It seems that with all politicians, and sadly enough the Chief Rabbi of Israel nowadays has to be defined as such, it is the appearance after the election triumph that defines the candidate‘s stance and world view as opposed to the campaign before. Although this is nothing else than a presumption, I suspect that a large part of Israel’s population would vote differently could they go back to January 22nd of this year when the public flocked to the voting ballots. It’s almost funny how in virtually every election campaign across the globe the nominees convey exactly what the public wants to hear, but as soon as they get elected they cannot seem to remember any of it. But Hey! Long live democracy.
“I’ll be everyone’s Chief Rabbi”. The slogan Rabbi Lau used before and right after his victory over Rabbi Stav in the rabbinical elections last week is just another example of this “just-tell-the-people-what-they-want-to-hear-until-you-don’t-need-them-anymore” attitude. In a seemingly harmless faux-pas last Sunday Rabbi Lau not only demonstrated why he isn’t but also why he couldn’t be “everyone’s Chief Rabbi”.
While talking to yeshiva students that were taking part in a summer camp, Lau stressed that the Haredi youth should refrain from watching basketball games on Thursday nights in so called Pitzutziyot (convenience stores), because it would lead to a distortion of the Haredi lifestyle in the eyes of secular by passers. He asked the students how it could possibly matter if the black men paid in Tel Aviv defeat the black men paid in Greece. He added that “these are difficult times for us”. While it is the racist comment that understandably sparked controversy it is the entire statement that worries me more about Rabbi Lau’s ability to hold this prominent position.
The Rabbi obviously hasn’t grasped the extent of the responsibility he was given yet. As a public figure and supposed religious leader of the country, every sentence, every word and every ”joke” is evaluated and judged carefully. In the age of technology nothing goes unheard and humor easily becomes fact. I am certain that Rabbi Lau is not a racist but he must understand that the time of making jokes of this caliber are behind him.
I feel like the real problem behind the above statement lies not in the words he used though, but in the message he tried to transmit and the way he did so. Why, Rabbi Lau, are yeshiva students prohibited from watching a basketball game? Or a football game? Or a tennis match for that matter? Is it harmful to their spirituality? Will a teenager that studies all week and on Thursday nights follow sports be a lesser student than one that doesn’t? Sport, actually, achieves many times what you have apparently taken upon yourself when you became Chief Rabbi; it breaks barriers and creates a new, united entity without attempting to change anyone’s conduct or mindset.
I don’t want to get carried away though and meddling into politics of Haredi society is not my aim here. Whether sports are allowed or not in ultra-orthodox circles is none of my business. But reading over the statement I found myself raising my left brow anyway. I think I can safely assume that Rabbi Lau himself is not very fond of sports. But the mocking style he applied when talking about the game shows an intolerant attitude to that which he doesn’t understand. I wonder if this will be the manner in which Lau will argue against problems or topics that he can’t comprehend. By mocking them? Or was he just not taking these students seriously enough to lay down serious and mature arguments that actually make sense?
But the worst aspect of it all, in my opinion, is the argument he gave as to why these students should stay away from the kiosks. Because secular people will judge them and see them as parasites and hypocrites. If Rabbi Lau indeed has the ambition to unite instead of divide he is off to a rocky start. Or does someone really have to explain to him that he will not spur love and affection among the Haredi ranks towards the secular public by telling young adolescents that “these others” will take any chance they get to demote them to 2nd class citizens. The opposite should be true. Maybe sports could become a common ground for the two extremes to lay down the arms for a short time and remember that we are nothing less and nothing more than human beings of the same faith with different ideas and backgrounds, but can nevertheless have similar hobbies and interests.
Rabbi Lau will have to understand that in order to really become “everyone’s Chief Rabbi” sacrifice is needed. He will have to rise above categorizations of religious or political nature and understand that he is not a Haredi anymore. There is no more “us” or “them”. He has a category of his own now and it is not one that leaves room for bias. After all, a Rabbi heads a community, but a Chief Rabbi heads a people.