A Sephardic Voice for the New Generation: Rabbi Benny Lau

Benny Lau holds no national "chief rabbi" official position in Israel, but is no less of a public figure.
March 4, 2022

Can an Ashkenazi Jew with a distinctly recognizable Ashkenazi name from a prominent Ashkenazi rabbinical family be considered a voice for young Sephardic Jews? When we hear the name “Lau,” many of us automatically think of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the Holocaust survivor and former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Some might think of his son, Rabbi David Lau, the current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Meet Rabbi Binyamin “Benny” Lau, the nephew of the elder Rabbi Lau and the cousin of the current Chief Rabbi. Benny Lau holds no national “chief rabbi” official position in Israel, but is no less of a public figure. A prominent scholar, educator, teacher and outspoken public intellectual and rabbinic voice, Rabbi Benny Lau has written several bestselling books on a wide variety of Jewish topics, and is one of the most sought after rabbinic figures by Israeli media, government and public institutions.

When Benny Lau was in 9th grade, he went to his synagogue library and pulled a book from the shelf that he had never studied in school. The book reflected a whole new approach to Halakha (Jewish Law) that he had never been exposed to, and the young Benny became intrigued. The book was a collection of Teshuvot (Halakhic Responsa) by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z”l. Benny immersed himself into the world of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and of other Sephardic Hakhamim, including Rabbi Uziel z”l.

After his IDF military service, Benny went to university, eventually earning a Phd in Jewish Law. His dissertation topic: “The Halakhic Methodology of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.” The dissertation was turned into a bestselling book, written with the approval, guidance and blessing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and to date, it is the most important study of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s halakhic methodology, as well as an important glimpse into the world of Sephardic Hakhamim. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef praised the book, as did many other Sephardic rabbis and teachers. All the work of someone with the Ashkenazi last name “Lau.”

Rabbi Lau also has brilliant “Sephardic insights” in the weekly Torah portions, including this week’s portion that closes the book of Exodus, Parashat Pekudei.

He brings in the commentary of Nachmanides, the brilliant 13th Century Spanish Rabbi, Talmudist, Kabbalist and Bible Commentator. The topic? The bells at the bottom of the High Priest’s robe:

“The bells were placed inside the pomegranates before they were sewn onto the robe, and once the bells were inside the pomegranates, they were then sewn onto the edges of the robe.”

Rabbi Lau comments on Nachmanides’ description of this seemingly obscure feature of the High Priest’s robe:

“I recently heard a sermon on Nachmanides’ description of the High Priest’s robe. In this sermon, the rabbi described the pomegranate as a symbol of fullness: It is heavy, full of content and does not make any noise. Its fullness is symbolic of the world of wisdom and mitzvot. In fact, when our sages sought a metaphor for being ‘filled with mitzvot,’ they used the pomegranate.

The pomegranate represents the older generation, overflowing with knowledge and filled with content. The bell, on the other hand — a symbol of noise — makes its noise from an empty vessel. The bell is built from an empty space with a tongue in the middle that creates the noise. It is very sensitive to the slightest wind and hastily rings and makes noise.

The rabbi then linked the two — the pomegranate and the bell — to the sounds created by the two on the High Priest’s robe as he enters the sanctuary, of which is said: The sound of it is heard when he comes in the sanctuary before God. 

If the bells are disconnected from the pomegranates, then they can ring and ring endlessly, but they will not be part of the High Priest’s robe, and will therefore not be heard. The true strength of the bells ringing is only realized when they are connected to the pomegranates. When they are incorporated within the pomegranates, then their voice is heard.”

But in a stroke of creativity reflecting the sensitivity and inclusive approach of the Classic Sephardic tradition, Rabbi Lau expands our understanding of the bells:

“Clearly, I think that one can also reverse this metaphoric explanation and say that the pomegranates must also make room for the bells to exist within them. The High Priest cannot enter the sanctuary with the pomegranates alone. Only when the pomegranates give room to the bells can they then enter the sanctuary of God.

The sensitivity of the bells creates the proper musical notes that the High Priest — the representative of the entire community — makes heard in heaven when he enters the sanctuary. The heavy and full pomegranate needs the bell, and together they awaken true hope.

This dual interpretation expresses the generational dispute between the older generation (the pomegranates) and the younger generation (the bells). The wisdom of this lesson lies in seeking to incorporate the voices of one generation within the other.”

Only when the “sounds from the bells” and the “seeds of the pomegranates” listen to each other and seek to coexist within the same community can our voices be heard by God. This spiritual message from Rabbi Benny Lau is not only a creative reading of Torah sources, it’s a real-life challenge to all Jewish communities – Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

On a personal level, I am privileged to call Benny Lau my friend. As a Sephardic rabbi, I am proud to call Rabbi Benny Lau my colleague, and to consider him one of my “Sephardic role models” – even with the Ashkenazi name Lau.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director of the Sephardic Educational Center and the rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue. 


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