Rabbi Benjamin (Benny) Lau does not look the part of a revolutionary.
At 47, his youthful appearance, warm smile and engaging personality have helped him become a popular Orthodox rabbinic figure in Jerusalem, where he has revitalized the Ramban community synagogue in Katamon and heads the beit midrash program at Beit Morasha, a communal and educational leadership institute for observant men and women.
He also lectures at Bar-Ilan University (where he received a Ph.D.) and teaches at both a boys’ and girls’ yeshiva high school in Jerusalem.
The rabbi is soft-spoken, but his message of late — in sermons, lectures, newspaper columns and interviews — is blunt and compelling, offering up sharp criticism of the Chief Rabbinate and its role in the deteriorating relationship between
religion and state in Israel.
Rabbi Lau, himself the nephew of former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, is leading a campaign among like-minded, more tolerant Orthodox rabbis to wrest control of the Chief Rabbinate from the influence of a group of elderly ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist haredi religious leaders whose dictates often are followed by the two state-appointed chief rabbis.
Rabbi Lau says he and his colleagues, primarily from the rabbinic group, Tzohar (Hebrew for window), seek to restore a sense of compassion toward all Israeli Jews, no matter their level of observance.
“We can’t accept it,” Rabbi Lau says of the haredi style, which demands the strictest levels of adherence to Jewish law. “We are the Zionists and we should be the ones with the power. It’s not normal for the state to be the captive of the haredim,” who don’t acknowledge the authority of the state.
He says he would prefer that more senior rabbis in his camp take the lead in this campaign, “but I look around and see that the responsibility is on our shoulders, and it cannot wait. We are very close to the end of the relationship” between religion and the state, he says, as Israelis become increasingly disenfranchised with the Judaism they see practiced and adjudicated by the Chief Rabbinate.
“As a strong Zionist, I want to be part of the Jewish state,” he says. “I need to serve the needs of the people,” regardless of their level of observance.
Listening to what the rabbi has to say these days calls to mind Howard Beale, the fictional character in the classic 1976 movie “Network,” who as anchor of a major television network urged viewers to stick their heads out of their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Israelis who care about the state of Judaism in the country don’t need much prompting — especially now.
The association between Israeli society and the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate has always been problematic, with many secular and less observant Jews resenting the control the rabbinate has over their personal lives in matters of marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.
What has changed dramatically in recent months is that more and more Orthodox Jews as well are adding their voices to those who have long expressed frustration and anger with a Chief Rabbinate that appears increasingly rigid and narrow in its outlook and rulings, to the detriment of Israeli society.
The two recent episodes that have become “the last straw” for many, particularly in the Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox camp, were the Chief Rabbinate’s strict rulings regarding the current sabbatical (or, shmitta) year, and especially its rulings over conversion.
Shmitta, which falls every seven years, is the commandment that calls for Jewish-owned land in Israel to lie fallow. In the past, a halachic loophole was followed, allowing Jewish farmers to maintain their income by having their land symbolically sold to a non-Jew. But under pressure from haredi leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger gave rabbinic councils the option to disallow the loophole, in effect having people purchase produce from Arabs rather than Jews.
Even more upsetting was the rabbinic ruling that led to nullifying conversions permitted over the last 15 years by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a Religious Zionist leader and head of the government’s special conversion administration.
Not only does such a move show the haredi leadership’s disdain for the Religious Zionist camp, but also for a society with an estimated 300,000 Russian immigrants who are not Jewish. Many of them probably would be willing to convert if the procedure was not onerous, but the haredi standard is for the convert to adhere to all 613 commandments.
Rabbi Lau says such actions by the haredim underscore their indifference, if not hostility, toward a modern Jewish state, and he says the time to act against them is now.
“Many secular Jews in Israel would respond positively to a rabbinate that shows openness and compassion,” he told me over the course of several conversations. “But the people have become alienated.”
He likens the haredi view to Noah on the ark, protecting his own family while the rest of the world drowns. Rabbi Lau prefers the model of Abraham, who even argued with God in an effort to save the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“We can’t just live on the ark,” he said, noting that Israel is a vibrant society, not just an enclosed religious community.
That’s why the rabbi says he is leading an effort to try to gain control of the Chief Rabbinate, consulting with the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his son, Yitzchak, who Rabbi Lau sees as open to a more tolerant kind of Jewish authority.
If the cooperative effort fails, there is the option of appealing to the Supreme Court to appoint a Chief Rabbinate more reflective of Israeli society and Zionist values. Rabbi Lau says he knows that could “open up the process” to include non-Orthodox representation, but he finds that healthy, and notes that he often cooperates in programs with Conservative and Reform rabbis.
A final option is for Rabbi Lau and his allies from Tzohar — a group of about 300 rabbis who seek to be more accessible and welcoming to non-Orthodox Israelis — to compete directly with the Chief Rabbinate, creating their own religious courts to deal more sympathetically with Israelis on issues like marriage, conversion, agunot and divorce.
Such a confrontation would be messy, Rabbi Lau acknowledges, but no worse than the current sorry state of affairs, he says.
Does he have a chance at effecting change? Not in the short-term, according to Israelis knowledgeable about the situation.
Prime Minister Olmert “needs the haredim in his coalition and he will not struggle with them,” notes Yair Sheleg, a reporter for Ha’aretz who covers the religious world. But he adds that “the feeling of crisis that Rabbi Lau, and others, express” may have a long-term positive impact.
Sheleg suggests that in the future, haredi parties may be more sensitive to public criticism, for fear of losing political clout, and/or the Religious Zionist camp may come to soften its stand on settlements so as not to weaken its support for change on social issues, like calling for a more tolerant Chief Rabbinate.
The outcome of this conflict could decide the fate of Religious Zionism in Israel — whether it will take on the mantle of leadership or bow to the clout of the haredim. And this brewing dispute may well determine whether the growing gap between religious and secular Jews in the country can be narrowed.
In the meantime, Rabbi Lau is ready to lead, though not sure how many rabbis will be with him.
“I feel I am doing the right thing,” he says. “The halachic tradition has always been about meeting the needs of the people. That’s all we’re trying to do. And we’re ready to take a stand.”