, surprising remarks are being heard. “Maybe only an ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi can repair something in this rotting body,” the rabbi of the Orthodox kibbutz Kvutzat Yavne, Ilai Ofran, adding that he believes Lau wants to “turn it into a less rotten body.” And attorney Batya Kahane Dror, head of Mavoi Satum (Dead End), a group that helps women whose husbands have refused to give them a Jewish divorce, is full of praise for Lau over his efforts to release “chained” women.

In contrast to his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who since his election has not budged from the side of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, Lau seems politically independent. He took part in the demonstration in February against drafting ultra-Orthodox men (saying it was to protest criminal sanctions), but his natural surroundings are not ultra-Orthodox. It is clear that next year, during which agricultural land is to lie fallow by Jewish law, he will allow the land to be “sold,” a fiction that means farmers can continue to work the land, an arrangement which is opposed by the ultra-Orthodox. In his well-spoken demeanor and willingness to listen to those who approach him, offering them easily understood “words of Torah,” he is reminiscent of his father, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi and chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Meir Lau.

Does he want change?

Lau is the open, statesmanlike face of the Chief Rabbinate, but will he lead to change? Does he want to?

“When I go to Afula, to Dimona, to Be’er Sheva, to Tel Aviv, I speak clearly with people, I understand them and they understand me,” he says.

The interview took place while traveling on the highway in the used Skoda that Lau received from the government carpool administration. (He said he did not want to hurt the feelings of Holocaust survivors by accepting the BMW he was offered.) He answered questions like one who wants to “convey a message, a tradition from generation to generation.”

According to Lau, his greatest struggle for change is against the “rule of the clerks” in the Chief Rabbinate. “The day after the election I went to work and I asked every single employee of the rabbinate, ‘Who are you, what do you do and how do you do it?’” I’m trying to get them to act according to criteria, transparently, fairly. True, it’s very hard. I asked for organizational consultation for the rabbinate, perhaps we can increase some departments and reduce others.”

He acknowledges that his attempts to challenge the bureaucracy have had little success. Officials from a small department, in charge of kashrut abroad, have ignored his request to set clear procedures.

“The bureaucracy is terrible. The rule of the clerks is still there. For example, it was decided that a certain ritual slaughterer’s hands were shaking and they disqualified him. Now the man’s asking for a hearing, for medical exams. Who pays any attention to him? I’m finished with that. I will not have one clerk deciding a man’s life. Let there be a committee of three rabbis who decide whether a man is a good ritual slaughterer. This is one area I’ve managed to move ahead. But it takes people time to act on my demands.”

While Lau is wrestling with his clerks, the political sphere has not been smiling on him. A deluge of religious legislation is being passed, some of it against his will, such as the law by which couples can now register to get married in a rabbinate outside their hometown, and the law to have one chief rabbi rather than Ashkenazi and Sephardi ones. Habayit Hayehudi, whose chairman, Naftali Bennett, is also religious affairs minister, influences religious services to Israelis today more than the rabbinate.

Not so fast

Lau is now working to torpedo the conversion bill, initiated by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), up for its final votes. Lau says he told Stern he is in favor of “expanding the circle of converts, but all under the supervision of the conversion administration and the president of the High Rabbinic Court. To give a municipal rabbi conversion power is like letting a pharmacist perform surgery because the hospital is crowded.”

Lau says he wants to work with Jewish Agency aliyah emissaries to “get to every corner of the world, to cemeteries, community records, asking non-Jewish neighbors, and you can help people” who wish to convert. However, he says the Law of Return is “problematic,” adding that former religious affairs minister Yossi Beilin “called for its cancellation,” and that “the state of Israel has to decide if it wants to be a welfare state for the Third World, bringing in everyone who has a connection with Judaism, or perhaps only those who are Jews.” As an example, he offered the case of “a grandfather who isn’t even buried here, he’s buried in Russbach, Germany, but because of one grandfather, 78 [relatives] of his wife, grandchildren, everyone gets absorption benefits and all the rights.”

Regarding the status of women in Orthodoxy, Lau constrained the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic Council to accept his decision allowing women to take the test to become kashrut supervisors.

What does he think of women who want to read the Torah in front of men? “The moment girls study, they should study properly and the right things, Gemara as well. Instead of other things. Where the question is whether to study Gemara or Spinoza, [she] should study Gemara. I’m talking about those who want to study not for feminist purposes but to come closer to God.”

However, Lau says he finds “egalitarian quorums problematic” in terms of Jewish law. “By Jewish law a woman certainly cannot read the Torah [in public]. I am well acquainted with people who pray in those quorums in Modi’in. Some of them I personally admire very much … but I think it is … not right.”

Does he meet with Reform and Conservative Jews? No, he says, but notes that he has many meetings with liberal Orthodox Jews, to whom the doors of the Chief Rabbinate were once closed. “I want to convey to people that the person who is here wants to listen to them. “

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