May 15, 2008
Ultra-Orthodox establishment holds Israel hostage, prominent rabbi says
Q&A with Rabbi Benjamin Lau
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
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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