“I’m still a little weak. A few days ago I got over COVID,” Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau apologizes at the beginning of a conversation with Israel Hayom.
A few hundreds meters from the bustling Jerusalem Central Bus Station, the hallways of the Chief Rabbinate offices are emptier than ever. Rooms are almost vacant, and so are elevators. Most of the employees are working from home, as even Lau was forced to do when he tested positive for coronavirus.
“A few staff members, including my driver, tested positive. My 13-year-old daughter came home from school on Thursday, and on Friday, she did a test and turned out to be positive. The same with my wife and another daughter. During one long Shabbat, we were sitting on opposite sides of the living room to try and avoid transmitting it, and on Saturday night, after I got a cold, I went to get tested and it turned out I was positive, too. I informed my people and went into quarantine for a week,” Lau says.
Lau says that despite feeling very tired, one of the mornings he was at home, he and a colleague spent five hours working on a rabbinic ruling. Also, despite his illness and the inclement weather, he was careful to pray three times a day, thanks to the residents in his Modi’in apartment building, who set up an outdoor minyan, which he joined from his balcony.
Lau, 56, took over as chief rabbi in 2013, and is due to complete his 10-year term a year and a half from now. In accordance with the law, he spent the first five years as president of the Chief Rabbinate Council and chief posek on matters of kashrut and marriage, while his counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, served as president of the Great Rabbinical Court.
After five years, they switched roles, and Lau, as court president, has been dealing with some of the toughest cases in Israel—men who refuse to grant their wives a Jewish writ of divorce; women who, because they are refused a writ or for other reasons cannot remarry; the status of children deemed “bastards” under Jewish law; and conversion.
Approximately three weeks ago, Lau made headlines after he paid a condolence visit to the family of haredi author Chaim Walder, who committed suicide after 22 testimonies accusing him of various sexual crimes were made public. Days after his funeral, attended by hundreds of mourners, among them public figures—while the haredi media reported on his demise without addressing the charges against him—a young women who had grown up in haredi circles also killed herself. Her friends said that she had been one of Walder’s victims, and had been unable to cope with the events.
A day after the funeral, Lau visited Walder’s family to comfort his widow and children. This visit drew much condemnation. Even rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America boycotted a scheduled Zoom call with him on matters of conversion and kashrut.
Five days after the visit, Lau published a letter in which he wrote, “It appears that there is a need to clarify things. Unfortunately, there were some who interpreted the fact that I went to comfort people in mourning—a widow and children I know personally—as if I do not, heaven forbid, empathize with the victims.
“Therefore, it is important to me to make it clear: Even now, my heart goes out to the victims, who are experiencing a very difficult time, and we must all stand by their side always, especially now. I fully believe anyone who was hurt. I deeply regret to say that offenses like these exist at many levels of society, and the victims’ screams that their souls have been murdered haunts us.
“No harassment or attack must be ignored. Acts like these must be rooted out everywhere, as I have often called to do. In any case in which there is suspicion of harassment or abuse, there is an obligation to file a complaint with the authorities and not hide it, and those have been my instructions in cases of people who reached out to me. I’ve said these things at many conferences, and I’ll repeat them at every opportunity, in the hope we will never again hear of such terrible things.”
Lau says that he has worked to address sexual offenses in haredi society for many years. “Fifteen years ago, when I was serving as the Modi’in city rabbi, I sat with the rabbi of the Central District of the Israel Police and asked him to raise awareness of the issue. When I became chief rabbi, my wife organized a conference of rabbis’ wives and made them aware of it. In addition, when I became president of the rabbinical court, I reached out to the female attendants at mikvaot [ritual baths] and asked them to be more aware of sexual assault.”
Asked whether this is sufficient, he says, “I think there is a need to address the matter, and be aware of people’s distress. Clearly, we need to do as much as we can and not ignore assaults, including taking them to the proper police authorities. We need to be aware that incidents like these can happen anywhere, and do everything we can to save lives. Every attack is terrible, and wrecks lives.”
In the past month and a half, Lau has been on a collision course with Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana over conversion reform. The two aren’t meeting, and contact has been cut off.
Kahana’s proposed reforms, first published by Israel Hayom, would allow municipal rabbis to run conversion courts, thereby increasing the number of conversions in Israel, which currently stands at some 1,500 per year. Today, 400,000 citizens in Israel are defined as having no religion, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Kahana hopes that more will convert through local conversion courts, rather than the system operated by the Chief Rabbinate.
Lau did not hold fire when the report came out and made it clear he saw it as nothing less than a “spiritual disaster” and Jewish law being tossed out. He called it a “serious attack on Israel’s Jewishness” and said, “We will fight with all our power against this dangerous initiative.”
According to various reports, he may even have informed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that if the head of the conversion apparatus in the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Moshe Weller, were dismissed, Lau would not sign off on conversion certificates for immigrants from Ethiopia. However, speaking to Israel Hayom, Lau denies these reports, calling them lies.
“I sign off on every conversion, and the head of conversion services, whose role is to ensure that conversions are handled in accordance with my instructions, answers to me. The moment that Rabbi Weller was fired, I had no way of knowing what instructions were being followed in conversions, so I announced that I wouldn’t sign off on any conversion, regardless of the identity of the convert or his country of origin,” Lau explains.
The week before last, hours after Kahana unveiled the final details of his draft conversion-reform bill, Lau took the unusual step of announcing that he would go over the head of the chief of conversion services and approve each conversion himself. Kahana told him that would be illegal.
“Illegal?” Lau grins. “According to the rules of conversion, the head of the conversion system is responsible for implementing the instructions of the president of the Great Rabbinical Court, which is me. I don’t understand what’s illegal about my checking each and every case. That’s my obligation,” he says.
“The bill being discussed is an attempt to rip apart the Jewish people. It will lead to two kinds of conversion, and we’ll be forced to tell people who haven’t converted properly that they aren’t Jews. Minyans at synagogues will have to check who converted in accordance with Jewish law and who is just a convert on paper. It will lead to chaos, and we mustn’t lend our hand to that,” he warns.
Lau says he does not intend to sign off on anything in which he does not believe, “and if I don’t believe a conversion is genuine, I won’t sign, full stop.”
“The citizens of the country are entitled to their full rights, but we need to distinguish between citizenship and Judaism. Judaism hasn’t changed since Mount Sinai, and won’t. There is one form of conversion in Israel, and that is through the Chief Rabbinate. The Rabbinate is a beacon for the entire Jewish world, and everyone knows that our conversion certificate is the final word. The new law will trample that,” he says.
Q: For years, there have been complaints about the conversion court, that it makes things difficult for converts. Why not change the situation?
A: The conversion court judges have been greatly wronged. So much is said about them, and people don’t know whom or what they’re talking about. There are about 30 judges, mostly officers in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, who are involved in the Israeli experience no less than those who think so much of themselves and attack them. They are brilliant scholars who do their work devotedly, don’t reject anyone and provide a true answer for those who come to the court. The problem isn’t the conversion system; it’s the fact that every year, more and more people arrive who aren’t Jewish.
If someone is pained over assimilation, they should use that same passion and power to change the Law of Return. According to statistics from the Interior Ministry, the vast majority of immigrants to Israel aren’t Jewish, so why bring them and then say there’s a problem? Stop it beforehand, as much as it might hurt. Why change a law that is entirely aligned with Jewish law, rather than preventing the problem in the first place?
In a press conference, Kahana addressed the issue and argued that the Law of Return was indeed problematic, because of its provision that allows grandchildren of Jews to make aliyah. Ironically, when this amendment to the original law was passed in 1970, Knesset members from the National Religious Party agreed to allow grandchildren of Jews to make aliyah because they assumed only a few would want to live in Israel based on their grandfather or grandmother having been Jewish. Kahana said that the current political “constellation” would not allow the law to be altered.
Q: Supporters of the reforms say that private courts have already been operating for years and prove that things can be done differently, in a more welcoming manner.
A: There are serious problems with the private courts. If a person who lives in Australia comes to Israel for a week and gets a conversion certificate from a private court, it’s a disgrace, an attack on the entire concept of conversion and Judaism. The rabbinical court won’t recognize them, don’t know where they come from or what brought them to convert.
Lau says that there have been rabbis who have tried “speed conversions,” making brief trips abroad to conduct conversions. “I announced that these conversions were not eligible. Do you understand how destructive it is to a community? A person is walking around with a conversion certificate from three city rabbis in Israel. The moment these conversions carry the symbol of the Chief Rabbinate, it will destroy communities worldwide and also our communities.”
Q: Don’t you trust the city rabbis? Some of them are members of the Chief Rabbinate.
A: The problem isn’t whether I trust city rabbis, but the fact that there will be a few types of conversion … It will ruin the entire system of conversion. Look at what’s happening here. When MK Michael Michaeli (chairman of the Shas faction) stood up in the Knesset and said that city rabbis weren’t authorized to oversee conversions, head of the Knesset Religious Services Committee, MK Yulia Malinovsky (Yisrael Beiteinu) responded, ‘Teach them.” I don’t understand that flippancy. Would she bring people from the street into a hospital and say, ‘Teach them how to treat patients?”
I need help from city rabbis in conversion, but not in the court. I’m doing fine; there are wonderful judges. If people care so much about assimilation, they can help us mentor converts after they convert.
I was the first chief rabbi who went to Kfar Etzion to meet with IDF soldiers in the Netiv course, where they undergo conversion. One soldier told me how hard it was for her, having converted but not wanting to be at home on Shabbat. They desecrate Shabbat there, and none of the city rabbis invites them for Shabbat dinner.
I’d expect the city rabbis to mentor them after conversion. According to Jewish law, a convert should follow religious commandments, but actually, many don’t. If you want to be involved so badly, help them keep the commandments and remain part of Judaism, properly.
Q: You can’t ignore the fact that in Israel there are almost half a million people with non-Jewish status. What if your grandson brings home an Israeli girlfriend and then it turns out she’s not Jewish?
A: I hope that won’t happen. I try to bring up my children and grandchildren about the importance of tradition being passed from generation to generation. But the solution is not to hand out conversion certificates indiscriminately.
There’s no doubt these are difficult times. Recently, I was at the science high school in Haifa and I explained that we are one link in a chain of generations, and the importance of tradition. At the end, a young woman came up to me and pointed to a classmate of hers and said he was Druze and asked why he was bad. She said there were [Muslim] singers and models who married Jews.
I explained there was nothing “bad” about it, but there was still a need to preserve tradition. That we are here so there will be a Jewish state.
If, heaven forbid, the law is passed, I fear that we’ll need family trees to know who is Jewish. Don’t tell me that doesn’t already exist—people from different ethnic groups marry with no problem. I hope we won’t find ourselves in situations that will put us back in exile.
Q: Is it possible that both you and Kahana are throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Perhaps cooperation is the way to improve the system of conversion.
A: With all due respect, even if the Knesset decides that someone with a fever of 43 degrees C (109 F) is healthy, that’s wrong, and if it passes a law that you don’t need mortar to build a building, it won’t happen. The same goes for conversion. The Knesset won’t decide who is Jewish. A Jew is a person who accepts the commandments and joins the Jewish people.
When a child is born in the United States, he is American. But if a person not born in the U.S. wants to become a citizen, he needs to overcome a lot of obstacles. Someone born on a kibbutz is automatically a kibbutznik, but someone who wants to move to a kibbutz has to be checked and meet various criteria.
The Jewish people is nothing less than the American nation or a kibbutz. Throughout the generations, there has a been a path and a line that have to stay uniform. These are questions of Jewish law, and there is one address: the Chief Rabbinate. In my life, I’ve never heard that the solution to assimilation is to hand out conversion certificates. Should we give everyone driver’s licenses without knowing if he can drive or without the appropriate conditions?
Q: Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed that you’re trying to extort the government and has called for looking into whether you should stay on as president of the high rabbinical court.
A: He doesn’t bother me. A politician makes his political remarks, and I do what I have been charged. I hope that tomorrow he won’t ask to look into the head of surgery at Hadassah Medical Center-Ein Kerem because he thinks he might not be doing his job well.
Lau points out that there is an enormous difference in the Chief Rabbinate’s status for most of the people and its status for certain sectors. He says that in his travels, he sees how strong the rabbinate’s position is, and how interested people are in its decisions. According to Lau, the rabbinate’s position on the front line of the battle to “keep Israel Jewish” makes it a target.
“After decades of debate about whether this is a Jewish state, the voices calling for a state of all its citizens have the advantage. Because the Chief Rabbinate symbolizes the opposite of that, it draws fire from all sides,” he says.
“I’m an optimistic person by nature, and believe that in the end, we’ll be able to protect Judaism,” Lau says.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.