Jewish Journal

Ultra-Orthodox establishment holds Israel hostage, prominent rabbi says

Q&A with Rabbi Benjamin Lau

by Amy Klein

Posted on May. 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm

When a rabbinical judge in Israel recently annulled the conversion of a woman who after 15 years was no longer observant, it caused an outcry among Jews-by-choice who worried their conversions would also be annulled.

In response, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, nephew of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, wrote an opinion piece in the newspaper, Ha'aretz.

The article, timed for Israel's 60th anniversary, strongly criticized the decision, saying: "The Israeli political system is holding all the Jewish citizens of this country hostage to the religious institutions controlled by the Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) ultra-Orthodox, which is doing everything in its power to keep the light of the Torah away from Israeli Jews."

He called for the Religious Zionist camp to wrest control of the religious courts and services in order to better serve the entire State of Israel.

Lau, 47, visited Los Angeles last weekend and spoke to the congregations of B'nai David-Judea and Young Israel of Century City. He was one of a several rabbis from Tzohar, a group that wants to connect rabbis to all the Jews of Israel, and who are visiting the United States to forge a connection between the Israeli religious and the American Modern Orthodox movement.

While he was here, Lau spoke to The Journal about the conversion case, about breaking the monopoly on religious services and about what Israel can learn from the Diaspora.

Jewish Journal: What do you think the ramifications will be of the Ashkelon rabbinical court trying to annul Rabbi Haim Druckman's conversion?
Rabbi Benjamin Lau: First you have to understand the context: Nearly 30 years ago, the Israeli Rabbinate gave Rav Druckman and Rav Zefanya Drori the mandate to create special courts for conversion. Since then, thousands of people were converted to Judaism by these religious courts, and now this judge wanted to annul one of these conversions [which were sanctioned by the Rabbinate]. It started with one rabbi -- Rabbi Atia -- who wrote a few words dealing with the convert in his psak din [ruling], but the majority of it was terrible words about [Religious Zionist] Rav Druckman.

JJ: Why this campaign against Druckman and other judges, calling them 'blasphemers' and 'evildoers'?
BL: It was an assault against him personally and against the Religious Zionists. I got phone calls from people who've converted in the last 10 years who were shocked because they didn't know their status -- they thought the ruling would cancel their conversion. You are talking about 1,000 families with kids. So the Chief Rabbinate went to the public and said this ruling is meaningless, and it's not going to affect anything.

JJ: Can one 'undo' a conversion?
BL: It's a machloket [rabbinic dispute]. It has happened in some very specific cases but not on a large scale.

JJ: But what does this mean for the future of conversions?
BL: There is a phrase, "From the bitter comes the sweet." We now understand that many, many rabbis feel that we need to take control of the Rabbinate and keep it from the minority of those who try and kick it to the corner. It's not just the Religious Zionists -- I think the majority of rabbis in Israel feel the needs of Israelis are so strong that we cannot play a game with the religious courts with those whose outlook is so narrow.

JJ: You are talking about the Lithuanians, a sector of the ultra-Orthodox. What is the difference between them and other ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionists like yourself?
BL: If we talk about all the religious people in Israel, 50 percent are what we call mesorat- traditional, who keep some mitzvot and make Kiddush, but maybe will drive on Shabbat, but have a connection to the religion. About another 25 percent are Religious Zionists, knitted kippah- wearing Jews. The remaining 25 percent of the religious are the Charedim [ultra-Orthodox], who live in a closed society, a ghetto. Inside there are two different groups. About half are Litvaks [Lithuanians] and half the Chasidim. The Litvaks try to make the whole country live according to their hashkafa [way of life].

JJ: How did this happen? Was it political?
BL: Yes. The secular parties didn't understand what they paid to the haredim when they gave them the option to lead the Rabbinate. They really destroyed the place.

JJ: You say they are hijacking the courts now.
BL: They are trying to do just that -- not just with conversions. In the beginning of the year, we had a big argument about shmita [letting Israeli soil lie fallow in the seventh year, when the Israeli Rabbinate typically creates a loophole to allow farmers to work and sell produce in Israel]. The Litvak are trying to keep the whole country according to their hashkafa -- they don't care about the needs of the farmer; they tried to bring in foreign imports.

It took a month, and, thank God, we succeeded -- the high court stopped the Lithuanians. We cannot let a minority take the country. The Chief Rabbinate serves the State of Israel. If you work officially under the flag of Israel, you cannot be against it [as many ultra-Orthodox do not support the State of Israel]. Everyone who serves the State of Israel office should be a creative partner to the needs of the state. One of the needs of the state is to take care of all the people.

JJ: Many Israelis have been complaining for a long time about the religious hijacking of life-cycle services, such as marriage, divorce, brit milah, conversions, etc. How would the Religious Zionists differ from the Lithuanians?
BL: The secular know that Religious Zionists are partners with them all the way. It starts by serving in the army [with them] and continues to learning at universities to working around the country in every industry. The secular and Religious Zionists are together -- this is a fact. Now we need to find a way to help people, whether it's with kashrut, conversion, divorce, the economy -- thank God we have enough problems to deal with. But if you start from the belief that you are partners, then it's a question of will. We say we want to build the society in Israel with all our heart, and we will find a way to succeed.
JJ: Are you aligned with Conservative and Reform groups in Israel, which are increasingly appealing to many who are turned off by the ultra-Orthodox?
BL: I must tell you as an Israeli rabbi, it's not an issue. We live according to halacha [Jewish law]. You have a religious court; you have the whole process of kiyum mitzvot -- one who wants to convert must fulfill all the mitzvot.

This is the only way that I know. I'm in this business 13 years, and the question of Reform and Conservative is a big issue in America and Europe but not in Israel. A few Israelis go for it, but if you look at the big picture, the majority of people are not connected to the Reform and Conservative -- it seems strange to them. They say, 'The shul I don't go to is Orthodox.'

JJ: How will a changed Rabbinate deal with non-Orthodox conversions and marriages from the Diaspora and the question of who is a Jew?
BL: They would have to go to a religious court and reconvert according to Orthodox halacha.

JJ: So how is that different from the Lithuanians?
BL: We follow halacha, but we connect with a big smile. We have a feeling of solidarity with them. The difference is if you feel part of the problem or it's not your problem. We feel that it's our problem. But according to law. We'll find a way. If you have good will, people find a way.

JJ: What does your uncle, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, think of your stance against the Lithuanians?
BL: I think about my uncle and his responsibility to all of klal Yisrael-the people of Israel, he serves all the people around the world. He grew up in the Litvak world -- he was close to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the leader of the Litvak a generation ago. It was a completely different world then. So this pains him much more than it pains me. He supports me privately. He knows I should be very careful -- the game in the Rabbinate world is very difficult. He knows that my voice is very important, but he's afraid that some very powerful people in the Litvak world will try to stop me.

JJ: Are you afraid?
BL: Afraid? Of what? I am not afraid. Because maybe I'm too young. I'm just a rabbi. What can they do to me?

JJ: You are part of Tzohar, a group whose 'primary goal is to empower rabbis and educators to communicate with those for whom religion is a peripheral but still necessary part of their lives,' according to their literature. How is Tzohar going to change the way things work in Israel?
BL: Tzohar, named after the window in Noah's Ark, was created to stay in touch with the rest of the world; it was started by friends from Mercaz Harav [the Religious Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem where eight students were killed last month by a terrorist] after [Yitzhak] Rabin's murder, when the feeling in Israel was that the wall between secular and religious groups was too high.

They started with one project -- to make chuppahs for secular couples. The regular system was that if you wanted to get married, you went to the office of the Rabbinate and opened a case file, and if you didn't have a rabbi [which most secular don't], they sent one of the rabbis without any connection to the couple, and sometimes the rabbis asked for money. It was a bad experience for many people. Tzohar started doing weddings by a voluntary system, and we now do 40 percent of secular weddings. The rabbis meet with them, learn with them and even stay in touch with them after the chuppah. This is a completely different experience.

JJ: What else is Tzohar doing?
BL: Then they decided to continue with how to build a community. I learned the idea of community outside of Israel. I lived in London as a shaliach [emissary]. In the Diaspora, everyone has a place that you have a rabbi; you can go and touch him, and we are trying to bring the community idea to Israel. It's unbelievable how late the idea of community [is in coming to] Israel.

JJ: Why do people in Israel need a community? Isn't Israel itself a community?
BL: We are talking about the cities. Settlements are communities. Kibbutzim are communities. Small towns are communities. But in the big cities, there are community rabbis, but most people are not in touch with them.

The idea of community is to break the walls between the sections -- if the regular synagogues serve the religious people, a secular person will never ever come into a synagogue. The idea of a community is to move a synagogue to the community that serves all the needs of the people around you. If you interview me in 20 years, the idea of community will have spread around the country. The idea of community, being part of other people -- this is something that has just begun.
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