November 19, 2018

Ultra-Orthodox establishment holds Israel hostage, prominent rabbi says

When a rabbinical judge in Israel recently annulled the conversion of a woman who after 15 years was no longer observant, it caused an outcry among Jews-by-choice who worried their conversions would also be annulled.

In response, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, nephew of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, wrote an opinion piece in the newspaper, Ha’aretz.

The article, timed for Israel’s 60th anniversary, strongly criticized the decision, saying: “The Israeli political system is holding all the Jewish citizens of this country hostage to the religious institutions controlled by the Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) ultra-Orthodox, which is doing everything in its power to keep the light of the Torah away from Israeli Jews.”

He called for the Religious Zionist camp to wrest control of the religious courts and services in order to better serve the entire State of Israel.

Lau, 47, visited Los Angeles last weekend and spoke to the congregations of B’nai David-Judea and Young Israel of Century City. He was one of a several rabbis from Tzohar, a group that wants to connect rabbis to all the Jews of Israel, and who are visiting the United States to forge a connection between the Israeli religious and the American Modern Orthodox movement.

While he was here, Lau spoke to The Journal about the conversion case, about breaking the monopoly on religious services and about what Israel can learn from the Diaspora.

Jewish Journal: What do you think the ramifications will be of the Ashkelon rabbinical court trying to annul Rabbi Haim Druckman’s conversion?
Rabbi Benjamin Lau: First you have to understand the context: Nearly 30 years ago, the Israeli Rabbinate gave Rav Druckman and Rav Zefanya Drori the mandate to create special courts for conversion. Since then, thousands of people were converted to Judaism by these religious courts, and now this judge wanted to annul one of these conversions [which were sanctioned by the Rabbinate]. It started with one rabbi — Rabbi Atia — who wrote a few words dealing with the convert in his psak din [ruling], but the majority of it was terrible words about [Religious Zionist] Rav Druckman.

JJ: Why this campaign against Druckman and other judges, calling them ‘blasphemers’ and ‘evildoers’?
BL: It was an assault against him personally and against the Religious Zionists. I got phone calls from people who’ve converted in the last 10 years who were shocked because they didn’t know their status — they thought the ruling would cancel their conversion. You are talking about 1,000 families with kids. So the Chief Rabbinate went to the public and said this ruling is meaningless, and it’s not going to affect anything.

JJ: Can one ‘undo’ a conversion?
BL: It’s a machloket [rabbinic dispute]. It has happened in some very specific cases but not on a large scale.

JJ: But what does this mean for the future of conversions?
BL: There is a phrase, “From the bitter comes the sweet.” We now understand that many, many rabbis feel that we need to take control of the Rabbinate and keep it from the minority of those who try and kick it to the corner. It’s not just the Religious Zionists — I think the majority of rabbis in Israel feel the needs of Israelis are so strong that we cannot play a game with the religious courts with those whose outlook is so narrow.

JJ: You are talking about the Lithuanians, a sector of the ultra-Orthodox. What is the difference between them and other ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionists like yourself?
BL: If we talk about all the religious people in Israel, 50 percent are what we call mesorat- traditional, who keep some mitzvot and make Kiddush, but maybe will drive on Shabbat, but have a connection to the religion. About another 25 percent are Religious Zionists, knitted kippah- wearing Jews. The remaining 25 percent of the religious are the Charedim [ultra-Orthodox], who live in a closed society, a ghetto. Inside there are two different groups. About half are Litvaks [Lithuanians] and half the Chasidim. The Litvaks try to make the whole country live according to their hashkafa [way of life].

JJ: How did this happen? Was it political?
BL: Yes. The secular parties didn’t understand what they paid to the haredim when they gave them the option to lead the Rabbinate. They really destroyed the place.

JJ: You say they are hijacking the courts now.
BL: They are trying to do just that — not just with conversions. In the beginning of the year, we had a big argument about shmita [letting Israeli soil lie fallow in the seventh year, when the Israeli Rabbinate typically creates a loophole to allow farmers to work and sell produce in Israel]. The Litvak are trying to keep the whole country according to their hashkafa — they don’t care about the needs of the farmer; they tried to bring in foreign imports.

It took a month, and, thank God, we succeeded — the high court stopped the Lithuanians. We cannot let a minority take the country. The Chief Rabbinate serves the State of Israel. If you work officially under the flag of Israel, you cannot be against it [as many ultra-Orthodox do not support the State of Israel]. Everyone who serves the State of Israel office should be a creative partner to the needs of the state. One of the needs of the state is to take care of all the people.

JJ: Many Israelis have been complaining for a long time about the religious hijacking of life-cycle services, such as marriage, divorce, brit milah, conversions, etc. How would the Religious Zionists differ from the Lithuanians?
BL: The secular know that Religious Zionists are partners with them all the way. It starts by serving in the army [with them] and continues to learning at universities to working around the country in every industry. The secular and Religious Zionists are together — this is a fact. Now we need to find a way to help people, whether it’s with kashrut, conversion, divorce, the economy — thank God we have enough problems to deal with. But if you start from the belief that you are partners, then it’s a question of will. We say we want to build the society in Israel with all our heart, and we will find a way to succeed.