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Q & A: Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi aims at unity

Rabbi David Lau

Rabbi David Lau, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, is the first rabbi in Israel to teach responsa over the Internet. The son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, he also has appeared regularly on radio programs on questions of Jewish religious law. Rabbi Lau was in Canada recently.

What is the reason for your visit to Toronto?

First and foremost is the celebration of the Sifrei Torah that Canadian communities are donating to Israel. [70 Torahs from 24 Canadian Jewish communities were donated in honour of Israel’s 70th anniversary.]

But more of a general reason is that when I became Chief Rabbi of Israel, my goal was to meet as many communities across the world, in order to find a common denominator and bring everyone together. I see myself as the Chief Rabbi of Jews across the world.

What would you say is your greatest achievement as Chief Rabbi in bringing the Jewish people together?

The number of communities touched by the Chief Rabbinate over the past five years have been unmatched.

Also is the fact that the rabbinut has returned to a place where their opinion –  their positions – are respected in such a way, that when there are things that come up in the Knesset and in the Jewish world, the Chief Rabbinate is consulted in order to give a message according to Jewish tradition.

You have jurisdiction over issues like conversion, marriage and burial. On many of these issues, the Jewish community doesn’t agree. How can you be Chief Rabbi of everyone when there’s so much disagreement on these issues?

There’s always been many different opinions in the Jewish community. The fact that not everybody agrees has been part of Jewish tradition since the beginning.

I am always trying to find the common denominator. It is important to realize there are things that are different, and everybody should continue their customs. But at the same time, there are certain things that unite us, we need to try to find the things that unite us when it comes to public issues.

You make rules in terms of conversion, of marriages, of  burials. On those particular issues, opinions are divided. Conservative conversions are not recognized in Israel. How can you bring people together in those circumstances?

It’s very simple. The reality on the ground today is that there are different types of conversions within the Jewish world. There are Conservative, Reform and Orthodox conversions. The only conversion that is accepted by everybody is the Orthodox conversion. The vast majority of Orthodox rabbis in the entire world does not accept Conservative and Reform conversions.

So what the Chief Rabbinate did, was it found the conversion that is most accepted by the vast majority of the Jewish world.

If the Chief Rabbinate would accept conversions that are not accepted by the rest of the Jewish world, then you will actually divide people more than bring them together.


Isn’t it the case that certain Orthodox conversions in Canada and the United States are not accepted in Israel?

When they look at the policies of individual rabbis who do conversions, so the Chief Rabbinate is looking at all the different conversions, it has certain standards.

And the rules and standards that the Chief Rabbinate holds today are the exact same as they were since the creation of the State of Israel. They don’t only look at the person doing the conversion and judge him on the personality. It’s not a personal thing, but they look at their rules and their standards and they try to make sure that every accepted conversion by the state is up to the standard that is going to be accepted by the most amount of Jews across the world.

There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Russian origin in Israel. I understand many are not considered Jewish under halakhah, so they cannot be married in Israel. What should be done about them?

First and foremost, about a million people came from the Former Soviet Union to Israel after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Around 200,000 of them are non-Jews and they want to stay non-Jews. I accept them as full Israeli citizens and respect them for who they are.

About the 800,000 who want to be Jews, the vast majority of them are Jewish according to halakhah. The real direction that the state should be taking is not all these fights about how to convert them;  we’re losing time in the real job, which is proving that these Jews are actually Jews. They should be going out trying to find paperwork, old documents, and speaking to the grandparents. We should be looking for the right documents to prove that they are Jewish.

At the end of the day, after doing all the work to prove that these individuals are halakhically Jewish, the number left is about 20,000 Jews. They both want to be Jewish and can’t yet prove that they are Jewish. That is the number we are speaking about, and on a global national level we can find ways to convert them.

Why should they have to go through the Chief Rabbinate in the first place? Why should they have to prove they’re Jewish to get married?

The question has nothing to do with the Chief Rabbinate. That is a question for the State of Israel. The State of Israel decided that the Chief Rabbinate will be in charge of Jewish marriages and non-Jewish marriages are run by a different body.

Would the Chief Rabbi object if people were married in a secular manner, or by a Conservative rabbi, or a Reform rabbi? Would they still be considered married under Israeli law?

The first point is that the question has to do with the laws of the State of Israel and has nothing to do with the Chief Rabbinate.

The second point is, if you ask what my opinion is, I strongly suggest that young Jews getting married should think very hard about the consequences of not getting married according to Jewish tradition. There are consequences both in their own values and their traditions, and the consequences on their children and grandchildren in the long-term.

If they get married according to an accepted Jewish tradition, then if their children choose to become more religious, or less religious, they will be able to prove they were married and they are up to Jewish standards. If not, it can have serious consequences about their children and grandchildren for generations to come.

We hear about a lot of army exemptions for yeshiva students. Should yeshiva students serve in the army?

There are many different units in the army, with different specialties and roles. Just as there’s an air force, infantry and tanks, so too the army has an education unit.

I strongly believe that within the nation, if we have a Torah unit – which is also the people who are studying full time – they give a reason to continue to fight for the State of Israel. That is something that is very important to the nation.

The moment they stop learning, they should definitely be in the army.

What is your position on women at the Western Wall leading prayers, wearing tallitot?

In terms of the phrase, “Women of the Wall,” I know the real women of the Wall who have been at the Kotel for many years, who come day and night, every single day, rain, shine, cold, hot, it doesn’t make a difference, they’re there every single day. These are “Women of the Wall” who have always been loyal to the Western Wall.

When I go to a mosque, I take off my  shoes and follow the customs of the place. When women come once a month, and they make a very big hoopla with speakers and in a very loud way, and in a very presumptuous way, it’s not a religious question, it’s a question of simply being polite and following the customs of the place you are in and not bothering other people from praying.

Do you ever conceive of the possibility that one day there will be a Conservative Chief Rabbi of Israel, or a Reform Chief Rabbi of Israel?

I respect them as people and for what they do for the community. However I disagree with the positions they take. I don’t believe they are the right positions for the future of the Jewish people.

When I look at the Jewish world, past, present and future, I see what I believe is the path to keep Jewish tradition alive, both from the past, present and the future. n

Rabbi David Lau spoke to The CJN through an interpreter, Rabbi Elan Mazer, national director of Mizrachi Canada. The interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.